I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: You founded Siglio Press in 2008 and have gone on to publish over thirty volumes of image-text works that want equally to be looked at and read, defying genre categories and throwing into question what it is to engage literary and visual art. In describing Siglio’s list I want instead to press your books into readers’ hands because the objects you create far transcend any description—which well may be an essential component of feminist making. Siglio’s website articulates this border-crossing as mission: “Siglio is a small, fiercely independent press driven by its feminist ethos and its commitment to writers and artists who obey no boundaries, pay no fealty to trends and invite readers to see the world anew by reading word and image in provocative, unfamiliar ways.”
This refusal to obey boundaries includes those between the archival and the immediate, between public reservoir and private collection. For example, Anouck Durand’s Eternal Friendship collages together photographic archives, personal letters, and propaganda magazines to tell a story of friendship and history that crosses from Albania to China and into Israel during the Second World War, the Cold War, and the end of Communism. Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, which you just published this May, brings into book form Mayer’s 1971 month-long documentary project of over 110 photographs, two hundred pages of text, and six hours of audio recording.
With books like Memory and Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women you move work that exists in other forms (the archive, the gallery) into book form. How does your sense of the material you are working with shift as you carry it into a new vehicle? How does the book form inform the impact the material has on the viewer-reader?
Lisa Pearson: Particularly with these two books, but often with many other Siglio titles, I see the work I do as publisher, editor, and designer as the work of a translator. But rather than translating from one language to another, it’s from form to another form. As this different species of translator, I need to understand the original work as deeply as possibly, confront what will be lost or sacrificed, locate equivalences (or approximations), and stake out what might be gained.
With Memory and Torture of Women in particular, the challenge was to take works of art that have great spatial and public presences and find new forms for them in the very private space of reader and book. Both works are monumental installation works (Spero’s comprises fourteen panels which each measure about nine feet across, and Mayer’s 36-foot installation of 1100+ photographs also included a six-hour audio recording). A book obviously cannot replicate the experience of being in the gallery or museum and seeing all of the work at once (not only by standing back, but also by looking closely while being aware of what’s in your peripheral vision) or the experience of seeing and listening as with Memory’s audio component. But “the book” gives the reader time. Not only can the reader spend as much time as she likes on a single page, but she controls the pace of moving through the book and its direction. With a book, the reader can also return to it, read it again and again, in different ways. This creates a different kind of, and I’d argue a deeper, legibility as the reader has another means to experience and contemplate works like these that particularly need time. And, in both of these cases, these are works with which people have not had much time. Torture of Women rarely travels from the National Gallery of Canada (and when I saw it installed at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at MOCA LA years ago, the panels were stacked from floor to ceiling, rendering most of it, infuriatingly particularly for a feminist exhibition, illegible). Memory was not seen in its entirety for more than forty years after its initial installation in 1972, and then for a short time in Chicago at The Poetry Foundation in 2016 and at CANADA Gallery in NYC in 2017. Time—and thus visibility and legibility—is the gain when space is lost .
With all Siglio books, the “book” is not a transparent delivery device (or a glossy coffee table statement that calls attention to itself) but a form that can very deliberately and specifically shape the experience of the reader—which, I believe, has an extraordinary potential for intimacy. As it happens (because both have deeply feminist intentions), Memory and Torture of Women use monumentality to stake a claim to a larger space while subverting that monumentality with a certain demand for intimacy. Torture of Women is 125 feet long in total, but the paper is fragile and wrinkled; there are seams, raw edges. Spero creates almost private spaces for the first-person testimony of the torture of victims by collaging smaller pages with typewritten text onto larger pages. She leaves vast fields of space empty for the silences, for the pain that can’t be described. The book makes sure those seams are revealed, that the empty spaces are honored. It repeats and changes the crop of an image to see it differently or in relation to something else, to read it more closely—or to ask the reader to read it again.
With Memory, the experience of walking the thirty-six feet down the gallery wall to “read” the first line of photos in sequence, and then returning to the other side (a bit like the motion of a typewriter carraige return) to read the second line all the way across, and so on, could not be replicated or even hinted at (an accordion fold edition would have been unwieldy and too expensive). The audio (while it’s available online to listen to while you’re reading, if you like) is also impossible to include in the book. But the text (100,000 words) is Mayer’s voice, and it is “the sequence” that governs this work (as an actual experiment in time). So instead, the text and images flow opposite each other on most spreads, sometimes aligning, sometimes diverging, but both strictly chronological. The page turns: time passes. And the images, in grids of nine, have chance-determined compositional relationships, just as the larger installation did. The original photographs in Memory were snapshots made from slides, many overexposed or underdeveloped. In the case of making the book, it presented an opportunity to pull detail through intense color correction (which Mayer was pleased to have happen), to render legible what might have been obscured in the original: memories extracted from the shadows, as it were.
I should also say to that my work as editor and designer are deeply intertwined, and both depend greatly on collaboration. I was able to work with Spero in the two years before she died on this book, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with Mayer who lives just 45 minutes from me, so (at least pre-Covid) I could pop over, we could look and discuss, and I’d always get to have tea and maybe a meal with her. First and foremost, is the intention to honor the integrity of the work which means listening, reading closely, paying attention on multiple levels. In most cases, the artist-writers I’ve worked with, or their estates, understand “the book” offers possibilities that the exhibition space does not, and that there are ways to work beyond “literal” translation. It’s perhaps the most gratifying aspect of what I do.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Lisa Pearson: Not an object or a text but a name, a spirit: Jean Brown. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was spectacularly dependent on the Getty Research Institute. I won’t spend time here telling you how thrilling it was to ascend the hill (by monorail), walk the marble steps up to the Institute (tucked to the side of the museum), spy hummingbirds among the birds-of-paradise, and catch a glimpse of the ocean if the marine layer had already burned away by mid-morning. My first stop in the circular library—a design that afforded an un-library-like bright Pacific light filtered by long white shades while forcing a disorienting labyrinth of stacks and shelving—was the computer terminal. No matter what I was looking for, no matter what tangent or rabbit hole I was traveling down, however broad or specific my search terms (Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, concrete poetry, New York School, Language poetry, performance art, conceptual art, mail art, artist’s books, individual artists like Hannah Höch, Dorothy Iannone, Madeline Gins, Alison Knowes, Pati Hill, Mieko Shiomi, Annette Messager, etc. or journals like Heresies or M/E/A/N/I/N/G, or publishing entities like Something Else Press or Hansjörg Mayer), the appearance of “Jean Brown Collection” on the resulting citation seemed both inevitable and fortuitous. It seemed as if everything I was already interested in—and everything my research uncovered that became interesting to me—was part of that collection.
At the time, well over a decade ago, I quizzed the librarians on Jean Brown: Who was this woman, this collector, this consciousness? How did her extraordinary collection (of 6000 books, objects, journals, etc.) come to the Getty? Perhaps I wasn’t asking the right people or the right questions, but no one seemed to have any information other than what is still currently available the Getty’s finding aid. Her current entry in Wikipedia is two sentences, and her 1984 New York Times obituary (online since 2014) is less than 350 words.
Without knowing anything about her, I nonetheless felt her very particular presence. The name “Jean Brown” itself was, for me, the conduit of Howe’s “mystic, documentary telepathy.” When her name appeared on a citation, I sensed that this object or book had been carefully selected, cared for, considered, held. That it was a source of experience, of pleasures. As the citations accumulated, I also sensed a remarkable generosity of spirit: even as some corners of her collection were well-demarcated in art history (the Dada and Surrealist books, mostly, which were in themselves still an exquisite set—see below), it was clear that the very individual hand and eye highly valued what had been marginalized, obscured, dismissed, or just outright ignored. This was not a collection that was meant to be conclusive, nor did it have the kind of swagger of expertise (though clearly multiple bodies of knowledge informed it—as well as instinct); rather the connections between these books and objects were electrified by her consciousness, her curiosity, her ability to see across and between and beyond. In Jean Brown, I felt a great kinship for the expansiveness that I aspire to as a publisher. I knew all this by just spending time in what was once her library, her collection of things. When her name appeared on a citation, I felt awash in some combination of exultation, intimacy, communion, trust, confidence. There was a transmission. When her name was not there (which was infrequent), I might have felt a twinge of loneliness, and then summoned the courage to further complicate and add to the matrix of connections: an ever-expanding universe.
In 2008, Siglio published The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard (the first book, fueled by much serendipity, good will, and a great deal of love for Joe and his work). I got a call from a woman in New York who wanted to see the accompanying limited edition. She was visiting her daughter in LA—could she come by? At that point, I don’t think anyone but friends had visited my garage-office so I remember being a bit nervous about the presentation. But it was an easy conversation; she loved the edition, and we talked for quite awhile about mutual interests. I chalked our connection up to the camaraderie of loving Joe’s work. As she was leaving, she stopped, surveyed the garage (and me, I think), and said how much Jean Brown, her partner’s mother, would’ve loved the edition, loved The Nancy Book, loved Siglio. My reaction was to suddenly embrace Susan who had likely embraced Jean. Instead of books, bodies. Another, equally visceral transmission.
I learned from Susan that Jean Brown was a librarian in Springfield, Massachusetts, who had sold her entire collection to the Getty when (according to hearsay) they only wanted the Dada and Surrealist publications. (Fortunately, later GRI curators, like Nancy Perloff, recognized what an extraordinary trove the Jean Brown Collection actually is, particularly the Fluxus objects and concrete poetry works.) She was friends with some of the greats of the 20th century avant-garde—Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, George Macunias—but she was also deeply invested in all corners of experimental work and often commissioned and bought work to support artists who weren’t selling anything at the time, even though she was by no means wealthy. In February 2019 a short film “Not Jean Brown” played for a single night at the Emily Harvey in NYC (and I was not in the city to see it, alas). The filmmakers wrote a lovely homage to Jean Brown which you can find on their website (http://www.gerlovin.com/English/eng_jean_brown_revisted.htm). She seems to be exactly whom I imagined her to be, and likely more. She remains a presiding spirit over Siglio.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Lisa Pearson: I can’t speak directly to this question, but there are two projects I’ve published that do: Eternal Friendship by Anouck Durand and Frail Sister by Karen Green. On the surface these two books (and both were intended and made as books though Green’s work does exist as a set of objects as well, as yet unexhibited) have little in common. But from the angle of your question, their common denominators are striking. Both intend to tell an untold story based on an actual person, both use archival materials, and both—and this is what I find most fascinating—use the fictional construct of the first person narrative along with complex visual and narrative compositions that alter and reassemble the original materials substantially in order to reveal truths that otherwise might not be seen. They are also both very much concerned with violence. In other words, Durand’s and Green’s interventions and their imagination conjures voices out of the silence that oppression has created.
Green began her project as a non-fiction work to tell the story of her aunt Constance who was a musical prodigy as a child, escaped her small, impoverished town to join the U.S.O and tour war-ravaged Italy during WWII, and then upon returning to the United States, seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. Green wanted to know what happened to her: she queried multiple family members and even hired a detective, but she turned up little more than she already knew—Constance “simply” ceased to exist. Green was then driven by a new question: “How does a woman a disappear?” Investigating the many layers of this question, Green creates a fictional archive that is also a visual, epistolary novel. Using a handful of actual family artifacts that she alters, a few photographs of Connie she found in the U.S.O. archives, along with purloined and manufactured letters and objects, all within a context of deep historical research, Green conjures a life for her aunt, summons her voice, and illuminates the ubiquitous brutality and violence of the men that ultimately results in her demise. Of course, we have no idea how close to the literal truth of Constance’s disappearance Green gets, but the form of this work—as if a trove of photos, letters, collages and drawings found in a box in an attic—puts the reader in the position of piecing together the fragments of a possible story. The reader is activated as a kind of detective, as an archivist.
Anouck Durand, the author of Eternal Friendship, was researching Communist-era propaganda photography when she stumbled on the story of Refik Veseli who was a state-sanctioned photographer. She learned from his son (as Refik had passed away) that his position in the Albanian power structure was more tenuous than appeared because of his personal history. Durand used Refik’s personal trove of photographs along with those of some of his colleagues (whom she met and interviewed), magazines from the era, as well as photographs from numerous other archives to piece together Refik’s rather incredible story: when the Nazis invaded Albania, the young partisan Refik and his Muslim family hid Jewish photographer Mosha Mandil and his wife, while Mosha’s two small children posed as Refik’s siblings. Mosha and Refik became close friends, and after liberation, the Mandils left for Israel, inviting Refik to join them, but he stayed behind to contribute to his new nation, not knowing that he would never see his dear friend again. In her telling, the specter of state surveillance pervades the entire narrative as does its manipulation of images and the official narrative. Durand tells his story circuitously and ambiguously—as one would have to—but also in the first person, so that Refik’s story is as much substance as form. Durand showed me the raw materials that she drew from. Many of the images—as one might imagine of certain kinds of propaganda photography—seemed lifeless. The ways in which she cropped them, altered them, juxtaposed them in the service of Refik’s story make them vibrate on multiple registers, so that the reader must read in between the lines, into the images and their intentions: what they seem to unintentionally reveal and what they quite intentionally obscure.
Perhaps in other contexts Green’s and Durand’s use of the first-person narrative—the assumption of a voice for an actual personage—might be presumptuous, but it doesn’t feel that way at all to me in either book. Instead, both artist-writers are working with a great attention to the available historical record and artifacts while traversing the vast space of what has not been voiced, what has been silenced. They map that space with a tremendous amount of empathy and, I think, imaginative acuity. Without taking that risk, we’re left with materials that do not speak and/or have no one to listen to them.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Lisa Pearson: Under the aegis of Siglio, my task is to always be shifting, moving outward, never repeating, always resisting the definitive, the exemplary, the complete. It’s a mission that’s almost anti-archive, if archives must be governed, or at least circumscribed by categories, definitions, periods of time, organizing principles, collecting directives, etc. (Perhaps if there were an archive whose composition was determined by motion, friction, juxtaposition, of drawing new constellations using ever-mutable criteria, then I would see things differently.) That said, I have spent a great deal of very happy time in archives looking for the things themselves and the relationships between them that are not easily contained or seen, and then finding ways to make books from that research. I also aim for Siglio books to be the sort that last the test of time, that readers can return to again and again to discover something new there, so perhaps I succumb to longevity and desire for preservation, other aspects of the archive.
As for what’s out there now? Obviously I’d direct readers to the Jean Brown Collection at the Getty. I also love the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry which, in my past research, I combed through just text citations online and dreamed of what the objects and works might look like, but now it’s housed at the University of Iowa Special Collections (and it seems there are some pictures...). But of course, I’m sucker, obviously, for anything that resembles a Wunderkammer,
III: Exchange Question
Chet’la Sebree: This August marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—recognized by many as a key success of the women’s suffrage movement. I am often reminded, however, of what Frances Ellen Watkins Harper stated at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs,” underscoring racial inequality.
The reality is that the ratification of the amendment only ensured the vote for a specific subset of white women. Women of color—despite their contributions to the suffrage movement, including marching separately for the same cause while leaders like Alice Paul thought it important not to alienate racist, white Southern suffrage supporters—continued to be disenfranchised.
Although we go into the archive with a commitment to discovery, sometimes we are confronted with complex realities. In your archival practice, how do you grapple with this? How do you grapple with “wrongs” in an archive you seek or develop as an act of celebration, commemoration? How do you engage with intersectionality and / or your own positionality as you engage with the violent histories?
Lisa Pearson: My archival practice has been limited to looking at the works and personal histories of individual artists and writers, so whatever might be problematic is generally very personal in nature. This raises other sets of questions about how to grapple than the questions that surround the systemic wrongs that you refer to. In working with personal histories of individuals I intend to amass as deep a knowledge of the author’s work and life as possible. And much of the knowledge I gain is never transmitted directly to the reader; rather, it might inform decisions I make as an editor and a publisher, it might infiltrate an essay (or press release) that I write, or it might not. My credo—as publisher, editor and designer—is to let the work speak for itself and to allow the reader to engage that work as directly as possible. And yes, the resulting book is a celebration, but not hagiography.
Many of the artist-writers I publish work very much in the domain of the oblique, the ambiguous, the contradictory, so the reader is challenged to navigate in whatever ways she knows how and, hopefully, will discover in the course of reading a book that invites very different modes of reading. I prefer afterwords to forewords—or sometimes no accompanying essays at all—so that nothing impedes that discovery, and if anything, invites multiple interpretations/readings. I see the works Siglio publishes as round and deep, and I am thrilled when a reader or critic gets a 360- degree view (or a takes a very deep dive) which inevitably means seeing flaws and weaknesses. In fact, I’m particularly excited when a reader/critic finds her way in between the lines. In other words, what might be complex, messy, or even “wrong,” is allowed to surface, to be revealed, and the reader/critic offered the opportunity to wrestle with it.
Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio, an independent press dedicated to published uncommon books that live in the rich and varied space between art and literature. She is the editor or co-editor of several books, including those by Nancy Spero, Dorothy Iannone, Mirtha Dermisache, Joe Brainard, and Robert Seydel as well as It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers.