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Elliot, Joe. “BACK TO BASICS: 3 Primers from Granary Books.” The Journal of Artists’ Books, (Spring 1995): 16-19
Talespin by Susan Bee
Abstract Refuse by Ed Epping
A Passage by Buzz Spector
primer 1. An elementary textbook. 2. A book that covers the basics of any subject.
primer 2. A cap or tube containing a small amount of
explosive used to detonate the main explosive charge
of a firearm or mine. 2. An undercoat of paint or size
applied to prepare a surface, as for a painting.
Ed Epping's Abstract Refuse is subtitled "A Heteronymic Primer." Like any good primer, Epping's covers its subject; it collects examples, postulates rules, and provides plenty of illustrations. And like any good primer, the modest, linguistic charge provided by focusing on this special group of words is used to ignite more ambitious, metaphysical pleasures.
Taking his cue from Duchamp, Epping sees his book as the first in a series seeking "prime words" which are "divisible only by themselves and by unity" and which he hopes "answer the conditions of a new language"1. Within this overall aim, the volume under review is structured according to "six stages of constituent and cultural memory" with images that offer a way of examining the "mechanics of remembering and forgetting"2. Heady stuff,
indeed! Yet, Epping's treatment of these ideas always seems natural and clear.
The first page introduces the book's scope and technique. Centered in a field of grey hatchings reminiscent of aerial maps or force fields, sits the heteronym, "cave". Above and below this word are its two glosses "beware" and "habitat". To the left of these, an upside-down man descends, standing on (hanging from) a disc. Curves and lines intersect and form boundaries. The number "3" rests inside the top of a helix. At the bottom of the page, one hand points to the word "mother", another points to the word "father". Between the two lies the phrase "The Constituent Memory". Here, the heteronym serves as a talisman, bringing us back to our origins as persons and species: we are both in an actual cave and in the metaphorical cave of the womb. Just as two persons make a third, the doubling up of words creates a space for memory to exist in, and out of this memory spirals a new element, the number "3". Meanwhile, the heteronym's flipside is both commenting on the proverbially huge role fear plays in this primary, cave-dwelling stage, and warning us that this journey back and down, this descent of man, may not be undertaken without risk.
This interest in revisiting primal scenes via prime words is shored up by much of the book's primal scenery. As far as "concrete" images go, the list is short: vertebrae, rope, flint, axes, arms, hands, pencils, wood, tools, and a recurring everyman figure. This simplicity is complemented by the book's more "abstract" elements. Basic geometric figures: squares, rectangles, lines, grids, curves, spheres, circles, cones, helixes, etc; the graph paper endsheets framing the book; and the strange fields of maps or proto-markings, just about exhaust the contents. This pared-down roster of elements calls to mind the list of basic symbols at the back of another primer, Freud's Introductory Lectures.
Like the world of folktales and dreams, where key elements unlock the subconscious, in Epping's world, memory is "a gate attached to the space it opens", and heteronyms, with their multiple coordinates, operate this gate and make travel on the book's grid possible. This kinship between dreams and memory is embodied in the book's "I". The eyes of this balding, naked and slightly-stooped everyman figure are always closed in a subdued, self-contained, attitude, as if he were dreaming up the cosmic field of markings he is both floating in and unconscious of. In this way, the book underscores the delicious distance between the mundane ground, the "as is", the here of memory, and the heavenly space, the "as if", the there it takes one to.
Clearly, Epping's is a poetics that believes in the elemental power of words, and this power brings joy. In this respect, he's in good company. One is reminded of Alien Ginsberg's delight when, early in his career, he made the technical discovery that, if he took two words that were usually far apart, gutted connectives, and put them side by side, a bang would result. The greater the original distance, the greater the explosion. Or again, of poets like Robert Duncan or Gerrit Lansing, whose poems draw much of their strength from a devotion to the lore stored in the roots of words.
Finally, while one might expect a lot of costly handwork in a book that takes this kind of etymological trip back to genesis, the conditions surrounding its production are not only post-lapsarian but absolutely up-to-date. Designed on a Power Macintosh 7100/66, printed on a Hewlitt Packard i20ooC/PS, and editioned open-endedly, Abstract Refuse has a desk-top-democratic and available feel that is entirely apt for a primer.
A Passage, Buzz Spector
Passage 1. The process of elapsing. 2. A journey by land or water. 3. Obsolete. Death, 4. The right to travel on a ship. 5. The price paid for this. 6. A segment of literary or musical work. 7. A path, channel or duct. 8. An exchange of arguments or vows.
A Passage, Buzz Specter's latest in an ongoing series of book alterations, is also a primer. Yet, since the subject it covers is books, Spector is faced with the dilemma of how a hand grasps itself. That is, a book as a vessel for the transfer of content doesn't work when the content is the (non)transfer of content. You might get an idea "about it", but because you're "in it" you can't "get it".
Specter's solution is drastically fundamental: harm the book. Wound it. Damage it so thoroughly that the reader can no longer step inside. Keep the viewer on the outside so that the viewer, not the book, is "about" the book, so that the book can be the book. So what is a book?
To begin with, A Passage, like the found texts Spector altered in the past, presents itself as a representative artifact. The title itself is generic, suggesting that, had this one not been chosen, another passage would've sufficed as well. And its binding and typography, so unobtrusive and anonymous, would make it hard to pick out on a library shelf. Clearly, A Passage is every book; yet as much as these production values efface themselves, this artifact aggressively confronts us with its disappearance from our culture.
By tearing pages in lessening widths, Spector produces a wedge-shaped cross-section of text that is tantalizingly
illegible. Describing this process Spector writes, "The vestiges of letterforms revealed through the tearing were like the fragments of an unknown language whose forms were still visible but whose narration was hopelessly lost." The book's traditional role as a repository for meaning has eroded. Here, Specter's joke is that, for many, looking at his wounded book is essentially the same experience as looking at one that appears whole. Both are unreadable.
What happened? One explanation looks to immediate factors. Our accelerated culture has created a proliferation of competing printed matter and media. Assaulted on a daily basis by television, propaganda, political double-speak, advertising, tabloids, computers, virtual reality, CDs, cellular phones, etc., the book is traumatized, has gone into shock, won't speak.4
Another focuses on the book's long-term decline. That the book's passage mentions a Rabbi is hardly incidental. One cultural guarantee for the value of words is religion. Creation is logos-centered and scripture backed up by God. It better have meaning or else! In A Passage, the Rabbi's story of the Talmud scholar who knows the precise location of every letter on every page, is shrugged off by Spector who says, "I'm no scholar then. These books only show what I've forgotten." Such a faithful immersion in the world of books is no longer possible. Instead of the masterful accrual of knowledge in a given field, this experience is characterized by a gradual, ineluctable draining away.
Another bulwark was the Enlightenment. The philosophers' program of dividing the world into areas of knowledge that could be subdued and rationalized stamped books with an imprimatur. Knowledge was power; books altered our destiny. Yet, a century and a half later, atrocity and scientific uncertainties had thrown this doctrine of progress into question. In Nausea, Sartre's autodidact, a kind of absurd descendant of Voltaire, sits in a library making his way through each volume in alphabetical order. Here, the pursuit of knowledge has become insanely ineffectual. Similarly, in an earlier piece, Spector alters an encyclopedia, tearing its pages and laying a long stone at it's center, as if to illustrate the dumb weight that pins down the pages and prevents them from speaking. In light of the atavism to which the West succumbed, its no wonder its tongue turned to stone.
This progresslessness operates in other ways as well. To begin with, we're always on the same page, reading the same passage. The page number itself, 181, a kind of palindrome, two simple lines on either side of an eternity sign on its side, gives the reader the sense that it doesn't matter if he goes forwards or backwards, and that, in a sense, in the world of language, no matter where you are, you're forever on page 181.
Moreover, the way the passage begins in the middle of a sentence with a partial reference to Edmond Jabes foregrounds the idea that, in terms of books and language, we cannot get the complete picture, but are always "in media res". On the literal level, when reading we are always learning the letter directly in front of us and unlearning the letter that came before. Books happen in time. Hence, there is "a passage" but no departure or arrival, no real beginning or end, just a field of words and books we are traveling through.
On the level of "meaning," there is a passage we must pay for this passage, and its amount is suggested by both the book's physical wounds and its allusion to Jabes: "Mark the first page of a book with a red ribbon, for the wound is inscribed at its beginning." Reference leads to reference leads to reference and so on, so that all boundaries, all starting and stopping points are false, arbitrarily cutting the chain, leaving the first and last ones dangling, incomplete, bleeding, slowly draining the "whole" body of the text.
A few parting ruminations on the book's shape and use. Cuneiform, the letters used in ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian writing, means wedge-shaped. Wedges are used to drive things that go together apart; they upset the apple cart. A colter is a wedge-shaped blade on a plow that cuts the soil; if it were cutting into and turning over words it could be called culture. An axe wounds.
Spin 1. To draw out and twist fibers into thread. 2. To relate imaginatively. 3. A state of mental confusion 4. The flight condition of an aircraft in a spiraling, stalled descent.
Susan Bee's new book, Talespin, consists of collaged images taken in part from popular magazines of the 1880's and texts taken mainly from children's books and drawing manuals. These materials were printed offset in black and then hand-colored to produce a series of melodramatic tableaus which twist into a "bildungsroman—a spiritual, educational journey." This journey is a bleak one: loss of innocence and nature, submission of joy to labor, deepening isolation and anger, domestic violence, enslavement, death, all covered over by decorum, seems the norm for this coming-of-age story. That characters swoon, appear agitated and confused; that prosperous and proper lives seem plunged into a nosedive; that the book focuses a feminist light on the domestic arena, all serve to make its title more fitting.
Yet, despite the dark spin put on its subject, the book has a buoyant feel. To begin with, the bright watercolors that wash over the book's black structure foregrounds the artist's freedom over her material. Although many of the book's characters lose the ability to play, the book does not. Secondly, the book delights in appropriating juicy images and texts and exploding the narratives implied by these materials. A bildungsroman about bildungsromans, a primer about primers, Talespin is as much about unmasking the stories, arguments, and mixed messages which cloak experience as about experience itself. In short, growing up is the messy process of decoding stories about growing up.
The book's methods of decoding are basic. Each tableau is designed as facing pages, and often these two pages challenge each other. For example, on the right hand, a mother and son sit before a window playing with alphabet blocks. Through the window is a beautiful skyline. This conventional image of happy childhood is undercut by the one on the left of a hand-held, larger-than-life sixshooter pointing at a hobby-horse. Perhaps the message here is simply that peaceful, "family" activities are being threatened by a society obsessed with violence. Or perhaps it's not only that the image of the toddler and mother at play, protected from an outside world that figures only as idealized skyline, is threatened by the gun, but that the gun is the means by which the home is controlled, owned and protected from other guns. The ABC's of civilization learned at gunpoint. Play as compulsory acculturation. Childhood as hard labor in service of the system.
Another tactic is to lei images turn an otherwise innocent text into something problematic or sinister. Thus, on one page a children's poem talks about going for a long walk to a cool stream in a green meadow where everyone can drink their fill. A visual stream of freedom flows from this text, meandering across the page, only to run into a woman painting at her easel, copying but removed from the landscape, and a child sitting in a sofa, the place where she presumably heard the jingle. She has her outdoor experiences indoors, in a controlled environment. Moreover, as if the girl were mother of the woman, the woman's painting, since its portrayal is smaller in scale and less central on the page, derives from the girl's dolls and rhymes. Here, the message is Janus-faced: while preserving the dream of freedom and fulfillment, culture may actually serve to deepen a person's bondage and diminishment. Is this a Talespin, Susan Bee true flowering or has this vital force become mere ornament, something to be cut and put in a vase.
That the issue for Bee is about control over these cultural stories is made clear on the page where a boy sits before a wondrous assemblage of cogs and wheels. Underneath is the following jingle:
Oh! where are the merry, merry Little Men
To join us in our play?
And where are the busy, busy Little Men
To help us work to-day?
Opposite this piece of socializing propaganda is an ambiguous silhouette: are the two children dancing or is one whipping the other? Below this scene, three puns are illustrated: a diamond ring rings; a penpoint points; and a dish mop mops. The initial joy in the silliness of the verbal play gives way to the sad realization that in all three cases, this joy is being used in the service of "productivity". Ringing calls to mind alarm clocks and church bells. Pointing is usually an act of management and control. Mopping, of course, is a domestic chore. Thus, all stories or words, no matter how ebullient and wondrous their origins, can be put to work. The question then is always, for whom?
The book's visual echoes can be complex. On the first page a woman stands inside a rectangle floating out in space, several planets removed from the sun. A huge hummingbird with a long, sword-like beak, seems to be closing in on her. This picture of utter isolation and vulnerability is refigured to make a tactical observation about power struggles. Later in the book, two women are fighting in a rectangular area while, on the opposite page, quite unnoticed by the two women, a beekeeper makes off with the hive and its honey. He is wearing such thoroughgoing armor that he appears faceless. Perhaps the visual metaphor here is that, while isolating victims from each other is excellent protection for the oppressor, the best is putting them together and having them fight.
When juxtaposing or refiguring won't do, Bee denatures a known image so we can see it anew. Near the book's end, the tableau of a mother and her three children sitting together is made strange by the brightly colored, highly-stylized, non-western images surrounding it. The rusting, industrial northeast mutates into rain forest. Here, the abstract flora crowning the mother's head, calling to mind the flower growing out of the girl's head on the title page, is what is "on her mind", what she is explaining to her children. Perhaps this is Talespin's aim:
that, grim as much of the book's material is, the process of exposing these deadly, official versions of growing up creates room for more vital ones. In light of this, the earlier image of the mother urging her daughter to light a match to the sugary images of a boy and a girl signifies not the loss of innocence but freedom from stultification.
1. Granary's press release for Epping's book
3. Maria Porges, Buzz Spector, Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1990. (A pamphlet giving an overview of Specter's work for his show in the New California Artist series.)
5. Buzz Spector, A Passage, Granary Books, 1994.
7. Susan Bee, Why A Book is Not a Painting, The Journal of Artists' Books, Spring 1995.
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