Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?


  1. I don’t think I’d be able to rip up an existing physical book that was still usable either. How did you feel when my fallen-to-bits copy of Nights at the Circus turned up?

    I have no idea how I’d feel if it were my own work. I don’t write fiction, or indeed anything more than a couple of minor blogs. My creativity goes into quilting, which involves cutting things up and stitching them together differently, so in some ways this feels like a fairly natural process to me. And of course now that I’ve drawn that parallel, I’d be really curious to see one of these collages made up using a traditional quilt pattern. Maybe I should ask D to keep an eye out for books headed for the recycling and try it myself.

    I still love these collages of yours. I like the different framing of the bits of text, the way it changes your focus on certain phrases, and removes sense from others. I keep trying to read the bits. It reminds me of a bit halfway through the epistolary novel Clarissa, where the main character has just undergone terrible trauma and is possibly still drugged, and instead of writing a long, coherent letter to her best friend, she writes lots of broken fragments without any particular addressee, and they’re displayed on the page of the book at odd angles.

    I’d love to see really well-known texts and/or really striking texts made into these collages, so that you can play with familiarity and striking phrases. The Carter isn’t at Shakespeare levels of being well-known, though it’s pretty popular and it’s one that I know well, but it certainly has lots of striking phrases and the magical realism seems to fit this form of art comfortably. It could also be interesting to work with texts which are themselves about fragmented texts and trying to find a coherent meaning. If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller, for instance.

    Comment by Elettaria — March 20, 2011 @ 11:34 am

  2. Hm. I haven’t worked out what to do with your Nights at the Circus yet, but I think that it’s easier both because it’s already falling to bits (hurrah for self-deconstructing texts) and because when it was a readable book it was never my book.

    I’ve uploaded a few pictures of my Dream collage if you want to look:

    I love your reaction to these; it’s almost precisely what I hope for from them!

    Comment by Sam — March 20, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

  3. I’ve made both artwork and stationary out of discarded books before; I have a bit of a thing for repurposing printed materials. Personally, I love the idea of reifying an eBook and then making visual art out of it. But then, I have a soft spot for visual art made with words, encompassing stories…

    Comment by Kate @ Candlemark — March 24, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

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