calla_s – Dictionyms (or: Pimp!My!Book!)

4 Aug


I really wanted to put a rollover on the image above, but that would require javascript or CSS, neither of which I think I can incorporate into Livejournal. Not to worry, hopefully it will become clear that I haven’t just given calla_s some random red book in lieu of a proper art project!

If I refer back to the notes I first wrote up when deciding what to do for the art meme, next to C’s name was:

watercolour leaves
And this idea stayed with me for some months. The image was almost complete in my head too – I knew the picture I was going to use as reference and, other than the fact that I had no idea I would go about it, I could see how the picture would be laid out. Now, there’s often very little correlation between what I see in my head and the final product, so it’s very likely that C’s watercolour leaves would never have looked how I imagined them anyway. However one lifedrawing class, in January 2007, the leaves went completely out the window and were supplanted by another idea completely. An idea that was less elegant, perhaps, but also much cooler. Somehow I felt it suited calla_s better.

In this lifedrawing class one of the other students (a graphics arts student IRL) was using an old book on typography as a sketch book. He was drawing in figures in pen and ink and even liquid paper. I don’t think he was incorporating the typography text particularly, but he was doing collage with other ‘found’ paper (flyers and advertising material) in it too. I thought it was awesome and during the class the teacher started discussing the book, also mentioning another famous ‘treated’ book – A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, by Tom Phillips. I had never heard of A Humument but was inspired by what she described and googled the name when I got home. Basically the story goes like this:

After reading an interview with William Burroughs in the mid-1960s, Tom Phillips began to play with the ‘cut-up’ technique, making ‘column-edge poems’ from copies of the New Statesman. To push the idea further, he decided to extend the treatment to the first (coherent) book that he could buy for threepence. One Saturday, Phillips found, for exactly threepence, a copy of W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel, A Human Document. This book seemed appropriate and, in late 1966, Phillips began to work on it. At first he “merely scored out unwanted words with pen and ink.” However he soon moved on to incorporating a range of visual imagery using painting, pen and ink, typing and collaged fragments from other parts of the book (since a rule had grown up that no extraneous material should be imported into the work). The heroes of Mallock’s novel, Robert Grenville and Irma Schilizzi, both retained roles in Phillips’ treatment of the work. But Phillips also added a new major character, Bill Toge, who could appear only when Mallock had written the words “together” or “altogether” on a page. These are the only two words from which this characters surname can be constructed.

After its first publication in book form in 1980, A Humument became a cult classic. and remains a work in progress. Inspired, I immediately ordered a copy of the fourth edition (2005), in which over half the pages of the 1980 edition have been replaced by new versions. I thought A Humument was stunning, as well as being a fascinating idea. I decided to find my own book and have a go at ‘treating’ it to see what would happen.

Dictionyms - Title PageDictionyms - Pages 24-25Dictionyms - Pages 28-29Dictionyms - Pages 40-41Dictionyms - Pages 48-49
Note: Check out the whole book, in order, at this Flickr set

So I went out one Saturday morning with a mission: to find a book for £1 (taking inflation into account) that would be suitable for ‘treatment’. Enter Austin K. Gray’s A Dictionary of Synonyms! It was small, tactle – a nice little book that wasn’t too long (I was mindful of the fact that I’d be needing to ‘treat’ each and every page). And I went for it! I worked out the name (Dictionyms) pretty early on, in much the same way the name A Humument was formed. It took me a couple of false starts to get into a routine and quite a number of ‘failed pages’ were excised from the volume during the treatment. I worked out pretty early on that it was best to consider each ‘open face’ as one picture, rather than each individual page. Some of the felt pens I used bled through the page, so it was also apparent early on that pictures couldn’t go ‘back to back’ (I got round this by glueing adjacent pages to together and was actually pretty pleased to discover this because it made the pages thicker, more sturdy, and also cut down the number of pictures to complete the book!) The majority of the book is either felt tip pen[1] or gouache, a slighly opaque watercolour paint that I’d not used before (but happened to have a box of tubes of). However, collage and ‘paper engineering’ also came in to play, and these are some of my favorite pages. There was a big element of chance in the creation of A Humument, and that is certainly the case in for Dictionyms too. Most of the materials I used just happened to turn up, including the essay-marking stamps that I came across while housesitting during the final stages of construction.

Unlike A Humument, Dictionyms does not have a narrative running through it. There’s nothing (consciously) there to link one page to another and I think this is partly due to the nature of the starting material. Unlike A Human Document, which is a novel, A Dictionary of Synonyms is essentially lists of words. While I have used the words on each page in the pictures, it was hard to make cohesive sentences from them, and certainly as I went through the book, consideration of this became less important. (Although there is a secret message on the last page!!) I think you could probably derive meaning from my choice of words and images, however it’s was all done on the pretty subconscious level so I wouldn’t be able to explain it myself. I’d be interested in hearing other peoples interpretations, however.

Dictionyms - Pages 58-59Dictionyms - Pages 62-63Dictionyms - Pages 72-73Dictionyms - Pages 76-77Dictionyms - Pages 80-81

One thing that Dictionyms did have in it’s favour, however, were the lovely shapes that the columns of words made on each page. I noticed this on the first page, and many of the felt pen pages were inspired by the shapes I could find in the text. Indeed I got so mesmerised with tracing out the shapes, I had to consciously think about doing other things to the pages instead. Dictionyms is pretty much a sketch book so not every image works. Very little planning went into each page other than ‘what shall I do now??’, as I stared at the blank page and looked at the words that were available. There were a couple of exceptions to this. I decided I needed an End page as soon as I’d finished Begin. The popup page was inspired by Jim Woodring’s moleskin popups, reported on Boing Boing in April 2007. It took me a couple of months to work up to this page, and required some experimentation before constructing the final.

I am increasing interested in the interplay of text and images – and especially text as images and I think Dictionyms has been another aspect of this exploration. I can’t really comment on whether Dictionyms is good or not because it just is. I don’t know if I’ll do anything like this again – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it is quite an undertaking to do it properly (and I don’t think I’ve necessarily done it properly here). However, I love the idea of using old books as sketch books and I’ll definitely be doing that in the future. I think I’d also like to do the reverse of Phillips and, having worked on a book, I could possibly concetrate on single pages of text to create individual works of art. Anyway, I hope calla_s doesn’t think Dictionyms is too weird. I’ve become quite attached to it myself 🙂

Dictionyms - Pages 88-89Dictionyms - Pages 92-93Dictionyms - Pages 104-105Dictionyms - Pages 112-113Dictionyms - Pages 122-123

[1]Sharpies, actually. I love my Sharpies, kindly procured from the US for me by a friend. I’m already mourning the day my Sharpies run out.

[2]This was not the case in the Introduction, which I have essentially left untreated – partly because it was so cute! Did you know that, ironically, there is no synonym for synonym??

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: