Most of us concentrate on that we can see, that which is there. Our eyes focus on the positive space first and foremost, rarely the negative. It seems the only time we consider absence solely is when one feels particularly existential, or perhaps because it is the lynchpin to a campy movie (air rights, Burlesque). Michelle Ray reckons with the void in The Cave Protection Act of 2013 and attends to the negative space. Inspired by the destruction of a mining town swallowed by sinkholes, she uses contradiction, sardonic humor, and repeated imagery to understand the seemingly irrational idea of guarding nothingness.
The outer case of the book introduces what will be a recurrent design motif: a basic contour drawing of a house of varying sizes, repeated and stacked. The way they are organized almost seems as if the largest house’s “head” is full of these mini versions of itself. Another reappearing treatment presented here is how these houses are laser cut into the plain board; one has to tilt the case in order to see the subtle lines, which also occurs on some of the book’s pages as well. Upon opening, we find an orange case (another protective layer) with the title written on top. Inside this is our main booklet, which has tabs and can partially unfold accordion-style. Side one is clearly shown because the words “Section 1” are visible, while the other side has “Section 4,” and the viewer must flip over to get to the second half of the booklet. It is bound with thread, the pages an unbleached beige tone with light green margin line, a nod to notebooks or even old penmanship pages.
Opening the first tab, we find the words “In order to dig for diamonds, you have to strip away the earth.” This prologue evocatively tells us we are dealing with the aftermath of mining, a violent scarring of nature. As the reader turns each tab, the text or designs switch from vertical to horizontal, a disorienting tactic that adds to the unsettling contents within. The second real tab is Section 1; it has purposefully obtuse, conflicting legal definitions of what a cave is, along with more informal language (“hiding space for weapons, unsent love letters; gloryhole”). Additionally, there is text that discusses erasure in nature with the suggestive and conceptually dense line, “Forgetting is the same as having known but not knowing.” While this book is supposed to be about a cave protection act, these interspersed lines indicate what the subject really is: the seductive qualities of voids and emptiness. The stark houses pepper the pages again, this time outlined in orange; their hollowness emphasizes our immersion in absence.
Flipping to the following tab, the reader knows what is next to read because the text’s orientation is similar to the preceding flap. In contrast, the opposite page switches positioning, forcing the viewer to move the booklet to resume. In the first page, the definitions continue with “commercial caves” (inhabited by people and therefore unnatural) and “wild caves.” The audience is then given an analogy that is deliberately confusing and incongruous: “There: that:: not her home.” Who is she? Why is she gendered? This is not the last time a person mentioned is described as female; perhaps it is a reference to how spaces are gendered, like homes (domestic) and caves (nature).
Now that the definitions have been dispatched with, one turns the booklet to arrive at what has merely been insinuated—how the caves came to be. Sinkholes materialized in Centralia, Pennsylvania, due to mine fires deep below. As if to stress this manmade disaster, there is a geometric line drawing of a sinkhole next to one of the houses.
Each section contends with different aspects of these unnaturally created cavities. In Section 2, we get liability, along with faint green text that states, “The cave should pose a question rather than an answer.” Like many successful artworks, this book recognizes that art is a problem, not a solution, finding a like-minded subject in the inherent paradox of protecting absence. This text forces the reader to consider what sorts of issues arise from emptiness, such as how do we value something we cannot see? Moving forward, Section 3 deals with illegal acts in caves, along with a cut-out hole on the page; this is the midpoint in the book, indicating it must be turned over and begun from the other side. But first, the viewer reads words inside this paper pit; it is expressive and recounts slipping into the ground. The open wound in the book is perfectly placed as if the text had fallen into a constructed hole.
The opposite side of the fold brings the audience to the second half of the book, which unlike the first, goes from largest tab to smallest. The geometric spirals have returned, along with an elaboration of being trapped in the ground. The reader also discovers this poignant sentence: “The observant Jew buries her book once it has come to the end of its useful life because the past speaks a foreign language.” Absences and memory are intertwined: in this instance, the memory of a town that disappeared with only voids lingering as evidence. This is a poetic way to consider how memory can be fragmented and lack whole sections, requiring attempts to piece together or fill in what happened.
In further sections, Ray resumes mixing legalese with stream of consciousness (“No dumping of the dead.” with “Turn down your music. I’m trying to sleep.”), and this form of communication feels both psychological and dreamlike. The “sleep” mentioned here is another nod at memory, indicated with green writing underneath calling for “contemplation” in the cave. We must thoughtfully consider the past in the hopes of lessening the void, physically and philosophically.
Overall, the back-and-forth of obfuscation and disagreement are as much of the design of the book as are the reiterated imagery of homes devoured and frantically repeated. These inconsistent ideas speak to the absurd subject of the book, and Ray ends her piece with burned spirals and lines, shooting out from the holes in the paper. With this, we see something comes from nothing, a final, fitting contradiction.