It seemed that the Keynes Library – a library devoid of books – turned out to be an oddly appropriate venue for the Perversions of Paper workshop. Again and again, this event presented us with books that did not inhabit the conventional spaces and roles we expect of them. Twelve invited speakers from the world of book arts, papermaking, poetry and elsewhere brought along objects that could not be stored on the library shelf, but instead demanded a very different perspective on the properties of the page.
Lucy Baxandall’s samples of Japanese abaca paper set the tone perfectly. Holding and touching these coarse, kinked, ‘papery popadoms’ revealed them to be surprisingly resistant things – not flat and quiescent, but stubbornly strong and fibrous. They resisted attempts to tear them or to iron out their distinctive shape, but they also seemed to defy the conventional function of paper as a support or background for writing. They insisted on being objects in themselves; not a mere medium for inscription, but something altogether more physical, tangible and difficult to negotiate. Their slightly volcanic shape recalled the geological processes and landscapes that had produced them, and this same sense of paper as a peculiar, unfamiliar and almost alien landscape seemed to emerge in many different ways as the afternoon went on. Again and again, we saw remarkable images of paper which gave us a whole new perspective, different angles, and a unusual sense of scale. Books assumed radical, surprising and sometimes funny new shapes and forms in the work of Christina Mitrense, assembling themselves into the monumental architectures of the Parthenon and Stonehenge. Emily Orley undertook a journey into and across the page through her reading of her grandfather’s papers. These letters were not just pieces of writing, but a terrain to be traversed, its traces and textures and signs examined in forensic detail. Paper clip rust and creases carried as much meaning as words. Tara Bergin’s work with the uncatalogued boxes of documents making up the Bloodaxe poetry archive involved a similar immersion in the sensory environment of paper. Her encounter with the archive involved not categorising and processing but by responding to its touch, feel, smell.
Both Tara and Emily gave us lingering close up photographs of the surface of pages which, even when blank, were far from empty, but complex and varied and full of rich detail. In a similar way, Altea Grau Vidal’s video footage explored the double page spread as a territory, moving lovingly across the page surface, following not the movements of the reading eye but instead picking out the details of colours and textures. Held up against the sunlight, the page’s written inscriptions were less important than the rhythmical play of light through holes in its surface. As with Michael Hampton’s doctored page of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, it was holes and absences that generated meaning, but demanded a whole new way of looking. This page, with every word singed out with a soldering iron, was accompanied by its own viewing device; a jeweller’s loupe. This magnifying and illuminating glass, usually used for examining diamonds, produced an unexpected and close up perspective on the page. This was a page whose details were to be scrutinised in microscopic close up, not to be read. Kristen Mueller’s work, too, presented us with pages which demanded a different way of reading. They thwarted and subverted our attempts to read by playing games at the limits of meaning. Applying rules which progressively added and superimposed text to an initially blank page resulted in a book which held out the possibility of narrative sequence, but in which turning the pages moved us gradually towards overload and illegibility.
In Nicola Dale’s work, it was the space between typed letters that we were reminded of. Mounds of fragile tissue paper arranged to weigh exactly the same as a block of lead type was a startling demonstration that even the most ephemeral and lightest of materials has a weight and heft, and a physicality. And Egidija Ciricaite’s kiln fired books subjected paper not just to a conceptual transformation, into a strange new substance entirely. These were objects that that looked like books, but whose pages cannot be turned. Metamorphosed into sculpture and ceramics they were paradoxically both less and more solid. Immortalised and fixed, and yet at the same time incredibly fragile, they were crumbling monuments to the book.
The sheer range of different processes to which paper was subjected suggested a preoccupation with deforming it and testing its limits. Linda Toigo’s talk hinted at an obsessive, even sadistic side of book sculpting, bringing up the spectre of sinister slicings and dismemberments in darkened cellars, which produced unnatural and strange Frankenstein’s monsters, or, as Michael Hampton put it, ‘wrong-‘uns’. But Anna Kiernan left us with another, more playful image, describing the embossing process in which paper is shaped between ‘male’ and ‘female’ moulds. The paper is kinked, perverted in another way; assuming a form which is neither one nor the other but somewhere in-between. Like the objects that the presenters brought along, it misbehaves, subverting our expectations.