Books On Books Collection – Klaus Detjen

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall (1995)


Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard: Poème – Ein Würfelwurf niemals tilgt den Zufall: Ein Gedicht (1995)

Klaus Detjen

Casebound, unopened binding. H300 x W255 mm, 85 pages. Acquired from Stefan Schuelke Fine Books, 30 June 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This work strikes a curious chord with two exhibitions from 2016 and 2018 — “Reading as Art” at the Bury Art Museum and “The Art of Reading” at the Museum Meermanno, respectively. The works in both exhibitions not only challenged notions of the book and ways of reading but posed the act of making as a form of reading and the act of reading as a form of making. By prefacing this French-German edition of Un Coup de Dés with a book-arts-driven “transcreation”, Klaus Detjen demonstrates that the act of making also implies the act of translating. Typographer, designer, scholar and recipient of the Leipzig Gutenberg Prize for 2017, Detjen has used color, shape, line and binding here as his tools of translation and interpretation.

To use the term “transcreation” here may be taking liberties with Haroldo de Campos’s portmanteau for the idea of “translation as recreation”, or translating with creativity and therefore making “translation-art”. The term and definition perhaps better describe works such as those shown in The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. But then De Campos and his brother, Augusto, singled out Un Coup de Dés as one of the cornerstones (along with Ezra Pound, James Joyce and e.e. cummings) for their group Noigrandres, and Mallarmé’s poem certainly fits the bill of the ideal target of transcreation:

The more intricate the text is the more seducing it is to “recreate” it. Of course in a translation of this type, not only the signified but also the sign itself is translated, that is, the sign’s tangible self, its very materiality (sonorous properties, graphical-visual properties…. Haroldo de Campos, “Translation as Creation and Criticism”, p. 315.

This notoriously difficult poem to translate (or even comprehend) with its cascade of metaphors and symbols (the central ones being a shipwreck and a constellation) appears three times in Detjen’s volume: first, in French with Detjen’s interpretive design, then in French and finally in German. All three instances follow the typography and layout of the first book edition of the poem as published in 1914 by Gallimard. Detjen’s own treatment of the poem very much focuses on the edition’s graphical-visual properties.

In that edition, the rhythm and position of the lines, the font and all the font sizes are precisely specified. Nine typographical motifs structure the poem. They are additionally highlighted in the front part of our book with colors, the meaning of which will be discussed later. Font sizes, styles (roman or italics) and the colors of the motifs used are as follows: First double-page spread: UN COUP DE DÉS, 11.25 mm, blue-violet / Second DS: QUAND BIEN MEME, 3.5 mm, cyan-blue / Third DS: que, 3.5 mm, green / Sixth DS: COMME SI, 5.25 mm, magenta; Une insinuation, 3.5 mm, yellow / Eighth DS 8: SI, 5.25 mm, magenta red / Ninth DS: C’ÉTAIT, 4.5 mm, orange red; autrement qu’hallucination, 2.5 mm, yellow; issu stellaire, 2.5 mm yellow. Klaus Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p.81 (my translation).

The colored linear frames, threads and markings give the nine typographical motifs additional structuring. Detjen intends them to highlight the reading order to guide the reader through the text like a score. Detjen’s later discussion of their meaning, however, focuses mainly on les blancs, the white space around the text of the poem. Taking Mallarmé at his word in the poem’s foreword, Detjen seizes on the whiteness of the surrounding space and runs to the prismatic metaphor that the spectrum of colors is simply the decomposition of white light. Detjen also notes that the unorthodox Rien/Nichts printed on the volume’s opening page alludes to the expanse of blank space enclosing the lines of text and, in support, quotes from Mallarmé’s “Crisis of Verse”:

Everything is suspended, an arrangement of fragments with alternations and confrontations, adding up to a total rhythm, which would be the poem stilled, in the blanks; … Mallarmé, “Crisis of Verse”, p. 209.

From all this, Detjen avers that it is

as if Mallarmé did not want to have his poem depicted, that is, printed, but perhaps only thought or, at best, whispered. Or did the author see the poem printed in white on white paper? Detjen, “Zum Gestaltung”, p. 82 (my translation).

Following that line of thought, Detjen switched from Mallarmé’s preferred classical serif typeface to News Gothic Bold after experimentation showed that sans serif enabled him to print legibly in flat white on white paper. Confirming his primary focus on the expanse of blank whiteness, Detjen even concludes his afterword by quoting Jorge Luis Borges on Mallarmé:

The impersonal color white itself — is it not utterly Mallarmé? Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”, p. 79.

In his heavy emphasis on les blancs, Detjen ends up not doing justice to other more subtle aspects of his design artistry. Before he comes to the poem’s expanse of whiteness, note how the opening page of Rien/Nichts follows the black pastedowns and endpapers — the absence of light contrasting as much with the cover’s pure white as with the poem’s blank spaces.

Note how the colors to come in his interpretive version appear in dice shapes arranged on the front and back white covers to suggest the faces of a pair of dice. The whole volume becomes ein Würfelwurf, un coup de dés, a throw of the dice, which echoes Mallarmé’s obsession with le Livre — that work that everything in the world comes to be.

More subtly, Detjen combines the uncut folios with the colored shapes and markings to suggest “rigging” for the foundering ship and a “mapping” for the constellation. The turning uncut folios become billowing sails or rising and falling waves, across which the rigging cuts and the constellation shines.

Detjen’s visual and physical “transcreation” underscores why the French and German translations are not side by side, page for page. How could they be given the way the poem’s words work with the type, the page, the double-page spread and folios? All of which meets de Campos’s definition of the ideal target for transcreation — where the work’s signified, sign and materiality are intricately bound to one another.

In Detjen’s version preceding the French and German versions, the act of translation and interpretation meets the act of creating a work of art.

Further Reading

Bean, Victoria, and Chris McCabe, eds. The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (London: Hayward Publishing, 2015).

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Narrative Art and Magic” [1932]. Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine; ed. Eliot Weinberger. In Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 75-82.

Campos, Haroldo de. “Translation as Creation and Criticism” [1963]. Trans. Diana Gibson and Haroldo de Campos. In A. S. Bessa and O. Cisneros, eds., Novas: Selected Writings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), pp. 312-326.

Cisneros, Odile. “From Isomorphism to Cannibalism: The Evolution of Haroldo de Campos’s Translation Concepts“, Érudit: At the crossroads of translating and writing: Poetics and experiments, Volume 25, Number 2, 2012, pp.15-44. Posted 8 October 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Jaruga, Rodolfo. “Ezra Pound’s Arrival in Brazil“, Make It New: The Ezra Pound Society Magazine, Volume 4.1-2, September 2017. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Crisis of Verse” [1897]. Trans. Barbara Johnson. In Divagations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 201-11.

Paola, Modesta de. “Translation in Visual Arts”, Interartive, August 2013. Accessed 22 August 2020.

Bookmarking Book Art – Julia Hou

Julia Hou’s Asterisk (2019) may remind you of an E.E. Cummings’ poem or a Hasegawa Tōhaku print or the Xu Bing animation The Character of Characters. Just as appreciation of Cummings grows with exposure to broken syntax and playful typographic layout in other poems — or of Tōhaku, as understanding of the depth effects minimalism, size, definition and tone can have on the eye — or of Xu Bing, as his inspiration from Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (c. 1296) and The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma  (c. 1315) both by Zhao Mengfu is learned, appreciation of Asterisk grows as more is understood about how Hou made her digital artist book. Screen grabs of Asterisk, such as the sequential ones below, only hint at the work.

Asterisk (2019) Julia Hou

To read Asterisk, click here and press the letter “f” to move forward through the work. Hou’s poem reveals itself in black text that turns red as a “refrain”-like block of text over which the poem’s lines sit dissolves into characters that fly up like leaves or birds, fall down like rain, float down like snow, or coalesce into foreground or tree-like shapes.

Colored in blue, the asterisks take up a left foreground position, bubbling up and falling back like a fountain of water available to refresh the tree-like forms made of letters, but as the artist book is scrolled forward from left to right, the asterisk fountain disperses across the screen like spray, butterflies or bluebirds. Here is a transcript, as it were:

Asterisk
the last time you were here was years ago
before you were punctured by asterisks
and written into footnotes.
the night your mother read your first published story
and told you it was too sad
too linear.
she told you to let in the light
to rip away whatever fears you'd stapled to your chest
to see the forest for the trees
and you tried. you raised your voice
spoke with confidence, loud and red
but it all seemed to fade into whitespace
as if God Himself had decided to erase
and rewrite you

[Refrain - which varies in length with each forward movement or refresh]

what do you see what do you see  what do you see  what do you  
see what do you see  an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky 
an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky  an ink speckled sky 
an  ink speckled  sky  an ink speckled  sky   an ink speckled
sky an ink speckled sky  and tree only traveler and tree only 
traveler and tree only traveler and tree only traveler and tr 
ee only traveler and tree  only traveler and tree only travel
er  look behind you look behind you look behind you look behi
nd you look behind you look behind you

Where appreciation on each revisiting of Cummings, Tōhaku or Xu Bing increases with the perceiver’s personal growth, Asterisk itself varies with each accessing, with access from the artist’s site or from the Carnegie Mellon University libraries’ Artists’ Book Collection, and with keyboard/screenpad interaction. As if in an online game, the reader/viewer must keep up. Hou has created her artist book with Satoru Ozaki’s created-index, a game app exploring a surreal 3D typographical world. Depending on how the reader/viewer touches the screenpad or moves the cursor and presses “f” to go forward or “b” to go back, the viewpoint tilts and pivots. It is like manipulating a sculptural bookwork such as Francisca Prieto’s The Antibook (2002).

Artist books born-digital vary wildly from one another — perhaps more so than analog artist’s books or even hybrids, or perhaps it’s just that we are not used to the artist’s “new material and tools”. Carnegie Mellon University’s acquisition and preservation of Hou’s digital artist book leads further into thinking about Asterisk‘s material status. The files can be downloaded here, but what is it that has been collected? Is its shape-shifting merely analogous to a viewer’s shifting perspective on an artist book in a physical environment? It would be interesting to have Matthew Kirschenbaum’s perspective on the preservation effort that Carnegie Mellon has put into Hou’s artist book and how that relates to his Mechanisms‘ analysis of “the textual and technical primitives of electronic writing that govern writing, inscription, and textual transmission in all media: erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” — in essence, the materiality of works like Hou’s.

Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book also provides a useful context here in its narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play. Borsuk reminds us:

Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)

Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.

To add to Borsuk’s history (and conclude) with an analogue precursor, consider Livre de Prières Tissé d’après les enluminures des manuscrits du XIVe au XVIe siècle (which translates as Book of Prayers woven after illuminations in manuscripts of the 14th and 15th century).

Created in Lyon, France (1886-1887), Livre de Prières Tissé presents a bridge from the illuminated books on which it is patterned to Hou’s Asterisk, driven by a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine. Every image, letter, ornament and page of Livre de Prières Tissé consists of silver and black silk thread woven on silk looms programmed with the punched-card system developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834). Those perforated cards inspired the famous “Analytical Engine” conceived by Charles Babbage (1791-1871), which in turn inspired Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) to compose its first computer program: a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine.

Further Reading

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Hindman, Sarah. “Meet Me at the World’s Fair“, Abebooks.com (ND). Accessed 22 June 2020.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

Norman, Jeremy. “A Prayerbook Entirely Woven by the Jacquard Loom: The First Book Produced by a Program or Digitally Produced Book?“, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information, 20 April 2020. Accessed 22 June 2020.

Prisbylla, Andrew. “Art Meets Tech in Born-Digital Artist’s Book“, News/Carnegie Mellon University, 4 June 2020. Accessed 21 June 2020.