Figuring the Word

Johanna Drucker

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An interview with Johanna Drucker

: Was it easy to make the selections for your retrospective currently at Columbia College in Chicago?

Johanna Drucker: The books were easy to curate. I've done about four dozen editioned works of varying degrees of complexity. The printed books begin in 1972, with the publication of the odd, idiosyncratic letterpress and lithographed book, Dark: The bat-elf banquets the pupae. The most recent, Stochastic Poetics, was finished just in time for the exhibit (in fact, I am still binding it, and the copy on display is in a provisional cover). A number of unique books did not make it into the exhibit. They are owned by individual collectors or institutions (the Sackners, the Getty, University of California at San Diego) and, in the case of Bookscape (1988) or Mind Massage (1985), are too complicated, large, and fragile to ship and show. The books cluster around a few themes: attention to the materiality of language, interest in the rhetoric and graphics of the news, and feminist theory and narrative.

Asymptote: Have you discovered any surprising leitmotifs running through your work as a result?

JD: The curating process created a powerful memory rush. Objects trigger recollection with vivid, almost sensual, force. The oldest item in the show is a little hand-made book, covered in purple velvet, written in India ink and illustrated with original watercolors. I made it for a boy I had a crush on my first year of college, when I was seventeen. Innocence, aspiration, longing, frustration, sentiment—all rise from its pages as surely as if it were some pressed flower in an antique album put aside as a memento of a childhood romance. I could extend this detailed description to every item in the exhibit—drawings made in a cave house on the island of Santorini in Greece in long winter days in 1977 when I was obsessed with the study of organic process, a type sample book created in a dialogue with Emily McVarish at the Bow and Arrow Press in the bowels of Adams House at Harvard and printed all in a mad rush of several days in the early summer of 1989 or the linoleum cuts curved for Testament of Women (2005) and Damaged Spring (2004) with the hot, humid, air of Charlottesville around me in the early 2000s. Each speaks eloquently of the aesthetic concerns of the period in which it was made as well as of my own history of thinking about books, graphics, and conceptual issues.

But I've been making drawings and paintings for all these years as well, and they are related to some of the book projects as well as being independent series. I first began drawing seriously in about 1971, and made extensive studies of tiny bits of organic matter. These are what I term "entities"—specific, particular, highly detailed fragments that appear to our human perception as finite, fixed, and stable. But they are all momentary expressions of complex processes and systems that bring them into being. This insight is so basic, so fundamental, so much a part of my writing and drawing, that it seems utterly obvious to me. By the mid-1970s I began making "event" drawings since I had become interested in organic processes as well as organic form. Discovering the rules of process, or at least, the formal procedures that gave rise to natural forms, made my work into a kind of meta-drawing. I also did many "trace" drawings to recover the sequence of graphic events that made a surface into a palimpsest of experience in the most conceptual, abstract way. I became fascinated by the notion of "event"—and even did a performance work about this in the early 1980s "What I know about musicals, or the nature of event," at Intersection in San Francisco. Events are more specific than process—an event is a state change, a quantum moment, a shift of phase. The conceptual foundation of this work arose from a minimalist and process-oriented art world, but the investigation has sustained me across many projects. Experience of the Medium, which I printed in 1978 in Amsterdam, is a study of attention to dynamic process, so is Prove Before Laying (1997), printed twenty years later as a study of the ways the figure of language emerges from a field of typographic potential. Stochastic Poetics, the most recent book in the exhibit, takes up the same concerns—how does the figure of poetic language become an "event" in the field of noise culture. Concepts of event and entity have informed my theoretical writings in the study of performative materiality and its relation to systems theory, which I came to late only to find it echoed all the work I'd been involved in for these years.

But all of these abstractions and meta-concerns are balanced by a fascination with people, individuals, lives, and the creation of ideas about how we live that come to us in popular culture. So A Girl's Life (2002), done with Susan Bee, or Nova Reperta (1999), done with Brad Freeman, or Narratology (2004), History of the/my Wor(l)d (1990), Dark Decade (1995), From Now (2007), or Combo Meals (2008), are all vividly engaged with the particulars of human experience, and its follies and foibles, in all their contemporary and specific dimensions. Their language is also densely figured, highly compressed and distilled. The drawings for Combo Meals are among my favorite works, so filled with the poignancy, humor, delight, and pain of being that is characteristic of our blind and troubled times. Throughout, as an artist, one is concerned, I think, with certain fundamentals. Mine are basic: how to transform experience and perception into form and in the process make a space for experience itself.

So curating was neither difficult nor surprising, but I was particularly gratified by the positive responses to my drawings and visual works, since they have had less exposure in recent years then my books. All in all, the production of small editions, works that don't circulate widely, and highly figured, compressed, dense and complex theoretical projects like Wittgenstein's Gallery (1989) or Subjective Meteorology (2004), have kept my work marginal rather than mainstream. The works have a seductive quality to them—materials of the covers, beauty of the printing, fineness of the drawings or typography—but they are so complex as texts that they can be difficult for some people. The catalogue, with essays by about twenty different people, was available from last October, and added another dimension to the exhibit. I would like very much to imagine that the work will have a more public life ahead.

Asymptote: You have been thinking about the materiality of written language all your life, both as a practitioner and theorist, and are now focusing on what you call 'performative materiality'. Can you elaborate on this concept, and say what you think your researches can contribute to the understanding of translation, specifically.

JD: Translation makes issues of materiality vivid. Every choice about re-representing a text in another language creates tensions around the choices favoring sound, sense, or appearance. This tension becomes immediately obvious with poetry, since every choice in composition is so carefully calibrated. And translation takes many forms, including graphic ones. When I was working as a typesetter in the mid-1970s, I once set a book of someone's poems so that those on the left hand page of each opening were flush left and those on the right were flush right. When I showed the poor poet the paste-up, he nearly had an apoplectic fit. The whole structure of the poems had been violated, translated, as it were, into a new format. We don't think of format as a translation element, but it is, and changes of font size, scale, color are not just incidental. Set a nursery rhyme in blackletter or a funeral announcement in cartoon type and the point is made quite dramatically. The whole inventory of graphical elements that comprise poetic expression on the page can be brought into the conversation about translation, but rarely are, and then often get dismissed as mere elements of style.

The topic of materiality has a long history, linked to classical theories of poetics, poiesis, acts of making, and to Christian medieval questions of faith and the power of relics, belief in transubstantiation, and other issues that are the focus of Caroline Bynum's recent work. Materiality was crucial to Renaissance debates about distinctions between painting and poetry, and to late 19th century aesthetics, as well as to modernism's wide ranging theories of plasticity, media, and the materiality of signification.

In the last couple of decades, the concept of materiality has gotten a lot of critical play. Matt Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms (2008) put the term "forensic materiality" into circulation and Kate Hayles's Writing Machines (2002) introduced many readers to a concept of materiality more broadly. Forensic materiality is deliberately literal—the concept was created to counter the misconception that digital information is immaterial. By showing the elaborate apparatus in which digital inscription occurs and persists, Kirschenbaum makes a striking argument for the materiality of all digital information. This was an important demonstration of a crucial principle since the illusion of immateriality is so seductive and remains a part of the common cultural (mis)perception of digital texts.

These discussions of materiality focus on the literal aspects of inscription—substrate, writing techniques. From them, indexically, all kinds of issues about social conditions, labor, economic value, ecological impact and other lifecycle aspects of production and consumption can be described and analyzed. Hayles's materiality is based on an insistence that readers pay attention to the formal features of works, to their look and behaviors as part of the ways they produce meaning. Physical embodiment and formal expression are the crucial elements of this approach to materiality. Though essential, they are not sufficient as models of materiality.

My colleague Jean-François Blanchette, in a recent piece titled "Material History of Bits," outlines a model of distributed materiality. He argues that digital objects are part of complex systems and are constituted across the network, bandwidth, storage devices, protocols, and so forth that comprise the set of conditions on which they depend. This adds a whole new set of dimensions to the discussion, expanding mechanical, literal, formal concepts of materiality into a conditional model. Very nice.

But performative materiality shifts the discussion again from a positivist to probabilistic worldview. It is premised on the idea that any textual object (and this includes images, film, narrative, musical texts etc.) is a set of cues for performance, not a thing whose formal qualities communicate in a self-identical manner. The concept of performativity comes from cognitive studies, and the richest discussion of it—at least the one that influenced my thinking—is in the work of Mary Carruthers and her work on memory theaters. Her argument is that a text is a provocation for performance—countering Frances Yates's long-held belief that memory image were held as static structures in the mind. Carruthers replaces this representational model with one grounded in cognitive experience. Memory structures remind us what to do at each juncture, they prompt response. Similarly, a text provokes a reading. We don't receive a text. No self-identical object is communicated in each instance. Instead, we make the text in a probabilistic encounter. If we were to look at multiple readings of a single text, the normal distribution would follow a bell curve, probably, and the majority of people reading a particular work would likely agree more or less about its sense or meaning (depending on the text, of course – a John Cage score would probably produce a wider distribution than a set of instructions for driving from one place to another). Performative materiality is the term for this enactment and production in each instance—certainly this aligns with translation. The premise is that every instantiation is unique, made anew, as a version.

Literal, mechanical, even distributed materiality depend on positivist notions that essential properties inhere in objects in a way that determines their reception. The idea of the self-identical text is as limited by its mechanistic beliefs as Newtonian physics. These don't explain probability and uncertainty. All works are made in an act of reading, cognitive production, and that is a performance, an instantiation, a translation.

Druckworks: 40 Years of Books and Projects by Johanna Drucker
was at Columbia College, Chicago, September 6–December 7, 2012, and continues at the Denison Museum, Denison University, February 8–May 11, 2013, and the 
San Francisco Center for the Book, May–August, 2013.