Aymee Smith talks to us about her project, illegibility and the future of the book amongst creative practitioners.
What attracted you to the Unbinding the Book project?
When I first saw the call for submissions for the Unbinding the Book project, my first thought was, ‘that sounds exactly like the kind of work that I make’, and that was basically it. The project really spoke to me in terms of the ideas I have already looked at within my work, as well as those that I wish to explore further. I saw Unbinding the Book as potentially being a fantastic means of helping me to get my idea for a project out of my head and in to the physical world, and within a space that would enable the resulting work to be immediately on display.
What drew you to the book as a medium?
Books have been one of my favourite objects for as long as I can remember; a book can take you on a journey to the far ends of your imagination and back, without having moved from the chair you were sitting in.
But from the point of view of an artist, what I love about the book form is its tactile quality – Art (with a capital A) is a thing not to be touched, a precious one-off object that is to be admired from behind a rope or a piece of glass – a book on the other hand is a work that rarely exists solely as one copy and is usually affordable to purchase. It is an object that can be handled and fully explored by the reader. In this way it forms a much more intimate, and sometimes enriching experience than the traditional artwork affords.
Could you explain your practice?
For a number of years my practice has been concerned with the relationship between the artist/author, the work and the audience/reader, with particular reference to what occurs when there is an obstacle tossed in to this triangle, when the work becomes challenging or indecipherable.
Recently I have been looking more specifically at finding the ‘saturation point’ of text, both on and off the page. By saturation point I am referring to the moment at which a text becomes illegible, or almost so, the point at which it becomes such a chore to attempt to decipher that it appears instead to say nothing. In this way the text could be said to efface itself, to become effectually blank, teetering along the line between both the weight of the text as well as it’s more fleeting characteristics. I wish to attempt to determine this moment of saturation, as well as considering what the result may be when we encounter a work of this kind; when writing becomes so impenetrable that it becomes as difficult to read as the blank page, and what kind of message this effectual blankness might have to communicate – what are we supposed to do with such work?
In exploring these ideas I work mainly with print and artist books – but also have been known to delve into the realms of installation, performance and film.
Could you describe your project?
My project begins with the book Reading the Illegible by Craig Dworkin. It is, surprisingly, a book on texts and writers who have presented us with seemingly illegible texts, and what these signify within (and outside of) art and literary canons. I decided that this would make the ideal starting point for attempting to play with the idea of illegibility.
The project was composed of three major parts:
The first was to photocopy each page of the book (263 in total) onto a sheet of A4-sized acetate.
The second was to scan these images into my computer so that they were gradually layered upon one another, becoming gradually less legible with each page. So the first scan was the first sheet of acetate, the second page was sheets 1 and 2, the third page was sheets 1,2 and 3……. and so on until reaching page 263 (which was sheets 1,2,3,4,5…..261,262,263), by which point the text has become inaccessible.
The last part of the project was to take the scanned images and produce a book with them using Blurb’s print on demand service. The book is to serve both as a work in it’s own right which hopefully challenges the viewer’s notion of what it is to read, but also as a prop to a performance which would involve reading each page (beginning from the start) until this becomes impossible, until the words can no longer be distinguished and the normal process of reading has been thwarted.
What materials are you incorporating into your work?
The two primary materials within my work have been the acetate that I have photocopied on to, and the book that I have produced at the end. Both of these will form separate components of my project for the exhibition. The book will act both as an object in it’s own right and also as a performance piece. The stack of acetate photocopies was originally supposed to be exhibited as an installation upon an overhead projector – but 263 sheets of acetate have proven to be too opaque for this: I am not sure that any light would ever get through them. Instead I have found that they have a wonderfully reflective quality, almost mirror-like, and so they will be presented framed and ready to be hung on the wall. In this way I hope that the action of looking at the layers of pages of acetate will draw attention to the act of reading, and more specifically; due to the reflection; to the action of the eye during the process of reading.
What draws you to reading as performance?
All reading is a kind of performance, whether it is in public or private, to one hundred people or merely to oneself. What I hope to achieve through the public presentation of the reading of a book is to draw the attention of both the public and the person reading to the way in which we read – the difference between reading in your own head to reading out loud to an audience – and there is a big difference between the two. Reading aloud is something commonly attributed either to the past or to childhood, but can become a really useful exercise in really considering how we read and what happens when that process encounters an obstacle.
Once we are presented with all the book’s contents they become invisible. Living in the modern age, we are constantly bombarded with information, and this project made me consider the limitations of the printed page as a benefit. Do you think that it’s ability to serve as such a perfectly functioning conduit for information will secure it’s future?
I think so, yes. The physical printed page has such a perfect ability to be ‘at hand’ and instantly accessible that I do not imagine that it can ever be completely replaced by more digital conduits.
Right now I believe that the printed page, even with ever greater forays into the digital, is at a kind of ‘back-door renaissance’. With the ever increasing methods of self-publishing that we have seen over recent years, the opportunities for individuals to put their work and ideas into print has grown exponentially, and it is something that is being put to use more and more frequently. I think that rather than see the death of the printed page, we will witness it being used in new and more imaginative ways.
On an end note, even if printed matter all but disappears from our everyday life, I expect that it will always be kept alive by creative practitioners – like black and white photography and traditional film methods, it may be that the physical page will become almost exclusively the domain of artists – attributing to print the notion of nostalgia.