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Erica Baum, Examined, ‘Dog Ear’ series., 2009
Courtesy: Lüttgenmeijer, Berlin and Dispatch, New York.

Dog Ear Poems

by Cecilia Alemani

Is there anyone who’s never taken a curious peek at those old paperbacks – eyewitness accounts of UFOs, biographies of erstwhile glories – that one finds sticking out of cardboard boxes at flea markets? In her photographs, Erica Baum blends chromatic impressions of their garish edges with linguistic ones of their verbal contents and iconic ones of the illustrations that peer out of them, to produce intriguing new images. Cecilia Alemani and the artist browsed through the card catalogue of her latest work together.


Cecilia Alemani: I’d like to start from your most recent project: photographs of cheap paperbacks slightly open and shot from the side. Can you describe this body of work? Erica Baum: The photographs in the series “The Naked Eye” are of old paperbacks from the sixties and seventies. The books have yellowing pages with richly colored dyed edges and cheap black and white photographic inserts. When I open up the books I can see these pages in juxtaposition and the photographs I take operate almost as a kind of found collage within the constraints of the books as originally constructed. It’s an unmanipulated route towards abstraction. The title “The Naked Eye” comes from UFO witness descriptions. Many books about UFO’s were produced in those days. In these testimonies people talk of having seen, with their naked eye, something that is unexplainable. The phrase is rich in associations. When something is seen with the naked eye it is supposed to be unmanipulated and true. It’s like the camera’s lens that we no longer believe delivers only just the facts.

How did you become fascinated with these books and what you find in them? I’ve been working with found text for many years and I’m always trying to find new ways to photograph books and text. I started collecting old nonfiction paperbacks because I was drawn to the photographs inside. I loved the way some of the images bleed to the edges of the page and these edges are so beautiful, bright reds and yellows and greens. The books I’ve been looking at are mostly from the sixties and seventies and as artifacts they reflect those times. The subjects of the books and their covers are often shrill and loud and that contrasts with their discarded and neglected current condition, biographies of forgotten or obscure celebrities, old gangsters and politicians.

Where do you buy them? Do you ever read them? I find them in used bookstores and thriftstores. I’ve also found them on ebay. I read bits and pieces but I don’t read them cover to cover. Sometimes the photographs in the books are accompanied by captions and sometimes I’ll look at those. Occasionally some of the text is legible but it’s mostly abstracted. I want my image to be only loosely tied to its source. I don’t want to be faithful to the book as originally constructed but instead construct my own version or vision of the book.

The image that you assemble hovers between an abstract composition made with thin lines that cut the shot vertically and fragments of figurative illustrations that pop up from the pages of the book. To me it is as though an abstract painting suddenly opened up into flashbacks of memory. Can you tell us about the relationship between lines and photographs, pages and words? I want the expressions on the figures to suggest the contents of the book as imagined by the figure, or as the viewer imagines it to be. It’s as though the abstract lines and fragments of text represent the thoughts of the figure caught inside the book. So the visual abstraction represents this conceptual abstraction.


Erica Baum, Blindfold, ‘Them’ series, 2004
Courtesy: Lüttgenmeijer, Berlin and Dispatch, New York.


You also seem to offer a visual hint of a secret narrative in the midst of an abstract surrounding. What do those pictures want? I’m drawn to pictures that look as though the figure in the book is unaware of the viewer and in the middle of something, either thinking, dreaming or on the verge of an action. That sense of being in the midst of something parallels the fact that they are in the midst of a book. I don’t want to be specific about their thoughts or actions. I just want to create moods and suggest a new relationship for the figure in the book as well as for the viewer looking at the photograph of the book.

Can you tell us about your show in Berlin at luettgenmeijer? What was the concept behind? What did you show? The show in Berlin is titled “Reference”. I have two series of works. In one room “The Naked Eye” and accompanying this in a second smaller room an earlier project – black and white photographs of card catalogues. So it’s as if the gallery is a library. In one room you find your book by searching the card catalogue (in the pre-digital age) and then the book itself is located in the main room. The title “Reference” suggests this relationship.

I like the metaphor of the library. It is as though you were exploring forgotten corners and remote folds of a labyrinth inspired by Borges. I find very fascinating the subliminal narratives suggested by the words in your card catalogue series. By selecting apparently unrelated words you evoke unexpected connections that turn the familiar index card into an atlas of memory. Can you tell me what is the process behind the cards selection? I love Borges! The alphabetically arranged cards are held in place by a metal rod and their relationships to each other in the drawers are fixed. This is the system that generates the incidental text that I can select for my photographs.

What are you looking for when you select the cards? Do you have an initial idea of what the picture will tell or is it more intuitive? I look for typo’s and handwriting and smudges, things that suggest the trace of their creation and use. I’m looking for humor and absurdity, a certain rhythm. Cumulatively I’m trying to create a voice that suggests history and philosophy and popular culture. It’s all there in the drawers if I look long enough.


Erica Baum, Referee, ‘The Naked Eye’ series., 2008
Courtesy: Lüttgenmeijer, Berlin.


Tell me about the work with the Roll Playing. I found some piano player rolls at a yard sale. I was intrigued by the punch card like system of holes. The ones that render popular songs are sometimes accompanied by a text. People were meant to gather round the player piano and sing along. So I began to collect them. I loved the relationship of words to a graphic notational field. And I love the fact that you read the words from the bottom up. Or vice versa.

Your work seems to investigate language in its various formats such as plane text and abstract symbols. What is your relationship with language? The origins of my interest in language stem from many sources. I’ve studied anthropology and linguistics and Japanese language and poetry and taught English as a Second Language – all of which bring a distanced view of language, reencountering the familiar to the point where it appears strange and becomes more objectlike. I’m an obsessive reader and have a love of words in general. Many influential contemporary artists like Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth work with language with differing sensibilities, but the starting point for my approach has its origins in the tradition of straight street photography, looking at the work of Walker Evans, Atget, Brassaï, and other artists who punctuated their landscapes with strands of found text. The whole concept of the aleatory is intrinsic to this type of photography.

You seem to be interested in forgotten and almost obsolete objects such as the card catalogues and old rolls of music for piano. Are you more interested in the medium itself or in the nostalgic aura they are surrounded by? I consider these objects obliquely as artifacts with the potential to reflect their milieu. The wear and tear from a secondhand item can also leave an interesting visible trail. But it’s not nostalgia. In the intersection between the individual and the factory the photographs of these twentieth century items present a voice that reminds us of the individual in the midst of the machine, whether it’s the library system or a mechanical piano or a mass market book, the voice is ghostly, funny and absurd. When I started photographing the card catalogue I considered it a very ordinary quotidian thing replete with physical properties, (the wood, the paper, the writing) that contained signs of use and occupied a central place in research. Then, as I continued photographing, the digitization process began. Card catalogues were removed from public spaces. So the project took on a documentary aspect.


Erica Baum, Ooze, ‘Index’ series, 2000
Courtesy: Lüttgenmeijer, Berlin and Dispatch, New York.


Your series “Dog Ear” turns a simple fold of an old book into a piece of concrete poetry. What I like about this work is its double levels of being an abstract composition, which at the same time carries the verses of a found poem. Can you tell me about this work? The project is called “Dog Ear” – squares of book pages with the corner turned down. When you save your place in a book by folding back the corner the book becomes dog-eared. The pictures are formed by this juxtaposition of text between the two pages, the one folded down and then the one that then becomes visible behind it. I’m reauthoring the text in this simple act of folding the paper which creates a new view. I want the compositions to work both formally and linguistically on several levels simultaneously. It looks simple but it’s actually very hard to find ones where everything comes together. I think in order for concrete poetry to succeed it has to operate in both these ways. I’m also adding a third thing to this mix because these have to be found in a book. In this case the constraint is the page sequence. I pull open the card catalogue drawer, or spread apart a paperback book, or fold down a page corner and these small interventions I employ when I photograph follow in the tracks of actual usage. In all of these projects I’m looking for something that in some sense already exists and has the potential to yield something else.

Are you working on a new series or do you have any upcoming projects? I’m still working on the “Naked Eye” series and I’m still working on the “Dog Ear”’s. I’d like to explore developing them into a book. I’m putting together a short sequence of the Dog Ear’s which will be viewable online in February in the project room at Dinter Fine Art. Most of my projects contain the possibility of being continued infinitely. I like to feel that there’s always more I can find. In a sense they’re never finished it’s just that eventually I get busy with something new. Right now these two projects are the things that are new.
(01/14)

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