[Editor’s Note: This series of Duration, Sequence & Structure posts is a text/image version of a collaborative talk that was given by Kyle Schlesinger and I at the 2012 College Book Art Association conference in the Bay Area. One section will be posted every day of this week. This is the second.]

Richard Artschwager, Book, 1987, Multiple of formica and wood 

[AC] Reading is an experience that unfolds in time—the letters build up into words, the words into sentences, and the sentences into a text. The act of reading is one of the fundamental elements that differentiate books from other art media. I saw the artist Richard Artschwager speak in Baltimore in 2002. In the lecture Artschwager demonstrated his concept of the difference between painting and sculpture. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “you look at a painting like this [mime standing in place and staring at a painting] and you look at a sculpture like this [mime walking completely around a 3D object].” To that I would add, you look at a book like this: [mime examining the exterior of a book by flipping and rotating in the hands, then opening it and paging through]. If we were to accept Artschwager’s approach and define the form of an artwork by how it’s viewed, then the book is 2D—viewed from a fixed point, and 3D—viewed from all angles, and 4D—the book has to be moved through as well, and that moving through takes time. Can the book be thought of as an image of time?

[KS] The book remains our most sophisticated storage unit “of” and “in” time, our most reliable means of recording texts and images, of retrieving and receiving information and ideas. The Canadian artist Michael Snow’s 16 mm film So is This (1982) begins: “This is the title of this film. The rest of this film will look just like this. The film will consist of single words presented one after another to construct sentences and hopefully (this is where you come in) to convey meaning.”

Snow’s experimental silent film does what it says it will do: white words set in Helvetica appear one by one against a black backdrop, building on one another to form sentences.

The narrative is linear, self-reflexive, ironic, (even funny) and driven by the relationship between its subject (language) and time.

So is This builds and deconstructs simultaneously, often humorously: “This, as they say, is the signifier.”

As in any film, some shots are longer than others, but in So is This, the time spent on one word does not have a direct correlation to the aesthetic value of the image (I mean, it’s all Helvetica) or the narrative.

The irregular rhythms play with the viewer’s patience, desire and expectations. 

Cinema, since its beginnings, is nothing if not an image of time, an image in time, and Snow’s film is no exception, but perhaps what sets it apart from most films is that it is an artists’ book. I know, I know, we’ve all been down that road one too many times, but I would say that the discourse of artists’ books lends a useful vocabulary to the problem (both poetic and cinematic) posed by Snow’s film, which is 45 minutes in length. I’m less interested in what something is or isn’t than the lexicons we can borrow from in order to understand a thing as something other than itself. In this talk about time and sequence and technology, it is important to note that the time of this film (which happens to be a text in the literal sense), is universal. I was living in Berlin when I rode my bicycle to the kino. The screening began at eight o’clock and was over at quarter of nine. Everyone in the theatre saw (and read) the film at the same time and in the same time. Unlike the book, if the viewer misses a word in cinema, a sentence, there’s no going back. Time marches on, but duration doesn’t, which is why it seems to me a more appropriate term than “time” for the book arts discourse. Films, dance, theatre and other performances are time-based art forms, in part, because the audience observes the work together, in the same time, eight o’clock till quarter of nine, while the book is generally experienced one reader at a time. The book steps out of that time sequence, out of sequence, out of time: enter duration.

[Note: The complete So is This can be watched on Ubuweb.]

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