An Interview with Scholar in Residence: Marianne Dages

by / with : H.R. Buechler

Marianne Dages is a Philadelphia based artist investigating the crossroads between image, language, and thought. Her work is held in public collections including the MOMA Library, Yale University Library, and SAIC Chicago. She is an artist member of NAPOLEON gallery and a winner of the Fleisher Wind Challenge. Marianne was awarded the two-year Core Fellowship at Penland School of Crafts, where she studied bookbinding and letterpress printing. She was a recent artist in residence at Herhusid in Iceland and the Beisinghoff Printmaking Residency in Germany, run by Women’s Studio Workshop. In 2015, she had a solo exhibition at Print Gallery Tokyo. She teaches letterpress and bookbinding and publishes artists’ books under the name Huldra Press. She prints on a Vandercook No. 4 named Egon.”

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Marianne Dages recently spent two weeks of September as an artist in residence at Wells College, working between the Wells College Book Arts Center and the String Room Gallery, with support from the Wells College Scholar in Residence Program. Her time there culminated in multiple new prints, as well as an exhibition combining this new work and previous work, as a reflection (and extension) of her recent Huldra Press publication, Objects of Unknown Use. As an artist working at the intersection of image, language, and thought through a variety of media, I was interested in speaking with her more about her process, and how she navigates this with a multidisciplinary approach in theory, concept, and form. These questions were posed following the exhibition in fall 2017 and responded to the following spring of 2018.

For your book, Objects of Unknown Use, you utilize Google Translate as a means of generating text through chance operations in an attempt to write an epic poem. “Chance” is a methodology, or as you put it during your talk earlier in September, a “constraint,” where much of your text-based work has its origins. However, to the unaware reader (or user) of your work, this backend does not necessarily transfer. This doesn’t seem to hinder the the potency of the work, but I would argue that the knowledge of such information offers one the opportunity to open the work up to a more complex, oft not considered, discussion regarding the influence of new media and its relationship to works in the book arts field. The following series of questions attempts to build some sort of “rubric of aesthetics” for reading this collection of work, while ultimately getting back to the latter utilization of new media in your work.

How does your background in photography inform your approach to letterpress and book arts? At the talk you mention the architectural interest of your early photography work (of which you hold a BFA in Photography from the University of the Arts), would you mind expanding on that here for those unable to attend the lecture?

I was influenced by photographers like Walker Evans, William Eggleston, and Mark Cohen who were photographing architecture or in the case of Mark Cohen, photographing people like as if they were architecture. They were thinking about their surrounding abstractly: selecting, composing, distilling...I heard Mark Cohen talk about his process once and I remember how rapturously he described details, like a close up of a man’s sleeve and the texture of his coat. I walked around Philadelphia with my camera and trying to disconnect what I saw from the association of daily life. You mentioned constraint in your introduction, and a camera is a constraint-machine, a thing that cuts and frames. Street photography and type-based letterpress are similar in that they are both based on grids and to a certain extent, chance. Letterpress printers that work with wood and metal type often end up with a patchwork of typefaces, the kind you’d pick in an ideal world. You have to dig through it and problem-solve to find the pieces that work. That feeling of looking and searching and gleaning is very attractive to me and integral to my work. It’s become part of my aesthetic.

And this will sound a little weird but I dream very vividly about architecture and a certain light and mood and for years, I basically walked around looking for what I’d seen in my dreams. I was reading a statement I wrote 13 years ago and it starts, “What draws me to the photographic image is its power to be mute, to operate like a dream or a glyph that we intuit.” It was startling, because my work looks very different now but I’m still looking for the exact same thing, the frequency between image, text, and thought. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about hieroglyphics recently and their ability to function simultaneously in all these ways. Pictogram, ideogram, determinative. And how because hieroglyphs directly reference bodies, animals, plants, and objects, Egyptian could read the world around them and what that meant. What would that be like? In our culture, it’s a form of thinking we often associate with mental illness or paranoia, seeing symbol and meaning in every little thing. But what if the world is talking to us and we just can’t understand it?

“Chance” is a strategy implemented throughout the history of your work. Where did your interests in chance operations first arise? Has that always been a sympathetic methodology in your practice? Can you speak more to its manifestation in your hand-rendered works vs. your printed works?

As I mentioned above, I think it first started with photography, and an interest in working with found elements. I started to use translation software as a cut-up method or chance operation in 2012. I got the idea when trying to write an email in French to a family member. I speak French but am very bad at writing it, so I I entered a phrase into Google Translate and saw that the result was close but definitely not right. It was a mistranslation and I discovered that if I translated into several different languages and back, the material would be utterly transformed, like a game of telephone. What really interested me though is that it retained the essence while lending a new voice to the source material. It acted as an oracle. This idea is nothing new, most methods of divination rely on chance operations. The idea that it’s all there, written like a script.

I had a dream recently that I was walking up a hill made of broken bricks and when you walked on them they made a mineral tinkling sound like stone bells. At the top of the hill was the facade of a tall brick building, twenty stories high, covered in palimpsests of hand-painted signs. And at the top of the building there was a small tree, the kind that grows in alleyways and I had a Polaroid camera and was taking pictures of this tree. But every time the Polaroid developed, the image was just of sand and foam like the edge of the ocean, vaguely in the shape of the building and the tree, but just sand. I try again, more sand. I realize that every photograph I am taking is a bit different, as if a tide is swirling the grains into position to "draw" the scene. In my dream, I realize I'm not really there, but on a beach, photographing the ground at my feet.

Marianne Dages, Dictionary IV, gouache, pencil, and silver point on paper, 2015

I use chance in a material sense in my drawings and prints. In the Dictionary drawing series, I broke the page into twelve zones and rolled dice to determine where to draw and told myself to draw immediately, without thinking, in an attempt to disregard any thoughts of composition or meaning. I kept drawing thes cloaked, crystalline forms and these evolved into the Fragmented Drawings. They resemble mountains or icebergs, mirrored above and below. I think they represent the unconscious. In my books, I often start composing images on a large sheet and then cut the sheet down because I want to shift the balance and scale. In 2016 Leah Mackin and I collaborated on a book titled Ultrices that combined these material and conceptual methods of chance, as well as her interest in the glitch and disintegration through duplication.

Speaking more about the exhibition, Objects of Unknown Use, one can begin to see a pattern amongst a lot of your pieces. Well, maybe more accurately, there is a conversation happening between the pieces unified in a sort of “noise.” I’d like to employ both the verb and noun usage of the word “static” in regards to your work: which elegantly oscillates between the two.

Various pieces---from the beautiful ambiguity of blackish pink flats to the mounted and linked galactic disks possess static qualities---show the static static, in its material presence. We move from seemingly scattered symbols rendered in ink, to structured icebergs, to text from a scattered distanced, perhaps it space? In all of it there is a quiet, a peace amidst concrete materials and windows into a space comprised of a soft, static, noise. This isn’t a question, more of an aesthetic meandering meant to get back to this static static.  

A lot of your work seems to be in conversation with one another in and of “static” space. Rather, they are static objects that possess static qualities. But you have rendered them in place---they are here, imprinted, permanent. Thinking about your use of “chance,” perhaps we could read the static as a “glitch” (in transmission from space?) that now has accumulated and presented itself to us in a new form.

Right. Yes, I think my work is very still but I don’t know if it’s peaceful, its more undefined. A phrase I often in my photo crits, “I feel like something bad is about the happen or just happened,” like an unknown presence is just out of sight. I do think it relates to ideas of space, as absence, and also death. What happens to us after our material presence is gone. Permanence and impermanence. Visual or aural static is entropy, nothingness, but we search for signals and patterns in the noise. We hear things and see things that seem familiar to us. Throughout the book Objects of Unknown Use there are images of permanence and impermanence. Object, text and images are permanent. Breath and air and spoken word are not.

The book Objects of Unknown Use uses static overtly as a visual element and a narrative element as well. I wrote it using the translation method to combine the Egyptian Book of the Dead and first person UFO accounts. The book reads like a diary of the protagonist and their companion ka. All we know is that they are travelling, pursued by an undefined force called the 7039 Yamagata Gray that is consuming the landscape. The gray is something between permanence and impermanence, an impenetrable static. The process of using a cut-up or chance operation like the translation method is very much like listening to static and trying to catch a message. For every useful phrase it creates, there’s countless lines of nonsense, but those phrases have a startling voice and sentience.

For example, I finished writing Objects of Unknown Use last year. A few months later, I started researching the relationship between William Burroughs’s cut-ups and hieroglyphics. Here is one of Burroughs most famous and repeated cut-ups.

William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, Grove Press, New York, 1962, pg. 104

He described the “grey room” as the photo darkroom where the film of reality is processed, controlled by alien viruses. If the negatives are exposed, reality stops. A negative exposed to light midway through the developing process is a milky and opaque gray. I connected this to the mysterious Yamagata Gray, particularly a scene in Objects where the protagonist meets others that have been exposed to it. Perhaps  it’s all coincidence but it fascinates me that our cut-up writing seems to find points of intersection.

I am shown six women

clutching hyacinths at their throats

They have been exposed to the Kurosis virus

and are seeking to remain anonymous

They remove the image films from their mouths

and place them at my feet

They wait

I examine them

These are light gray, but not Yamagata yet. Safe.

It is resolved for now

Marianne Dages, Objects of Unknown Use

Letterpress, Risograph, and laser print book case bound in bookcloth, 2017

What does it mean to you, if it means anything at all, to work within and of the unseen “glitch” of these digital platforms (in this case, the failures within the algorithm of online translation platforms)---in a space that is digital and potentially interpreted as being in constant motion---but then take that back into a static form as the physically printed page? Not just any printed page either, but letterpress printed: a medium historically weighted, and with a greater implicit sense of object permanence than that of the digital, especially when used in conjunction with more archival materials. Just as your work oscillates between the static and static, so does it oscillate between fine press and experimental?

The static texture that runs through the pages of Objects of Unknown Use was made by inking aluminum offset plates and printing them on an etching press. To make the edition, I then copied those prints on a Risograph which added the halftone filter. So that went from photochemical offset plates, to the physical pressure of an etching press, back to photo reproduction of the Risograph. And on top of that is the letterpress text, generated using a program that as you pointed out, changes from day to day. Users are continually adding new translations, right or wrong, that will alter the results each time it is used. It’s an interesting hybrid of algorithmic glitch and human error. When I think of a glitch, I think of something frozen and static, because I grew up with a Nintendo. I remember playing Final Fantasy, watching the game freeze turn fluorescent and seeing a graphic of a ship that absolutely didn’t appear in the actual game. Where did it come from! In games, glitches usually prevent the player from progressing, but I’m interested in their ability to collaborate or generate.

I think I use fine press materials and processes like hand-bookbinding and letterpress partly because that what’s what I know and that lets me focus on the content. That might seem counterintuitive but again it comes back to that idea of creative constraint. There’s also a part of me that’s seduced by beauty and permanence; wanting to take it with you, or leave your mark. But I don’t think a letterpress print holds any more value than a photocopy. I struggle with the concept that time holds any value when it comes to art. I really don’t know. That said, I’m more and more interested in the writing component of artist’s books and with that the If you make an edition of 20 books, not many people are going to read it. So I’m beginning to realize the importance of creating a digital archive for greater accessibility. For the book, Objects of Unknown Use, I made a recording of a computer’s voice reading the book, overlaid with analog tape sounds generated by a telephone tapping device. After I “perform” the reading once, I’m going to upload it to my website for open access. In order to continue to be relevant, I think those making artist’s books will need to consider these things. That could mean rejecting mass reproduction or completely embracing it. It just needs to be part of the conversation.

 H.R. Buechler / OXBLOOD Publishing