On Monday Didier and I went aboard the Hafrún fishing boat for an all-day trip. Captain Jóhann Sigurjónsson and his three-person crew generously let us get in the way while they trawled from 6am until 3pm. They brought back six tons of fish, which was considered a light catch. It was extreme and harrowing and beautiful and I came away knowing that any deeper understanding of Skagaströnd had to account for this kind of work, the grueling routine of the fishermen who sustain the town. I’d suspected this but my appreciation for the tedious process of hunting, netting, trawling, capturing, killing, gutting and then unloading the fish back at the dock became physical and real and graphic.
530—Skagaströnd’s population, according to Wikipedia—was one of the only concepts I brought with me, and I’d decided early on that this would be the page count for the work. Both arbitrary and specific, having something to do with reality, but certainly no longer accurate. The mayor told me the actual population is more like 506.
In July I’d photographed this old boat sitting in the harbor—made in the Netherlands in 1955 from the steel of melted German U-boats, and one of the oldest trawlers in Iceland—and later realized, while looking at the photos, that it carried this same number, 530. And on Monday, in the middle of the trip in the Greenland Sea, as I was violently ill for hours off the side of that same boat, the physicality of the experience brought on some kind of clarity (or cloudy haze?), enough for me to understand that 530 had to be the title of the work. A random, specific number that embodies the town and connects its identity to this charged vessel that sits in the harbor—to me and my experiences here and the book itself.
The weight of the work.
So 530 it is. The full title is 530 (Sá veldur sem á heldur). It’s A5 size, 530 pages, color, with an inside cover and separate cover wrap with front and back folds. The edition of 50 prints at Svansprent in Reykjavík during the next week and I’ll pick them up on 30 August, and bring them back to Skagaströnd for book encounters.
The book encounters will happen 4–7 September at the country-western bar, the gas station, the café and the library (more details to come).
I’m at the backpacker’s café in Akureyri and I’m thinking about the book, taking shape. It’s just a matter of days until I send it to the printer in Reykjavík.
I worry about how it’ll be received. That it might be seen as a superficial view of the place. That my outsider’s coated view could offend people who live here. This tiny town is hard. Guarded, deliberate, private, protective, proud. Even in such a closed place, I’ve been welcomed by some and I’ve discovered beautiful characters, and they appear in the work.
I guess another way to say it is this way: that I feel vulnerable, creating a work in public like this. On-site, on-demand, in full view. Maybe it makes the work stronger. It certainly makes it much more of an event for me. The book as performative output.
Then again, my goal has never been to paint a portrait of this place. I would never dare to call this a representation of Skagaströnd. The work stands on its own and draws from my encounters. It’s a private, subjective take (how could it not be).
Could I call it a non-fiction fantasy?
The process that developed here builds on Weymouths, but this project is threaded with chance operations in a bigger way. My 39 chapters (I’ve been calling them movements) were mixed by chance to create a score that I’m using to design the book. Every step of the design of the book has been with this score at my side.
Chance feels important here. I described it to Emy like this: chance is my intern. I’m using it in the background like a loaded character. It’s a way to pair, juxtapose, determine. My hope is that it opens up the surface, that the images and texts can go beyond the smallness of fixed appearance.
Take three, three cards.
You have to choose wisely
A lot of people around you
Good card, very good
I start here
Is it about navigation?
Last night someone walked over to my desk and I showed her the 530-page blank dummy and we were talking about the differences between a bound book and a loose deck of cards, like tarot. And I explained that the pages of this book will be minimal in appearance and open to interpretation, and that the sections are ordered by chance, and that I leave it to the reader to experience the book as he/she desires (front-to-back, back-to-front, flipping through, random encounters). “The one who holds it is the one responsible (sá veldur sem á heldur).”
And she said “oh, you mean bibliomancy?”
The use of books in divination. “Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand.” The I Ching, famously.
I’m not sure I could better describe my practice here in Skagaströnd. A systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facts of existence. The problem at hand is unstated; the problem at hand is what the reader brings to the work. A specific question or a feeling or none at all.
It could be a question of identity.
How can we read the daily route of a fishing trawler at sea. The boat follows the whale. The whale follows the fish, who respond to the currents, the temperature, the light and salinity. The route marks itself, an automatic trace, the Orvar’s (arrow) pattern as it searches for the creatures. A drawn dance, a choreography of the town’s survival.
The ship draws its pattern each day and forms its historical archive of itineraries, but only fourteen days of data are saved. As the ship moves through sea time, the archive regenerates itself and disappears.
The remainder of the Weymouths proofs arrived today, so I spent most of the day photographing the complete set of 12 volumes for my talk next week. I’ll be speaking on Saturday at the Book Live symposium (full program PDF) at London South Bank University. I’ll post the entire talk here, including all of the slides, in the next few days.
I finished the last book in the series of 12 today, so the design of Weymouths is complete. Or rather, the design of the books is complete—I still need to create the reading room experience for the installation in Weymouth, England 27 July – 12 August. The total work is starting to come into focus. After the next six proofs arrive I’ll photograph the entire set.
Weymouths Volume 8 is an attempt to repair. Stitching up the story while opening it to new depths. Preservation of the found ruins.
- An entire Native American dugout canoe was discovered in 1965, buried in the mud of Great Pond in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The canoe was treated with polyethylene glycol and permanently housed in an exhibit room in the basement of Tufts Library (main branch of the Weymouth Public Libraries). Chester Kevitt details the preservation process for the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, published in their Bulletin, October 1968.
- Murals painted by high school students surround the glass case.
- During my visit to the Canoe Room at Tufts Library I was given access to a file containing all of the news clippings and articles that had been collected about the “Indian Canoe” during the last 45 years.
- 350 years earlier, Samuel de Champlain describes his encounters with the Native American population on his exploratory voyages in and around present-day New York, Vermont and Canada. The word “canoe” occurs 26 times in his memoir of 1603, “The Savages.” Each of the occurrences within Champlain’s text is extracted onto individual spreads that slowly zooms into the canoe, Carbon-14 dated to A.D. 1450.
Weymouths Volume 7 is a journey, a zoom, a reaching back. A dig, a reveal.
This is where I encounter the visible remains of another society. Below the surface, here’s the evidence of worship, ritual, architecture — structures that pre-date our sense of real (embedded within the identity of the place, but “beyond the map”). Volume 7 is about the “Roman works and fortifications with which the neighbourhood abounds,” upon Jordan Hill, just outside Weymouth, England. In 1844 the Ashmolean Society detailed the discovery of the remains, and published the notes at Oxford in 1854.
“The most remarkable discoveries made by Mr. Medhurst in 1843, and visited in October last by Dr. Buckland and Mr. Conybeare, were the foundations of a temple on the summit of Jordan Hill, and of a villa, a quarter of a mile distant, between this hill and the village of Preston.
“Dr. Buckland conjectures that this building may have been a temple of Esculapius, which received the votive offerings of the Roman families and invalids who visited Weymouth for sea-bathing and for health.”
As the 19th-century text travels into the foundations (details of bird skeletons, human bones, seeds, coins and ashes), I zoom into my photograph of the temple foundation taken at Jordan Hill on 6 March 2012. I go deeper into the surface and the photograph reveals a single color, like a flatlining of historical narrative. Perhaps this is a way to escape the figurative. By the end of the 112-page book, my documentation of Roman remains floats around a single pixel of color, like some suggestion of another reality. I can’t think of a more authentic way to look.
In Volume 10 I discovered that I can slow down the read by devoting an entire page to a single word. A single paragraph spread over 59 pages. Reading at a different scale, to expose other structures over time, like erosion.
Here is slow reading, again — this time, a single sentence on each spread. This is how reading can be like zooming. This is how reading can be more like digging. Slow reading leads to open reading.
My first experience with the Espresso Book Machine.
There’s a kind of renaissance going on with the printed page right now, perhaps to counter our relatively new fascination with digital publishing. Last month’s NY Art Book Fair was evidence enough that there’s never been a better time for the self- or small independent publisher of paper-based works. A remarkably low barrier-to-entry and easy access to print-on-demand services like Blurb and BookMobile and Create Space are satisfying a growing artists’ book movement and fueling entirely new ventures, like print-on-demand publishing and artists’ book coops and self-publishing book fairs.
In the middle of this space has emerged something altogether different. It’s got one foot in the Google/Gutenberg epub swamp and another in the bookstore. It’s an inelegant, one-ton pile of plexiglas and hardware with a footprint a bit larger than a bathtub. The Espresso Book Machine doesn’t make coffee — it eats PDFs and spits out professional-grade paperback books. In a few minutes. For a few dollars.
As remarkable as it is, it’s additive technology cobbled together from component parts. It’s a mash-up machine, really not much more than a few Xerox printers, a glue-gun and some X-acto blades connected to the internet. The Frankenstein of printers. Which means that the EBM is not breakthrough technology, but more like an iterative step in the 600-year development of the printer, with the potential to support other, more innovative ideas (a print-on-demand library, for example).
That said, it’s a fantastic thing.
As soon as I heard that NYC had its first (and so far only) EBM at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street, I started thinking about a test project. It’s got some interesting restrictions — printing is 1-color black-only for the text pages, full-color cover, any size from 4″ x 4″ up to 8.5″ x 11″, and a minimum of 40 pages (max of 800).
So I decided to use it as the basis for a proposal I was writing for an arts festival in the UK — 12 volumes that would be “Espresso’d” and installed at different locations during the 2-week event, to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics. Since it was so easy, why not design and print Volume #1 and photograph it for the proposal? And that’s exactly what I did — it’s a 224-page, 1-color information graphic. I’ll post more about the project later, after I hear back from the festival producers.
The EBM at McNally Jackson is somewhere between “print-on-demand” and “see-you-next-week.” There’s a long queue for the service and it was suggested I check back in a few days to see when the book would be ready. Later, I was told there were no guarantees and I could pay a $25 fee to move to the front of the line (on top of an already-confusing set-up fee structure that includes a free proof; the printed book itself was about $12). I did, and got it the next day. I guess it’s a good thing that there’s great enough demand to keep it in business, but I’m willing to bet NYC could use a few more of these machines.
The bottom line — the printing is awesome. Super rich blacks and good tonal range on the photos (which were taken from Google Street View and already washed out). The text stock is a generic 60 lb. white or cream (I chose white), and a choice of dull uncoated or satin coated bright white 100 lb. cover.
The perfect binding is eerily perfect.
Perhaps the most interesting thing is that all of the world’s 50 Espresso Book Machines are networked, so the PDF I feed it on Prince Street can be printed again, on-demand, in London or anywhere else. My latest dream — to lease one of these things, stick it in an empty storefront, and open an instant bookstore with an entirely digital inventory.