Home  |  Marketing Booknesses  |  Branding Booknesses  |  Booknesses Colloquium  |  Exhibitions & Catalogues
Ginsberg & Kentridge Conversation  |  Images

JG Home Foreword Introduction Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Illustrated catalogue

Chapter 2

Keith Dietrich

Between The Folds: The Struggle Between Images and Texts with Reference to Selected Artists’ Books

With reference to selected text-based books on the exhibition Booknesses, this essay examines the complex relationship between image and text in the context of artists’ books. The study is grounded on media theorist and philosopher Vilém Flusser’s struggle between writing and images, and professor of English and Art History WJT Mitchell’s notion of imagetext. The essay argues that artists’ books occupy a liminal position between image and text, or, in Flusser’s terms, between the circular time of magical consciousness (image) and the linear time of historical consciousness (text). As such, artists’ books are complex in their reading in that they combine image and text in such a way that the two cannot be separated.

In his Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2000)1 and Writings (2002), Flusser2 recognises two major paradigm shifts or turns in human consciousness. The first, he argues, took place in the middle of the second millennium BCE, namely the creation of linear writing; and the second, which we are presently living through, involves the development of ”technical images” (Flusser 2000:7).3 With the first intersection, he outlines a turn from a two-dimensional mytho-magical-based pictorial consciousness governed by images, to a linear, text-based alphabetic culture. The second shift, he argues, is represented by the technical images (photographs) of our posthistorical age (Ströhl 2002:38).

In this essay, I will focus on these shifts with a view to developing a theoretical foundation for the relationship between images and texts in selected artists’ books from this exhibition. Throughout his work, Flusser argues that our inclination to imagine, to think in and interact with the world by way of images was a feature of a symbolic, magical way of understanding the world that was fundamentally transformed through the development of writing.4

Images and magical thinking

As the world is not directly understandable to us, it is through creating images that we are able to make sense of our world and communicate between ourselves. Images therefore mediate between humans and the world. As abstractions of the world, images5 enable us to stand back and orientate ourselves and grasp the contexts in which we experience and understand our world.

“This ability to step back, to become subject, to exist, is called ‘the power of imagination’” (Flusser 2000:8).6 It is through our faculty to imagine that we are able to objectify our understanding of the world by reducing the world of situations to scenes; by pinning things down in concrete images or pictures. Images are a means of ordering and cementing what we imagine with a view to communicating this to others. As such, images stand between us and our world.

Flusser states that pictures are surfaces or “scenes” over which the eye scans for that which interests or pleases it. The significance of the image revealed in the process of scanning,7 he remarks (2000:8),

is a synthesis of two intentions: one manifested in the image and the other belonging to the observer. It follows that images are not “denotative” (unambiguous) complexes of symbols (like numbers, for example) but “connotative” (ambiguous) complexes of symbols: They provide space for interpretation.8

Images present states of things, allowing for contradictory interpretations. In the space and time of a picture, Flusser explains (2000:9), nothing is excluded; everything participates in a significant context. A picture does not have a beginning or an end, but presents a wholeness, “a synchronic totality animated by the observer” (Pereira 2014:2). Moreover, this is a world where everything is repeated as the eye returns to and passes over the same areas over and over again. Flusser calls this reality “cyclical reality” or circular time, which is timeless in contrast to the sequential nature of the linear reality of texts, which are structurally different from images. This ability to visualise our world through the images, he argues, belongs to the world of enchantment and magic.9

Flusser talks about an inherent dialectic in all mediation, where, “although they are intended to be maps, images can become screens”.10 Images represent the world out there, though by doing so they insert themselves between humans and their world. While the purpose of images was to mediate between humans and the world in order to overcome alienation, instead of representing the world, images can shroud it until we finally become a function of the very images we create. The more images become self-referential and cease to explain the world, the more humans fail to make sense of the world. We suspend our decoding of images and instead project them, still encoded, into the world which has in itself become like an image (Flusser 2000:10).

Images, Flusser (2002:65) says, “may come to constitute an imaginary world that no longer mediates between man and the world, but, on the contrary, imprisons man. Imagination no longer overcomes alienation, but becomes hallucination, or double alienation”. Flusser calls this inversion of the function of images “idolatry”,11 or the adoration of images, and the resulting action magical (Flusser 2002:111 and Flusser 2007:20). In religious and political practices, for example, we forget how to decode images; we forget what these images stood for, such as the functions of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, Byzantine icons and Gothic stained-glass windows, and admire them for their beauty and form or for the genius of the artists who created them.

In her essay Rescuing Hegel’s Magical Thinking, Angela Hume points out that magic is deeply manifest in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). She (2012:15) writes “for the magical thinker, no subject or object was unified or closed; no one thing was at risk of being lost in or to all other things”. Magic entailed a particular representation where “multiplicity, fluidity, irreducibility, and the subject-object status of every single thing” are qualities and traits of the magical. These values, she argues, stand in contrast to those of the Enlightenment, namely “knowledge, calculability, unity, utility, exchangeability, abstraction, and the rending apart of subject and object” (Hume 2012:15).

Texts and conceptual thinking

Flusser contends that, by an internal dialectic, writing was a way of “tearing down” these “screens” in order to open up a way to the world obscured by them. The invention of writing, he notes, “consisted not so very much in the invention of new symbols, but rather in the unrolling of pictograms into [alphanumerical] rows (‘lines’)” (Flusser 2002:38). Writing therefore arranges elements on a flat two-dimensional surface into a sequential order of characters and lines, thus converting these from a scene into a linear narrative form. “It rolls the scene out”, writes Flusser (2002:38), “and transforms it into a concept. It ‘explains’ the scene in that it enumerates each individual symbol clearly and distinctly (clara et distincta perceptio)”.

No longer are such images tools, but man himself becomes a tool of his own tools; he “adores” the images he himself has produced. It is against this idolatry of images, as a therapy against this double alienation, that writing was invented.12

According to Flusser, the invention of writing was a critical response to the failure of magical, circular, image-based thinking. ”It was directed against the image,” he writes. “It was directed against pictorial thought: it was iconoclastic thinking” (Flusser 2002:43).13

In contrast to the open surface of the image, the linearity of text is linked to our thinking in the context of language through the causality of grammar and syntax. Linearity necessitates the eye’s direction along a path in order to receive a specific coded message. “Linear codes demand a synchronisation of their diachronicity,” writes Flusser (2002:39): “They demand progressive reception”.

This results in a new experience of time, a linear time as opposed to a circular, cyclical time. Through analytical reason, the circular time of magic is transcoded into the linear time of history (progression), which gives rise to both conceptual and historical consciousness (Flusser 2000:10).14 From this point onwards, remarks Flusser (2000:10-11), we have experienced an ongoing struggle between images and writing (texts) where historical or conceptual consciousness is set up against magical consciousness.

Flusser speaks here of a transition from myth to logos, where the linear, logical sequence of letters and sentences that unfolds through time is governed by cause and effect. Here thoughts and ideas are directed by the logic and rules of grammar and spelling. The alphanumeric code saw a cultural transition from the representational, magical and scenic to a conceptual explanatory comprehension of the world (Yeh 2013:116).

Writing induces “conceptual thinking”, which entails abstracting linear texts from the surfaces of images (Flusser 2000:11). Flusser (2000:11) points out that texts are the extension of images: They do not signify the world but rather the images they “roll out” or transcode. Decoding texts therefore means discovering the images they signify, and in this context the intention of texts is to explain images; texts are “concepts” that signify “ideas” (Flusser 2000:12 and Flusser 2002:38).15 Conceptual thinking is therefore more abstract than imaginative thinking, where we take ”one step further back from the world” (Flusser 2000:11).

Writing, like images, is a mediation, and is thus open to the same inner dialectic. Writing is not only in conflict with images, but is itself torn by an inner dialectic that, argues Flusser, assumes a more adverse attribute in writing than in image making (Flusser 2000:12 and Flusser 2002:66). The aim of writing is to mediate between humans and our images with a view to deciphering them. In doing so, texts interpose themselves between humans and images: they hide the world from us instead of making it transparent for us. When this occurs, says Flusser (2000:12 and 2002:66), we can no longer decipher our texts nor reconstruct the ideas they signify. Texts grow unimaginable, and we live as a function of our texts. Flusser (2000:12) calls this a “textolatry”, which he says is as “hallucinatory” as idolatry.16 In her essay A Concretising Gesture: Flusser and the Technical Image, Ana Caria Pereira (2014:4) writes:

[T]he more separated and alienated we become, the more our language intercedes between us and it [language]. In this sense the world is constructed though language and the limits of language are the limits of the world.

This alienation, argues David Hume, was nowhere more apparent than in the Enlightenment programme. For Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, the programme of the Enlightenment was the “disenchantment of the world. It wanted to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (Hume 2012:12; Horkheimer & Adorno 2002:1). During the crisis of texts, asserts Flusser, technical images (produced with the aid of “apparatuses”), were developed to make texts understandable once more and to surmount the crisis of history and the Enlightenment.17 “With writing, history in the narrower sense begins as a struggle against idolatry. With photography, ‘post-history’ begins as a struggle against textolatry” (Flusser 2000:18).

Imagetexts and the re-enchantment of the world

In the context of Flusser’s ideas on the nature and function of linear texts, the 19th-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) raised a number of philosophical, poetic and conceptual issues that initiated a ‘turn’ regarding the relationship between images and texts. His prose poem Un Coup de Dés Jamais n’Abolira le Hasard18 [A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance] (1914) (see Fig. 74/Catalogue image 016) transgressed conventional literary texts by working extensively with word sounds and allowing onomatopoeia to substitute the implications of content (Perrée 2002:14).

Although the poem is exclusively text-based (it is not a book with pictorial images), it does not read according to the conventions of texts that conform to a train of thought that is linear and rational. Its unorthodox compositional devices used in the typesetting and layout of the pages hardly obey the rules of linear texts,19 particularly with regard to progression from the top to the bottom of pages and alignment that is to the left, centre or right, or justified. In fact, there is no fixed and logical vertical alignment of the lines and spacing in Mallarmé’s book. Neither does the book obey the rules of sequentiality when one pages through it.

Because of its sequential format that unfolds itself through time, a book as object, irrespective of its visuality, and whether or not it contains images, is linear. However, in Mallarmé’s book the conventional flow of texts from page to page is disrupted by its horizontal reading where the irregular lines of the poem stretch back and forth across the gutters between the verso and recto pages. In addition, the lines are set in several typefaces, which abstracts both form and content.

Rob Perrée writes that, by placing words on the page in an unconventional manner, Mallarmé transforms them into visual arrangements where texts become images and where white space “suddenly has a face” (2002:14). Un Coup de dés… allows for multiple non-linear readings of the text and focuses on the significance of the form of typography and the structure of the pages. In Flusser’s terms, the linear lines are ‘torn up’ and rearranged into what WJT Mitchell calls imagetexts.

Where Flusser sees technical images as a struggle against textolatry, I propose that the books that are discussed in this essay similarly wrestle with a textolatry. Like technical images, they do not represent objects or empirical reality in the way that pictures do; instead, they represent texts. Belonging to a world of concepts, they do not signify phenomena but concepts. As in the case of technical images, the imagination that creates artists’ books involves the capacity to “transcode concepts from texts into images” and as such, when we read artists’ books, we read concepts20 (Flusser 2000:15). They arise from critical thinking and create meaning through dialogue. As books they effectively assimilate the image into a linear sequence of events between the folds, and like photographs they “freeze events into scenes”, and in doing so belong to a post-historical world (Flusser 2000:xxv).

“The new enchantment”, says Flusser (2000:17), “is not designed to alter the world out there, but our concepts in relation to the world. It is magic of the second order: conjuring tricks with abstractions”.

Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés… liberated written language (text) from its linear restrictions and paved the way for the integration of text and image in 20th- and 21st-century artists’ books.21 It was followed by numerous avant-garde, Futurist, Constructivist and Suprematist attempts to transgress linear typographic conventions, such as Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s concrete sound poem Zang Tumb Tuuum (1914), Lazar El Lissitzky’s illustrations for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem Dlya Golosa [For the Voice] (1923) and the Calligrammes of the French Dada poet, playwright and critic Guillaume Apollinaire. By the early 1920s, avant-garde typographic experimentation and the transgression of the conventions of design and layout became institutionalised in the German Bauhaus School in Weimar (Drucker 1995:58).

There is now a considerable legacy regarding the use of words and language in visual art in the context of illustration, artists’ books or conceptual juxtapositions of image and text. Expressionist, Futurist, Dada, Surrealist and Fluxus artists began subverting the conventional use of typography, space and composition in books and graphic design in response to the political events of the times. Artists’ books recast the subject-object relationship by pushing the boundaries of typographic design and layout, and by transgressing the conventional relationships between text and image.

In his illustrations for Mayakovsky’s poem Dlya Golosa (Fig. 75/008), Lissitzky breached this relationship through his use and placement of text and geometric shapes, his organisation of space on the page and his use and scale of typefaces (Drucker 1995:56). These formal devices abolish the boundaries between text and image and between magical and conceptual thinking. Lissitzky’s page designs behave according to Flusser’s magical time or circular time; there is no beginning or end, and everything participates simultaneously as a synchronic whole.

In Figuring the Word (1998), Johanna Drucker demonstrates the close association between explorations by language artists into typography in the context of the avant-garde, and the interactions between images and texts which is particularly prominent in artists’ books. In her discussion on the “visual properties of written forms”, Drucker declares that “writing is a visual medium” (1995:57), which Charles Bernstein picks up in his introduction to her book: All language is visual when read (1998:xiii). Drucker notes that writing not only concerns itself with ideas, but also with “the manual production of marks and glyphs” (1995:65).

Mitchell describes this relationship as one of a “dialectical pluralism”. In his Picture Theory (1994), he writes that the interaction between images (pictures) and texts is “constitutive of representation as such” (1994:5), and redefines this interaction with his notions of imagetext, image/text and image-text. This discussion concerns itself with Mitchell’s imagetext as being a “composite, synthetic work that combines image and text” where the two cannot be separated,22 and that has been produced as an embodiment of discursive and non-discursive language. Artists’ books are abundant in imagetexts, and besides those that have already been mentioned above, this essay focuses on seven contemporary books that have been included in this exhibition.

A book artist who has questioned the way we read and write and who has deconstructed the relationship between image and word is Jean-Claude Loubières. In his collaborative book with the poet Jean-Pierre Ostende, Quand on lit = when we read (Fig. 76/0108), Loubières designed a bilingual French/English book comprising text and pictograms printed on white paper. Ostende’s poem elegantly encapsulates Flusser’s idea of how texts do not signify the world but rather images. A section of his poem that spans over 14 pages, alternating between bifold and gatefold pages, reads as follows:

when one reads
Slower
even slower
one sometimes has a
image
of one’s thought
(Ostend & Loubières 2003).23

Linear reading is destabilised by the action of unfolding and refolding the gatefold pages, actions that slow down the reading. As with Mallarmé’s book, the conventional horizontal and vertical flow of lines from page to page across verso and recto pages is disrupted in Loubières’s design by the typesetting and colours of the text. The lines have been printed in colours that alternate according to the French and English texts, which run in horizontal and vertical directions. The lines have been composed so that the two languages interact typographically where lines intersect. Sections of the pages with pictograms have been partially dipped in transparent wax, which is a feature of a number of Loubières’s books. This causes the sections of pages impregnated with wax to become transparent, allowing the text to be read through the pages and interact with the pictograms.

For Flusser, the struggle between texts and images, of historical consciousness against magical consciousness, is a dialectical struggle. Texts explain images in order to conceptualise them, he says, and “images in their turn illustrate texts in order to render their meaning imaginable” (Flusser 2000:11).

Although conceptual thinking examines magical thinking in order to do away with it, magical thinking infiltrates conceptual thinking in order to imagine its concepts. During this dialectical process, magical and conceptual thinking mutually support themselves: texts become more imaginative, and images become more conceptual. As such, images need texts to give themselves form, and texts need images to nourish further significance.24

The convergence and coexistence of texts and images in artists’ books establishes a dialogue between surface and line, between image and concept, between author and reader, between the folds of the pages of the book, and between the circular time of magic and the linear time of history. According to Flusser, dialogue becomes possible when we engage with creativity (Finger, Guldin & Bernardo 2011:132). Flusser says: “One can therefore speak of creation as a dialogical process, in which either an internal or external dialog takes place…” (Finger, Gulden & Bernardo 2011:132).

In The Dialogic Imagination (1981), Mikhail Bakhtin defines heteroglossia as a “double-voiced discourse” that can simultaneously serve more than one speaker and at the same time express more than one intention: “In such discourse there are two voices, two meanings and two expressions. And all the while these two voices are dialogically interrelated, they – as it were – know about each other … it is as if they actually hold a conversation with each other” (Bakhtin 1981:324). In establishing the necessity of developing a theoretical foundation to examine artists’ books, David Paton, in his article Towards a Theoretical Underpinning of the Book Arts (2012), draws on Bakhtin’s writings on dialogism and heteroglossia:

In heteroglossic terms, the author, the narrator, (other) characters and the reader, become the artist, subjects, characters, characterisations and the viewer, each aware of the positions and roles the others take up and play. Any textual or scriptovisual utterance in the artist’s book, then, is dialogilised heteroglossia (Paton 2012:30).

Paton (2012:25) sets apart three critical elements of Bakhtin’s thought which he feels may underscore the theoretical act of enunciation of artists’ books, namely “self-consciousness, discursive perceptivity and self-reflexivity (or bookness)”. Heteroglossia, he (2012:30) argues, “activates these elements and governs the operation of meaning”.

This notion of dialogilised heteroglossia is strongly evident in the interaction between images and words, and particularly in another of Loubières’s books, Quand on lit = When you read (2003) (Fig. 77/0108), a collaboration with the poet Marie-Hélène Lafon.25 The transparent butcher-paper pages of the book have been folded at the fore-edges so that they loop back and are stitched into the spine. The pages comprise images of everyday banal objects and text printed in French and English in varying shades of colours and tones. The text has been set in a sans serif typeface so that the baselines of the French text and meanlines of the English text touch and enjoin. The text runs across the top of the pages and wraps around the folded fore-edges so that parts of lines read through parts of other lines.

The English translation of Lafon’s poem reads as follows:

When we read we die less
die less it goes
goes through the body
through the body the core
the core of the stories
the stories in the blood
the blood under the skin
under the skin in the meat
in the meat the pus
the pus of the words
words run into the white
white we are nourished
nourished when we read

The lines of text wrap over the fore-edge folds of the pages, which prompts the reader to page over and back, backwards and forwards, to comprehend the text. Likewise, the images (pictures) also wrap around the folded fore-edges below the text, asking for the pages to be turned back and forth for the viewer to comprehend the images. In so doing, the book challenges the linearity of conventional sequential reading, with text and pictures coexisting as a dialogic whole.

The text-image relationship of the book, the format, binding, paper, graphics, typography and composition, engage in various dialogic exchanges where the word becomes image, and the image becomes sign. In dialogical terms, the book exploits the ambivalent terrain between image and text. Loubières’s books simultaneously serve a number of voices,26 namely those of Loubières himself, his coauthors, the French and English voices, and the voices of the responding readers.

In Bakhtinian terms, these books promote double-voiced discourses. The speakers, speaking through words and images,27 encourage intersubjective practices that involve a number of voices in dialogic exchanges. The dialogic principle alters our conception of reading to one where linear time and circular time coexist and interact in a bidirectional or multidirectional mode of reading in what Kac (2004:200) calls “multilogic interactions”. It must be pointed out here that Kac is careful to mention when applied to the visual arts, “dialogical” or ”dialogism” generally become tropes; they are metaphors to “support the analysis of cultural products that are materially self-contained (for example books and paintings) and therefore incapable of creating the living experience of dialogues” (Kac 2004:200). Kac (2004:200) also suggests that by studying art works that are themselves real dialogues, particularly in the electronic media, one can gain new insights regarding dialogical art. As is demonstrated by the above-mentioned examples, dialogues can also take place between other types of voices, such as the aesthetic idiolects of the artists expressed through materials, techniques and other dimensions of the form of the respective works.

Textoclasm and the restoration of pictorial thought

The dialectical struggle between images and texts that gave rise to linear thinking was, according to Flusser, a critique directed against pictures and pictorial thought. As discussed, this critique may be seen as iconoclastic thinking.28 In her discussion on Flusser’s essays Exile and Creativity and Line and Surface (from his Writings), Adelheid Mers notes: “[a]s the notion rises that images are man-made, linear texts are invented to explain the images (iconoclasm). As the notion rises that texts are man-made, techno-images are summoned to model the texts (textoclasm), that have earlier served to explain the images and still contain their traces” (Mers 2006:19). Five books on the exhibition engage predominantly with textoclastic devices. In each case, texts are read through previous texts with a view to censuring, tearing out or replacing these.

Marcel Broodthaers’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard29 (1969) (Fig. 78/017) is directly informed by and parodies Stéphane Mallarmé’s book of the same title. Broodthaers constructed a replica of Mallarmé’s book but ‘censored’ his words by blocking them out with black strips that correspond directly to the typographic layout of Mallarmé’s book. The book is printed on translucent paper, where the phrases on the different pages relate to each other in a spatial dimension through the pages of the book (Drucker 1995:116). Broodthaers thereby reduced Mallarmé’s book to its visual structure and layout and subverted the convention of the book as a device for encrypting and recording. This act of textoclasm is taken even further by Buzz Spector in his Marcel Broodthaers (2010)30 (Fig. 79/0192).

In this work, Spector covered the pages of Broodthaers’s Walker Art Centre/Rizzoli catalogue (1989) in gesso and then, as he did with his book A Passage (1994), he progressively ripped out each page along the fore-edge in increasing widths from the first to the last page so that the text block takes on a wedge-like shape. Likewise, in his book Hollow Words31 (1996) (Fig. 80/0170), Doug Beube32 gouged out all the words from Kenneth Maclean’s book Pierson’s Masters and Fellows 1933 – 1938,33 and in so doing also reduced it to a visual structure. Whereas the goal of the iconoclasts (breakers of icons) was to liberate people from the magical power of images by breaking apart the images and arranging the pictograms into linear texts (Flusser 2002:43), the practice of textoclasts is directed against writing with a view to restoring pictorial thought.

In contrast to Beube’s gouged-out words, the main feature of Paul Heimbach’s book Alphabet (1989/1990) (Fig 81/0109) involves the deletion of words that also echoes Broodthaers’s Un Coup de Dés… . Heimbach collected 26 title pages of the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger from the period just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, beginning on Friday 15 December 1989 and ending with Tuesday 9 January 1990. The book comprises three ‘volumes’ or parts. In the first, he systematically deleted each letter of the alphabet in succession from the title pages over a sequence of 26 pages.34

In a second volume, printed on translucent paper, he removed all the remaining letters, leaving only the letters that he had originally deleted from the title pages. These pages read as if the letters have been randomly sprinkled over the pages, with the larger letters occupying the top third of the pages and the smaller letters the remaining two thirds. The work may be seen as a critique of linearity and logic and reads as a cacophony of random letters that, like Broodthaers’s Un Coup de Dés…, are read through the pages of translucent paper.

The fifth textoclast book on this exhibition is Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Reading Colour (2009) (Fig. 82/0241), where she colour-coded all the characters of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), and substituted the letters with her own alphanumerical colour codes that correspond to the letterform of each character in Rushdie’s book. While Beube and Spector’s textoclasms could be considered as acts of violation where the alphabetic code is gouged from the paper or covered with gesso and then ripped out from the book, leaving behind only traces of their former texts, those of Heimbach and Van Schalkwyk are acts of casting magical spells. Similar to Heimbach, Van Schalkwyk reinstates the magic of images by removing or replacing letters and words and rearranging them into lines of colour.It must be pointed out that the field of book arts is equally subject to its own internal dialectic. As with images and texts, artists’ books similarly mediate between humans and the world, though many forget that these books, such as the ones on this exhibition, are created to critically examine, interrogate and transgress our understanding of the dialectical nature of imagetexts and the world they represent.

Once we lose the ability to decode them, they can no longer exert a mediatory and critical function, and instead we become a function of the books. In many cases, these are finely crafted beautiful books that sit on the boundary of the conceptual territory in which artists’ books function, while in other cases they operate fully in this space but have become mannerist clichés of the previous work of these artists.35

Under a ‘magic spell’

Following Flusser’s train of thought, I argue that the artists’ books dealt with in this essay place texts “‘under a magic spell’ by rescuing them from the `the crisis of [linear] history’” (Flusser 2000:13). Despite their origin in a process of abstraction, and unlike photography which Flusser maintains is founded on the laws of natural science, artists’ books form part of a post-historical age that represents an essential change in that they are read simultaneously as ‘scenes’ and ‘lines’. Being neither texts nor images, they occupy a liminal space betwixt and between image and text; between magical space and conceptual space. In this indeterminate space where boundaries evaporate, the bookwork transcends the margins that separate one space from another (Dietrich 2011:13).

This ‘in-between’ space can therefore be understood as an intersection where ideas and concepts (artistic, cultural, political or social) are in continuous states of engagement and intermediation (Dietrich 2011:12). “This interstitial passage between fixed identifications,” says Homi Bhabha, “opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy” (Bhabha 1994:86).

Bhabha describes the hybrid space opened up by this liminal state as a “Third Space of enunciation” where new forms of cultural meaning can take place (1994:86). Situated between the worlds of images and texts, the artist’s book does not entirely belong to either of these. Despite its lack of stability, this space allows for a freedom of movement and the dynamic exchange of ideas, concepts and methods of working (Dietrich 2011:13).

This mixing of images and texts in the boundaries of a single utterance, says Bahktin (1981:385), is “an artistic device … that is deliberate”. It allows for the “double-voiced and double-accented, and double-languaged” (Bahktin 1981:359-60), and as such can maintain a number of dialogues in a single “utterance”, be they styles, belief systems or social languages.

Liminality, hybridity, heteroglossia, polyphony, the dialogue and the double-voiced can be associated with a magical spell that resonates in the books under discussion. These books prosper in their rich polyvocal, intertextual and transtextual interplay between images and texts between their folds and pages. In dialogical terms these books draw on the ambivalent space between image and text and re-establish a magical form of being: a way of understanding our world where images and texts coexist, being neither image nor text, but as imagetext.

What Flusser (2002:67) calls the posthistorical “techno-imagination” presents a new type of magico-mythical age, a “post-historical image culture”.36

End notes

1 Flusser, V. 1983. Für eine Philosophie der Fotographie. Göttingen: European Photography.

2 Czech-born media theorist and philosopher Vilém Flusser was born into a Jewish family in 1920 in Prague and educated at German and Czech schools and the Univerzita Karlova in Prague. He escaped the Nazi occupation in 1939 by fleeing to London, and lost his entire family in German concentration camps at Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. From London he emigrated to Brazil where he took up citizenship. He lived for many years in São Paulo, where he lectured in Philosophy of Science at the Escola Politécnica of the University of São Paulo and was professor of Philosophy of Communication at the Escola Dramática and the Escola Superior de Cinema. Later he emigrated to France and died in 1991 in a motor accident on his way to Prague. Flusser’s philosophy remains practically unknown beyond small circles in German studies, media theory, and digital art. His works are primarily written in Portuguese and German, with limited publications in French and English. His early work was influenced by Martin Heidegger and the existentialist and phenomenological theories of his time. Phenomenology played a major role in the transition to the later phase of his work in which he turned his attention to the philosophy of communication and of artistic production. In reviews of the Flusser Archive in Cologne, he has been compared to Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Susan Sontag (Ströhl 2002:xxv, xxx).

3 Technical images encompass photographs, x-rays, film, video, television and other electronic media.

4 Flusser’s notion of ”magic” changes slightly from the one edition of his Towards a Philosophy of Photography to the other. In his 1984 edition he sometimes exchanges the term magic with ”witchcraft”. In the latter context I take a slightly different stance on magic and magical images than Flusser’s ”pre-historical …magic of the second degree, with an abstract sort of witchcraft” (Flusser, V. 1984. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Göttingen: European Photography). Although one should be careful as to the use of the term ”witchcraft”, I do, however, agree that the magic of contemporary images is different from older forms of magic. The difference between the old and the new form of magic, writes Flusser, may be formulated as such: Prehistoric magic is a ritualization of models known as ”myths”; current magic is a ritualization of models known as ”programs”. Myths are models that are communicated orally and whose author — a “god” — is beyond the communication process. Programs, on the other hand, are models that are communicated in writing and whose authors — “functionaries” — are within the communication process (Flusser 2000:17).

5 Flusser does not make a clear distinction between an image and a picture. Mitchell (2008:16) argues that a ”picture is a material object, a thing you can burn or break. An image is what appears in a picture, and what survives its destruction – in memory, in narrative, and in copies and traces in other media”. He adds: “[Y]ou can hang a picture, but you can’t hang an image. […] Picture, then, is the image as it appears in a material support or a specific place”.

6 See also Flusser 2007:19.

7 “The significance of images is on the surface. One can take them in at a single glance, yet this remains superficial. If one wishes to deepen the significance, i.e. to reconstruct the abstracted dimensions, one has to allow one’s gaze to wander over the surface feeling the way as one goes. This wandering over the surface of the image is called ‘scanning’”(Flusser 2000:8).

8 See also Flusser 2007:19.

9 Flusser describes an image as a “significant surface on which the elements of the image act in a magic fashion towards one another” (2000:83). This does not preclude mental images. Literary texts, also depend on a reader’s ability to visualise the world through imagination in response to the mental images conjured up by the writer’s linear text.

10 Instead of making our world comprehensible and bridging the gap of alienation, images came between the world and human beings (Flusser 2000:9-10).

11 “Essentially this is a question of ’amnesia’” writes Flusser of the notion of idolatry. “We forget we created the images to orient ourselves; once we can’t decode them anymore, our lives become a function of our own images” (2000:10).

12 Here Flusser refers to the development of writing in ancient Sumer around 3200 BCE (2002:65).

13 Iconoclasm: the prohibition or breaking up of images.

14 This does not imply that there was no history prior to writing.

15 “In this phrasing”, writes Flusser, “all linear writing appears as a description of images, as a critique of the imagination based on a new mode of thought. What characterizes this new, critical manner of thinking is the fact that it is not structured in a two-dimensional, planar way like the imagination, but one-dimensionally, line-like” (2007:20).

16 Flusser writes “[F]aithfulness to the text, are orthodox Christianity and Marxism”, where the world is experienced and understood as a function of texts (2000:13).

17 Flusser maintains that, because of their seeming “objectivity, technical images are not criticised as images”. This is dangerous, he says, as their “objectivity” is an illusion. Like all images they are are not only symbolic, “but represent even more abstract complexes of symbols than traditional images. They are metacodes of texts…which signify texts”. Technical images have their origins in a new form of imagination, “the ability to transcode concepts from texts into images” (2000:15).

18 Mallarmé, S. 1914. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Bruges: Imprimerie Sainte Catherine. The book is set against the background of a sinking ship whose master stands on her deck clutching a pair of dice but hesitating to complete the throw.

19 The poem was written in 1897 and published posthumously in 1914 in accordance with Mallarmé’s instructions (Drucker 1995:37).

20 Flusser (2000:14) limits his oeuvre of technical images to those created by programmes and dependent on laws of technology. Technical images include photography, film, video, computer graphics, holography and virtual reality (Ströhl 2002:xxvi).

21 These ideas filtered through to Expressionist, Futurist, Dada and Surrealist artists, and in particular their habit of subverting the conventional use of typography, space and composition in books, pamphlets and posters. In her translator’s note to Mallarmé’s Divagations, Barbara Johnson points out that the theoretical styles of structuralists and poststructuralists such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan owe a lot to Mallarmé’s poem (Johnson 2007:301).

22 Mitchell’s notion of image/text highlights the existence of “a problematic gap” or “cleavage” between the two, thus accentuating a “rupture” in the field of representation. Image-text emphasises the possibility of “relations between the visual and the verbal” (1994:89).

23 Published in Paris by AdéLéo éditions.

24 Flusser writes: ”Nowadays, the greatest conceptual abstraction is to be found in conceptual images (in computer images, for example); the greatest imagination is to be found in scientific texts. Thus, behind one’s back, the hierarchy of codes is overturned. Texts, originally a metacode of images, can themselves have images as a metacode” (2000:12).

25 These books were issued in 2003 as a component in Quand on lit = When you read, produced by Jean-Claude Loubiéres, which consists of seven individual books. Lafon, M-H. & Loubières, J-C. 2003. Quand on lit = When you read. Paris: Adéléo éditions.

26 The aesthetic idiolect of the artist who speaks through his articulation of visual devices and materials.

27 Here images include everything that one sees: paper, wax, typography, figure, ground and so on.

28 In the Protestant Reformation, this involved tearing down religious images by invoking the Ten Commandments’ forbidding of idolatry and graven images of God.

29 This work is published in Antwerp by Wide White Space Gallery.

30 Spector, B. 2010. Marcel Broodthaers. Self-publication.

31 Beube, D.1996. Hollow Words. Self-publication.

32 It is interesting that Beube calls himself a 'biblioclast'.33 The book comprises the names of masters and fellows at Pierson College, Yale University, between 1933 and 1938. MacLean’s book was published in 1938 by Overbrook Press in Stamford, Conn. Gouging out the names is not unlike the iconoclastic tradition of gouging out the eyes of icons.

34 In the first case he removed all the letters `a’, while in the second case all the letters `b’, and so on, working his way through the alphabet.

35 Buzz Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers and Stone Book (Astounding Revelations) (1982) serve as appropriate examples, both being derivatives of his celebrated masterpiece A Passage (1994).

36 Flusser is essentially a sceptic, and cautions his readers regarding the ”threatening future” of mytho-magic. “[P]rehistoric myths mean ’real‘ situations and posthistoric myths will mean textual prescriptions, and prehistoric magic is meant to propitiate the world, whereas posthistoric magic will be meant to manipulate people” (Flusser 2002:67).


[Fig. 74/ 016]


[Fig. 75/ 008]


[Fig. 76/ 0108]


[Fig. 77/ 0108]


[Fig. 78/ 017]


[Fig. 79/ 0192]


[Fig. 80/ 0170]


[Fig. 81/ 0109]


[Fig. 82/ 0241]


Terms of Use and Privacy Policy | © David Paton. All rights reserved.