Archive | A Prudent Pick

Woody Leslie – Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography appears to be a textbook, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. In fact, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-­narrative fiction created by Woody Leslie. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start. The book opens with a fictional title page that is also a true colophon. The book’s publisher is listed as Leslie’s own imprint, One Page Productions, and the title page accurately states that the book was printed at the Center for Book and Paper & Print Arts. However, the ISBN number and information regarding bulk purchases are fiction (sort of, the phone number listed is Leslie’s cell). Blurry, indeed.

The book’s appearance helps sell the deception. Offset printed, case­bound and covered in a standard dark blue book cloth with gold foil text, it appears to be a specialized text for a limited audience. Even its smallest details like the blue and white headbands and goldenrod endsheets help the book look more like an academic or trade publication than an artists’ book. At a comfortable 4 x 6 inches, it is presented as a primer for the lay reader rather than an exhaustive academic textbook ­ a premise which allows Leslie to cover a lot of content and to do so in a humorous way.

Before digging into the book as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s­1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of Molecular Typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard non­fiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Absurdity abounds in both content and presentation, from the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) to the profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

In other places, a more direct humor erodes the book’s scientistic pretensions. In his author bio, H.F. Henderson is credited for his book, English is Easy, and So’s Your Mom. Rather than a dead give away though, this title also references the silly, often pun­-based names academics rely on to get their writing published. The bibliography also sports titles like “Stay Positive: The Ramifications of Charged Language.” Another source of humor are the intellectual acrobatics used to explain certain characteristics of type. The scientistic authoritativeness of Henderson’s explanations in combination with their utter incompatibility with the reality of type design is especially entertaining to the reader who is versed in the history of type or writing systems. Like a creation myth, these explanations have a naive charm and an admirable internal logic in and of themselves, but are made more enjoyable by their relation to type design, linguistics, chemistry, and other actual disciplines. The following passage epitomizes this humor and bridges the gap to a discussion of the philosophical inquiries behind the book.

“Also note that the segregation of ‘serif’ and ‘sans serif’ isotopes is a human intervention, essentially a curation of selected bonding types, albeit unconsciously on a chemical level, based on aesthetic choices. Uncurated by the design conscious minds of humans, typtoms would likely bind [willy­nilly]. The effect of human language on typtoms is a long, complicated history, one we were largely ignorant of until the 1960s (consult Anderson, 1988 and Norbert 1974).”

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co­opted scientific publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Like many artists’ books, the problems posed might be familiar to readers of Wittgenstein, Chomsky or Derrida. It should be clear from the descriptions above that the book is nevertheless not only accessible, but enjoyable. These implications are never didactic. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader.

If a word’s meaning changes depending on the word that follows, does a word mean anything on its own? Are there ideas that cannot be expressed through words? If we understand the world only through language, are there limits to our understanding? Can we ever know precisely what someone means when they speak or write? Understanding Molecular Typography is not just for book artists, letterpress printers or designers, though those of us who are will no doubt find it especially enjoyable. It is humorous and thought­provoking on many levels, and takes itself only as seriously as it needs to. One can only hope Leslie eventually produces the many books and articles listed in the bibliography.

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Sue Carrie Drummond – Vestige

Vestige by Sue Carrie Drummond is an offset printed bound concertina that examines the artist’s relationship to clothing she has kept for sentimental reasons. The book is printed monochrome in a rich, warm brown. The darkest browns are in the sizable negative spaces, while text and imagery are knocked out to varying degrees of lightness. On warm off-white paper, even the brightest elements feel soft and delicate. The limited palette and minimalistic images make Vestige cohesive and immersive.

Vestige is driven by its text; lyrical prose written in first person. Via worn out articles of clothing, the narrative covers the writer’s relationship with her father, mother, friends and lovers. The book culminates with one romantic relationship, but the earlier ones help introduce the narrator and provide the context for that relationship. The narrator’s relationship with her parents seems to foreshadow and impact her romantic life, but is interesting and relatable in its own right. More than any specific relationship, Vestige is about the narrator’s way of relating to her own past and the people who shaped it.

Text and image are sparse. Meaning is found in subtlety: pacing, composition and juxtaposition of text and image. Passages employ metonymy and double entendre to slow down the reader, complicate the narrative, and reconcile the book’s lyrical delicacy with its charged confessional content.

One such page reads,

“We drifted for miles / while I adapted to their fit, / breaking them in.”

Pertaining to hand-me-down clothes as well as ex-lovers, the double reading is reinforced by the background imagery, which has transitioned from the fabrics of old clothing to what appear to be bed sheets. As the metonymy becomes more obvious in these middle pages, the reader is encouraged to reread the more ambiguous beginning of the book, which now takes on new depth.

Structural and compositional clues help readers navigate these ambiguities without resolving them, which would rob the book of its richness. Pages without text serve as transitions between trains of thought. The result is a book with three loosely demarcated sections and a conclusion, all of which blend fluidly together. As one reads, the book is unified and the narrative progresses naturally in chronological order. On a second reading, one begins to note correlations between text and image, pacing and composition, which signal shifts in tone and subject. For example, in the opening section of the book the images of a sweater hem stretch the full width of each spread and the text sits just above this horizon line. These compositions feel stable, calm and strong; the narrator talks about her parents. As the book continues into the tension and confusion of romantic relationships, the text sinks to the bottom of the page and the images are angular and unstable. Even the relative sharpness or softness of the imagery fluctuates throughout the book and influences how the text reads.

The book’s strength is in the way that gradual shifts in mood and increasingly loaded figurative language effectively expand the narrative. This gradual departure from the literal requires a reappraisal of what has already been read, and poses multiple readings of the content to come. In this way familiar symbols, like clothing and domestic spaces, elicit explorations of deep psychological territory like memory, relationships, and the body. The depth of these topics transcend the narrator’s specificity, which allows readers to contemplate their own relationship with the past, and the objects and places that define it. Vestige encourages introspection, but also empathy.

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Pamela Olson – Circular Logic

Circular Logic draws from company circulars from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) archive at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Specifically, the book presents an account of terminated employees and the reasons they were fired. Olson makes a number of choices that reinforce the book’s relationship with the archive that inspired it, which ultimately positions the book as commentary on the concept of the archive as well as the particular content. Even the book’s housing in a trifold portfolio straddles the vocabulary of books arts and conversation. The paper has the look and feel of aged newsprint, and the typography and imagery have their roots in the 19th century. Additionally, a number of indexical elements point to the railroad, including a rail map that also serves to unify the book and its cloth covered portfolio enclosure.

Circular Logic is a pocket sized codex. The cover is letterpress printed with a CB&Q Railroad map on heavy cover stock and the text block is attached only to the back cover. This allows the viewer to open the book completely flat and also to appreciate that the link stitch sewing was done across tapes printed with the same map as the cover. The next surprise is that each recto folds out to create a three page spread. The initial spread shows an employee’s name on the verso and their job title on the recto. The second action, unfolding the right hand page, reveals a portrait of the employee in what is now the center of a three page spread with the reason they were fired on the far right.

Through this structure, the reader is anachronistically implicated in the employee’s termination. Hidden behind the folded page, the employee is in limbo like Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead, simultaneously employed and terminated. Only when the reader turns the page to view the portrait is the employee fired. The temporal confusion recalls Barthe’s observation that in film (but also artists’ books which are sequential), images operate in the future perfect tense; they simultaneously have-been and are-yet-to-be. However, unlike in film, the reader of Circular Logic determines when the yet-to-be is enacted. Perhaps knowing that the subject is already deceased lessens the burden of firing them. The result is a sort of game theory, driven by the reader’s curiosity and a sense of schadenfreude, which is strengthened by the comically quaint rationale for many of the terminations.

The book’s three-page spreads, each with a portrait in the center, resemble an altar or the kind of hinged triptych photo frames reserved for the nicest family photos. Either reference lends the book a quality of intimacy and remembrance. Formally, the three page spread also creates enough white space to balance the weight of the subject’s silhouette. The left and right pages have no more than a couple words, printed in small type, against stark expanses of white space. What these spreads lack in narrative, they make up for in spacial composition.

The minimal text, quoted directly from the company circulars, thus seems all the more matter of fact and impersonal. The type is set in Bulmer, which makes sense historically; perhaps it is the exact face used in the original circulars. The typography, in terms of size and typeface, certainly adds to the bureaucratic sensibility. As a narrative text, Circular Logic is unusual, introducing each character at the same plot point: their immanent termination. The characters exist parallel to one another, tragic figures connected only through their misfortune, destined not to interact. Even their names have been altered, which heightens the bureaucratic aesthetic. The reader is challenged to sympathize with subjects whose identities are obfuscated at every turn.

The flat silhouettes divulge mostly hair style and head shape and do little to lessen this challenge. The portraits are printed from photopolymer plates exposed using hand cut rubylith stencils. The images are derived from anonymous photographs from the same era, and the image making process also seems to recall the paper silhouette portraits that proliferated around the turn of the nineteenth century. Combined with the altered names, the anonymity of the silhouettes reinforces the idea that the subjects’ identities are being withheld to protect them, whether out of compassion or bureaucratic best practices. Behind either rationale is a tinge of comic absurdity given the book’s obscure subjects, small edition size, and artistic intent.

Given the historically appropriate typography and imagery, it is from the design decisions and details surrounding the imagery that the book’s artistic license emerges. The silhouettes are printed in brown, matching the title and inside text as well as the cloth cover on the book’s enclosure. Each silhouette is situated in a rectangular frame, the same on each spread, which is printed in the same golden yellow as the route map on the cover and spine. The yellow frames are surrounded by a brown ornamental border; a simple pattern of hatch marks. This pattern is a ubiquitous letterpress border, but in this context it reads perfectly as a railroad track. The presentation of each portrait unifies each spread with one another and with the book as a whole.

This unifying function is one way Circular Logic interrogates the concept of the archive as well as the specific content of the CQ&B Railroad. The reader receives an orderly presentation of certain data, which looks and feels like an archive but may have little in common with its actual source. As Olson explained at a recent panel discussion in Chicago, Circular Logic grew out of her own time working with the CQ&B archive at the Newberry Library. The book is not a simple representation of the original archive, but is the product of reading, editing, and reproduction, which are all creative acts. Decisions like withholding the subject’s real names and obscuring their identities, the book both uphold certain scholarly conventions (even to an absurd degree), and simultaneously question the archive as a source of truth and objectivity. Olson activates the archive and then invites her readers to do the same.

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Macy Chadwick – Cell Memory

Rachel Fredericks

This essay originally appeared in a catalog produced by Kitty Maryatt’s Fall 2014 Core III class (all sophomores) at Scripps College for the exhibition titled CBAA Members’ Exhibition, in the Clark Humanities Museum, shown January 7 to February 17, 2015.


Many people base their identities on the kind of thinking they use, which leads them to the kind of subjects they’re interested in. For example, someone who thinks very logically and who likes to problem-solve might see herself becoming an engineer or a scientist, and one who is more interested in picking out the beauty in words and the world in general might become a poet. Of course, there is beauty in science and logic to poetry, but not many people realize the extent to which all the disciplines really inform and support one another. Macy Chadwick addresses this disconnect in her artist book Cell Memory, which presents an ethereal, artistic version of a cell with translucent pages of poetry and pages reminiscent of actual cell parts. The book is meant not only to call to mind a cell itself, but also that of which cells are capable.

The book is only about three by four inches when closed, plus it is comprised of thin, translucent paper, so it requires delicate handling. It comes in a round, thin case made of the same kind of paper, in which it is possible to see some stringy fabric and another piece of paper with the book’s basic information on it. This establishes the book as something to be protected, or even revered. There are multiple patterns printed on the pages, all with abstract images and organic colors. The pages’ translucency allows for the images to slightly show through to surrounding pages, which lends itself to a sense of connectedness throughout the book. Usually artists get to make each page its own entity, but each page in this book necessarily affects the next. The pages are also different sizes and have differently shaped edges, which combines with the patterns to make each seem like a different part of the cell body. This literal connectedness finds a parallel in and is explained by the text itself, a poem with a few lines per page.

The poetry addresses the idea that cells can hold memories. This is not in specific, informational ways but likely in a manner similar to muscle memory, in which bodies automatically move in a certain way because of how habits have been ingrained in them. Cell memory, as Chadwick presents it, seems to include the relatively short history that might have occurred within one cell as it existed in the larger form of which it was a part, but also the possible ways the cell could exist as well. Chadwick writes of the cell’s possibilities in a few lines:

in the core/ of ourselves/ the cells remember/ Past and potential.

Since cells have the potential to participate in so many organic functions and entities, each cell and cell part resonates with a sense of etherealness, the ability to transcend the present and become a part of something significant. Of course, a side effect of this is the cell’s transformation into something significant all on its own, simply because of its potential. Chadwick certainly makes it clear that the cell is something to be appreciated, even revered. The book even comes in a thin translucent case that adds to its importance.

It is important to note that Chadwick focuses on memory instead of just potential, even though imagining that cells have memories is a much more abstract concept. She even includes the line in the core of ourselves the cells remember twice, emphasizing both the cells’ ephemeral nature and their timelessness by calling to mind their smallness and their relevance as units which form the foundations for human beings. The lines

Centrioles like tiny magnets/ tugging at all/ that cannot be recalled
further reinforce this dichotomous existence; they acknowledge that cells are not able to hold declarative information but that every part in a cell is so connected with each other and with the cell as a whole that it automatically has a sense of its history. In other words, cells’ mobility and relative transience contrasts with their role in life since life first began, so each cell might seem insignificant on its own but really reflects billions of years of history.

Johanna Drucker writes about books similar to Chadwick’s in her chapter on rare and auratic books in The Century of Artists’ Books. She brings up Barbara Fahrner’s books, which

“[extend] philosophical and poetic investigations of the book as a metaphor for the world.”

This description also adequately addresses Cell Memory, especially when she adds that Fahrner’s purpose is

“to give [the book] meaning and to give it a permanence which counteracts the transient inconsequentiality of the passage of time.”

Chadwick’s creation very surely achieves this as well, as one can see through the combination of all the elements of the book. It establishes itself as an auratic book through its translucent, small, colorful, and differently shaped pages and the inside poem’s reference to something much bigger than (but also exactly the size of) itself. It is the potential and memory that the book calls to mind, however, which really comprise the feel of the book when one views it.

Chadwick effectively brings together poetry and science in a way that artist books do so well, exploring the potential of a unit of life page by page and line by line. Again, there is a sense of connectedness created by the see-through pages and repeated imagery in the poem itself, and all elements work excellently together to achieve a general representation of both delicate transience and eternal strength.

Click here to purchase Cell Memory.

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