Curator as author as curator

While on leave from my program at the University of Toronto, I’m taking a course at the Node Center called the International Curator Program. Enjoying it very much. The first assignment in our first module (Key Moments in the History of Curating):

Choose an exhibition from your country (either birth or residence) that you consider expresses the notion of curator-as-author in the spirit of Szeemann.

Harald Szeemann’s Live in Your Head (1969) and Documenta 5 (1972) have come to exemplify curation as authorship. That’s when a curator treats their exhibition as a composite language of things and words and images in which to express a sensibility or chase an argument. To think about the curator as author, I chose three authors who’ve curated – specifically, a show at MOCA Toronto that moved and provoked me when I happened on it.

Age of You
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto
September 5, 2019 – January 5, 2020

1. The concept

Age of You, curated by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar, was a didactic exhibition, developing an argument about the fate of the self in the age of social media. The self has been made “extreme,” they proposed, by the connectivity and instantaneity of our new media environment, and this deracinated self only feels real when packaging itself for consumption by a crowd.

Whatever delight the curators might have felt at this astonishingly creative media moment was eclipsed by their sense that it’s controlled out of view by forces bent on quantifying our every experience and harvesting the data generated for profit. “Guess what this century’s most valuable resource is,” they ask. “It’s you – and all of your online behaviours, enriched data sets and millions of meta-data points.”

In this process, a large part of you is extracted from you, and now exists everywhere and nowhere, independently of your five senses. Are you really built for so much change so quickly? And what if individuality is in fact morphing into something else?

The exhibition, with work by seventy artists, designers, filmmakers, photographers, performers, and composers from around the world, was really a single sustained essay. The curators’ text described the situation, the artworks exemplified and critiqued it. Every artwork was subsumed, as several reviewers noted, to an overriding curatorial intent.

I assented to the exhibition’s thesis. I was impressed by how deftly it used works of art to advance an argument about culture. And I was disquieted by the submission of individual works to an overriding curatorial vision. The show was a translation into museum language of the curators’ forthcoming book, The Extreme Self, which I’m keen to read – and doubt I’ll have the same issues with. Am I more forgiving of top-down control when I see it in a book than when I meet it in an museum? Why?

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

2. The curator as author

(a) Book

The exhibition was maybe the most bookish I’ve ever seen. It consisted mostly of text and images interspersed on rec­tangular panels. Black text on white ground evoked printed pages – pages large enough to warrant the regard you usually give a painting. Hung from the ceiling to create ad hoc walls, the panels suggested a book that had exploded into architecture. Arrows marked a path through the chambers and passageways, implying a single correct reading order.

Installation view, Age of You, MOCA Toronto. Photo: Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Source: Pin-Up.

The design seemed to me a spatial translation of the act of immersing yourself in a book – a sort of immersion the show said is fast becoming impossible. Others found it more like scrolling through an Instagram feed. As a chimaera of different genres – printed page, hung painting, online feed – this show about the costs of the attention economy was aware of, and often witty about, how it deployed your attention.

(b) Writer

The show asked for more careful reading than wall text or a curatorial essay typically does. The text was intensely writerly, moving through degrees of irony, multiple standpoints, and shades of ambiguity to establish a fragmented, multiple, postmodern narrative voice. Strangely, reviewers I’m sure are more internet-savvy than I am – alert to tonal nuances of acronyms and emoticons – took all the statements at face value, and saw a more dogmatic, monolithic show than I did.

Text: Basar/Coupland/Obrist. Image: Peter Saville by Yoso Mouri, 2016.
From The Extreme Self (forthcoming). Source:

(c) Author function

The leveling treatment of text and image nicely mimicked the samey-sameness of social media and subsumed the various materials to a single vision you could call authorial. There was more top-down command than Harald Szeemann maybe ever exercised. In other ways, though, the exhibition disclosed the author to be what Michel Foucault calls an “author function.” The corporate (three-in-one) authorship, the narrative voice with its multiple standpoints and shifting ambiguous tones, dispersed authorship broadly, cast it everywhere and nowhere – much as social media, as the curators argue, disperses the extreme self.

Whatever concerns I had about the exhibition’s overbearing unity, the subtlety with which it mimicked, undermined, and sardonically WTF’d, in its form, method and materials, its terrifying invisible omnipresent subject, was a thing to behold.

The image up top: Installation view, Satoshi Fujiwara, Crowd Landscape. Photo by Tom Arban Photography, Inc. Though I’ve de-emphasized them here, the exhibition also had works that were less flat page, more rounded object.

A thing is the book of itself

A book offered to the eye alone is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. To meet a book on its own terms, you have to touch it, hold it, turn its pages. And yet the more a book is handled the faster it breaks down. That’s fine for a mass market paperback on your shelves, not so good for for old, fragile, or singular books your museum is tasked with preserving. It’s a general dilemma for museums: how do you reconcile two commitments – broad access, scrupulous conservation – when one seems intractable to the other? In the case of books, the answer that leaps to mind is digitization, and that’s where this piece begins. I should also say, I’m a beginner here, and the piece showcases my curiosity and my ignorance in about equal measure.

A Thing Is the Book of Itself

Exeter Book f. 123v. Note the runes four lines from the bottom
articulated by the punctus. The large gash is thought to have
been left by a hot poker or burning stick. Muir.

A couple of years ago I published a book of translations from Old English. It disappeared without a trace but never mind. Working with facsimiles of the Exeter Book, I had made new editions of the source poems. Though they were digital, those facsimiles opened my head to the materiality of the document bearing up the text. Mottled beige and cream of the parchment. Interlinear translations, folio numbers pencilled in, Exeter Cathedral’s stamp of institutional ownership and control. Little holes pricked by pins and big holes left by fire. I saw it all in facsimile. At times I felt I could touch the thing. I was drawn especially to the punctus, the only punctuation mark the scribe uses. It works as comma, full stop, paragraph break, section break, change of speaker and turn of thought. I call it material because its shape ⬩ a diamond the width of a nib ⬩ shows by its axis the angle the scribe held his pen at.

Exeter Book f. 123v, detail. S-rune, punctus, R-rune. Muir.

Made bold by remote access, I claimed more for the punctus than maybe I should have. I said its unsystematic use made the poems more heterodox and material, less doctrinal or otherworldly, than we had been led to think. I said scholars had suppressed material features of the poems in order to project their own Christian values onto them. I’m not now saying I was wrong – but there was something headlong about my argument that made it easier to shrug off. Facsimiles let me fly to conclusions I might otherwise have marked a path to others could walk. I did note that a facsimile is derivative, removed from what it simulates. Was the closeness I felt to the poems just an artefact of my practice?

The Exeter Book folios are out of my reach. I have instead good digital facsimiles on my laptop. I can’t smell them or touch them or study the texture of the vellum at an erasure mark under different lights. But to zoom in on a hair space between an insular n and i feels … intimate. Is that close, or distant, or both? I would not be the first translator to have built their relationship to the poems, into the poems.

Since publishing Unlikeness Is Us I’ve left my teaching job and returned to school to study the exhibition of books and printed matter. And that has me thinking more about the facsimile. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction of the artwork, insists that by abolishing the work’s uniqueness and remoteness, mechanical copying destroys its aura, a glamour which had surrounded it ever since art sprang from the thigh of ritual. “[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” he writes. “[R]eproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. (“Elle a chaud au cul”).
Norton Simon Museum.

Aura arises when an esteemed object, no matter how close objectively, remains, through our memory of its cult value and its ritual function, subjectively distant. One copy made by machine lessens the distance: though inwardly smaller, it eclipses its original by proximity to us. A multitude of copies, cheap and disposable, think Mona Lisa on a coffee mug, a transmigration Duchamp had great fun helping along, closes it the rest of the way.

But a century’s traffic in cheap weightless images, moving now at a speed and in an excess Benjamin could never have conceived, has not made ordinary people more free, as he said it should, and, far from raising a bulwark against fascism, as he also promised, it seems only to have greased its rails. His prophetic essay is far from the last word on aura – that’s how dialectics go – and there are approaches to the auratic object that have little to do with the levelling of mechanical or digital reproduction.

Esteem creates aura, aura enforces distance, distance enhances aura, aura demands esteem. It’s a feedback loop establishing an oppressive homeostasis. The secrecy and remove by which our museums and libraries esteem an object – its removal from the sight and touch of all but a few its gatekeepers allow in – can only enhance that object’s aura. What would happen to that aura if a revered singular object were, instead, unhidden, made more widely, more democratically, available? What would happen to the object itself? How would those who meet it change and be changed by it? What costs would an institution charged with protecting it have to accept or endure?

The problem in the present context: exhibition of books and printed matter. Books are made for physical handling, but most of the books institutions find worth holding are too old, fragile, or singular to be touched by just any hands. Only the gatekeepers – archivists, librarians, conservators, curators – and the scholars they admit may meet the object as it was made to be met.

Again, books are a technology for the cold storage of thought, and they must be acted on, their pages lifted and turned, in order to release their contents. Even to be met as an art object the book must be held in hand. Then it enlivens many sense faculties at once: sight, touch and proprioception, smell, hearing. The typographer-poet Robert Bringhurst puts it well:

The book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made.

But it is generally felt that, when exhibited, a book must be protected from such handling. As Graham Foster, of the University of London’s Institute of English Studies, explains, “More often than not, the manuscripts on display are extremely valuable and delicate, so they are contained within cases, meaning only one opening can be displayed.” A book in a vitrine is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. By design, its own and the vitrine’s, all its other surfaces are hidden from view, beyond what a mirror behind it might reveal.

If aura supervenes on distance and secrecy, then stilling the book in one posture, for viewing and admiration at a remove, may only cement that aura. Such operations can improve ticket sales, but they do not serve the thing or its human encounters.

This is a functional and epistemic dilemma for any museum or library committed to displaying vulnerable books and manuscripts in its collection. Show a well-guarded book inadequately, or lay it out more broadly, and expose it to damage and degradation? The problem grows keener as curators heed the call for more-interactive and hands-on displays. Participatory exhibits responsive to visitors’ wants and needs are part of the sector’s work to democratize, diversify, and decolonize its own culture. A museum or library that holds its books at a protective remove bucks that trend, and risks appearing, and maybe being, an elitist preserve for experts and initiates.

I want now to look at some approaches museums have taken to this problem of access and maybe unpack some of their premises. I should first state a few of my own. One I’ve already alluded to: encounter with a book is haptic – tactile and proprioceptive. A book offered only for looking has been treated as a painting.

A second is a book’s haecceity or “thisness,” a Scholastic concept I map to the Buddhist notion of Tathātā, “suchness.” Suchness is what about a thing makes it that thing and no other. An eye of suchness opens sometimes in the Western counter-tradition, as when William Blake, printing from plates a book with no two copies the same, inscribes the words “every thing that lives is Holy.” That it’s usually printed “everything” is the whole problem in capsule. And Deleuze and Guattari gist suchness when they say, make a map, not a tracing. Suchness does not admit of copies, only navigable resemblances.

Western museums, given by long habit to generalization and classification – as if things were merely degraded versions of the Ideas we have of them – are slowly coming to a more concrete, immanent view. “In every work of art,” Hölling, Brewer, and Ammann write, introducing The Explicit Material, “there is an irreducible singularity; the work remains indescribable, reluctant to the assignment of a singular meaning or interpretation.” That singularity will change over time and may be realized only phenomenologically. An intuition of suchness may stir a feeling once dismissed as “primitive” for an object’s sentience or life force:

[M]aterials have more recently been considered as having agency, the power to act, and lives of their own, thus challenging the anthropocentric, post-Enlight­enment tradition…. [M]aterials are ineffable. Established concepts and categories fail to pin them down. This is why we have to follow them – their joining with other materials, forming into a work, becoming an object of conservation, and decaying. Materials are … vibrant intermediaries.

Suchness accounts for the charge of meaning objects have with no appeal to aura.

A third premise is impermanence, often conflated with materiality, because matter showcases it so well. Everything compounded falls apart. Hölling et al. question the “continuing assumptions that artworks and artefacts are made of static, inert matter – inactive, stagnant, and passive ‘objects’ of investigation, subordinated to hygienic orders of museum vitrines or of preserved historical sites.” Later in the same collection, David Lowenthal avers:

Every inanimate object, like every living being, undergoes continual alteration, ultimately perishing. Cumulative corrosion extinguishes every form and feature. Things either morph into other entities, dismember into fragments or dissolve into unrecognizable components. Gradual change may be imperceptible within the span of a human lifetime or even longer, but it is eventually inexorable. All of us, not only curators, confront mortal dissolution. But awareness of it goes against the grain.

Fierce conservation and timid display practices together make museum objects stays against entropy. And I get it, I feel the impulse myself, I too would like to live forever, vicariously. But the Western hallucination of Eternal Being is near neighbour to schemes of social and racial hierarchy – not to mention the colonial project they spring from – we’ve said we mean to dismantle. We live among nouns, but we live as verbs, and so do things in our care, to the degree we let them.

A book in the ether

Lindisfarne Gospels f. 27r. Incipit page to Gospel of Matthew.
British Museum.

A high-resolution digital facsimile appears to solve the problem. It’s weightless, almost instantaneously transmissible, and in principle infinitely reproducible. A volume like the Lindisfarne Gospels can be unbound, translated into bits and packets, bound again, and returned to its lightless, climate-controlled shelf unharmed. I have loved these images. I pore over them in my study in far-off Washington State. They’ve helped draw me toward a new career in museums. And they attune me, somewhat, to the artistry that went into slaughtering goats and processing their hides for parchment, harvesting oak galls for ink, and liquefying gold for illumination, and to the centuries of trial and error, apprenticeship and mastery, that go into an Insular Half-Uncial a.

Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 3r, detail. An illuminated O. British Museum.

I say somewhat. These images are to the tangible page what a photograph of a sunset is to being there. Vision is, as all the senses are, synaesthetic, and seeing that ordinary a or a majestic illuminated capital O, I have a sense of touching it also. If my sense remains dim, that’s because the image is two-dimensional: all the page’s close-pressed layers have been jammed into one surface. What Robert Bringhurst says of the letterpress page, its roundedness, is even more so in manuscript.

The cast letters are locked in a frame and placed in a printing press, where they are inked. Their image is then imprinted into the paper, producing a tactile and visual image. The color and sheen of the ink join with the smooth texture of crushed paper, recessed into the whiter and rougher fibers surrounding the letters and lines. A book produced by this means is a folding inscription, a flexible sculpture in low relief.

A facsimile trades depth and intimacy for ease and ubiquity. It’s a sometimes fair trade that often hides its real terms. And innovations meant to improve those terms seem merely to distort them. For instance, the British Museum’s Turning the Pages software, which “digitally recreates the manuscripts so that the user can virtually turn pages and examine every word” (Foster), is a parody of the act of reading a book – a simulacrum of the sort you might find in Madam Tussaud’s (if they had a book-arts wing). Plato got two things right about the image: We want very much to take it for what it’s an image of. And as long as it’s that sort of derivative, it disappoints.

A book mimicked

You can make high-quality physical facsimiles of a book. Artisanal bookmakers like A.P. Manuscripts do it. The images, as images, are exquisite, and the books are lovingly made, with heavy paper stock, sewn and glued bindings, bespoke cow-skin covers. But it’s paper, not parchment, and books are sewn and glued in the house style, so to speak. The book itself is no facsimile, only the images in it are, and they suffer the same limitation as digital ones, of existing flatly, in two dimensions.

A few years ago, I taught Anne Carson’s Nox, a facsimile of an artist’s book she made after a brother’s death, in a visual poetry course. The images reproduce the look of crinkles and tears of paper scraps, tea stains on receipts, the fading of old photographs – physical objects in Carson’s original – in a sort of photostatic trompe d’oeil. And the fidelity of the images only widens the gulf between them and their originals. The image of a tea-stained receipt steps in as a flat, mute, inert substitute for its original; you reach out to touch it, by hand or in mind, and find you’ve been fooled. You may feel a subtle loss here, traces of sadness, frustration, anger, or dismay. How, I asked my students, does this distress we feel relate to the loss the book is quote-unquote about? A consensus formed that the published book is an elegy for the singular original Carson made: it translates an otherwise unsayable human elegy into a language of materials.

Anne Carson, Nox. Writing with Images.

Having led them down this path I discovered I couldn’t go any further on it. In one of those moments of self-discovery I love and miss teaching for, I found myself holding the book up high and crying, “it’s document porn, people! document porn!” I meant that the dynamic the images create is more erotic than elegiac. The thing stirs bookish desires. Promised contact with an actual other, offered the tactile vibrancy of notebook paper, receipt paper, paper crinkles and folds, impress of pen on paper, you get a semblance instead, and when the encounter’s over, you feel that much more alone. Maybe this is what happens whenever a return smalls itself to replica.

Why not make a new freestanding thing? Jen Bervin and Marta Werner do it in their Gorgeous Nothings, producing facsimiles of envelopes Emily Dickinson composed on, without asking you to imagine you have a sheaf of envelopes in hand. Instead the book wholly recontextualizes them, offering the panels as self-sufficient thing-poems, with diplomatic transcription and commentary. A physical facsimile may be a useful adjunct in the display of rare books, but it falls just as far short of the original as a digital one does. Even if a facsimile were to capture all the layeredness of its original – even if it reproduced the original atom for atom – that original would still be out of reach. Its past and future, its human exchanges (possession, interpretation, modification), its material conditions (placement, movement, growth, decay), all belong to its haecceity, this moment.

The Gorgeous Nothings, Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s
envelope writing, culminates in this majestic visual poem.

A book unbound

Compositiones variae unbound in its storage box.
Lucca, Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana. Photo by Thea Burns.

Rare books are often removed from their bindings for repair, digital scanning, or storage. In her account of the material changes undergone by the Compositiones variae, an eighth-century manuscript held at the Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana in Lucca, Italy, Thea Burns writes that the book under study is presently stored unbound, “the loose folios … kept in a custom-made box alongside the leather-covered wood boards and a now separate spine lining.” Why not unbind a book for display? Recall, the twin problems confronting those who display old or fragile books are, first, that the books must, for their own good, be protected from haptic encounter, and, second, that the codex, when intact, by design hides, even when open, almost all its other surfaces from view. Unbinding the folios would address the latter issue while leaving the former untouched. Glass cases like those at the German Museum of Modern Literature (see below) might set out pages in reading order to be wandered among. With mounting, mirrors, and lighting, the obverse of the page could also be seen. Have I missed exhibitions that take this approach? Does it pose dangers to the leaves I don’t know of? I am a neophyte.

A book as architecture

Claire Hughes, an English exhibition designer, describes a visit to the German Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach, where literary and para-literary documents are displayed in an unusual way. She tells of a domain of “flickering banks of documents, stacked in sectional displays, vertically lit by gorgeous LED wands.” The exhibition leaves books intact but lays out them out among documents for maximum visual contact. Hughes describes how the exhibition’s “multiple layers of views, reflections and shadows echo the complex points of view and layers of meaning within literature,” which squares with what I’ve seen online of the exhibition and the architecture framing it.

The presentation seems to translate, not a book, but the experience of reading a book. It makes me wonder, if a book must be protected from physical contact, might a curator’s own tactile, haptic, proprioceptive experience of it be translated into a publicly accessible form – into, for instance, architecture’s language of materials, objects, and spaces, of sightlines and pathways?

“Three dimensions of a literary archive: lit by LED wands to be seen from all sides in plan, elevation and section.
Die Seele Exhibition at the German Modern Literature Museum in Marbach.” Photo and caption by Hughes.
Susan Howe, from “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards.”

The poetry of Susan Howe shows that translation is possible in the other direction: her fragments of documents work as glyphs in a collage-language which translates the experience of roving through archives in search of pattern and meaning. Could a museum translate the kinetics of reading – eye movements, hand motions, all the sensations a book gives via its contact with a body – into the kinetic language of museums: eye movements again, standing in place, shifting in place, breaking left, circling round – all the ways a body moves exploring?

Maybe a museum honours the book by expressing it – the experience of reading it – in the museum’s own phenomenological language. Then the book can be safe and happy, knowing it has been found meaningful as text and as thing. To have digital facsimiles made of you must be discouraging – as if you were only good for death masks now. But to be translated into another kind of language! That would mean you mattered as matter.

“It’s not just architects who need construction plans. This is one of many ‘Phantasiebauplans’ [imaginal blueprints]:
a drawing of the narrative construction for a novel.” Photo and caption by Hughes.

Leaving the exhibition, Hughes felt powerfully that “a poem takes up quite a large space in the world and, as for a novel, well, it’s a positively towering three-dimen­sional object that should be seen in section as well as in plan.” This approach would literalize her insight.

A book touched, a page turned

Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Center, Art Gallery of Ontario.
The facility is open to the public at specified times and by appointment.

If showing books by translating the experience of reading them is the most extravagant conception in this essay, and allowing a sacrificial book to die at the hands of its humans is the most irresponsible, the most sober-minded is just to grant to ordinary people the privileges given scholars and archivists. Let more people meet the damn books in person! The Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Center, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, gestures in this direction, inviting members of the public to view, under the supervision of museum employees, prints and drawings in their collection. The need to book an appointment a month in advance likely deters casual visitors. There is no reason in principle the practice couldn’t be applied to at least some old or rare books, and the wait time shortened, for that matter. Instruction and supervision would be more intensive than for prints and drawings, and a museum would have to commit considerable resources to the undertaking.

A book let die (immodest proposal)

I’ve left this one for last. Am not sure I want to be held responsible for it even as mere idea. The idea is just to let the book weather under human use. It would mean affirming the artefact as a life that begins and ends. Elizabeth Pye, in The Explicit Material:

The concept of biography has been used to portray the changes that objects may go through during their existence (their lives), including social encounters and changes in fashion and values…. Material “life events” embracing making, deterioration, repair, discard, and so on, all clearly shape the perception and significance of an object before it enters the museum.

The artefact is a lifeform and lifeforms are transient. Everything compounded comes apart. We like to think an object entering a collection is at that moment plucked from from the stream of history for preservation and study – but acquisition may just be another stage in the its life story. In The Explicit Material, David Lowenthal puts curatorial intervention in such terms:

Metamorphosis – abrasion and accretion, dissolution and amalgamation – varies not only with natural processes but also with human interventions. The pace of change reflects efforts to slow or speed alteration or demise, to restore or improve on previous integrity, to prevent or promote transformation into something else.

The life of an object intersects at all points with our own. Its story can acquire meaning only at that intersection – from which, for us too, there is nowhere to stand apart. Paul Eggert writes in the same collection: “We may think of ourselves as standing outside the life of the work, but in truth we cannot help but edit or conserve within it, take our part in its ongoing life.” If our artefacts can only be towards their deaths and we don’t like it – if we can only be towards our deaths and yet refuse it – if we keep raising metaphysical architectures for the surfaces they offer to our projections of eternal life – if we really are this bad at dying – maybe a book can, as it is let go, teach something inscribed nowhere on its pages.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, before visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

My immodest proposal. At intervals choose a book to return to the event stream it’s been withheld from. Place it on a table in a room any part of the public could enter and sit down at. Maybe offer foam props, a magnifying glass and gloves, some handout describing how archivists and librarians treat the books in their care. Or maybe not. Visitors could turn the leaves, feeling their texture and pliability, or lift the book to feel its heft as a vessel for storing and pouring culture. They could take in with eyes and fingertips the crizzling of an initial’s illuminative gold, and the scribe’s record of the motions of a hand across the leaf’s surface, whether it’s intelligible or looks to them like an asemic garden party. They might walk away having understood nothing! Address that with some supplemental text – or maybe don’t. There’s something to be said for getting nothing.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, during visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

Well, I love the idea in abstract, hate it applied to any particular book. Can I really imagine Isadore’s Encyclopedia, or a copy of Mandeville’s Travels, or some tattered Book of Hours forgotten by everyone except by a collections database, acquiring marks of human use as freely and spontaneously as Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room acquires spots of color the artist invited visitors to set down? The book might not survive long, but it would live what remains of its life, doing what it was made for. The image coming to mind is human sacrifice. The cost is real, the loss felt deeply, yet a community or even a family might do it anyway, just to get right with reality. And here I’d thought to leave aura behind. 

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, after visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

POSTSCRIPT. This week in the mail, Printing History, journal of the American Printing History Association, with an essay by Sarah Werner, book historian and digital scholar, called “Working Toward a Feminist Printing History”:

[I]f you are, as I am, committed to the belief that every single copy of a text is unique, thanks both to inevitable printing variants and to the vagaries of its individual life, then an awareness of repetition and variation [in printing] makes an aesthetic based on Penelope’s weaving all the more compelling.

The kinship of text and textile is as powerful to me as that of matter and mother.


Burns, Thea. “The Material Forms of the Past and the ‘Afterlives’ of the Compositiones variae.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 209–235.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace & World, 1968, pp. 219–53.

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographical Style. Version 3.2, Hartley & Marks, 2008.

Carson, Anne. Nox. New Directions, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987, pp. 3–25.

Dickinson, Emily. The Gorgeous Nothings. Edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. New Directions, 2013.

Foster, Graham. “The Challenges of Exhibiting Manuscripts.” English Literary Heritage, 25 November 2014. Accessed 2 December 2014.

Hölling, Hanna B., Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann. “Introduction: Material Encounters.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 1–14.

“How We Do It.” A.P. Manuscripts. Accessed 2 December 2020.

Hughes, Clare. “A Story of Rooms.” Clare Hughes (blog). Accessed 30 November 2020.

The Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, ca. 700 CE.

Lowenthal, David. “A Sea-Change Rich and Strange.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 17–63.

Muir, Bernard J., editor. The Exeter DVD: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. U of Exeter P, 2006.

Patton, Christopher, translator and editor. Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book. Gaspereau, 2018.

TateShots. “Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room.” YouTube, uploaded by Tate, 14 March 2012.

Speaking with things

Last fall, in my Curatorial Practice course, I worked with five other students to propose an exhibition of contemporary installation art by women. We chose works that investigated the domestic sphere in diverse and exciting ways. Inspired by Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia,” a space where norms are suspended to make new perceptions possible, we called our exhibition Otherspaces.

It was a fictional exhibition, so we dreamed big, imagining we had the social capital to land big-name artists and the funding to secure and adapt our ideal space: an airplane hangar (where planes sleep and are fed when home from other places) in which we would build a stage-set house with a room for each piece.

Each of us also wrote a curatorial essay for the show. Some wrote on the feminist dimensions of the works. Some explored the works as other spaces where the familiar is made strange. I like to think of an exhibition as a collaborative, multimodal, interactive work of art, so my essay reads Otherspaces as a poem made of things.

It is / here / it is.

Speaking with Things

To be and to know or Being and thought are the same.
		– Gerard Manley Hopkins, on Parmenides (Robert Bringhurst trans.)

I’ve been thinking lately about words as things. Words exist physically, as grooves in stone or electrons on a screen, and they have physical effects: striking your retina or eardrum, they induce limbic arousal, or a surge of oxytocin, or a protest in the streets of a capital.

We know some things speak – any thing used as a word does. Things may also speak at other times, as themselves, of the inner life of matter. If that sounds merely poetic, recall that physicists are talking these days about physical events as acts of information exchange.

In Otherspaces, artists ask how things may work as words, in a language humans and objects co-create. And they hint that things work with us in this way because of something thoughtful about them, and their participation in our inner lives.

1. Rooms

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
		– Jack Spicer, “Thing Language”

“Thing Language” is a one-stanza poem. Stanza comes from the Italian word for “room.” The poem is a one-room house where words are taken for things.

It insists, by disjunction, non-sequitur, and its rough­house actions at the line end, also by pretty much saying so, that its words don’t mean any more than the ocean, salt and pepper, or death do.

Of course, the words do mean, in that they refer to concepts, but that kind of meaning doesn’t exhaust their function. They have another kind of significance too. Consider the difference between “I know what you mean” and “you mean a lot to me.”

Otherspaces is a six-stanza poem that speaks with things.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Begin with a blank: white walls, white floor, white ceiling, white furniture. It’s not hard to see it as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, such as we once thought the mind is at birth, waiting to be marked by thought.

Visitors to Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room are handed sheets of stickers and asked to place them on surfaces however they wish. Some make geometric patterns that recall those grids of dots on paleolithic cave walls. Others tag a surface with their own name. Many make a beautiful mess a bit outside their control, à la Pollock or Cage. Being participatory, the piece is also aleatory, allowing chance into its composition. By gradual accretion, a dead pure blank empty sterile white space acquires the marks of human use, human habitation.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room (photo: Stuart Addelsee, Azure)

Each sticker is a trace of a mental act – a speech act. Artist, visitor, and stick­er all help to utter it, though the artist has left the room. After the visitor leaves, the sticker continues as a record, a record that becomes unintelligible in the babble of so many others. It’s like a marketplace in which you hear intersecting rivers of human speech and cannot make out a single word.

Traditionally the origin of Chinese logograms was traced to bird tracks in river sand. A language, whether of sound, gesture, picture, symbol, or object, is always a human-nonhuman hybrid – human and air, human and clay and wedge, human and electron beam. These Otherspaces are full of chimaeras.

Saya Woolfalk’s Empathic Cloud Divination envisions a post-human future of soul uploads to the Cloud and teachings of human-plant hybrids. Semi-abstract patterns cover the floor and walls. From the ceiling, projectors throw kaleidoscopic displays over the room’s surfaces. They are the minds of astral beings (Empathics) taking a physical form congenial to them. (Greek gods and Milton’s angels did the same.) Boxes like computer screens on the walls show glyph-like objects suggesting, as asemic writing does, a possible yet unparsable language.

Saya Woolfalk, Empathic Cloud Divination (photo: the artist)

Woolfalk’s matriarchal Afro-futurist vision offers rest from the peripatetic gazing one so often gets lost in a gallery. Beanbag chairs invite reverie and a respite from all the thoughts of self and other, past and future, getting and spending, that typically populate us.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is a centaur: one’s head on another’s torso. A painting on the wall, Turner’s Rough Sea, looks over its shoulder in astonishment at a dishevelled bedroom, its new body.

Tracey Emin, My Bed (photo: Stephen White)

The piece depends not so much on the room’s surfaces as on its function – the acts, thoughts, feels and words we sense a room is for. A bedroom – therefore, intimacy, sleep, dream, waking, and private emotions.

Bed and painting together make what Ezra Pound called an ideogram. The ideogram is a way of saying concretely something unsayable otherwise.

My Bed, detail (photo: Naomi Rea)

You make one by joining two or more tangible realities. Making a poem you conjoin verbal images. Making a film you conjoin photographic images and you might call it montage. Both practices trace back to a (mis)understanding of the Chinese ideogram because both are ways of speaking with things.

When you do it with objects you have an installation. Emin uses things – a painting, a bed strewn with tissues and coins and condoms – the way Pound thought pictures of things were used in written Chinese. (He was wrong about Chinese but right about how a poem can work.)

Whatever joins the sublime mess of storm in the painting, to the messy abyss of grief on the bed, is not sayable another way. The painting and the bed “speak to each other,” as the saying goes.

2. Objects

My essay is an attempt at an ideogram – its strokes six artworks, two poems, and an inkling.

Plates and a dinner set of colored china. Pack together a string and enough with it to protect the centre, cause a considerable haste and gather more as it is cooling, collect more trembling and not any even trembling, cause a whole thing to be a church.
		– Gertrude Stein, “A Plate” (“Objects” 15)

Stein enters the inner life of objects. From the outside, a plate is a plate. Inside, it is stained by experience, and bears knowledge of its own formation and destruction. Were it sentient, its thoughts might move at about the speed its molecules quiver at – string | haste | cooling | trembling. The poet’s own voice enters at the end: “cause a whole thing to be a church.”

Formerly, our access to the inner life of objects was sacral. For a Modernist like Stein it’s hieratic and indeterminate. Today, it grows scientific, in the form of Integrated Information Theory. I doubt any of the artists here would use any of these terms. But each endows objects with something lifelike from which they are equipped to speak.

We’ve looked at things put in rooms. Rachel Whiteread’s Place (Village) is rooms accreted as things.

The work’s an assemblage of 150 doll houses collected over twenty years. The Victoria & Albert Museum, which has lent it to our imaginal exhibition, describes the houses as “devoid of both people and objects.” There’s no furniture, but there are carpets, wallpaper, curtains, and artwork on the walls.

Rachel Whiteread, Place (Village) (photo: Cela Libeskind)

The windows of these houses are lit with life – maybe it’s the houses’ own sentience. Try seeing the windows as eyes looking back. Once you have, you can’t unsee it.

The happy variety of rooflines affirms their diversity. Curiously, the V&A finds a “haunted atmosphere” here. What’s a haunted house but a site where our repressed sense the objects we’re aware of are aware of us leaks out of the mental basement?

One can imagine entering one of the rooms here – possibly to find a gallery like this one. It’s a nested arrangement. So too of course is Otherspaces: a hangar, etymologically a “house yard,” holds a house, the house holds rooms, a room holds a village.

In The Poetics of Space, his study of the “oneiric house,” the house of dream-memory, in his chapter on nests, Gaston Bachelard writes:

If we were to look among the wealth of our vocabulary for verbs that express the dynamics of retreat, we should find images based on animal movements of withdrawal, movements that are engraved in our muscles. How psychology would deepen if we could know the psychology of each muscle! And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man! But our research does not go that far. (91)

Neither does ours. Just a bit further is good though.

Like Whiteread, Chiharu Shiota works in miniature. Claude Lévi-Strauss writes of miniatures in his essay on the “science of the concrete”:

A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject. In the case of miniatures … knowledge of the whole precedes knowledge of the parts. And even if this is an illusion, the point of the procedure is to create or sustain the illusion, which gratifies the intelligence and gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can already be called aesthetic. (24)

In the same essay he describes the artist’s work as halfway to bricolage, “making do with what is at hand” – think Duchamp’s chimaera of stool and bicycle.

In Shiota’s Connecting Small Memories, little wholes are made parts in a constellation. They are found wholes, so this is bricolage. Small objects – toy chest of drawers, washing basin, rocking horse – are linked by threads, as if, her title suggests, our thinking were material and external to the mind.

Chiharu Shiota, Connecting Small Memories (photo: Sunhi Mang)

Of course, it could simply be that physical objects symbolize mental objects, and their assemblage stands for something mental. Dig deeper, though. Shiota’s piece touches on the participatory quality of perception – how the object helps constitute our subjectivity. The threads here don’t just represent, they perform, acts of mental association.

Connecting Small Memories, detail

How? Your eye follows the thread from one thing to another, and as it moves in its circuit, your mind does psychically what the objects do physically.

That makes a false distinction though. Try instead: The physical objects threaded together are mental objects threaded together. You know it because you enact it.

In A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby, Kara Walker makes the Sphinx, a creature of the desert wastes, domestic twice over. It wears a skin of sugar, that ordinary kitchen substance, with slavery and the global commodities trade curled at the bottom of the bowl. And its visage is the stereotypical Mammy figure, the hale and happy house slave whiteness imagines devoted to its needs.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or, The Marvellous Sugar Baby (photo: Creative Time)

Walker first installed the work in a disused sugar factory, calling it “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World” (Creative Time). To set it in a courtyard, as we have, domesticates it a third time: a courtyard is a yard within a house, an outside brought inside, as paradox, an intimate other.

And it is another chimaera: a sphinx made by joining human head and torso to lion haunches and paws. In this guise it appeals for its power both to the Great Sphinx at Giza and the Greek one riddling Oedipus.

The former is monumental stone built by slaves. Here it bears the righteousness of peoples oppressed by slavery and global capitalism to the heart of the colonial house it gives the lie to.

The latter crouches there asking mortal questions of a tragic entitled ruler. Styrofoam and sugar become stone that speaks, intelligent matter, but what riddle?

Detail of sketch by Kara Walker (Creative Time)

More about & by each artist

Yayoi Kusama.

Saya Woolfalk.

Tracey Emin.

Rachel Whiteread.

Chiharu Shiota.

Kara Walker.

The image atop is a picture of Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Room.