A particularly apropos video has arrived — apropos for its content, source and circumstances.
Patricia Silva, an artist working in Florence, Italy features in the Virginia Center for the Book’s Shelf Life video series. Virginia-based artist Lyall Harris interviewed Silva about Silva’s project Before We Forget 2020, a set of hand-bound artist’s journals. With each journal’s hand binding, unique cover of marbled paper, varied papers and inclusion of prompts to the owner, Silva draws on several rich traditions of book art.
Before We Forget (2020)
Thirty-six page journal (30 acid free writing pages + 6 specialty paper pages). Hand-crafted with hand-marbled paper and cloth covers. H215 x W145mm.
But in its technology, subject and circumstances, the video draws on an even more ancient literary tradition: Boccaccio’s Decameron. In March 2020, Italy was entering its months-long lockdown, and 4,461 miles away, the Virginia Festival of the Book was being cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead of decamping to the Blue Ridge or Tuscan hills with a handful of friends to escape the plague, Harris and Silva invited them via Zoom to their exchange.
Although a significant strain of book art falls into the conceptual and minimalist camps of art, an equally significant strain falls into the camp of the book arts and craft associated with them. Given the influence of her Italian mentor Carlo Saitta and University of the Arts professors like Hedi Kyle, it is no surprise that Before We Forget calls on the traditions of binding and paper marbling. The binding is a traditional case binding done with a link stitch on supports for sewing. The decorative papers come from several sources, almost all small artisans. Some are printed decorative papers, some are silkscreened, most are woodblock printed, of which several come from a small old-time family-run bindery in Venice that uses woodblocks dating back as far as the 1800s. Some of the paper is handmade by the artist.
The casual observer might mistake the journals of Before We Forget for the beautifully crafted blank journals that abound in outlets like Il Papiro or Paperchase. Yet there is surprise here to catch out the casual observer’s mistake and repay a bit of thought. At perhaps its most extreme, conceptual book art amounted to a set of instructions to the reader/viewer. The general interest in reader/viewer participation has several roots. One is craft-based and historical.
Recently in the context of the “other pandemic”, friendship journals and scrapbooks have drawn attention: for example, Amy Matilda Cassey’s Friendship Album (1833-56) and Alexander Gumby’s scrapbooks, including Negro in Bondage (1910-52). Older and more broadly, there are the Album Amicorum of Moyses Walens (1605-15) and Julia Chatfield’s Scrapbook (1845). Before We Forget does not present a set of completely blank pages. Each journal contains prompts to the owner to make notes, sketch, paste in, and add recollections of the days, weeks, and months of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.
Encouraging the owner’s intervention recalls another historical phenomenon: Grangerism or extra-illustration, where the owner embellishes a book with inserts. Richard Bull’s extra-illustrated copy of Count Anthony Hamilton’s Mémoires du comte de Gramont (1794) is a good example. Before We Forget does not present a previously printed body of text for Grangerizing, but each journal presents a unique copy to be overwritten.
In that context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this urging of reader/viewer participation evokes — perhaps callous to say — literally, not just metaphorically, Roland Barthes’ poser of the “death of the author”. Before We Forget plays to and against that metaphorical notion. Until a reader/viewer/owner acts upon an acquired copy, is there an author? Is the participating act one of authoring or mere “extra-illustration”? Barthes wrote: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (p. 148). And if reader and author are one and the same?
Given Silva’s intentions stated in the interview, each copy acquired is meant to become a keepsake of events and time personal to its inscriber and be a memorial of the inscriber for future readers. Here is where the literalness of “death of the author” callously intrudes. Whether the owner/author falls prey to the virus or unrelated causes, the author dies.
The topic of the nature and experience of time recurs in book art sufficiently to warrant calling it a tradition. In Before We Forget, it plays out in general and in particular. On the general or theoretical side, we have Ulises Carrión and his definitions of “what a book is:
A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments.
Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time.
A book is a space-time sequence.
If seen as merely a blank journal, Before We Forget may seem not to warrant such “out there” statements. Or, on the contrary, those statements may seem not so “out there” when considered with Before We Forget in hand. On the particular and haptic side, we have in hand this object covered in a one-off piece of marbled paper and prodding our hands to mark it up and change the object to fix past time in it and to fix it in time to come. Theoretically or haptically, it engages the reader/viewer owner/author with the nature and experience of time.
Another tradition of book art in which Before We Forget is rooted, albeit loosely, is the found object and appropriation. In addition to its unique marbled paper cover, each journal contains six sheets of heavier or colored or patterned papers unique to the journal. In a sense, these papers are “found” as Silva has used only papers and cloth left over from older projects or collected (hoarded?) over the years. The marbled paper and specialist papers collected over time that found their way into Before We Forget are, however, only a part of the work — not the work itself as found object. Likewise, even if the owner/author fills the pages with pasted-in photos, postcards or other ephemera found or on hand, those found objects are not the work itself. It seems a stretch to deem the owned but yet-to-be-authored copy something that the owner/author has appropriated. In their collaboration Passato Prossimo (2017), Silva and Lyall Harris provide a magnificent demonstration of fusing book art with found objects and appropriation. The work is shown and discussed in the interview.
For Books On Books, the interview is a welcome reminder of another time. Patrica Silva teaches in both the Studio Arts College International (SACI) and Santa Reparata International School of Art (SRISA) and kindly arranged a visit to both in late September 2019. Florence was relatively empty at the time, and the visits to SACI and SRISA occurred at hours when there were no students around. The photos of the SACI’s gallery, library and grounds, the SRISA’s studio and equipment, and the works of Silva’s students will find their way into the Books On Books Collection’s copy of Before We Forget as strange harbingers.
By the end of September 2020, the Virginia Center for the Book had 40 episodes of Shelf Life on offer — well on the way to matching the Decameron‘s 100 stories. Unfortunately, with the current plague, the Center may be forced to exceed the Decameron‘s count, and Patricia Silva may face a demand for Before We Forget 2021.
Barthes, Roland. Trans. S. Heath. Image, Music, Text: Essays (London: Fontana, 1977).
Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books”, Kontexts No. 6-7, 1975.
Chambers, Ross. Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).
Peltz, Lucy. Facing the Text: Extra-Illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769-1840 (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 2017).