this text was written in 2009 for the COLLECTION OF POLISH ARTIST'S BOOK FROM THE END OF THE 20TH AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTURIES and later published in "The Blue Notebook" vol.5 no.2 (April 2011, Impast Press)
READING versus WATCHING
Reading is watching. To read something we have to watch it, we have to look at it. Sometimes it's enough to touch it – we don't have to see the text written with Braille alphabet. Ordinary letters can also be pressed either concave or convex and then we don't need to look at them, provided that our fingers are skilled enough to detect their shapes quickly thus enabling the smooth reading.
Is reading listening? We are listening to somebody reading, but ourselves we are not reading what we are listening to, well, we can even read another text while listening. Is listening to somebody's reading also our reading? Somebody imposes on us his pace and interpretation. Listening to somebody's reading is linear, because speaking is linear, and reading aloud is just speaking. Reading aloud is sequential, because speaking is sequential. We speak one word after another, we don't speak two or more words at a time. When we listen we can't move back to passages we have heard before, nor we can skip to the passages we will hear after. And these are essential elements of the process of reading. So, it looks (or hears) like listening is not reading. And reading is not listening. Then, if a book is something to be read, and an audiobook is something to be listened to, then an audiobook is not a book. An audiobook is a kind of radio drama. A radio drama is not a book. We don't read a radio drama, we listen to it.
If reading is watching, then is watching reading? Yes, it is, to some extent only. To read a text we must detect the shapes of signs the text is composed of. Most often we use for it our eyes, but we can use also our fingers, as we have already mentioned. We haven't mentioned that we can use also our ears – when a text is written (or “written”) with acoustic signs, like in the case of whistling languages, drum talking of Morse alphabet. Watching is not absolutely necessary for reading and not every reading deals with watching a text, however the overwhelming majority of reading occurs with the help of eyesight. As well as not every watching is reading. In fact the overwhelming majority of watching is not reading. We look, stare, glance, gape, peep... and if different phrases and words fly and flash through our minds in this very moment, they are not so strictly, or even not at all, connected with what we can see. If we concentrate on watching a picture, then we don't relish a beautiful phrase, extremely elegant syntax, surprising metaphor or rare words – we taste colours, textures, flows of tangled lines...
With no doubt reading and watching has something common. Like day and night. Like sea and land.
Reading is a very complex activity, although it seems so simple. Reading is a very abstract process. This abstractness has different levels. The most abstract is an alphabet, where single letters are but visualised phonemes and are supposed to remind nothing and to mean nothing – if somebody does not know what phoneme is represented by ð he will never guess. Hieroglyphs are less abstract. The least abstract are pictograms, due to the obvious relation between their forms and things or ideas they represent.
Watching is a simple activity (of course it only seems so – as we know, although not so many of us, nothing is really simple). Watching is a process of very low level of abstraction, only a bit above zero. It gets higher when we watch a space specially arranged to give us some additional pieces of information thanks to this special arrangement. We experience the same (or almost the same) in the case of a flat surface (a page, for example) where everything on it is a deliberate composition, and the elements of this composition are arranged by a code which we have to learn if we want to read the information contained in this composition (for example: a time perspective in Russian medieval illuminations). Well, the word “read” has appeared. When symbols, allegories and other elements of that kind begin to appear, watching is getting closer and closer to reading. For example, a map should be read rather than watched; although a map can be edited, printed and published beautifully and ravish us with amazing colours and perfectly chosen types, first of all it must give us clear information about the terrain it refers to. A painting on an Aborigine's shield also should be read, like a map, but first we must learn that a sequence of dots or a string of strokes has not been put in that very place to balance the composition of the shield, but it was The Ancestor who had been walking just that path before he transformed himself into Something-else and disappeared under the ground surface.
The point is how much an author is aware of these complex relations. This is the most important thing. And even more important than the most important thing is to what extent an author uses his awareness deliberately: does he want his work to be read or only watched, or maybe both, watched and read, or one third read and two thirds watched ..... or seventy two percent of the first chapter (if there are any chapters) is to be read, and twenty eight percent is to be watched ...... It may happen that an author combines reading and watching with listening and smelling – this can not be excluded – and will insist to publish his book on extremely stinking and rustling paper, because just such smell and noise will be significant elements of his story.
This is why it is so important, in my opinion, for a book to be an author's book, it means a book whose ultimate form depends entirely on an author (or authors) and where the relation watching-reading is considered crucial since the very beginning. With no doubt a grand piano can be transformed into a bed, but this is not the intention of a piano maker.
Transforming, reshaping, remaking works made by someone else is quite common and it's worth a closer look, because quite shocking and intriguing things are going on within this area of human activity. There are works we attack at once, without any hesitation, and there are works we don't want to touch. For example, a text brought to the publisher is “edited” without any question. A picture brought to the gallery remains intact, nobody thinks even for a second to take a brush and “improve” something, and if something like that happened it would be considered a crime. A text can be changed easily and nobody considers it unjust or inappropriate, all the more a crime! Why it is so? It seems we can suspect the way an artwork is consumed: the picture is consumed entirely at once, within a second, while a text is consumed much longer and never entirely at once, unless it is very very short; maybe it is so also due to the attitude of an artist (a creator): a painter assumes nobody will “edit” his painting, while a writer even demands editing, can bring to the publisher a hand written copy of a novel full of errors and almost illegible scribbles. Maybe these are the reasons... It's also interesting, that after the writer's death publishers and editors do their best to leave his texts intact! The same text so mercilessly tortured and distorted during writer's life, a subject of endless and ceaseless combats and quarrels, turns into a holy and untouchable scripture after the author's death. Of course, to a certain extent – if in the text there are too unconventional solutions and propositions too dangerous for the ruling editing and publishing standards, then with no doubt the text will be conventionalised (for example, in this text the number of suspension points will be reduced to three, because the standard ellipsis has three points) ...... Or: we edit, reshape and remake what we read, while we don't edit, remake and reshape what we watch. When an artist cuts a hole in a book and thus transforms it into a sculpture, maybe he won't be accused of vandalism, however a lot of people visiting the art gallery will have such a vague idea in their minds. When a theatre director cuts a text into pieces, throws some of them away, mixes the others, nobody accuses him of intellectual bestiality, on the contrary: he will be praised for “creative interpretation” of this text – gosh! it's unbelievable, isn't it? ...... Nobody is surprised when small excerpts of a text are presented, just for the book promotion. I think a lot of people will be really surprised when one square centimetre of a picture measuring 2m x 2m will be presented in TV or a newspaper just for promoting or advertising an exhibition of paintings by a famous artist..... Maybe the reason of such strange behaviour is the fact that a text, by its nature, is composed of words which are easily accessible. Each book is a kind of dictionary, although the words (the entries) are not in alphabetic order. These words can be dispersed and then put together again in a new order thus making a new book. Very seldom a writer uses words coming from outside of the well known dictionary. It would be extremely difficult to composed a book of words used by nobody. While a painter can use colours used by nobody; in fact painters use such colours very often. It would be extremely difficult to dismantle a painting into “words” and compose of them a new picture.
Let's assume two definitions:
book – something for reading
picture – something for watching
Very simple, primitive, raw and rough definitions. But full of anxious nuances. Let's think. Here is a table. A book is lying on the desktop. We notice it. It make us curious. We take it. We turn it trying to find any information telling us what this book is about. Well, there's no title on the cover, no text – sometimes it can happen so. So we open it. An album! Beautiful pictures, indeed. We watch them. We have seen all of them and we shut the book. The book. Yes – the book, although it was not something for reading (in fact it was nothing for reading). Because the text is for reading, the book is not. However, it may happen it is a collection of Chinese poems calligraphed by the poets themselves, the book has been published in China and there is not even one word in it that we could read, since we don't know Chinese at all...... So, if we'd like to maintain the definition given above, then all other, non-text elements of a book should have the status of a text, should carry the same information as the text, should take part in telling the story.
Now we should ask: can we read a picture? Yes, we can. Not only recognizing the story or situation presented in the picture, not only the symbolic or allegoric strata. Other strata can be read, too. But what strata? How can we read them? We are entering the territory where words are not allowed, where words can not reach. We are leaving the beach and slowly we are going deeper and deeper into gently undulating water pierced with numerous sun beams... We can't walk any longer, we must begin to swim.
There is a beautiful ash tree behind the window. Those who know what is hidden under this name will at once replace it with a proper image (although with no doubt their ash tree will not be the one I can see through my window in the attics). Those, who don't know what an ash tree is, will imagine nothing, or will imagine something different, another thing, not the one that is needed. Probably a description will do better, much better in such a situation. And drawing or camera shot will do even much better than drawing. However the drawing or picture will not tell them many funny stories related to this ash tree. I'm not going to estimate what is better and what is worse, for valuing is futile. The significant thing is that description and image have a common area, although generally they are separate, do not overlap one another. Yet these matters are very well known, though maybe not everybody is aware of them.
It is also interesting how easily we accept replacing text (description) with an image, or adding pictures to a text. Alice, so often referred to in various essays, maintains that a book without illustrations is not much worthy. Equally difficult is the reverse: replacing image with a text (description) or adding a text to a picture. I'm afraid visitors in an art gallery would be really astonished, if they found there descriptions instead of paintings. Maybe they would be a bit less surprised (although surely not angry), if they found right beside the picture its description: “On the table covered with heavy velvet, dark green, so dark green, almost black, and the edge of the cloth can not be seen, it vanishes in thick dusk raising from the floor like mist, as if the night didn't fall from the sky but came from the ground...” While a reader is neither astonished nor surprised finding in a book a picture that tries to present what is described on the adjacent page.
Regardless all doubts, weaknesses, flaws and imperfections of the definitions given above, it's almost impossible not to agree that reading is somehow attributed to a book. Nevertheless the books have been chosen and selected for The Collection only by watching them. Writing the truth nobody read them. Firstly because most of them are one-off, so they are practically unavailable (theoretically they are: the jury should have been imprisoned in the gallery or library or in any venue and set free when they would read all books gathered there – this is very risky solution of the problem, both for the members of the jury and for the unique books). Secondly because the first selection was based on photos; it made reading absolutely impossible, and reduced almost to zero the possibility to study the space-and-time structure of books. Thirdly because many books (or “books”) have no text... Maybe a few more reasons could be listed. Once again I must admit: I don't do that to judge; I do that to draw your attention to something far more important than judging. All books were treated as if they were paintings or sculptures, things for watching only. I'd like to see the reaction of members of the jury selecting paintings for a collection, if they had to make their choice having only descriptions of paintings. Is it possible that artists' books are not books, because nobody reads them, while reading is a kind of essence of bookness?
But maybe my demand for reading, my stubborn insisting on reading, or rather on reading-and-watching, or readwatching or watchreading, is not justified at all. We are on the territory of artists, we are in the land of watchers; watching – this is what people do here. We have to cope with books of the artists.
Myself a writer, what am I doing here? Text is the core of my books, while all non-text elements are but extensions of the text, a kind of written-drawn-printed prosody. Maybe it is justified to create the term writer's book (isn't it funny that we can't derive from the noun writer an adjective as useful as artistic? what can we propose: writeric? and what would it mean?) Somebody could say (and write) it's sheer tautology (a buttery butter, as people in Poland use to say), like in the case of painter's painting. Any painting is painted by a painter, so whose could it be? Yes, that's right, but a writer usually writes a text, a writer usually pays no attention to a book, while I think of a writer who thinks in term of a book, not only a text, I mean a writer who writes a book, not only a text, who has a vision of an entire book, not of a text only, and that makes difference, a significant difference, a crucial difference... Besides, as we mentioned above, there are books which are books with no doubt, but are not literature... Well, and if by any chance a writer is also an artist, or an artist is also a writer, if we have to cope with a wrartist, what will happen then?
Again dusks, dawns, shadows and shades, semidarkness, halflights... By day everything is clear and bright. By night everything is dark. While in the twilight, in this damn hour which is neither day nor night everything seems nightmarishly smudged.
The most hideous and awkward nightmare attacking me in this dark nobody's zone is a comic book. It could seem a comic book is something I've been looking for: it is both for reading and watching (or for watching and reading), text and images strictly and tightly related to each other, inseparable because loosing sense when split... It could seem so, but it is not. Why? What's wrong with a comic book? Why do I feel so confused? What downgrades comic books in my not humble opinion? Is it an irrational, incomprehensible prejudice? Do I hate comic books like I hate mushroom soup? I just don't like it and that's all. It taste awfully and I keep pondering why it is so, since I love mushrooms stewed in cream? Maybe it is not the matter of taste only.... I can't find descriptions in comic books. There are no beautiful descriptions, with exquisite imagery and deep breathing phrases. There are no texts which push the plot not even an inch ahead, sentences which can and must be read slowly like you sip good green tea from your favourite bowl.... The text like this one, about almost nothing, about bullshits and nonsenses, could it be a “scenario” for a comic? And if not a scenario, how could it happen in a comic book – in a “cloud” spreading across several pages?
There are no room for a beautiful drawing, for an abstract painting without any story, where entire “content” is placed in the quality of a stroke, of a line, where the shape of a line is the entire and the only story, the composition of strokes and colourful patches being in the relation to the text, causing tension or relief is the entire and the only plot....
There's no room for calligraphy.
There's no room for anything, almost, because a comic book suffers from a special fear of emptiness, form the primitive horror vacui.
A comic is flat. It ignores absolutely the third dimension. It pays no attention to its own shape, doesn't matter whether it is published as a codex, scroll or leporello. However strange it may sound, a comic book ignores also a page, though a page is by default 2D. A composition of a page, a layout, doesn't matter for it. A frame does matter, only a frame – but the composition of the frames on the page doesn't matter at all. A comic is a film cut into single frames.
A comic book is painfully conventional, while here a book painfully unconventional is the point.
A comic is realistic. Sometimes it is surrealistic, sometimes it is sousrealistic (overrealistic and underrealistic), however it is always somehow realistic in spite of all unreal batmen, catmen, spidermen. A comic is never abstract, because it can't be abstract.
No. Probably not. Nothing else comes to my mind. It's a pity, because I haven't convinced myself. Maybe somebody else will convince me. Maybe somebody will find a comic book which is just a beautiful book, at large, in every respect ..... Maybe I know too little, maybe I have seen not enough – in fact I don't know many comic books. Maybe somewhere somebody can cook a mushroom soup which I will like. So far everyone I tasted distorts my mug, although the first two or three gulps challenge my culinary eccentricities and prejudices.