You know that feeling when you read or see something and you just have to share it with other? That’s how we felt at Doppler when we read Sarah Minor’s essay, THE CHUTE, ECT. For our first show of 2017, similarly titled CHUTE, we invited several artists to use Minor’s essay as a jumping off point for creating work. To gain a greater understanding of Minor’s process and work, we asked:
Can you describe your visual essay THE CHUTE, ECT.
Chute is a text about laundry chutes that uses both language and design to tell a story. As a visual essay, it’s a piece of nonfiction that aims to build an inviting, designed reading space. Chute feels playful for me in that it experiments with language and offers the reader various paths through a text.
Do contemporary means of reading/viewing text (such as over the internet or on mobile devices) influence how you choose to compose your text or design?
Yes, definitely. In the creative classes I teach we look at the form of the book across history—the slab, the scroll, the accordion, the codex, the perfect bind, the smart phone, the e-reader. The idea is to show my students that language has always been adjusting to the designed space we provide. Illuminated manuscripts featured marginal imagery like that acted as a kind of visual allegory by signaling themes at work in the body of the text. Back then, as is true today, writing was shaped by the durable materials we were willing to manipulate with our hands and to carry various distances. It’s only recently that people have come to see the codex form—a recto and a verso page divided by a gutter—as a kind of sterile, design-less environment. Today e-readers even suggest codex forms that make readers feel comfortable by allowing us to “flip” “pages” and to hear familiar sound effects.
The way I try to sell my students on visual essays is by showing them how, as emoji fluent blogger-instagrammers who unconsciously digest digital texts broken up by ads, they already read in heavily designed environments. Where the visual essay challenges the modern audience is that, unlike an e-reader, a visual essay invites readers to think consciously about the space that text inhabits and asks them to use that space as another tool to make meaning.
Something I’ve been thinking about with Chute is that there’s really no reason for it to be divided into pages, and that it might be better housed, eventually, in a scroll—a form that inherently suggests a falling action and is already inherent to the screen.
In your pieces, you negotiate the space/context between straightforward text and visual art. You've explained that visual essays “use elements of design to further their thinking.” Could you elaborate on this concept and your aims in employing it in your work?
Something I like about the way many visual artists are working today is that many of them, seem to be inviting other dimensions or media into their work as a way to make art feel more interactive or even, I might argue, narrative.
A visual essay, I think, might go the other direction in that it feels like a text gesturing at objectness. What I mean is that many visual essays make the case that they both are and are about objects. The most successful versions I’ve seen are almost always, in some way, about items, spaces, or structures—even metaphorically so. In a visual essay this means that the design can echo and also complicate some idea about shape/space/object that the writer can’t articulate using language alone.
Something I think visual essays work against is the relationship between language and design that concrete poetry first suggested. In Easter Wings and A Mouse’s Tale, the shape of the text reiterates its subject. The design does not complicate or push the text’s content. It mirrors the content. In the visual essays I like best, designs often suggest abstracted or simple shapes that can be “read” many ways. These designs also often divide a text into sections. That way, the interaction between form and content isn’t something of a one-liner. Instead the shape invites a more complex relationship between the text, the image, and the reader.
How does research play into your artwork?
I research the most when I’m in the dark middle of an essay. I like the dated vocal registers . I can borrow from them as a way to interrupt my own voice. Small graphic and typographic elements are the way I often signal to a reader that something is a document. In Chute each headline is formatted using the style from historic newspapers, like in…
“‘SNEEZES BETRAYED FIVE BOY ROBBERS; Caught Hiding with Plunder in Fifty-sixth Street Chute.’ They had Three Bags Filled with Brass Fittings—All Held for Trial.”
The advent of texting means that, to me, all caps reads like SHOUTING and italics reads like emphasis or whispering. The context is also funny at first, and then sad because I realize that the oddness of this old-world scene and its emphasis also reveals a type of class division that I think shows up in headlines that often do their best to conceal those divisions today.
Do you intend for your work to be read differently or change meaning based on the way it’s displayed for a viewer such as installed on a wall opposed to printed on a page?
I’ll say that designed texts are not always welcome in literary spaces by writers who, I think, see design as extraneous, or suggest the old trope that “the writing should be able to carry itself.” I think these folks miss out by underestimating the ways that language and design can work together so that neither mode carries or houses the other.
This space between the art world and the writing world, and the ways each community expects to engage with and produce media, feels like a space I get stuck in a lot. Right now I appreciate how easy it is to reproduce and distribute some version of my work because I use minimalist design elements. But if I want this to remain true I’m also limited to fairly specific scales, color schemes and dimensions. It has been interesting to think about how much the amount of design determines the spaces a text can occupy, the audience it invites, and the time it asks an audience to spend reading.
Through Chute you’re offering your original concept as the jumping off point for other artists in the upcoming exhibition. What initially interested you about this collaborative conception process? And what do you hope to get out of participating in this process?
I am incredibly excited to have Chute featured as part of Doppler’s show and to offer it as material for a collaboration. I love talking to artists because they often have very different perspectives about what it means to produce something for an audience. I think visual artists have a lot to teach literary folks about presentation and process. Artists often help me realize the ways in which I create unnecessary limits for myself.
I’m really looking forward to seeing what another artist will do with Chute. I love thinking of the piece as a kind of raw material that someone else could run with or use as a jumping point to make something entirely different. I hope that the space this text leaves open for a reader to put certain pieces together might also be a fun space for an artist to experiment, play, blow things up, make messes, build a new house...etc.