“Material Noise: Reading Theory as Artist’s Book”, Anne M. Royston (MIT Press, 2019): Review

As its subtitle suggests, Material Noise explores how the material aspects of works of criticism and media studies such as Le Da Costa encyclopedique, Jacques Derrida’s Glas, Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book and Mark C. Taylor’s Hiding matter to understanding them — just as if those works were artist books. For the reader interested in book art, the artist book or whatever one might like to call that art, Material Noise might be better read back to front. The works of book art that Anne Royston explores in Material Noise — Mark C. Taylor’s Le Réal, Las Vegas, NV, Shelley Jackson’s Skin, Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics and Susan Howe’s and R.H. Quaytman’s Tom Tit Tot — come at the end of the book.

The order though is reassuring. Otherwise we might end with criticism, media theory and critical theory becoming the foreground, the works of art simply background, lost in theoretical translation. A case of Barthes for Barthes’ sake? It is fitting that the very material approach to engaging with book art — even with its most conceptual of instances — should be applied to critics and theorists to explicate their works, only then to conclude by showcasing works of art whose mastery of the material may be said to put the more academic works in the aesthetic shade.

Royston selects the journal — Convolution, founded in 2011 by Paul Stephens — to emblematize her starting point: “a blend of art and criticism that considers its material form at every step” and delivers “a materially immersive reading experience” (pp. 1-3). If her publication had occurred in the future, she could have selected Inscription, founded in 2020 by Adam Smyth, Gill Partington and Simon Morris to serve as an open closing point. But that would have spoiled the reassurance of concluding with the art.

As is the wont of theorists (social, literary and otherwise), she proposes a new term, or tool, with which to build her case: “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”. Leaving it to the academics to unpack that proposition professionally and evaluate its application, this casual observer suggests that it is analogous to “upward inflection” but without the implied lack of confidence. With a lack of confidence, it would be the declarative sentence that hedges its bet with that annoying, habitual rising tone that turns it into a question.

Royston does not hedge her bets. Her observations about Le Da Costa encyclopedique and its self-conscious, self-referential heterogeneous play with the material forms of the reference work, newspaper and the forms within them — columns, typographical signals (hyphenation), etc. — are assured. Her surfacing of “noise” as a concept and phenomenon key to the shape and message of Le Da Costa, Derrida’s Glas and Ronell’s The Telephone Book is equally assured in each case. Likewise, how — across those three works — she slips among the ideas of “noise” to “formlessness” to “white spaces” to end up on the “surface” of Taylor’s Hiding, his associated multimedia The Réal, Las Vegas, NV and then Jackson’s Skin project.

Royston’s true avatar must be the ilex. In the Taylor/Jackson chapter, she effortlessly moves from Taylor’s university press book then to his electronic artist book and then to Jackson’s embodied/disembodied story literally tattooed word by word on 2,095 volunteers (thereafter called “words”). Royston does it so well that it almost enacts an artistic argument proving her thesis that we should read theory in the way we read artist books.

But collecting theories may not be as satisfying as building real or fantasy collections of art. Being introduced to Taylor’s The Réal, Las Vegas, NV (1997) with its slot machine screen offers the chance to add it alongside Marcel Broodthaers’ Monte Carlo Bond (1924) and Muriel Cooper’s designed Learning from Las Vegas (1972) by Robert Venturi. If you happen across one of Jackson’s “words” in the tattooed flesh from Skin, you can forego a kidnapping charge by turning to Paul Emmanuel’s The Lost Men Project (2006). Crestfallen that no aluminum-covered version of Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics (2012) is easily available? Download the Ubu edition. Also unable to find a copy of Howe’s and Quaytman’s Tom Tit Tot (2014)? Place its link at the Museum of Modern Art Library Council alongside the Meermanno Museum’s for its “Reading as Art” exhibition.

Royston’s book provides collector and critic with an entire toolkit enabling them to encounter the “materially immersive reading experience” and perceive how it is really the “materially engaged reading experience”. Highly recommended.

Books On Books Collection – Francesca Capone

we have a trick that we call language. Actually, we have many kinds of language, each of which is based on a formal system of codes and/or symbols through which we represent states of the world.
Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (2000)

Weaving Language: Language is Image, Paper, Code & Cloth (2018)


Weaving Language: Language is Image, Paper, Code & Cloth (2018)
Francesca Capone
Perfect bound paperback. H230 x W155 mm, 116 pages. Acquired from Book Depository, 10 October 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection, shown with permission of the artist.

Weaving Language examines the poetics of weaving traditions through historical research as well as contemporary practices. Attempting to dismantle and rebuild commonplace understandings of the history of writing, Weaving Language focuses on fiber-based forms as a longstanding but often overlooked medium for record keeping, storytelling, and poetry. The book is both a mapping of instances that exemplify textile poetics from the beginning of time to the present day, as well as a creative experiment in utilizing textile as code. Capone invites the reader to experience textile as something to be read, along with its tactile and visual functions. — from the book jacket.

Sadly, Weaving Language: Language is Image, Paper, Code & Cloth (2018) aka WL II is only a third of the trilogy sought after for the collection (the other two are out of print). Its brilliant content and typography make the absence more acute. As its table of contents shows, WL II is also composed of three parts. Initially the first part seems to be a chronologically organized commonplace book with a rich collection of quotations from primary and secondary sources (citations in gray), with some guiding comments interspersed from Capone. But with the source material printed in black, the citation lines in gray and author’s comments in blue, the feeling turns to that of holding a patchwork quilt or the Bayeux tapestry of weaving’s history. The image below provides an example of the color-coded typography, including the single and apt exception in red.

Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Capone’s choice not to reproduce an image of Elizabeth Parker’s sampler stitched in red (see below) but rather to use type and red ink draws subtle and effective attention to how the book’s own visual motif underpins the way Capone weaves her choices of content together into a unified fabric.

Linen, embroidered with red silk in cross stitch (c. 1830)
Elizabeth Parker (1813-89)
H858 x W744 mm. Photo: Victoria & Albert Museum, Textiles & Fashion Collection, T.6-1956.

The second part — “Woven Codes” — begins like a “how to” book with a key page followed by examples. Structurally more profoundly, it links to the first part’s concluding quotation of a quotation: the poet Susan Howe citing Gertrude Stein’s “Sentences” notebooks, in which she wrote “Think in stitches”. The link is made by coding three selections from Stein’s Tender Buttons into three forms — gridded writing, an erasure poem and then a woven draft. Again, aptly, Capone chooses for her samplers “A Cloth”, “A Paper” and “A Drawing”. The next two pages — one illustrating the grid-based coding of Braille, one showing the method of tying coded Quipu knots — also reach back into the first part to pick up threads introduced by citations of Joyce Carol Oates and David Antin.

The last page of this black-and-white section of “Woven Codes” alludes even more subtly to the first part. The page’s text describing the illustration below it reads

The weaving of alternating S and Z twisted yarns results in a historically sturdy cloth composition.

Among the patchwork sources in the first part, there is a brief quotation from one of Roland Barthes’ lectures in which he “introduced the metaphor of ‘unthreading’ for the act of describing”. Could the weaving of “S and Z” yarns refer to Barthes’ S/Z, the seminal structuralist deciphering of codes of meaning in Honoré de Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine”? Only if “historically sturdy” is tongue in cheek, as the post-structuralists would have it. Allusion notwithstanding, this illustration of sturdy woven cloth sets us up for the more colorful concluding section of “Woven Codes” in which Capone demonstrates the color coding of various verse forms such as the sestina (below).

By pairing the drawn plan with the front and rear views of the woven sestina from Dante and then pairing a right-reading setting with a reversed setting of the poem in color-coded type, Capone underscores her equation of language = image, paper, code and cloth.

The third part of the book — “Weaving>>Writing” — brings all of the elements together in reverse: fabric comes first and is translated into words. It is a reversal that depends on Weaving Language I: Lexicon, in which Capone set out the code where “fiber informs pronouns, weave structure informs verb, interlacing and tapestry techniques are prepositions, color informs nouns & adjectives, and any two colors beside each other result in conjunctions”.

Five of Capone’s woven>>written poems are followed by five works by artists Ruth Laskey, Alicia Scardetta, Tauba Auerbach, Kayla Mattes, and New Friends (Alexandra Segreti and Kelly Rakowski). As individually whole works, they are not illustrated here. To view them, buy WL II from its publisher Information as Material or a bookstore or consult a library. As mentioned, WL I is out of print, perhaps hampering a fuller appreciation of the ten woven>>written poems. With WL III also now out of print, perhaps Information as Material will come to the rescue and make it possible for Books On Books to complete its set of the trilogy without dropping a stitch.

Further Reading

Capone, Francesca. Weaving Language I: Lexicon (Portland, OR: East Egg Press, 2012).

Capone, Francesca, ed. Writing in Threads: Weaving Language III (Troy, NY: Publication Studio Hudson, 2015).

Costello, Lindsey. “Francesca Capone: Think of Seashells at Nationale“, 60 Inch Center, 2018.

Snack, Rachel. Interview with Warp & Weft Magazine, 2020.

Wilson, Frank R. The Hand (New York: Random House International, 2000).