By Erica Baum
Ugly Duckling Presse
Reviewed by Alexis Zanghi
The Instagram account for superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is not, as one might expect, all babes at the museum, party shots from Basel, and images from shows. Instead, it is comprised primarily of HUO's (pronounced "Hugh's") photographs of hand-scrawled Post-It notes: quotations and doodles from artists exhibiting at his Serpentine Galleries, mostly, with the occasional commentary on current affairs. A recent post featured a hand transcription of the UN's commentary on refugees and civilian deaths during war. The posts are spirited and light-handed if not light-hearted; they are a daily, concrete marginalia, rendered on paper and transmitted digitally, and there is a fragility—and subsequently, a tenderness and an intimacy—to them.
Like HUO's Insta, Erica Baum's Dog Ear documents and exalts the act of self-annotation and its ensuing marginalia. In this case, the materials being annotated are corners of cheap paperbacks, one dog ear superimposed over the other at a perpendicular cross-section to form a square tile. The reader is then left with two alternate texts on each page: one can read each corner individually and sequentially, or one can follow each line as it makes the 90-degree turn at each corner, as in "Plate I, Examined":
Sequentially, line by line:
moves a pile / the materi- / nothing / more / b- /
and examined / -t jammed / on was / -tly
Or, following the perpendicular intersection:
moves a pile / -ad examined / the materi- / -t jammed / nothing / on was / more / -tly" / ba / -e
The excerpted and combined dog ears (the plates themselves) increase in complexity and length as the text proceeds. The tense complicates, setting is introduced, and exposition alluded to, as in "Plate X, Temporary Modern":
second-floor terrace / get rid of all that / into that dreadfu- / temporary an- / modern the / Mark's / And ev- / circu- / in
of well-being and or- / It had been years / felt good. Buying / -ed. Replenish- / beginning — /sumptu- / ensure / aron- / o-
second-floor terrace / of well-being and or- / get rid of all that / It had been years / into that dreadfu- /felt good. Buying / temporary an- / -ed. Replenish- / modern the / beginning — /Mark's / sumptu- / And ev- / ensure / circu- / aron- / in/ -o
Modernism, a guy named Mark, a terrace, a need to buy, to purge, to replenish: it could be a John Cheever or Donald Antrim story. Absent their original context, the dog ears work to build their own, individually and as a cohesive unit. This enhanced and escalating meaning is further complemented by the sequence of plates that hints at a narrative arc. In "Plate XIII" (of twenty-four, titled Elegant Solution), the dog ears are at their most complex, suggesting a kind of climax:
threw his elegant solution into di / red tape held things up. Peopl- / with their successor's didn't / front, concentration ca- / heavy snowfalls. Pow- / Rail lines be- /of uncertaint- / At his / His reo / [unintelligible] / [inscrutable] / -round sort of clearing. Surrounded / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / - illuminating the ground at / sit down in the sunlight / a chocolate bar from / all over again how / each second of / -sness I felt / the sun's/ path
threw his elegant solution into di / -round sort of clearing. Surrounded / red tape held things up. Peopl- / gigantic well. Sunlight shoots / with their successor's didn't /- illuminating the ground at / front, concentration ca- / sit down in the sunlight / heavy snowfalls. Pow- / a chocolate bar from / Rail lines were be- / all over again how / of uncertainty / each second of / At his / -sness I felt / His rec- / the sun's / [unintelligible] / path / [inscrutable]
The effect on the reader is like moving through a mille-feuille of information; delicately structured, cohesive only in its sum total. The reader guesses at what is absent (concentration camp? Helplessness?) and what—and how—meaning is made by these strategically ambiguous intersections.
In early 2014, Kenneth Goldsmith tweeted that "metadata is the new content." Reading marginalia—the ways in which the reader distinguishes and makes semi-permanent that which is of peculiar importance to them—can be a discursive exercise, a re-examination of an individualized metadata. It doesn't reveal the information most valuable within the text or object so much as it does the information or text that's most valuable to the annotator. Metadata may be the new content, but marginalia is the oldest metadata.
Goldsmith contributes the opening essay to Dog Ear, and in it, he describes the purposeful-ness of the annotation that Baum makes with her selections:
All of Baum's texts hold up to close scrutiny. It's here that the crux of her practice is revealed; she has selected these dog ears equally for their visual and literary merits . . . If she's just visually fetishizing old books, any page would do. But it's the bouncy resonance of the texts, combined with the striking beauty of these configurations, that gives this body of work the power that it has.
The beauty of Dog Ear lies in the way that it builds meaning at its interstices, in a way that cannot easily be categorized by such simple collage strategies as redaction, cut-ups, or superimposing text. In her concluding essay to Dog Ear, Beatrice Gross describes a
distance (optical and conceptual) separating the beholder from the art work. Through the evocative depictions of her equivocal narratives, the artist invites us to partake in a perceptual experience, where language loses its transparency to its visual existence, and vice versa.
I would argue, though, that the equivocal narratives that Gross describes emerge as almost a kind of chorus, with some of Baum's plates offering what could be called climax, others still a cryptic denouement. And the same distance that exists between the reader and the text is an almost intimate one: a dog ear marks a reader's path through the book for the reader alone. Like an Instagram feed or a Post-It note, this casual intimacy distinguishes Dog Ear, and not just by its annotation and physicality, but, like any other work of prose, by its plotting and subtext. It is annotation as content, and perhaps content as something else: literature.