Although unremarkable in its production values, 13 March 1911 enters the collection as a brilliant composite with roots in OuLiPo, Grangerism and the collage technique, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and The Arcades Project and Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Book, Spiritual Instrument”. The date is the birth date of Smyth’s grandfather, and it is what confronts us in a photographic detail of a newspaper masthead.
From OuLiPo, Smyth takes the rule of constraint to guide his creation. The constraint is that the content presented must refer to events occurring on 13 March 1911 and in chronological order. Added to the constraint are citability of each source, which often takes Smyth to the Internet and Wayback Machine. Although focused on a single day in time, the writer, book and reader fly back and forth as if tethered together in a time machine composed of print and digital reference material.
Strictly with Grangerism, there should be a previously published book into and onto which the reader/actor inserts, pastes and attaches clippings relevant to the book in hand. Instead of a book in hand, Smyth has a date in hand to which the clippings accrue. And in keeping with this non-material target for Grangerizing, Smyth’s collage technique eschews visual and physical overlapping, rather it lies more in overlapping different types of sources of “data”: newspaper articles, classified ads, advertisements, Captain Scott’s journal, weather reports, obituaries, theater reviews and much more.
In a sort of reversal of Benjamin’s unpacking his library, Smyth packs snippets from history into this one book that turns on his grandfather’s birth date. It is not that Smyth can recreate him with all these snippets, or that the reader can ever know the man from those snippets — anymore than a reader of every single book in Benjamin’s library could recreate Benjamin or know him from doing so.
Like Benjamin in Arcades, Smyth is a collector of fragments by which he tries to make the past present. But Smyth’s time machine is also richly multi-dimensional — especially in its being digitally and print powered. What Smyth gives himself and the reader is an extended moment of recognizing the wide-flung welter around any of us at any time and the wryness, despair, amusement, inspiration and poignancy of trying to define, find and memorialize others (however close) or ourselves by that welter — however retrievable or citable the elements of it.
Finally, Smyth gives us one day’s proof of Mallarmé’s dictum: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. And so it ends up in the Books On Books Collection.
Information as Material (Smyth’s 13 March 1911 is a publication with IAM, which offers works from authors such as Derek Beaulieu, Francesca Capone, Craig Dworkin, Andrew Dodds, Sharon Kivland, Simon Morris and Nick Thurston).
Saddle-stitched, one staple, colored endpapers; 12 unnumbered pages. H217 x W140 mm. Acquired from Above/Ground Press, 12 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Few book artists inspired by Broodthaers’ homage to Mallarmé have seized on aligning a key textual and visual metaphor of the poem with a distortion of Broodthaers’ treatment. That is what Beaulieu has done with Mallarmé’s metaphor of the shipwreck, his typographic replication of it and Broodthaer’s black bars. Tattered Sails also recalls Broodthaers’ A voyage on the North Sea (1973).
Photos: upper, Books On Books Collection; lower, Artists’ Books. Accessed 18 June 2020.
In one sense, Tattered Sails seems to underline the notion that image has supplanted text (W.J.T. Mitchell), which is a little less extreme than image’s having saturated all cultural space (Frederic Jameson) or than art’s just being now a “leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general” (Rosalind Krauss). But in another sense, by harking back to the low-tech era of democratic multiples and, nevertheless, enriching the interplay of text and image that spans four different artworks (counting the image on the cover) across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Beaulieu pushes back on those 20th century critical notions.
Away from the critical theories’ abyss, Tattered Sails refreshes perception — of the work in itself and those on whose metaphors and techniques it stands. Turning our eyes into hands, it is part of a book art genre –“a genre of Un Coup de Dés“– in which works not only recall the original’s words, their shapes on the pages, the shipwreck tangling and untangling of syntax, the images and meanings bouncing into view like numbers on the side of rolling dice but also recall the rolls of the dice by others before.
The Abolition of Chance: Sequence (2019) Benjamin Lord Laid finish card cover; hand-assembled perfect binding with inlaid red linen thread; 70 pages printed on translucent cellulose paper. H10 1/2″ x W8 1/4. Edition of 50, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 24 April 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The title of Benjamin Lord’s book names what Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés declares can never be accomplished: the abolition of chance. Taking the predicate of Mallarmé’s title (its verb and object), elevating it to the title position, substituting the word “sequence” for the subtitle Poéme, and placing it in a cover layout reminiscent of the 1913 NRF edition of Mallarmé’s book, Lord’s cover raises expectations and questions. Perhaps chance can be abolished? Perhaps by a certain sequence — of words?
Bowling over the textual expectations raised by the cover, the interior pages offer only images — images that gradually shift from linearly arranged black rectangles to what seem to be digitally generated Rorschach tests, shifting QR codes or snapshots of a bitmap computer game, all blurred by the turning of the translucent paper. The translucency and images add another layer to each page and double-spread of images and also add another set of expectations and questions. What determined the starting point of those arranged rectangles? What drives the sequence of their change?
Without Lord’s own description of the work, a highly developed form of art-historical, science-historical visual genius is required to answer those questions. A genius with the visual recall to recognize that “The first spread of the book copies the last spread of Marcel Broodthaer’s book Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), made in 1969.” A genius that can recognize the sequence as being “generated using a simple mathematical formula known as the Game of Life, originally devised by the mathematician John Conway, also in the year 1969.”
On the left is a “still-life” seed known as “Boat”; on the right is “Gosper’s glider gun”, an obviously more complicated pattern named after its creator, Bill Gosper. A forerunner of simulation games, Conway’s game poses a set of simple rules to be played out within an infinite grid:
Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies, as if by underpopulation.
Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies, as if by overpopulation.
Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.
Here is Gosper’s glider gun, activated by the Game of Life’s rules encoded in a GIF:
Lord’s seed is the image of the last double-page spread in Broodthaers’ version of Un Coup de Dés.
Like a more complex glider gun, it generates the subsequent double-page spread images, each image being the seed for the next image. As Lord puts it,
The lines of Mallarmé’s poem inflate into balloons which expand and then pop into nothingness, or collide with each other to generate debris, or collapse into thicker bars. The image fragments into a vibratory bitmap constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive.
This 21st century American artist turning with a 20th century paintbrush dipped into the words of a 19th century French poet via a 20th century Belgian artist calls to mind The Education of Henry Adams. Throughout, Adams refers to himself in the third person. Post-Broodthaers, there is something “third-person-ish” — of being at two removes — in Lord’s homage and those of Beaulieu et al. above. But there is more to the recollection than grammar. Consider this passage from The Education in which “one” writes,
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,–called stories, or histories–assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant….he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.Chapter XXV
Adams and his third-person self were in Paris in May 1897, when Un Coup de Dés first appeared in the quarterly Cosmopolis. Despite their proximity, a common interest in quarterlies and the popular press, and a near obsession with the electrical forces of the dynamo, the men’s two paths did not cross. Adams mentions Mallarmé in a letter only in passing.
Sartre called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness. Its title and Lord’s description of The Abolition of Chance as a “constellation of expansions and contractions, in which interactions between forms continuously generate new forms, in a way that is neither random nor intuitive” suggest an alternative to nothingness. The final double-page spread does present a pattern of live cells. Lord, perhaps like his fellow American, responds to nothingness with a type of Buddhist repose, if not affirmation, much as Adams responded to the memorial for his wife that he had commissioned from Augustus St. Gaudens:
His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant. … From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley, art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer. Chapter XXI