Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History (2020)
Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth and Simon Morris Dos-à-dos (flipped), perfect bound softcover, H314 x W314 mm, 132 pages (including the end pages left intentionally blank); fold-out double-sided print of Jérémie Bennequin’s erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, H940 x W940 mm; saddle-stitched chapbook of Craig Dworkin’s “Clock”, held in a mock 45 RPM record sleeve, H180 x W180 mm; vinyl LP recording of Sean Ashton’s novel Living in a Land, H314 x W314 mm; Acquired from Information as Material, 10 October 2020.
In its design, typography, format and media components, the first issue of Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History embodies its domain. So much so that this metaphorical box of artifacts stands as a contribution to the study of material texts as much as any of the journal’s inaugural articles.
Jérémie Bennequin’s double-sided, bilingual print of his erasure of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” recalls the palimpsest — a longstanding topic of material text study. Also, by standing in for Poe’s swirling maelstrom, the print’s image of spiralling erasure raises the domain’s recurrent theme of text-and-image interaction as well as that of the self-reflexiveness of such art. Using the book or text as physical material with which to create a work is central to book art as is the self-referencing that arises.
Bennequin’s choice of text also alludes to his other work. The short story’s themes of abyss, shipwreck and nothingness occur prominently in Poe-loving Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, the 19th century poem that made us modern and launched (is still launching) scores of artists’ books paying material and conceptual homage. Bennequin is one of those artists.†
The print’s spiral erasure on a background of text serves as one of several voices in this journal issue’s intermedial†† harmony (or cacophony). The spiral reappears in Craig Dworkin’s meditation that scales up a pocket watch’s clock spring to the size of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1980). Dworkin finds the spiral in the fossil of a Holocene fish that swam over the bed that became the jetty. He “materializes” the watch’s minutes against the geological and evolutionary time frames of the formation of the Great Salt Lake and the fossil. On the back cover of the chapbook, its entire text is repeated in a spiral of text blocks. The chapbook slips back into its 45 RPM-size sleeve to echo the spiralling inscription of sound in vinyl grooves that actually occurs on the LP recording of Sean Ashton’s novel Living in a Land.
After Bennequin’s print, Dworkin’s meditation and Ashton’s LP, the journal itself appears, sporting the spiral as a logo on its trompe l’oeil cover. Not only drawn from Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the logo draws from the stage costumes of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which recur throughout the journal’s pages reminding us of drama as another medium in which the materiality of the text matters. In its own physical manifestation, the journal wears the materiality of the text on its sleeve and in its pages. The pages themselves spiral around a hole drilled through the center of the issue, echoing the sculptural extremity of inscribing, the book art technique of excising and the concept of nothingness central to many artists of inscription such as Robert Barry and Carl Andre, as this exchange shows:
RB: There is something about void and emptiness which I am personally very concerned with. I guess I can’t get it out of my system. Just emptiness. Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.
CA: I would say a thing is a hole in a thing it is not. — Arts Magazine 47 (1972): 46
On its two page 2’s (a result of the dos-à-dos or back to back binding), Incription offers its own Magrittean take on holes:
In dos-à-dos binding, two codices are bound back to back in a Z form. So usually there are two fore-edges, two spines, and both codices have the same vertical orientation.
Inscription is bound dos-à-dos, but with only one fore-edge and one spine. Materially emphasizing the theme of inward spiralling, Inscription‘s two halves are upside down to one another. Their vertical orientations differ as can be seen in the following photo of the two front covers splayed away from the spine. The cover designer has obviously joined the fun by creating two fore-edges with the trompe l’oeil and “two” spines, one downward reading in the English style and, when flipped, one upward reading in the European style. Of course, therefore, there are two Tables of Content in opposite orders and two editorial prefaces, of which “one is considerably better: this is deliberate”. (Tongue-in-cheek humor seems to reside in the DNA of material text studies — and especially in book art.)
Two Tables of Content — naturally in reverse order for the dos-à-dos bound volume.
With the page layout spiralling from each end of the issue toward the spiral-set colophon placed in the center (usually part of the endmatter), we have spirals inscribed within spirals.
Left (or is it right?): the drilled hole centered on Ubu Roi‘s omphalic costume. Right (or is it left?): the spiral-set colophon.
Across the issue, the text block rotates like a vinyl record around the central hole.
By the time the colophon is reached, the reader/viewer’s head may be spinning, which could make it easier to read the colophon — wherein it is revealed that the book has been set in twenty different versions of Garamond type in a sequence such that the first letter of a line comes from the first version of Garamond, the second letter from the second version and so on, with the sequence starting anew with the next line. More spirals within spirals.
The materiality of this inaugural issue demonstrates how Inscription‘s focus “is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces (papery or otherwise), and the processes of mark-making in the widest possible sense”, as the editors put it. The care and creativity with which this first issue has been put together offer raw material with which to “take the study of material texts in new directions”. Mark-making by erasure, printing, juxtaposing, drilling, vinyl inscription, land erosion, evolution, land art, stage costumes, choice of type, page layout, binding, sleeving — all this even before we come to the articles themselves (see the photos of the Table of Contents above)!
For academics, book artists, printmakers, poets, and artists – and every permutation of roles, subsidiary roles and sub-subs of role — Inscription is rich, exuberant, eye-opening and eye-twisting, and eminently collectible as a work of art in its own right. Which is why it is in the Books On Books Collection.
† For Bennequin’s homage to Un Coup de Dés, see “Jérémie Bennequin“, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.
†† “Intermedial” is taken from Trevor Stark’s Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé (2020), p.9. It refers to “the zone of indeterminacy between mediums, social practices, and temporalities” into which Mallarmé’s question “Does something like Letters exist?” threw the poet and avant-gardists. The question is ultimately a phenomenological one, which the study of material text inherently addresses.
A similar, related neologism — “intermediation” — was adopted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1965 by the language-, book-, and publishing-artist Dick Higgins in “Intermedia“, republished in Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54. It is not the same thing as intermediality or mixed media. As Higgins expressed it, “Many fine works are being done in mixed media: paintings which incorporate poems within their visual fields, for instance. But one knows which is which. In intermedia, on the other hand, the visual element (painting) is fused conceptually with the words.”, p. 52. It can be argued that works of intermedia are one way in which artists address intermediality.
Where to go to compare and contrast the book art in Germano Celant’s pioneering “catalogue” of the Nigel Greenwood Gallery exhibition in London (1972) with that of the last half century?
Being a sort of small and portable catalogue and curator’s explanation for the gallery’s exhibition of ca. 300 works, Celant’s Book as Artwork is arranged chronologically and then alphabetically by artist. Presumably it was organized to match the exhibition’s organization (note the year 1967 in upper left of the photograph below and the distinctive Hidalgo cover, fifth from the left). With no photographs of the works, Book as Artwork gives no easily accessible visual sense of the 300 works in that exhibition. If we had that starting visual touchpoint, it would be easier to “place” the period or individual works in relation to book art from the 80’s onward.
Stephen Bury’s Artists’ Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963 – 2000 (2015) includes, by design, only a handful of the artists and works selected for the Celano/Greenwood exhibition.
Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (1973, 1997) — a “bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically” — comes as close as one might hope in black-and-white print for a starting visual touchpoint. Lippard’s scope, however, ranges beyond book art, so the number illustrated limits systematic visual comparison and contrast with the book art of the ensuing decades.
Phaidon’s Artists Who Make Books(2017) provides good coverage and bridges the 1960s to the 21st century. The essays and descriptions bring the book art off the page and into the mind’s hands.
Best of all is Lynda Morris’s mini-memoir of her role in organizing the Celant/Greenwood exhibition.
Germano had sent Nigel [Greenwood] a wonderful, arty handwritten letter in pink capitals … on December 22, 1970:
DEAR PUBLISHER I AM PREPARING FOR A NEW INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE A COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY OF BOOKS MADE DIRECTLY BY ARTISTS.
…Nigel had met Germano and had his telephone number in Genoa. I was sitting beside him when he phoned and proposed Book as Artwork exhibition for September 1972. Germano immediately agreed.
For sources of book art since the close of the Celant/Greenwood exhibition, we are spoilt for choice. Print and digital, image-rich aggregations of book art abound. We can return to the Phaidon and Bury books. We can turn to the well-illustrated print and online publications from the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of Western England, online library collections such as the MassArt Library or Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, the websites of dealers such as Zucker Art Books displaying their wares, the dozens of websites for recurring book art fairs such as International Artist’s Books Triennial Vilnius (1997 – present) and CODEX International Book Fair (2007 – present) and community sites suchas Artist Books 3.0. In the future, the Getty Research Institute‘s processing of the Steven Leiber Basement archive should also yield a rich source of images of works by the artists selected for the Celant/Greenwood exhibition.
Present-day online access challenges Mallarmé’s dictum: ”Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” Now it seems:
Everything in the world exists to end up on the web.
As far as that premise holds, this annotation and rearrangement of Celant’s bibliography — a “webliography” — offers an online starting point for connecting the book as artwork 1960/1972 with the book as artwork since. In providing some images of the works and links to images, the webliography offers anyone interested in book art the means to gain a more colored impression of the period’s book art. That the primary impression is still black and white underscores the impact of xerographic technology on artists then as well as that of conceptualism driven by text or photograph. A webliographic approach also offers the opportunity to link the book art of the Celant exhibition with book-oriented Web-art or Net-art such as that of Amaranth Borsuk, Taeyoon Choi, Gunnar Green, Johannes Heldén, Bernhard Hopfengärtner and many others referenced below.
The reorganization here of Celant’s and Morris’s list — by artist alphabetically then chronologically — makes it easier to see the curators’ tendencies in selection as well as the influence of practical factors. The curators’ selection is obviously more Western, less Eastern European and even less Middle Eastern and Asian. Individuals’ prodigality surely played a role in whom and what was included. As Morris’s essay in the Phaidon book reveals, the geographical proximity of works available to be chosen played a role; so, too, the influence of the then-contemporary art network played a role (Atkinson, Beuys, Celant, Dwan,Greenwood, Hansjorg Mayer, Walther König, Maenz, Siegelaub, Sperone and the many other personalities of the Art-Language, Arte Povera, Conceptualist and Fluxus movements); and even the size of suitcases and availability of transport for bringing the artwork into the UK played a role.
Generally the online links for the artists’/authors’ names lead to biographies, either in their official websites, Wikipedia or other news sources. Where an artist/author is listed multiple times, the links vary from instance to instance to provide a wider range of information about the individual and, in some cases (such as Dieter Rot’s), more images. The links behind the publishers’ names go to publishers’ websites or Wikipedia entries about them. The links that follow each entry resolve to images of the work, videos, audio, interviews or essays relevant to the work. For selected entries in Celant’s list, a compare/contrast takes the user to websites or works whose juxtaposition might shed light on the similarities or differences between the item in Celant’s list and book art of the subsequent decades.
The webliography also supports the haptically as well as digitally inclined. The links behind the titles of the works provide information on the nearest library location of the work (although not all titles could be located). Be sure to enter your own location and refresh the results.
Lole, Kevin; Smith, Paul. Handbook on Models. Coventry: Self-published, 1972. [Unable to locate a work of this title in WorldCat, but one with the title The Relativism of Emotion Handbook to the Model and same date of publication is described in Paul Robertson‘s “A Collection of Rare Art+ Language Books and Internal Documents – Many Unknown in Literature”, Gorebridge, Midlothian: Unoriginal Sins/Heart Fine Art, n.d.]
30 x 21cm, 50pp (printed recto only) plus printed card covers. Xerox inner pages as issued. The first and only edition of this theoretical work based on a physical model (electro-shock, photo beams and electronic buzzers) acting as metaphor for analogue, theoretical and representative models. Cover is very minority marked on the front and back cover has a faint diagonal crease else VG++. From the archive of David Rushton who believes only 10 or fewer of this book was published.
“30 x 21cm, 16pp (recto only). White card covers – with offset title. A text published by Bischofberger from a theoretical document written by Kevin Lole, Philip Pilkington, David Rushton and Peter Smith (formerly Analytical Art and by this time fully regarded as members of Art & Language) which applied Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shift to art (the original theory by Kuhn being a view that revolutions in scientific thought only occurred when sufficient contrary evidence to the prevailing orthodoxy had mounted up and the original hypothesis could no longer explain the physical evidence emerging from empirical studies). It is worth noting that at this time Bischofberger bought a great deal of Art + Language material from the group and published other documents by them including some of the group’s rarest publications – storing many of the more three-dimensional works for later resale. Bischofberger did not print the books himself – rather Art and Language arranged design and publication in Coventry (for free using the University’s resources) and David Rushton drove the books over in a camper van to Switzerland (breaking down just on the edge of the city due to running out of petrol and having little money left, Rushton coasted the last mile down hill on an empty tank).
The limitations of these series of books are usually placed at c. 200 but Rushton remembers taking far fewer than that with him and this Analytical Art book was in fact only produced in 50 copies taken to Zurich plus a few retained by the artists in the UK.
That said this is one of ONLY 5 copies which were numbered in roman numerals (this one being III/V) and signed by ALL of the four writers in pencil on the first title page.”]
“30 x 21cm, 28pp carbon copy pages and printed cover. This was one of ONLY four copies made and published by the group – two copies being signed by David Rushton and Peter [sic] Pilkington and created from original typed sheets and two copies remaining unsigned and created (as here) using the carbon copies from the originals. These latter two examples were regarded by the group as artist’s proofs of the book. This is the only copy of this book available for sale anywhere as from the original four prices: one is in Paul Maenz’s archive and another two copies are in the hands of private collectors (who purchased them from ourselves). This copy is signed by David Rushton and Philip Pilkington and has been stamped on the inside front cover with the official Art & Language Stamp and also designated in blue ink “Second Copy”. Fine estate and clearly rare.”]
Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then crouch within the door. Red is the fire’s common tint; But when the vivid ore Has sated flame’s conditions, Its quivering substance plays Without a color but the light Of unanointed blaze. Least village boasts its blacksmith, Whose anvil’s even din Stands symbol for the finer forge That soundless tugs within, Refining these impatient ores With hammer and with blaze, Until the designated light Repudiate the forge. – Emily Dickinson, Part One, Life, XXXIII
MARC STRAUS, the contemporary art gallery in the Lower East Side of New York, opened “an exhibition of white paintings and sculptures by an international selection of artists” on 3 June 2017. It runs through 3 July, and its title The White Heat comes from the first line of Dickinson’s poem above.
Books on Books offers this “white book report” on book art not included to put attendees in the mood for their experience of the works in white by artists such as
Joan Levison and others.
Irwin Susskind‘s “Book Faced Down” is an example of the technique of mixed media – a stark white plaster block facing down the objectified cookbook – to create book art. A piece of sheet cake, a cutting board?
Jonathan Callan‘s piece denies viewers the colorful still lifes of Francisco de Zurbarán and leaves them with this drained-of-color, chiselled double-page spread of a book on the artist.
Where Callan chisels away from the edges inward, Noriko Ambe carves from the inside almost to the edges in her work above.
As the Straus exhibition notes, “In Chinese cultures, White is associated with Death.” In J. Meejin Yoon’s book Absence, the absence of color in a solid white block of thick stock cardboard pages and the “text” of one pinhole and two identical squares die-cut into each of its 120 pages – one for each story of New York’s Twin Towers including the antenna mast – lead the reader down through the missing buildings to the final page where the footprint of the absent structures ends in a die cut of the entire site of the World Trade Center.
Olafur Eliasson seems to have followed Yoon’s technical approach in Your House, 2006, although the effects are far more intricate.
Echoing Yoon’s somber note, Julie K. Dodd‘s paper and book art often dwell on environmental issues, such as the death of a coral colony above and the contours of the natural landscape versus manmade as shown in Untitled.
A more hopeful note is struck in the whiteness of Chris Ruston’s final “ammonite” book in the series The Great Gathering, inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The mirror under the maker’s tools and the made thing implicate the viewer here and now in an optimistic ongoing evolutionary process of making and remaking.
Where the white of Yoon’s and Dodd’s works evokes absence and the white of Ruston’s work evokes the blank invitation to singular creativity, Michael Mandiberg‘s installation of multiples, Print Wikipedia, evokes the plenitude of white noise that is our online lives.
And just as technologically allusive, M.L. Van Nice‘s Swiss Army Book poses (tongue in cheek?) the single volume as somehow able to capture, store and transmit knowledge in ways it need not, albeit the meaning of the whiteness here is a bit elusive.
Werner Pfeiffer’s works constitute an extensive treatment in white. The installation at UConn Storrs represents a small proportion of the works shown in retrospectives in the last ten years at Bucknell, Cornell and the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Pfeiffer’s works touch on censorship, and from his Cornell exhibition, he explains:
The objects I create are made with real books. They are not casts, nor are they sculpted imitations. At its core each piece has bound, printed pages. Glued together and painstakingly covered with gesso, they are silenced and sealed for good. I practice this destruction, this obvious censorship, simply as metaphor. It is to visualize, to demonstrate, to provoke. For these acts of violence are not about the damage done to stacks of paper, to books. The objects are about the harm inflicted on the human spirit. The ropes, the nails, the clamps, the hooks and knifes are real as well. They are symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act.
With the advent of ebooks, Pfeiffer celebrates the tangibility of the book with his white gessoed book objects and their punning titles as well as origami-like works such as Zig-Zag.
But back to the white works of art at the MARC STRAUSS gallery. Book art is not entirely neglected. Following in their tradition since 1984, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (“Kids of Survival”) pondered, discussed and “jammed” on 1895 novella by H.G. Wells to produce THE TIME MACHINE (after H.G.Wells), which is included in the exhibition.
According to the artists, “We believe that every total work of art is a time machine – a synthesis of a living past and present located in an object that can only be completed by the social experience of a viewer in the future. The total work of art exists in the invisible fourth dimension of space/time and it is this notion that unites the works in the exhibition. We paint on historic texts in the present so that they can haunt our futures.”
Suitably prepared? Jump in your time machine and head over to 299 Grand Street, on the Lower East Side in New York, and immerse yourself in “The White Heat“.