Books On Books Collection – Gerard Unger

A Counter-proposal (1967)

Een tegenvoorstel/A counter-proposal/Une contreproposition/Ein gegenvorschlag (1967)
Gerard Unger
Pamphlet. 250 x 250 mm, 4 pages. Acquired from Antiquariaat Frans Melk, 27 April 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

A few months after Pieter Brattinga issued Wim Crouwel‘s New Alphabet (below left), he followed up with this single-fold riposte from Gerard Unger, invited in fact by Crouwel.

Left: Crouwel. Right: Unger.

Unger urges designing or teaching machines to accommodate “human-readable” letterforms rather than inventing new fonts for machines. Given advances in digital type and artificial intelligence, Unger’s point may have been prescient, but there is still something to be said for the artistic stimulus of machine constraints.

Brattinga extended the dialogue later to include Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans in 1970. If, as it did, the Epps/Evans alphabet led to LINE UP by Raffaella della Olga and Three Star Press, what other works of art have benefited from similar alphabetic and typographical dialogues?

Alphabet (1970), Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans; LINE UP (2020) Raffaella della Olga

Jeffrey Morin and Steven Ferlauto‘s Sacred Space (2003) has its roots in Ferlauto’s historical research into Roman capitals. Jennifer Farrell‘s The Well-Travelled Ampersand (2019) has its roots in the letterform and design thinking of Adrian Frutiger, Frederic Goudy, Dard Hunter, Edward Johnston and Russell Maret, among several others. Inclusion of source material like that by Crouwel, Epps and Evans, and Unger in the Collection offers paths to increased appreciation of those works of art inspired by them. Something for the future history of book art.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Wim Crouwel“, Books On Books Collection, 12 May 2021.

Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans“, Books On Books Collection, 26 April 2021.

Russell Maret“, Books On Books Collection, 20 September 2019.

Jeffrey Morin and Steven Ferlauto“, Books On Books Collection, 23 April 2021.

Raffaella della Olga“, Books On Books Collection, 8 December 2020.

The Last Word on the Ampersand“, Books On Books Collection, 27 June 2020. See for Jennifer Farrell.

Olocco, Riccardo. “The inner consistency of Gerard Unger“, CAST: The science of type, its history and culture, 18 May 2017. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Perondi, Luciano. “‘The digital wave’ by Robin Kinross“, CAST: The science of type, its history and culture, 17 March 2020. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Aaron Cohick

The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) (2017)

The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) (2017) Aaron Cohick
Booklet, saddle-stapled, risograph, letterpress/collagraph, and hand painting. H165.1 x W139.7 mm (closed), 20 pages. #000611, unlimited, iterative edition. Acquired from New Lights Press, 11 December 2020.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press (third iteration) has multiple starting points. Even in its first iteration, we have

  • The book is a dangerously unstable object, always between, continuously opening. It is interstitial, occupying many planes at once.
  • Digital technology has killed the book, finally.
  • The book is an impossible thing — comprised entirely of edges and full of holes. It moves. It happens in between.
  • Readers move through authors and books. Books move through readers and authors. Authors move through books and readers. They exist between each other’s pages. They only exist in between.
  • The form of the book, the history of the book, and the processes involved in its production provide a foundation for rethinking and re-evaluating the dominant discourse(s) of contemporary art.
  • The book … exemplifies a model that expands beyond form and content…. It is a field, whose axis points [form, content, production and reception] are always held in tension. In this model a piece or practice is a “zone of activity.”

Moreover, there are ten refinements on these starting points, touching on Julia Kristeva’s “intertextuality”, Roland Barthes’ “death of the author”, Michel Foucault’s “death of the book” and much more in the same vein. Each iteration even has diagram and footnotes, underscoring the academic nature of the starting points.

The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press (first iteration) (2009)

The second iteration emphasizes the starting points of physicality and more so the role of the reader:

  • [The book] is shot through with sunlight, hooks, teeth. It blinds, catches, gnaws.
  • From the book we gather the scraps of ourselves
  • [T]he reader is both a consumer and a producer.
  • Our existence is a constant generating of text.
  • A book read is a book alive — breathing, beating, shining and reverberating through its readers.

But the second iteration’s most important additional starting point is this:

  • We find [books] participating more & more in the world of visual art. This is extremely dangerous, but also potentially revelatory.

The New Manifesto of the Newlights Press (second iteration) (2013)

By its third iteration, The New Manifesto‘s words been further refined as a combination of announcement, exposition, lyric and prayer. It soars beyond literary theories and finds birds of a closer feather among Ulises Carrión and Michalis Pichler.

The book is a dangerously unstable object // It is a series of edges // Once clustered and knotted // Now open and spreading // Now cutting and bending // Mostly // The book betrays // Mostly // The book howls // The book falls apart in the face of our anguish // In the face of our quiet // In the silence of our slipping // Mostly // It will also always be something else // That we did not // Can not yet // See // The book is a remarkable technology // It is a shimmering substance // It is a noise of the hands and thought // The book is perhaps now a dead thing // In the hands of the dead // So be it // We never mattered much anyway // Beyond our capacity to consume // Our capacity to labor // We are fuel // So be it // We remain in the dark // With these books // The original autonomous window technology that is us looking through // At // In // Against // With care // The book returns our labor to us //

If a new edition of Publishing Manifestos is ever issued, Cohick’s hortatory words should be considered. The words, however, cannot be considered alone. Over the three iterations, The New Manifesto — the only one in the collection and, therefore, the only one tangible for the visitor — has “participated more & more in the world of visual art”. Cohick’s use of the collagraphic technique increases. It adds painterliness to the booklets as well as a sense of depth and spatial play within the page, across the gutter and from recto to verso pages. In a series of online essays for the College Book Art Association, Cohick confirms the pleasure and intent here:

Collagraph is a well-known technique and is usually taught as part of introductory letterpress courses. It has an immediacy and fidelity that is very exciting—you can stick a leaf or other flat object to a block, print it, and get a decent image of that object. Unfortunately it usually stops there. Those flat objects are hard to push beyond that initial single-color print. Linoleum, photopolymer, wood and metal type, and to some extent woodcut are all made to be “neutral” printing surfaces—flat and smooth. Trying to get collagraph to be flat and smooth begs the question: why use collagraph at all? In collagraph the material that makes the plate is not neutral—the material is exactly the point. That embrace of material and its many, varied effects and marks is what moves collagraph closer to the direct markmaking of drawing/painting. It makes all of those “unacceptable” (or abject?) marks readily available. Relief collagraph printed with letterpress equipment can be a method of painting or drawing in multiple, with control as good as—if not better than, but also different from—the hand. You’re doing it all wrong (Part 2)

From the first iteration of the manifesto, black & white details of Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage appear and are manipulated on the cover and throughout. Although they recede in the second iteration, they move strikingly to the fore in the third. Constantly alongside the Arnolfini details has been the ampersand, enlarged, reversed, in different colors, and present — almost ornamentally — within the text line. The increased visuality of the third iteration announces itself on the booklet’s cover and inside with the grainy enlarged detail of the mirror from The Arnolfini Marriage. What do the Arnolfini details signify? Although Van Eyck’s original itself is straightforwardly representational, its meanings are not always any clearer than that of its use in Cohick’s collage. With his slices of black (“a series of edges”) obscuring the image of the groom, perhaps Cohick is compounding obscurities to present “something else // That we did not // Can not yet // See”.

And what about the large overlapping ampersands in red and gray, systematically reversed and alternating in color? Are they emphasizing the “and so on and so on” of tradition in Cohick’s painterly printing technique? Are they alluding to the joining of hands in the marriage? Are they alluding to, and performing, a marriage of the book and visual art? On a verso page in the manifesto’s first iteration, he writes, “The form of the book, the history of the book, and the processes involved in its production provide a foundation for rethinking and re-evaluating the dominant discourse(s) of contemporary art.” On the facing recto page, the Arnolfini bride in reverse from the original extends her hand to a reversed ampersand.

In perhaps the most important enhancement of the third iteration’s visuality, Cohick’s full-blown typographic redesign of the alphabet occupies the visual foreground, middle ground and background. It is as if Cohick sets out to demonstrate Mallarmé’s proposition that the book is the “total expansion of the letter”. The first iteration’s completely legible Palatino, Arial and Placard Condensed typefaces used in the text line have yielded to what Cohick calls a “dislegible” font, which he often reverses, lays out as occasional “running sides” rather than “running heads”, and subjects increasingly to collagraphic layering. In his “You’re doing it all wrong” series, Cohick explains:

If “legible” and “illegible” are binary opposites, then the term “dislegible” is about looking at the space between those two poles. Dislegibility displaces, dislocates, deforms, and/or disrupts the process of reading, with the ultimate goal of making that process of reading (dis)legible to the reader. The dislegible can be read, but it resists closure or certainty.You’re doing it all wrong (Part 1)

Also contributing to dislegibility is the reversal of images, the ampersand and letters. More than that, the reversal reminds us of what is involved in letterpress production — the inked relief surface and its reversed image or letter to be transferred to paper. Always in tension with form, content and reception, production makes up the open field from which the artist’s book emerges. The third iteration exudes production’s physicality. A black saturated endleaf bleeds over onto a stark white sheet that faces a stamped title page, intensifying a feel of mechanical working. Letterforms behave as so much raw material — as if they were oil, acrylic, brick or mortar — to be re-seen from different angles, noted for more than one function and their text read for more than one meaning.

According to Cohick, “For art to thrive, form and content must be in a dynamic relationship… It must contain enough disruptions, ambiguities, and peculiarities to resist the deadly state of stable signification.” The iterations of The New Manifesto enact that statement.

Alphabet One: A Submanifesto of the NewLights Press (2017)

Alphabet One: A Submanifesto of the NewLights Press (2017)
Aaron Cohick
Booklet, center-stapled. Letterpress printed from woven collagraph blocks on newsprint. H165 x W140 mm, 28 pages. Acquired from the artist, 11 December 2020. Edition of 250, unnumbered.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.

Alphabet One, “companion book to the third iteration of The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press”, presents Cohick’s “complete ‘noise’ alphabet, in order, in condensed and full form”. In The New Manifesto, Cohick has described the book as “a noise of the hands and thought”. Well then, being a book, Alphabet One demonstrates that the manifesto is the alphabet, and the alphabet is the manifesto, and “woven collagraph blocks” could hardly be less “a noise of hands and thought”. Lest those inferences seem strained, continue reading the passage Cohick reproduces from The New Manifesto immediately after the reference to the “complete ‘noise’ alphabet”:

This is not a utopian program // This is not an alphabet for saving the world // Such a thing is a dangerous lie // This is one possibility // Not a tool // But a movement-between // An object-between // A growing // Changing thing // Meant to do just that // It is about attention and its revitalization // It is about structure and our being in it //

A, B, C, D. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

W, X, Y, Z. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

It cannot be an accident that the “noise” alphabet’s letterforms arise from varyingly shaded bricks: rose, gray, reddish gray and reddish black. To left and right of each letter, the rose color dominates. A reddish gray bar tops and tails each letter. The color gray forms the “strokes” of each letter. Reddish black fills the counters. Extracting the signal from the noise of the alphabet or books does not come easily. This is intentional. Just as The New Manifesto says,

With these books // The original autonomous window technology that is us looking through // At // In // Against // With care // The book returns our labor to us //

Days Open Air (2016)

Days Open Air (2016)
Aaron Cohick
Booklet, center-stapled, H203 x W152, 12 pages. Edition of 100, of which this is #40. Acquired from the artist, 11 December 2020.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.

Days Open Air is one of those books returning our labor to us that The New Manifesto announces. Cohick call it “an artists’ book/poem thing … an experiment: with our new Risograph, with the alphabet, with writing, with random numbers, and with noise.” Letterforms stretch. Words run sideways, they break in the middle across lines, even across pages.

Look-See (REAED) (2014)

Look-See (REAED) (2014)
Aaron Cohick
Print. H300 x W456 mm.
Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with artist’s permission.

More evocative of barcode stripes than bricks, the letterform strokes in this poem-print-poster stretch even more than in Days Open Air. Printed on a Vandercook 219 from vinyl and gesso collagraph blocks, the letterforms challenge us to “look” and “see”. An angle at the top right, two angles midway on the right and two counters condensed to small squares suffice to define the first letter — R. The letters E and A are more efficient, requiring only the placement of two counters each. Note how the textural effect of the gesso and letterpress printed collagraph on chipboard joins The New Manifesto‘s celebration of the physicality and noise of production.

In Cohick’s world, the book and art make, and should be perceived as, a “strange” continuity. His vision and embrace of the collagraph suggest a 21st century version of William Blake. He names his nearer contemporaries as Ken Campbell, Walter Hamady, Amos P. Kennedy, Jr., Karen Kunc, Emily McVarish, Dieter Roth and Nancy Spero. In the Books On Books Collection, those far and near can also be found in Eleonora Cumer, Raffaella della Olga and Geofroy Tory.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 1)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 July 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 2)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 July 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “Notes toward the emergent book (Part 3)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 August 2019. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 1)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 September 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 2)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 1 October 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Cohick, Aaron. “You’re doing it all wrong (Part 3)“. Book Art Theory, College Book Art Association. 15 October 2020. Accessed 15 May 2021.

Pichler, Michalis, ed. 2019. Publishing manifestos: an international anthology from artists and writers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Books On Books Collection – Wim Crouwel

New Alphabet: an introduction for a programmed typography (1967)

New Alphabet: an introduction for a programmed typography (1967)
Wim Crouwel
Booklet, 250 x 250 mm, 20 pages. Acquired from 27 April 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This publication by the Dutch graphic designer and series editor, Pieter Brattinga, in his Kwadraatblad/Quadrat-prints series inaugurated a subset of responses from Gerard Unger, Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans, and Anthon Beeke.

Shocked by the very low resolution output of electronic type-setting machines and sparked by the challenge to define a type that, more than traditional types, would be suited for the speed of machine output (particularly composing systems with CRT — cathode-ray tubes) and still be readable by humans, Crouwel came up with the New Alphabet.

On the left, Crouwel’s introduction in New Alphabet; on the right, in Univers.

A double-page spread (not shown) explains the variables and rules for coding and resizing the letters. Clearly, from the side-by-side view of Crouwel’s introduction (above), humans would need to learn some new conventions (e.g., majuscules are designated by bars over miniscules) for the font to be readable. Some letters, such as “a” (below), would require recognition of an utterly different shape. Despite — or because of — that, the font appealed to album and magazine cover designers in the digital ’80s.

Disturbed by letting machines take precedence over the human eye, Gerard Unger, one of Crouwel’s colleagues, submitted a “counter proposal” — tellingly in handwriting. Juxtaposition of their lowercase “a’s” with Geofroy Tory’s majestic majuscules offers a counter-counter historic perspective on the art of the alphabet.

Clockwise: Tory, Crouwel and Unger.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Wim Crouwel“, Iconofgraphics. n.d. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans“, Books On Books Collection, 26 April 2021.

Raffaella della Olga“, Books On Books Collection, 8 December 2020.

Gerard Unger“, Books On Books Collection, 12 May 2021.

Owens, Sarah. 2006. “Electrifying the Alphabet“, Eye, No. 62, Vol. 16. Accessed 25 April 2021.

Place, Michael and Nicola. “Striking The Eye: An Interview With Wim Crouwel“, Creative Review, 29 June 2007/20 September 2019. Accessed 10 May 2021.

Books On Books Collection – Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans

Alphabet (1970)

Alphabet (1970)
Timothy Epps and Christopher Evans
Booklet. 250 x 250 mm, 16 pages. Acquired from Antiquariaat Frans Melk, 23 November 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

This is the alphabet that inspired Raffaella della Olga’s LINE UP (2020), also in this collection. At the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, Epps and Evans created their alphabet in 1969 in response to the challenge to overcome machine-readable typefaces’ human-unreadability. Perhaps because it was the second of three responses to Wim Crouwel‘s New Alphabet (1967), published in the Kwadraatblad/Quadrat-prints series, the Dutch graphic designer and series editor, Pieter Brattinga, snatched it up for publication in his series of experiments in printing ranging over the fields of graphic design, the plastic arts, literature, architecture and music. This particular issue was designed by John Stegmeijer at Total Design. 

While the bright blue (above left) stands out strikingly against the black background, the booklet appropriately makes the human eye strain to see the letters darkly printed against the black. Would a scanner pick them up? Does the similar elusive effect created by debossed printing in della Olga’s collaboration with Three Star Press allude to this as well? What would that ingenuity create if applied to Crouwel’s New Alphabet or to Gerard Unger‘s A Counter-Proposal (the first response to Crouwel’s booklet) or Anthon Beeke‘s Alphabet (the third and strangest response — letters composed of naked women)?

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“, Books On Books Collection, 31 March 2020.

Raffaella della Olga“, Books On Books Collection, 8 December 2020.

Beeke, Anthon, Geert Kooiman, Anna Beeke, and Ed van der Elsken. 1970. Alphabet. Hilversum: Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co.

Crouwel, W.H. 1967. New alphabet: a possibility for the new development = een mogelijkheid voor de nieuwe ontwikkeling = une possibilité pour le développement nouveau = eine Möglichkeit für die neue Entwicklung : [proposal for a new type that, more than the traditional types, is suited for the composing system with the cathode-ray tube (CRT). Hilversum: Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co.

Owens, Sarah. 2006. “Electrifying the Alphabet“, Eye, No. 62, Vol. 16. Accessed 25 April.

Unger, Gerard. 1967. Een tegenvoorstel. A counter-proposal, etc. Hilversum: Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co.

Books On Books Collection – Raffaella della Olga

LINE UP (2020)

LINE UP (2020)
Raffaella della Olga
Cloth on board with spiral binding of 28 card folios. H270 x W290 mm (closed). Edition of twenty-six, of which this is #8. Acquired from Three Star Books, 4 November 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.

Formerly a lawyer, Raffaella della Olga turned from the manipulation of legal text to the artistry of the letter and its “total expansion” — the book — as well as its manifestation in light and textiles. Her chief tool of art is a set of customized typewriters. Most of her works are unique pieces, each entitled with the emblematic letter T followed by the ordinal number of its creation — up to T28 as of this writing.

T28 Alphabet (2019/2020)
Raffaella dell Olga
Typewritten on paper and silk paper with carbon paper 485 x 435 mm. Image:
© Raffaella della Olga and reproduced with the artist’s permission.

The limited edition of LINE UP offered an unusual opportunity to add to the Books On Books collection a work that resonates with its subset of abecedaries and one by an artist who shares a deep interest in another theme in the collection: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. Since 2009, she has created bookworks that reveal an artist’s and careful reader’s appreciation of the poem.

Title page and colophon from LINE UP. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.

LINE UP is very much a collaborative work between Raffaella della Olga and Three Star Books, founded in 2007 by Christophe Boutin and Mélanie Scarciglia with Cornelia Lauf (2007-2015). The edition consists of twenty-six spiral-bound copies, each with a unique cover produced by rubbings on canvas and differently colored. The title page and colophon take up two of the card folios in the volume, which leaves twenty-six for the printed content. Blocks of vertical blue lines turn the pages into letters based on the Epps-Evans alphabet, designed in the 1960s with only horizontal and vertical strokes in an attempt at machine readability.

Alphabet (1970)
Timothy Epps and Dr. Christopher Evans
Hilversum: de Jong & Co., 1970. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Discerning the letters in LINE UP feels sometimes like squinting one’s way through an optical illusion. The eye is bewitched by a color-shifting, almost stroboscopic effect created by four squares of embossed lines printed from the reverse side, always in the same position. Della Olga credits Christophe Boutin (Three Star Press) with introducing this effect.

The letters “a”, “b” and “c”.

Left: The four embossed squares seen from the verso. Right: The color shift between the embossed and flat squares.

The letter “k” at different angles of light.

The first of della Olga’s works reflecting the influence of Mallarmé’s poem was Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009), which was shown in the Gulbenkian’s “Pliure” exhibition in Paris in 2015. In a darkened room with an attendant turning the pages, the poem’s words, painted in phosphorescent powder, flickered into existence.

Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009)
Raffaella della Olga
Hand made work, white acrylic paint, phosphorescent powder, glue. H320 × 500 mm. Photos: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

A year later came this rendition: Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010). Although the link goes to an online presentation, the work is analogue and unique. In correspondence (9 December 2020), Della Olga writes, “I took apart the book the Gallimard edition as a whole, without the paratext. I folded the double pages and deleted with white paint the part of the poem that appear.” A close look at the framed pages reveals the faint shadows of the painted-over text. On the wall, the permutation arises in the changeable order of hanging, which the online algorithm permits the viewer to perform.

Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010)
Raffaella della Olga
Randomly generated computer graphic.

Her most recent homage to Mallarmé’s poem is Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018). Like Constellation with its reference to and enacting of the poem’s constellation metaphor, and like Permutation with its reference to and enacting of chance, Trame well reflects della Olga’s penetration of the poem and transformation of it into artwork that stands strongly on its own and in comparison with other works of homage by Marcel Broodthaers, Michalis Pichler and Cerith Wyn Evans.

Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018)
Raffaella della Olga
Unique. Typewritten on tracing paper with fabric and carbon paper, 320 × 500 mm. Image: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

The word trame is le mot juste in its application to the work and its referent. Its meanings — frame, woof, weft and weaving — shift across the work’s technique and material and evoke the poem’s typographical weaving as a framework with which to realize the “total expansion of the letter”.

Here’s hoping for further expansion into limited editions.

Further Reading

Total Expansion of the Letter, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review“, Books On Books, 19 October 2020.

Epps, Timothy, and Christopher Evans. 1970. Alphabet (Typeface … designed by Timothy Epps in collaboration with Dr. Christopher Evans). Hilversum: Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co.

Owens, Sarah. “Electrifying the alphabet“, Eye, no. 62, vol. 16, 2006. Accessed 23 November 2020.

Spencer, Herbert, and Colin Forbes. New Alphabets A to Z (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974). Source of the artist’s first encounter with the Epps-Evans alphabet. (Correspondence with Books On Books, 6 December 2020)

Books On Books Collection – Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark

A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance/Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2015)

A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (2015)
Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark
Hardback, H280 x W192 mm, 96 pages, illustrations.

Jeff Clark has designed this book for a dramatic entrance: eleven double-page spreads presenting in large type the English title (interrupted with a full-bleed double-page spread of random-light burst-mode photographs of black-and-white laserprints) followed by Mallarmé’s name in equally large type. The words in all caps Helvetica type bounce across the pages like dice, or rise and fall like waves.

Three more double-page spreads of an ominously darkening sea display the translator’s and designer’s names and the copyright page printed in reverse.

And then the poem begins. Both the English and French versions of the preface and poem occur without interruption by images (as Mallarmé would have wished) and in the layout implied by Mallarmé’s mark up of proofs before his death. Their relatively plain sailing, contrasted with the book’s dramatic opening, actually draws attention to the disruptive and groundbreaking nature of the poem’s intended layout and variations in typography.

The dramatic opening of double-page spreads returns at the end of the English version. Four spreads of undulating photographs of the seabed separate it from the French version. The spreads begin with a blow-up shot of seaweed or coracle and encrusted wreckage, then back off to a slightly longer shot in the next two spreads and return to a blow-up in the fourth spread. Although these are stills, their manipulation over the pages conveys a sense of underwater movement.

Four more double-page spreads conclude the book with photographs so blown-up and darkening that they leave the reader/viewer wondering if the phosphorescent underwater world has metamorphosed into a constellation.

The design work is carefully considered and meaningful. In choice of type, the English version’s sans serif type, Helvetica, contrasts with and complements the French version’s serif type, Didot, Mallarmé’s preferred font. Although in the Helvetica family the roman font does not contrast with its italic font as much as those fonts contrast in the Didot family, the Helvetica “places” Bononno’s and Clark’s work as a contemporary translation that complements its original.

The handling of the images is deeply subtle — not merely in their thematic affinity with the imagery and thrust of the poem, but also in their technique. They are random-light, burst-mode photographs of laser-printed photographs, a meta-technique that echoes the poem’s metaphysical struggle with meaning’s and thought’s being at a chance-driven remove from language. In commenting on Raffaella della Olga‘s phosphorescent light installation of the poem, the critic Raimundas Malašauskas makes a comment that is also apropos of these photographic images and technique:

Conversations about light often end up in conversations about time because light is far from ageless. Two reasons compliment [sic] each other: first, the emission of photons starts at one point in time and finishes at another one. Second, the scope of light brings an unforeseen scale of time if one has chosen to read this evocation under the light of stars. Just imagine it (when hopefully no one sees you.)

Malašauskas’ comments should be read in full to appreciate how important the theme of temporal perspective is for della Olga’s work. In his poem, Mallarmé evokes a temporal perspective through numerous images, not least of which is the constellation, and links that perspective to chance and the space (gap or abyss) between word (mark or utterance) and meaning. Likewise, in the privacy of this book, the chance-driven burst-mode images of images shift perspective from surface to depth to the microscopic — and out to the stars — placing the viewer in that solitary place where “no one sees you” to imagine macro- and micro-scopic vastness and relate them to this poem that proclaims across its last two double-page spreads:

NOTHING

WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE

BUT THE PLACE

EXCEPT

PERHAPS

A CONSTELLATION

Further Reading


Glazier, Jeremy. “Un Coup d’idées: A New Translation of Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 June 2015.

Malašauskas, Raimundas. “Coup de dés“, Raffaella della Olga website, 2010. Accessed 15 April 2020.

N.A. “Translators Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Poetry Society of America, N.D. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Ross, Alex. “Encrypted: Translators confront the enigma of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry“, The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.

Stark, Trevor. Total Expansion of the Letter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). Reviewed here. For a clear exploration of Mallarmé’s themes of chance, temporal perspective, thought and language.