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Writing > Essays

Context Clues

What do fly-fishing and etching have in common?

One sleepless night I decided to read the magazine Cabinet from cover to cover, rather than skimming for articles that I had a predetermined interest in. I found myself immersed in an article by Joe Grigly about an upstate New York sport-shop owner who makes an ugly little fly called the Haystack. But along with the nitty-gritty of deer hair and possum fur, it was also about fly ties as visual culture and representational theory. Grigley’s piece immediately followed an article called Thing/No. 2, about an image of an unidentifiable creature, found in a print shop in Uruguay. Three writers submitted various detailed descriptions, as if from an imagined taxonomy. 1

The articles made perfect sense with one another. The sequential arrangement compounded the visual correlation between the fly and the “thing. “ But my decision to read in an open and flexible glide allowed my curiosity about what would come next shape the thoughts that collaged the articles together. Each turn of the page revealed something different, with only the loosest of connections. While the articles shared the same context, a magazine called Cabinet, it was the reading that connected everything- reading as if I didn’t know how. I suspended my usual expectations, and each page became something new to discover.

The unpredictability of artists’ books encourages the same kind of reading. We enter a space of wonder. To experience wonder we can’t read to confirm what we already know; we need to be vulnerable to challenge and discovery. Ross Martin’s Edifice Wrecks 2 is like a specimen case, a collection of words and images about books themselves. It challenges our expectation of order: that a collection is arranged according to taxonomies; that pages follow sequentially; that captions describe illustrations in a logical way.

This article is an expanded version of a talk given at The Artist Book as an Intermedia Device conference at Pyramid Atlantic, Washington, D.C., 2004