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).
a book of tears (2006) Julie Johnstone Handbound with black linen thread, 5 sheets torn at both ends, card cover printed inkjet. Acquired from the artist, 12 December 2015. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
This work and Point of View (below) were the first of three Julie Johnstone bookworks in the Books On Books Collection. Like much book art, these two depend on the interaction of verbal and visual puns.
Johnstone’s un-improvable selection of Samuel Menashe to inaugurate her Less series in 2009 made that work a required item for the Books On Books Collection. Samuel Menashe was unmistakeable — in speech and on the page. Having heard his recorded poems, I knew the voice from the sofa behind me at the West Chester conference in 2006 was his. I can hear that voice every time these white, black, black-threaded, and black on white pages open.
The wordplay in Menashe’s poem is more complex than it seems at first glance — something which may have influenced Johnstone’s later visual play with tints, for example, 3% (2015).
Material|Immaterial (2012) Julie Johnstone Handbound with linen thread, 12 pages, including cover. Eleven images, photographs of the shadows of trees and shrubs on city paving taken during the summer of 2012 and printed inkjet on Bockingford watercolour paper 300gsm. H130mm x w175mm. Acquired from the artist, 12 December 2015. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
Johnstone’s tint-based works (see further below) evoke a half-tone world so much that it is strange to find that Material|Immaterial is one of her few (only?) photograph-based bookworks.
Point of View: skyline tideline (2012)
Point of View: skyline tideline (2012) Julie Johnstone Single folded book designed to be read forwards and then upside down and backwards; made from two pieces of card, inner sheet of card torn to create wavy line. skyline: front cover title in cyan blue; tideline: back cover title in cyan blue. Printed inkjet on Bockingford watercolour paper 300gsm. Closed: H120 x W190 mm; open: H120 x W380 mm. Edition of 35, of which this is #35. Acquired from the artist, 12 December 2015. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
1-16% (2013) Julie Johnstone Handbound with linen thread, 16 pages, including cover; each page printed to edge with a tint of black, starting on the front cover with 1% and increasing by 1% with each page, through to 16% on the back cover; Bockingford watercolor paper 300gsm. H160 x W170 mm. Edition of 16, of which this is #10. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In the collection, this is the first work to use progression of tint, Johnstone’s signature technique.
10%|15% (2013) Julie Johnstone Created for the AMBruno Lines project on the occasion of the Whitechapel Art Book Fair 2013. Handbound with linen thread, 12 pages, including covers; each facing page, including cover, printed to edge with two blocks of a tint of black, one 10% and the other 15%. The size of blocks changes progressively as the pages turn, moving the unprinted ‘line’ up the page in 2.5 cm increments. Printed inkjet on Bockingford watercolor paper 300gsm. H190 x W180 mm. Edition of 25, of which this is #20. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In this work, the tints hold steady, and the technique of progression shifts to changing the print area. The unprinted line that rises up the page recalls Bodil Rosenberg’s Vandstand (2019), where the water level in acrylic rises page after page. Vandstand and 10%|15% display well together.
2-20%|20-2CM (2014) Julie Johnstone Handbound with linen thread, 20 pages, including the cover; printed inkjet on Bockingford watercolor paper 300gsm. H240 x W280 mm. Edition of 10, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
With this work, the technique becomes one of dual progression — both tint and printing area. Starting with the front cover, the tint is 2% black in a block of 20cm height. With each recto page, the tint increases by 2%, and the height reduces by 2cm. On the last recto page, the block of 2% black is 2cm in height.
With each new work varying tint and/or print space, Johnstone recalls the creative approaches of the OuLiPo movement. Its authors such as Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec set themselves strange writing constraints, such as write a novel without the letter “e”. Johnstone may rightly claim the visual artist’s crown in the movement (still ongoing) with this next work.
3% [1-5] (2015)
3% [1-5] (2015) Julie Johnstone Set of 5 booklets in folder; each booklet handbound with linen thread, 16 pages including cover, printed inkjet on Hahnemuhle Sumi-e paper 80gsm. H150 x W120 mm. Edition of 20, of which this is #10. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
As noted above, this work recalls the “simple complexity” of the wordplay in Samuel Menashe’s short poem. Just as the pouring pot “fulfills” its spout, so Johnstone’s working of tint and semi-transparent paper fills and fools the hungry eye.
3%  Photos: Books On Books Collection
Booklet  serves as the baseline for the other four booklets. Each facing page (excluding cover and next page) is printed with a 3% black tinted rectangle (90 x 60 mm). As the semi-transparent page turns, the tint seems to vary. The precision of registration and sureness of touch across the pages amazes.
3%  The effect changes with the light. Photos: Books On Books Collection
At first, Booklet  seems not to vary from , encouraging careful reading and looking to discover that every other page is blank in Booklet . The choice of paper and tint as well as the “persistence of vision” combine to create the illusion that pages are printed when they are not.
3%  Photos: Books On Books Collection
Booklet  extends the play of book  with an empty 3pt frame printed in 3% black on every other page to create the illusion that the next page’s block appears to fill it. Booklet  also extends the play of book  with a half block printed in 3% black on every other page to create the illusion of a darker or lighter block next to it due to show-through. This play within the boundary of the 90 x 60 mm rectangle takes a leap in Booklet .
3%  The slight curving in the rectangles is due to how the booklet is being held. Photos: Books On Books.
Here in Booklet , the 3% block appears once on each facing page but shifts diagonally by 1cm either to the top and left or to the bottom and right. Now the eye is fooled into perceiving two differently tinted blocks printed off center one over the other. The pleasure in these works of book art lies in contemplating each page and the movement from page to page, back and forth.
Field (2014) Julie Johnstone Handbound with linen thread, 16 pages, including cover, printed inkjet on Bockingford watercolor paper 300gsm. H160 x W160 mm. Edition of 25, of which this is #14. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Like 10%|15% and 2-20%|20-2CM, this work proceeds by dual progression, but the print area changes horizontally rather than vertically. Each facing page (including cover) is printed with a tint of black in a block flush along its fore-edge. The tint begins on the cover at 2% in a 2cm block. On each page after, the tint increases by 2% and the block by 2cm. The final page presents a 16% tint and 16cm block.
red (2015) Julie Johnstone Created for the AMBruno RED project. Handbound with linen thread, two sheets printed with three images (including cover image); printed inkjet on Bockingford inkjet watercolor paper 190gsm. H190 x W180 mm. Acquired from the artist, 26 September 2017. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In most of Johnstone’s work, the color blue appears most frequently as the alternative to tints of black. This work, created for an AMBruno project, proves the exception, albeit continuing with the technique of dual progression — here, around the still point of a vertical red bar. The barely perceptible tint of black on the cover deepens on the first facing page to such an extent that the red bar seems to shorten (it doesn’t). Then on the next facing page, the tint remains the same, but the blocks turn perpendicular to the red bar and do truncate it.
To paraphrase from her book below: “To read Julie Johnstone’s artist books is to become attentive”.