Category Archives: collage

he do the police in different voices

the cover of womans worldIn a sense, Graham Rawle‘s novel Woman’s World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women’s magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it’s novelty, and Rawle’s work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here’s one chosen at random:

I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle’s work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it’s constructed from women’s magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle’s book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman’s World? Rawle’s raw materials suggest his subject matter: it’s a novel about clothes, specifically women’s clothes. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women’s words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women’s clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec’s use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec’s technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel’s themes of disappearance and loss as Perec’s method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It’s worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It’s only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word “realising”, where the American spelling “realizing” has been changed to the British “realising” by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It’s hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes’s book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected “Sarrasine” into 561 narrative units he called “lexias” in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac’s story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes’s notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – “Sarrasine” feels like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle’s text. There’s at least a faint family resemblance:

p. 307 of womans worlda scan of p. 251 of s/z by roland barthes in the translation of richard miller
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in “Sarrasine”, there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman’s World. At one level, there is the story – a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there’s the presentation. This is something that’s hard to precisely pin down, but it’s best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle’s story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle’s p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):

p. 307 of womans worlda retypeset version of the same thing

Something is lost in my translation, though most don’t have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle’s version has a front-loaded stress (“HE looked at her”) that isn’t apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it’s cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to “and just then found,” a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle’s part.
On a third level, there’s the apparent history of Rawle’s bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle’s text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn’t always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren’t always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle’s language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it’s no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn’t need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie’s idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway’s rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle’s novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It’s worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I’m writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you’ll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that’s a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn’t start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it’s still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle’s pages.
Could an electronic Woman’s World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson’s idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it’s not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson’s appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There’s a way to go yet.

textual montage: the documentary biography

There’s something about the work of Herman Melville that brings out the unexpected in his readers. Example can be drawn almost at random. Call Me Ishmael, the poet Charles Olson’s lyrical little book on Moby-Dick, is as much a meditation on patrimony, artistic and otherwise, as it is about Melville. When the U. S. government locked him up at Ellis Island, the Trinidadian socialist C. L. R. James took the opportunity to move into literary criticism, writing Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, in which he found Melville a sympathetic audience for his argument against state capitalism. Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are, created semi-pornographic illustrations for an edition of Pierre, Melville’s little-known novel about incest and doubt. Claire Denis turned the comparatively staid Billy Budd into Beau Travail, a sun-dazed film about the French Foreign Legion that culminates in one of the most desparate dance numbers ever. Paul Metcalf, Melville’s great-grandson, smashed together Columbus, teratology, the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping & murder of 1953, and his family’s misgivings about their ancestor to form Genoa, a collage novel.

I set off to write about Metcalf and his unclassifiable books – most of them textual collages made of appropriated writing. Metcalf’s writing is perhaps worth paying attention to in light of electronic media, thoughhere’s precious little about him on the Internet (an interview, an obituary). Thinking about Metcalf’s work, however, I found myself sidetracked: when asked about the inspirations for his textual collages, he pointed to another work on Melville, Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log. I’ll return to Metcalf some other time; he’s not going anywhere.
The Melville Log, though. This is a book that might be just as weird as anything else that Melville ever inspired. It’s also instructive for thinking about how composition in the age of the ubiquitous archive could work. First, a bit of backstory: though Melville was prominent early in his career, he’d faded entirely from the American consciousness by 1920, when Billy Budd was discovered and Moby-Dick was discovered to be the Great American Novel of the nineteenth century. Literary scholars went to work scrutinizing Melville’s life and work; Jay Leyda arrived on the scene in the 1940s, having missed the main boom, but being a big part of a post-war boomlet. In 1951, after years of work, he published The Melville Log, a compilation of first-hand sources about Melville’s life and work. In the half-century since, it’s become a foundational text for anyone seeking to learn about Melville’s life.
I knew that much – just about anyone who’s read Melville has heard of The Melville Log – but I’d never bothered to actually look at a copy of Leyda’s book. From that description, it doesn’t sound interesting. But I found a cheap used copy on Amazon & ordered it; a week later, it turned up on my door. From the dedication, it became clear that this wasn’t the book I’d assumed it was:

This book was begun as a birthday present
for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein.

the young jay leydaJay Leyda, it turns out, wasn’t just a literary historian; in fact, he’s best known as a film historian, a field in which he played a foundational role. He had, it seems clear, an interesting life. Considering an career as a filmmaker, Leyda went to Moscow in the 1930s to study film with Eisenstein, the only American to do so; he seems to have worked on Bezhin Meadow as a stills photographer. Returning to the U.S., he served as an advisor to Mission to Moscow, a propaganda film designed to shore up American support for the Soviet Union during WWII (a film later to be soundly denounced as evidence of Hollywood’s un-Americanism). From there he went on to write his Melville book; he also wrote biographies of Emily Dickinson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as a substantial amount of film criticism on Soviet and Chinese films.
What’s the importance of this to his book on Melville? If Leyda learned anything from Eisenstein, it was the value of montage, putting adjacent shots into juxtaposition to create new meaning. Leyda explained what he was doing in his introduction:

The result is a book made of documents, documents of many kinds and from many sources, written by many men and women (and some children); but documents cannot be accepted unconditionally. A ‘document’ should be distrusted as much as a photograph, for documents are a fallible as their human authors. Letters contained as many falsehoods and misunderstandings in 1851 as they do in 1951, and journalists and critics (and typesetters) of a century ago operated under much the same pressures that they do today. Each document quoted here requires some judgment of its author’s motives and character – although perhaps the First Mates who kept the whaling logs may be thought beyond suspicion.

(p. xii.) A few scanned spreads from the book give a feeling for its contents, how it juxtaposes bits and pieces of letters, business documents, journals, and Melville’s work, using time – the march of years from Melville’s birth to his death – as its central axis. Essentially, it’s Eisenstein’s montage, moved from the world of film into that of books, with not a little of what would subsequently be called multimedia. Click to enlarge:
spread: pages 110-111 of the melville log by jay leyda
spread: pages 314-315 of the melville log by jay leyda
spread: pages 482-483 of the melville log by jay leyda
For a book that might be thought of as a biography, there seems to be very little of the biographer: only the unobtrusive introduction to each entry is in Leyda’s hand. (Tucked away at the back of the book, of course, is an enormous list of the sources of quotation.) But lack of the author’s words doesn’t signify the author’s lack of intention. Here’s Eisenstein explaining montage in Film Form, translated by Leyda: “By combining these monstrous incongruities we newly collect the disintegrated event into one whole, but in our aspect.” Leyda, in his own introduction, winks at this: clearly, he’s one of “the First Mates who kept the whaling logs” who would wish to be thought beyond suspicion.
There’s a very interesting reading of Leyda’s collage-work – and the way collage works – in Clare L. Spark‘s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, a thorough dissection of the forces that made Melville into the Melville we think we understand. Melville’s life is a challenge for the prospective biographer: there’s not the usual plot arc or easy moral to be drawn from it, though that hasn’t stopped people from trying to do so: a Great American Novelist needs to behave properly. According to Spark:

Leyda arranged his chronology of Melville’s hitherto confusing or mysterious life to track a progression from Ahab’s family-splitting bourgeois individualism to Billy Budd’s socially responsible sacrifice on behalf of family unity and order, ordering Melville in the process. Every detail of The Melville Log was designed to fortify that message.

(pp. 10–11.) Spark has harsher words for Leyda in her chapter on his work: she sees him as a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist and details the ways in which suppresses and misrepresents information in the guise of presenting the unvarnished truth. If you’re interested in Melville or twentieth-century American propaganda – from both the right and the left – hers is a fascinating book and well worth seeking out.

*     *     *     *     *

But let’s return from the depths of Melville criticism. If, as Spark argues, The Melville Log presents a subjective view of Melville to his readers, it’s only able to do so because Leyda knew that only a miniscule fraction of those who read his book would be able or have the inclination to consult the original documents that he was quoting, the majority of which weren’t publicly accessible.
A thought experiment: what happens if, thanks to book-scanning projects, all those sources were publicly accessible?(The University of Connecticut’s Olson collection might be seen as a start.) Having everything available doesn’t obviate the need for projects like Leyda’s; we need editors to sort through the chaff and to point out the things that are interesting. A born-digital project like this could be instantly accountable in a way that it would be difficult for a print version to be: a link could take the reader from the quotation to the quoted document. Going further: a reader who’s dissatisfied with the slant of a digital Melville Log could assemble their own alternate version.
Technically, this isn’t difficult. But the tools to do this don’t seem to exist yet; and supporting this sort of ecosystem of research doesn’t seem to be an immediate priority for those compiling archives.

on appropriation

The Tate Triennial 2006, showcasing new British Art, brings together thirty-six artists who explore the reuse and reshaping of cultural material. Curated by Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle in Zurich, the exhibition includes artists from different generations who explore reprocessing and repetition through painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, installations and live work.


Marc Camille Chaimowicz
Here and There… 1979-2006

Historically, the appropriation of images and other cultural matter has been practiced by societies as the reiteration, reshuffling, and eventual transformation of artistic and intellectual human manifestations. It covers a vast range from tribute to pastiche. When visual codes are combined, the end product is either a cohesive whole where influences connect into new and very personal languages, or disparate combinations where influences compete and clash. In today’s art, the different guises of repetition, from collage and montage to file sharing and digital reproduction highlight the existing codes or reveal the artificiality of the object. Today’s combination of codes alludes to a collective sense of memory in a moment when memories have become literally photographic.
One comes out of this exhibition thinking about Duchamp‘s “readymades,” Rauschenberg’s “combines,” and other forms of conceptual “gluing,” (the literal meaning of the word “collage,”) as precursors and/or manifestations of the postmodern condition. This show is a perfect representation of our moment. As Beatrix Ruf says in the catalogue: “Artists today are forging new ways of making sense of reality, reworking ideas of authenticity, directness and social relevance, looking again into art practices that emerged in the previous century.”

monk tate.jpg

Jonathan Monk
Twelve Angry Women, 2005

We have artists like Michael Fullerton, who paints contemporary figures in the style of Gainsborough, or Luke Fowler‘s use of archive material to explore the history of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Repetition goes beyond inter-referentiality in the work of Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who combines works he made in the 70s with projected images of himself as a young man and as an adult, within a space where a vase of flowers set on a Marcel Breuer’ table and a pendulum swinging back and forth position the images of the past solidly in the present. In “Twelve Angry Women,” Jonathan Monk affixes to the wall twelve found drawings by an unknown artist from the 20s, using different colored pins that work as earrings. Mark Leckey uses Jeff Koons’ silver bunny as a mirror into his studio in the way 17th century masters painted theirs. Liam Gillick creates sculptures of hanging texts made out of factory signage.
Art itself is cumulative. Different generations build upon previous ones in a game of action and reaction. One interesting development in art today is the collective. Groups of artists coming together in couples, teams, or cyberspace communities, sometimes under the identity of a single person, sometimes a single person assuming a multiple identity. Collectives seem to be a new phenomenon, but their roots go back to the concept of workshops in antiquity where artistic collaboration and copying from casts of sculptural masterpieces was the norm. The notion of the individual artist producing radically new and original art belongs to modernity. The return to collectives in the second part of the 20th century, and again now, has a lot to do with the nature of representation, with the desire to go beyond the limits of artistic mimesis or individual interpretation.

gillick tate.jpg

Liam Gillick
Övningskörning (Driving Practice), 2004

On the other hand, appropriation as a form of artistic expression is a postmodern phenomenon. Appropriation is the language of today. Never before the advent of the Internet had people appropriated knowledge, spaces, concepts, and images as we do today. To cite, to copy, to remix, to modify are part of our everyday communication. The difference between appropriation in the 70s and 80s and today resides in the historical moment. As Jean Verwoert says in the Triennial 2006 catalogue:

The standstill of history at the height of the Cold War had, in a sense, collapsed the temporal axis and narrowed the historical horizon to the timeless presence of material culture, a presence that was exacerbated by the imminent prospect that the bomb could wipe everything out at any time. To appropriate the fetishes of material culture, then, is like looting empty shops at the eve of destruction. It is the final party before doomsday. Today, on the contrary, the temporal axis has sprung up again, but this time a whole series of temporal axes cross global space at irregular intervals. Historical time is again of the essence, but this historical time is not the linear or unified timeline of steady progress imagined by modernity: it is a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities born from the local conflicts that the unresolved predicaments of the modern regimes still produce.

Today, the challenge is to rethink the meaning of appropriation in a moment when capitalist commodity culture has become the determinant of our daily lives. The Internet is perhaps our potential Utopia (though “dystopian” seems to be the adjective of choice now.) But, can it be called upon to fulfill the unfulfilled promises of 20th century’s utopias? To appropriate is to resist the notion of ownership, to appropriate the products of today’s culture is to expose the unresolved questions of a world shaped by the information era. The disparities between those who are entering the technology era and those forced to stay in the times of early industrialization are more pronounced than ever. As opposed to the Cold War, where history was at a standstill, we live in a time of extreme historicity. Permanence is constantly challenged, how to grasp it all continues to be the elusive task.