Last year I made a simple yet (I think) interesting chapbook for/with NZ poet Owen Bullock, who is a fellow HDR student at the University of Canberra. We called it Tracer. It has a distinctive shape: tall and narrow, c. 280 x 100mm, using cartridge paper and a grey Optix card cover, laserprinted. To give it a personal touch, I hand-sew each copy with a pamphlet stitch in black thread.
The year before, I’d printed one of Owen’s poems as a page-fold format, initially as a contribution to the deluxe folio of Parenthesis: , Autumn 2014. He’d written this poem during the 2014 Codex Australia symposium; it is a mash-up of quotes, overheard conversations and his own observational haiku. I wanted to send something to the journal that used poetry differently, but because I had to print about 170 pieces, it had to be light (to send to the US) and not too tricky to print, because I was busy with many projects. (I forgot to tell myself that it should be not too tricky to hand-set.) With Owen’s permission, I edited the poem down and took out all the quotes from named theorists and anything that really anchored it to that time and place, leaving it more airy and universal, but retained his first and last haiku, which spoke of his arrival and departure from Melbourne. I used Whitetrace, an architectural tracing paper, to allow translucency and show-through, to allow the words to interact.
I wanted to really utilize the page-fold, to make something that was dimensional. When I’d finished, and sent it off, and had time to really look at it, I saw that this simple folded piece of paper was a complete artist’s book, because it was able to be read in multiple directions.
So. The chapbook, Tracer, contains the original Redex poem, and a subsequent version, called Redux, written by Owen while reading my print. That is, he looked AT the print, turning it over in his hands, and composed a new version from what he saw. He also wrote another piece called ‘On the first arrangement of ‘Redex’, which ends:
What I wrote before
Then, following those, is another poem called ‘On the final arrangement of ‘Redex’. This time, he’s riffing on the experience of the entire process, and random notes that didn’t make it into the original version. I set this poem spacially across both pages of that long thin page spread. Other poems in the chapbook read normatively, straight down each page, but there are at least two poems that read across, and the trick is to indicate that for the reader in the layout so that they don’t get lost. One method I used (for the Redex poem) was to run the title across both pages. The other method was to run a line of arrows across the page spread next to the title, with one returning arrow at the end, so: >>>>>>>>>><
I think it works.
I have other plans for Owen, and one of them involved projection, but I hadn’t resolved how: a large sheet of white paper mounted from above, with his words projecting as a moving animation? Print the words first, then project more over the top? Perhaps have Owen standing between the paper and the projection, and photograph/record him reciting through the movement? He’s a very open, transparent person, and the thought of continuing to use transparency with his words is very appealing.
Early this year, I was approached by another HDR student, Louise Curham, who does a lot of collaborative work around archives and technology. Her technological equipment of choice is film, specifically Super-8 film and projection cameras. She works with film the way I work with letterpress: as a way of exploring what it can do as a material process, rather than as a nostalgic/iconic method of production. You can see her work here and here.
Louise regularly contributes to the Canberra You Are Here festival, and this year she was interested in collaborating with Owen and I in a performance. When she talked about her projection work, I was reminded of my ideas about projecting on to Owen. A project was born.
Tracer became the working name of our collaboration; we threw it in to our proposal, and by the time we wanted to change it, the festival program was out and it seemed to be as good as anything else. It was a fantastic experience, discussing our respective approaches to our creative practice, working out how to use them in a complementary way, and to foreground their material elements without overshadowing each other.
You can see our process in photos at our tumblr.
Essentially, I letterpress-printed words on large sheets of paper (cut off the roll), we hung these and Owen performed to them while Louise projected her films on the paper. That’s the short story.
The words were initially brainstormed by the group, led by Owen who is the wordsmith. They were words that could be pulled apart and pushed together; words of place and time.
The paper was tested by us all: we ended up with both glossy and matte papers because of the different effects they caused. The sheets were so large that I set up all the text sideways on my proof press and hand-rolled them with ink, laying the paper over the type across the bed of the press and printing by using the palm of my hand to press the paper to the type. By rolling roughly and randomly and pressing without really looking, the words formed their own clusters, and bits of the press were inked up and became part of the visuals. The bearer rails made a lovely series of stuttering lines that visually echoed the stutter of the projectors, and I kept printing them as a motif through the text, along with the onomatopoeic letters TATATATATA. My first sheet was too busy, so I set that aside (it’s turning into a book at the moment) and started to leave more space, to allow room for Owen and the films.
Owen and Louise, in the meantime, worked out a running programme of the Super-8 films and a script of haiku to go with them. For the first few times we got together to eat/talk/play, he let the backdrops and the films suggest poems (his head is FULL of them) and then things started to solidify into a set performance.
We didn’t rehearse it intricately; one agreement was that the performance was a chunk of the research. Another agreement was that the difficulties and affects of our process were part of the performance, and not to be treated as obstacles. The sound of the projectors; film getting stuck and melting (alarmingly!); the weather conditions on the night (windy!); whether I could remember my cue to stop being a stagehand and start printing onto a backdrop and Owen by hand (I didn’t, I was early, but we were ok with that). My ‘live’ printing was partly to be present in the action, but also to contribute extra sensory moments on top of the projector sound: the smell of the ink, the hiss of a roller, the added semiotics of placing an X on the projected bus stop at the place where Owen was describing his waiting for the bus, and then printing the X again, directly on him.
We performed on the 13th of April, after dark, in the courtyard of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, to a crowd that fit into the venue: enough to feel seen, not enough to crowd us. It was windy, the papers were restless, and I had to put weights on their bases (letterpress leading and bulldog clips) and then stand behind and ‘calm’ them during the performance so that they didn’t fly up.
Owen performed engagingly, reciting his haiku in the traditional manner: not in boring poetry voice, but repeating them after a pause, so that you heard them, and then heard them.
Louise wrangled the four projectors with a savage concentration that was almost scary. When I commented upon this later, she laughed and said that she’d been thinking like a projector. This shone a light into my own head. I so often think like a press: each press I use needs to become familiar, because they each have their own quirks, but once those quirks are known, I can think like them, know how they will react, and adjust my behaviour accordingly. It’s not mastery, it’s empathy.
We had originally thought of repeating this performance in another venue, perhaps for a conference. It may still happen, but suddenly the year has become dense and sticky, with little room to move sideways. We are writing about our experience, because that’s all it needs to be: an experience.