Darian Goldin Stahl, Artist-in-Residence //
Field Notes: How to be Generative
Silk, wax, toner, and multimedia
4″ x 4″
Field Notes: How to be Generative is an artist’s book made in response to the “Book as Body” Artist’s Book Atelier, conducted by myself and Reader of Medical Humanities Stella Bolaki at the CHCI Paris Summer School. The generous allotment of time for this workshop provided us with the rare opportunity to hold a short reflection and analysis on what it means to transform a symptom into an artist’s book. I then created a small, yet expansive book to more deeply reflect on the outcomes of this research-creation endeavor by using the transcription of our conversation* as my source material. Ultimately, this handbook’s form and content work in tandem to materialize how intertextually translating symptoms into a communicative book object provides researchers the space and time to creatively generate new ideas.
After an introductory lecture on the intersections of bookmaking and medical humanities, the workshop participants were tasked with transforming a symptom they felt within their body into an artist’s book that could be interpreted by others. I guided them through a series of sensory prompts to foster metaphorical thinking, and provided one-on-one attention to assist them in the creation of their books. However, this article does not focus on the books that were made, but rather on the aftereffects of engaging with critical making, and how this reflexive practice ultimately provokes new ideas about the symptomatic body.
I would like to begin with presenting a portion of the transcription from the 15:56 final group analysis that I printed in my book, and that I found to be the most enlightening.
Darian Goldin Stahl 1:45
What it was like to abstract a symptom?
But for me, it was always a tension between being too obvious and maybe a little bit more felt and artistic, which was destabilizing.
Unknown Speaker 4:24
I enjoyed the experience of creating a narrative or reading a symptom, commenting on someone else’s symptom, and watching the comments on mine. It kind of made me rethink the my interpretation of the symptom I was talking about. So that was nice and generative.
Another thing we talked about was how some symptoms are hard. With all the really great prompts that you feel it is still difficult to translate them into some kind of physical medium. And some of us felt, or it was for myself, that we defaulted a little bit to the literal.
Unknown Speaker 7:58
I thought the prompts were really good. You know, what I was working on was something I thought about a lot from a sensory perspective. And still, it’s like, giving me new, new things to work with that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
I think with the book, there is an element of the reveal, building multiple layers, and then you’re reading other people’s work. And then you turn the page and there is something new to interpret.
I think for me, it was also generative. And to your point about the materials inspiring the thing, I found a new material that made me think of what the next step was.
It was great, because I think the book is really kind of the bridge between the feeling and the knowledge. For me, I kind of realized I was maybe more conservative with the book as an object. But it was challenging to me to rethink my relation to a book as an object rather than a body, you know.
Stella Bolaki 12:25
It’s interesting, your point about deconstructing the book, because it kind of made me think how much we think about cultural purposes of the book form. I wonder whether people felt like, “Okay, I’m creating this book, and I have all these ideas on what a book means, the cultural signifiers as an object, and do I want to deconstruct it or want to turn it into something that doesn’t look like a book. Do I want to keep its bookness, whatever that might mean?”
The Making Process:
In order to process these reflections, I found it necessary to first organize and distill them into another “metacritical” artist’s book, which Visual Theorist Johanna Drucker defines as a book of record and theory on the making of books (1995, p. 161). Just as for the participants, the materials drove the form and content of Field Notes: How to be Generative. However, instead of artistic source materials like paper, fabric, and paint, the material I drew from were the participant’s own analytic thoughts. This set of text directly informed the making and meaning of this book through the combination of text, materials, and structure.
The text feels as though you are being dropped into the middle of a spoken conversation. The thoughts are repetitive and perhaps only partially formed because they were generated in the immediate moments following the workshop. Furthermore, the comments feel disjointed because they are answers to questions that the reader is not necessarily privy to. This incongruity contributes to the sense of destabilization that is mentioned within the text itself.
I chose this particular font and retained the time stamps to make the comments feel like raw data, a stream of hypertext, or programming language that comes together to generate a new algorithm or program. To convey the sense of conducting a discourse in a group circle, at times the text is crammed together, spread over several pages, or printed multiple directions. Each speaker’s voice is printed in a different color to help the reader follow the thoughts. These elements are further complicated by the transparency of the pages, as a confusing mass of writing can be seen through the multiple folds and layers.
I found listening to the anonymous audio recording to be an incomplete record of events. In order to more fully comprehend the references the participants made to the materials, it would be best to see and feel the media in conjunction to their words. Therefore, half of the book is solely composed of bits of the materials used in the workshop itself. Just as the text composes a composition, so too are the materials affixed into small arrangements on each page. These intuitively placed materials offer a wide array of textures, colors, patterns, transparency, and feel that one can use to sensorially convey an abstract idea.
The cover is a facsimile of the notebook I used for the CHCI Institute. Reproduced here onto waxed silk, it is then folded in half to create a handbook that one could pocket for convenience and portability. Handbooks also connote a sense of being instructional, which is substantiated by the subtitle, “How to be Generative.” The transparency of the waxed-silk cover hints at more to come. The book starts small and then unfolds in every direction. I think of its expanding form as an initial set of circumstances that is then added to from many voices and hands to form an idea.
The disjointed phrases, thoughts, critiques, and questions from the final workshop analysis are conveyed using a meandering folded form. The twists and turns of the pleated pages give the voices a sense of spontaneous liveliness. This meta-book makes physical the overlapping, repetitive, circuitous, impromptu analysis of the participants rather than seeking to convey a clear linear narrative.
Although there are two halves of this book, one side for the text and the other for artistic materials, they spread out and journey back into the domain of the other. The puzzle piece, gameboard-esque form of this book unfurls into a circular composition where text and materials eventually touch. Once it is fully opened, one discovers that the entire book has been cut from a single sheet of silk wherein the text and materials were in fact always connected.
There is much to be gained by working within the intertextual, metaphorical, or oblique space of research-creation. First, it can alert us to just how rigid our text-based communication has become. For bookmaking in particular, this medium can act as a stepping stone between the comfort of text and criticality of fine art. While writing can didactically express one’s inner thoughts, creating a book allows for the opportunity to layer communication through its very form: the size, shape, number of pages, how those pages turn, level of completion, partial destruction, and even its scent can all convey meaning in excess of its words.
The generation of new ideas is at the heart of research-creation practices. While one is in the midst of creativity, which might look to onlookers like play, she is practicing “creation-as-research,” which Communication Studies Professors Kim Sawchuk and Owen Chapmen posit as “intuitive ways of knowing [that] may underpin all discovery, yet, this is often systematically unacknowledged within traditional research paradigms” (Sawchuk & Chapman 2012, p. 12). In the context of an academic conference, this workshop carved out room and durational time for creative play as an intellectual pursuit.
The “Book as Body” Artist’s Book Atelier was an entirely new and strange way for the participants to think about the body. They were given a challenge: transform a private feeling held within your interior into a shareable artist’s book that can be read and interpreted by others. Given a set of materials to work with, the participants used their senses and intuition to fulfill the task. This embodied way of approaching a problem demonstrates that “subjective, tacit knowledges are … where ideas or strategies emerge according to demands that present themselves in the midst of creative processes” (Sawchuk & Chapman 2012, p. 12).
Field Notes: How to be Generative is not bound by the perimeter of its contents; rather, it expands to initiate open-ended ideas. To leave open the possibility for further reflection, the final page of the book is a question posed by Dr. Bolaki on the perceived importance of retaining a sense of “bookness.” Our desire to turn a page, read a text, and run our hands over paper is deeply linked to our long cultural history with books to “serve as a vehicle to communicate far beyond the limits of an individual life or contacts” (Drucker 1995, p. 8). Because “every book is a metaphor, an object of associations and history, cultural meanings and production value, spiritual possibilities and poetic spaces” (Drucker 1995, p. 42), the artist’s book’s reflexivity and capacity to foster multiple interpretations between its front and back covers make this medium an unparalleled generative medium.
*I attained prior written and informed consent to audio-record this anonymized material. This project also has ethical clearance from Concordia University’s Office of Research.
Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York City: Granary Books.
Sawchuk, Kim and Owen Chapman. 2012. “Research-Creation: Intervention, analysis and ‘family resemblances.'” Canadian Journal of Communication 37, no. 1: 1-22.