contest 10: a humument, tom phillips

February 27th, 2015

[NOTE: The submission deadline has been extended to May 10, 2015.]

the book rules ok  -A Humument


 A Humument by Tom Phillips is, in the words of Marvin Sackner, co-founder of the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry a ‘visual-poetic artist’s book,’ a found novel whose every page has been altered by the artist through painting, collage, drawing, cut-up techniques, and even burning. The result is art, but it is also poetry (concrete, found, haptic), narrative, autobiography, oracle.  This ‘strange, beguiling work,’ as Adam Smyth calls it, is all of this and more owing to the erudition and humor of its immensely gifted and indefatigable creator.  And, importantly, it is also a work in progress. Since the artist has been at it now for nearly fifty years (Phillips first procured his source material, having decided to use the first book he could find for threepence, W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document in 1966) it is arguably in contention for being the work of longest duration by a living artist (or perhaps any artist living or dead).  Initially published in 1973, the latest version and fifth edition of A Humument was published in 2012. In it the work of revision continues with second versions of most of the pages. A Humument is also available in formats for iPad and iPhone, as well as a modified audiovisual version housed in a USB device. A perennial favorite, it has collected dozens of affirming articles over the years, some quizzical, some fawning, and some particularly intelligent and discerning such as Smyth’s  from the London Review of Books and William H. Gass’ from Artforum (My own admiration for Tom Phillips is no secret. I have previously written about him and interviewed him here.).

As Mallarmé said…

que tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre (that everything in the world exists to end up in a book)  -Le Livre, instrument spirituel


Phillips clearly relishes the significant role that chance plays in this endeavor (to such an extent that he views A Humument somewhat as an oracular device), beginning with his more or less arbitrary selection of raw material. Had he chosen another volume that morning (or even another edition of the same work), the result would have been different and possibly even unsatisfying enough to compel him to abandon the project. Phillips admits that the project began ‘as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations’ and that ‘virtually all the work on A Humument has been done in the evenings, so that I might not, had the thing become a folly, regret the waste of days’. But perhaps chance is simply part and parcel of the artists’ life.  In the end, he develops a strange and intimate relationship with Mallock and A Human Document, going so far as to suggest that the resulting work is ‘a curious unwitting collaboration between two ill-suited people seventy-five years apart.’

I asked Johanna Drucker , visual theorist and book artist and author of the seminal study The Century of Artists’ Books to discuss the significance of A Humument:

In some ways, A Humument is one of the most canonical and visible works in the field–perhaps the most visible. Phillips’s genius is in his graphics: the graphical imagination and inexhaustible invention of his intervention in the pages is fantastic. He plays with every trope of illustration and illusion, of textual reference and bibliographical construction, and he has a great sense of color and design. A Humument is absolutely his most compelling and public work, and for good reason. It is both a conceptual piece and a wonderfully executed work and will stand the test of time, I think, as an engaging and virtuosic exercise de style and demonstration of invention. Other artists have worked in the altered book format. Many have done more sculptural, spatial, or physical transformations. Many artists have cut, painted on, or otherwise made use of found books. So, in some ways, the elements of Phillips’s project–an excised text, altered book or pages, and painterly transformations– all connect to other strains of book art. This doesn’t take anything away from Phillips’s work, or its originality, but does situate it within a set of practices of which it is a part. 

I am truly delighted that Tom Phillips has agreed to bless our latest (and tenth!)  contest, which is to create an original visual and/or poetic work using any media or methods (You can view the entire book here! Or, better yet, why not purchase it.). He has also selected the page from A Human Document that will be the prima materia for this work. Of its particular significance, he says:

‘The first version of page 4 dates from the late sixties, with the usual minimal text for that period and the page otherwise covered with linear abstract penwork. When the time came to make the second version I was amazed to find ‘nine’ and ‘eleven’ in the appropriate order to echo that recent catastrophe. A Human Document has often turned up trumps in this way. Other words on the page will spur other people to quite different resulting pictorial and textual strategies.’

A high-resolution .tif of page 4 is here (Alternately, you can use the lower resolution .jpg here). The winner or winners selected by Tom Phillips himself will receive a limited edition Humument screenprint signed and editioned by the artist. Entries must be received by 10 May 2015 11:00PM GMT. See Humument Contest Brief for more information.

Many, many thanks to Tom Phillips and Lucy Shortis!

4-humtetrad-1152x1536A Humument, p. 4, first version (late 1960s)


4-humapp-1152x1536A Humument, p. 4, second version (2012)


AHDp4A Human Document, p.4


Selected pages from A Humument:














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hope against hope, nadezhda mandelstam

January 19th, 2014


My darling Nadia – are you alive, my dear?

-letter from Osip Mandelstam, October 1938


I have no words, my darling, to write this letter that you may never read, perhaps. I am writing in empty space.

-letter from Nadezhda Mandelstam, 22 October 1938




In all likelihood, Osip Mandelstam, considered by many to be Russia’s finest poet, perished in the final days of 1938 during an outbreak of spotted typhus shortly after arriving in the overcrowded Vtoraya Rechka transit camp outside of Vladivostok. Already in ill health after four months of presumed beatings and torture in the NKVD’s notorious Lubyanka prison, he would have arrived at the camp with unhealed injuries, starving, emaciated and barely able to walk after five grueling weeks in a stifling prison transport, a journey that covered the nearly 6000-mile length of the Trans-Siberian Railway line from Moscow to Vladivostok. There, delirious and raving, having bartered his yellow leather coat for a half kilo of sugar (as one camp survivor claimed), suffering from dysentery, exposure, malnutrition, and unable to stand, he would have died of typhus or some other disease caused by his ordeals and the inhuman conditions at the camp. Thus at least he was spared the unimaginable horrors of the dreadful two-thousand mile journey by slave-ship across the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk to the cruel Gulags of Kolyma where he was to begin serving his five-year sentence of hard labor for counter-revolutionary activities.

I hate to think that at the moment when my mind was set at rest on being told in the post office that he was dead, he may actually have been still alive and on his way to Kolyma.

Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s startlingly clear-eyed recounting of great personal tragedy amid the immeasurably greater Soviet tragedy that unfolded during the second quarter of the twentieth century would be extraordinary by any account, but it is her equanimity, her self-composure impossibly balanced between resignation and defiance that makes it such an indelible and powerful document. Self-pity, paralysis and self-righteousness are nowhere to be found, in spite of the intense persecutions suffered by her and her husband (in her memoirs always referred to simply as M.). They simply continued on together, living as best they could through more or less chronic poverty and M.’s increasingly poor health, on constant alert for informers and secret police, weathering M.’s first arrest and imprisonment, their long periods of exile, the loss of possessions and livelihood, the painful separation or alienation from friends (of which she discusses many, most notably the great poet and lifelong friend Anna Akhmatova, but also Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, Andrei Bely, and many others), and alternately battling and accepting the false hopes, gnawing uncertainty, and growing fear, until M.’s final arrest in May 1938.

The main feature of Russian history, something that never changes, is that every road always brings disaster – and not only to heroes. Survival is a matter of pure chance. It is not this that surprises me so much  as the fact that a few people, for all their frailty, came through the whole ordeal like heroes, not only living to tell the tale, but preserving the keenness of mind that enables them to do so. I know people like this, but the time has not yet come to name them…

During all of this, and in the decades following his death, Nadezhda Mandelstam dedicated her life to protecting and preserving Osip Mandelstam’s poems, memorizing them and writing out copies to entrust to friends or to secret hiding places. As Joseph Brodsky noted, she was the wife of Osip Mandelstam for 19 years and his widow for 42.

This, then, was how the beauties of my generation ended their lives – as the widows of martyrs, consoled in prison or exile only by a secret hoard of verse stored in their memory.

Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam by Seamus Heaney in the London Review of Books, Vol.3 No. 15 – 20 August 1981 pp. 3-6



I have invented a new genre – the genre of silence

-Isaac Babel, August 1934

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the case of comrade tulayev, victor serge

December 13th, 2013

CCI12102013_0000In the vast, intricate tapestry of Russian history, the pattern and weave is of almost incomprehensible complexity. In particular, the events of the years 1934 – 1939 are so dense as to be nearly impenetrable. Arguably the most repressive years of the Soviet Union, these half-dozen years are bookended on the one hand by the 17th Congress of the Communist Party, the ascendance of the NKVD, and the assassination of Sergei Kirov; and on the other by the end of the Spanish Civil War with the loss of the Soviet-supported Republican forces, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, and the Soviet invasion of Poland.

The peak years were undoubtedly 1937-1938, dominated by the Great Purge, that frenzy of repression and paranoia largely in service of Josef Stalin’s consolidation of power, in which Stalin took the opportunity to dispose, en masse, through Nikolai Yezhov‘s brutal NKVD, of ‘counter-revolutionaries’, ‘enemies of the people’ and any and all threats, real or imagined. These comprised the vast majority of Old Bolsheviks, high-ranking military personnel, and Communist Party officials, including the Central Committee and the Politburo.  This so-called Yezhovshchina was marked by mass arrests, detentions, torture, forced confessions, and show trials (more frequently, there were no trials at all) resulting in the execution of somewhere between 750,000 and 1.5 million people and probably even more, and the sending of countless millions more to the hundreds of labor camps and colonies of the vast GULAG system (all of this after collectivization and forced resettlement contributed to the famine of 1932-1933 that killed at least 3 million, but possibly as many as 8 million people).

Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev takes place during these peak years. Written in 1942 from Serge’s exile in Mexico, and harshly critical of the cruel repression of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, it highlights with startling clarity the madness of the time through a handful of elegantly interwoven stories of individuals ensnared by an investigation into the assassination of Tulayev, a high-level Party official. At no point is it a detective story; we know the identity of the murderer the moment Tulayev is killed at the end of the first chapter. Nor is it a satire, since the chain of events depicted are hardly outlandish given the paranoia of the time. Rather it is a beautifully nuanced experience in dreadful slow-motion of the arbitrary violence caused by an enormous out-of-control machine as it decimates everything in its path. Here are shown not only the high-level Party members, acting out of delusion, fear, and self-preservation, but also the old guard, the idealists and the disillusioned, former members of the Left Opposition, followers of Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky.

Christopher Hitchens notes in his essay in The Atlantic Monthly (December 2003):

After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.

For many years Serge was almost lost to view. He was one of those intellectual misfits (I intend no disrespect by the term) who were ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler.

The cover of the edition I own (above) is by George Giusti.

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konstantin paustovsky, the story of a life

September 8th, 2013

26733ABI’ve been reading Memoirs 1906-1969 by Manya Harari, perhaps best known to the world as the publisher and translator (with Max Haxward) of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which first appeared in English in 1958 under the imprint of the Harvill Press. Harvill was founded in 1946 by Harari and Marjorie Villiers, who met during World War II when both were attached to the Department of Political Warfare in the Foreign Office. Its foremost legacy remains as publisher of the first English editions of contemporary Russian authors among them Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, Black Snow), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle), Anna Akhmatova (Poems), Ilya Ehrenburg (The Thaw), Yevgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind), although it also translated and published many non-Russian authors: in particular Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) and much later W.G. Sebald (Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn). Lesser known but equally important is Harvill’s interest in religion, metaphysics, and psychology, which it shares with its contemporary in the United States, the Bollingen Press. Among the authors Harvill published in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s are Mircea Eliade (Rites and Symbols of Initiation (Birth and Rebirth); Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism; Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: the Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities), Gabriel Marcel (The Philosophy of Existentialism, Man against Mass Society, The Decline of Wisdom), Victor White (God and the Unconscious), Max Picard (The World of Silence), St. John of the Cross (Poems), and Blaise Pascal (Pensees).

Harari’s memoirs were in progress at the time of her death and the resulting book is incomplete and haphazard. Sadly, there is nothing here about her wartime years in the Foreign Office, or of the founding and operation of the Harvill Press. In the first of the books three sections, there are only cursory descriptions of Harari’s early childhood in St. Petersburg, her family’s emigration to England on the eve of World War I, her subsequent education at Malvern Girl’s College and Bedford College, University of London, and her marriage to Ralph Harari in 1925. In a brief middle section, The Middle East, she describes her years spent in Egypt and Palestine in the 20s and in Jerusalem in 1948-49, along with reflections on Zionism and her brief tenure in a kibbutz. The last section, fully two-thirds of the book, comprises accounts of three visits she made to her native Russia in 1955, 1956, and 1961, and these observations and descriptions of her encounters with ordinary people during the post-Stalin cultural thaw under Khrushchev are the most engaging portions of the book.

In some ways they remind me of my first introduction to Harvill, the remarkable six-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky (published between 1964 and 1974, volumes one and two translated by Harari and Michael Duncan, volumes three and four by Harari and Andrew Thomson, and volumes five and six, published after Harari’s death, by Kyril FitzLyon). The Story of a Life spans barely thirty years (with a few brief excursions farther into the future), from Paustovsky’s early childhood in the waning years of the 19th century to the middle of the 1920s, and so covers the tumultuous years of World War I and the Russian Revolution which, as it says on the jacket of the fourth volume, ‘he can be said to have lived through…three times: in 1917 in Moscow, in 1918 in Kiev, and…in 1921 in Odessa.’ Paustovsky’s encounter with Nestor Makhno, the leader of the Ukrainian Anarchist Black Army at a train station in Pomoshnaya, halfway between Odessa and Kiev, is one of the most horrifying passages in the book.

Geographically, The Story of a Life spans the immensity of Soviet Russia: as a student, journalist and adventurer Paustovsky travels from Kiev to Moscow, Odessa, the Abkhazian capital of Sukhum, the Georgian cities of Batum and Tiflis, various far flung cities on the White and Barents Seas in the north and on the Caspian Sea to the east, as well as the western front in Poland and Belarus. Here as well is its immense and fertile literary life, with too many names to mention but including Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Ilf and Petrov, Sergey Esenin, Eduard Bagritsky, Alexander Blok, Seymon Hecht.

Helen Muchnic, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1964, gets it right:

But he has seen so much, looked on with such rapturous attention, recalled everything so well and retold it all so vividly that his story gives the impression of sharply focused close-ups that add up to an authentic record, though not an explanation, of a crucial period in the world’s history. The pages are crowded with big and small events—sometimes profoundly moving, sometimes humorous, sometimes horrifying. There are passages of lyric beauty, inspired by his love of the sea and of the Russian countryside; and the hundreds of men and women, famous or obscure, whom he sees, works with, loves, or befriends are sharply drawn: Lenin subduing an unruly gathering by the sheer authoritativeness of his presence and his conversational speech, eccentric teachers, well-known artists and writers, anonymous passengers on trains and trolley cars, illiterate peasants, fishermen, bandits, soldiers, newsmen, priests, doctors, nurses, coachmen, children—they are not a mob, but a myriad of individuals, every one distinctly seen, though only a few are intimately known.

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lolita, tom phillips

August 19th, 2013



In 1994, during my final weeks at the Yale School of Architecture, I attended a lecture at the Yale Center for British Art, the repository for some of philanthropist’s Paul Mellon’s vast art collection and a building which was, incidentally, architect Louis I. Kahn’s last major work. Kahn was an architect with close ties to Yale (where he taught in the ‘40s and ‘50s and where his first significant commission, the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed in 1953) and his work interests me professionally, but my interest in Mellon is more personal: we each attended not only Yale, but also tiny St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland (although Mellon attended St. John’s only briefly in 1940 before joining the OSS). Among innumerable philanthropic endeavors Mellon is well known for commissioning or endowing important works of architecture, notably I.M. Pei’s West Wing at the National Gallery of Art and Eero Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale, as well as Richard Neutra’s and Robert Alexander’s Mellon Hall at St. John’s. Significantly, Mellon was also the financial support behind the Bollingen Press, founded by his wife Mary Conover Mellon and discussed elsewhere in this blog.

The artist Tom Phillips was the person I went to hear that evening. He was speaking at the opening reception for a retrospective exhibition of his work originally organized by the Royal Academy of Arts. Painter, poet, composer, creator of series, illuminator, maker of books, illustrator and gloss of Dante’s Inferno, postcard collector, recovering stencil addict, and discoverer of the secret and the magical and the enduring amongst the most quotidian and ephemeral, one of Phillips’ most engaging practices is that of isolating fragments of text or images from artworks, postcards, books and from them creating startlingly original, expressive, and intellectual work. I was introduced to Phillips’ work while an undergraduate at St. Johns where I discovered his Inferno and soon thereafter his ‘treated’ novel A Humument. The latter (an ongoing work begun 47 years ago and enjoying its fifth incarnation, or six if you count the iPhone/iPad app) is only the most well-known, but there are many examples of this mode of creation, most poignantly (for me) the series After Ter Borch in which he painted what by any standards is a rather uneventful section of the Dutch artist’s painting The Concert and elevated it to a powerful abstraction; and another series,The Flower Before the Bench, which could be viewed as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of his work Benches, but what is in reality a form of transubstantiation in which representation is miraculously abstracted into pure color and form and then back again into representation.

Tom Phillips has designed book covers and his work has also appeared on album covers, notably King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black (a cover I cannot see without hearing Richard Burton intoning the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood) and Brian Eno’s Another Green World (a detail from After Raphael). Eno’s own processes owe a great debt to Phillip’s, and no wonder: Eno was Phillips’ ‘best student’ and Phillips obviously taught him well. To listen to Tom Phillips discuss his daily use of A Humument as an oracle along the lines of the I Ching, and to read his A Postcard Vision, is to experience the uncanny source of Eno’s various predilections and processes, not  to mention his Oblique Strategies cards.

Two years ago, while working on Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design(co-edited with Yuri Leving), I approached Phillips about providing a conceptual cover for the book’s gallery. Let it simply be said that I missed the opportunity to include it in the book, but for his part Phillips actually did create a cover, and now this cover is available as a large limited edition print.

Tom Phillips was kind enough to submit to an interview, and I am delighted to include it here:


JB: First of all, presumably the image on your wonderful Lolita cover is a postcard from your collection. What is its provenance and where did you acquire it?

TP: You’re right, I have a huge collection of photographic postcards from before World War II. I am currently publishing some of them in a series of books for the Bodleian Library under various headings (Bicycles, Hats, Walls, Weddings etc). When you mentioned Lolita I went to the file of ‘Girls’ but not one of the five hundred or so really spoke her name. I was stuck. Then I tried other headings and there she was under ‘Dance’ and Humbert Humbert with her. Unlike the film Lolita she is the right sort of age, or slightly under, perhaps eleven rather than twelve. But I love the dance itself which has both a touch of lepidoptery and a charged proximity/separateness of the dancers. All no doubt innocent enough in that distant period, yet answering the question ’Lolita?’ emphatically for me. There was no point in looking for another image. Sultry colours in the slightly Russian border finished the job. She is creeping out of the chrysalis and he is tiptoeing into the trap. What I like about the privately produced cards I collect is their implications of possible narrative. Here Nabokov’s book takes up one such story.

JB: I was disappointed to learn that your series of treated books Humbert’s Obliterated Rhymes has nothing to do with Lolita’s narrator, but no matter! You’ve been quoted as saying “My work is a kind of game. A serious game.” This is something that Nabokov might have said (or perhaps Samuel Beckett, although it was M.C. Escher who actually did say something very similar). Do you feel an affinity with Nabokov on any level? Do you enjoy any of his books?

TP: The Obliterated Rhymes stalks another Humbert, Humbert Wolfe, a minor poet but popular in his day. I kept on seeing his ‘Cursory Rhymes’ in secondhand bookshops and it was the connection with Nabokov that finally drew me to it, as well as its spacious pages. I’ve made or partly made ten or so versions of the book. My favourite Nabokov novel is Pale Fire. No surprise there. But Lolita ranks second for me and another ideal read for the game player.

JB: Earlier I mentioned After Ter Borch and The Flower Before the Bench. It’s difficult to express what is so compelling about these, and so many others of your works, but I can imagine your boundless curiosity, your habit of looking deeply and closely, and your interest in the processes of creation and disintegration, not to mention processes of mechanical and photographic reproduction.  And so I want to ask you in a very clumsy way: alchemist that you are, what is it that you are revealing from behind or within what might otherwise be termed ‘banality?’

TP: I was very touched that you mentioned the Ter Borch variations, which no one has ever remarked on before and which are favourites of mine. Like the postcards they are part of an acceptance world. Each different reproduction of ‘The Concert’ is in it’s own key of colour and has its own vibrato and each is individually poignant. Each for its observer was also a truth. And the same with postcards. These views of bits of the world have the guarantee that they were accepted as depictions of the real, not fictions and to their original observer/purchaser not at all banal. More likely the ideal.

JB: How about an Eno tidbit?

TP: You mentioned that I taught Brian. Others did too, but music made for a specially strong bond. However I remember that on the first day in the first class he announced his inventive mind. The class was doing a life drawing which I’d told them to make only using dots. The noise was fun in itself but I recall that, once we stopped, he tore off all the bits of his paper that didn’t carry the image, thus making the figure twice, a two dimensional sculpture, and this in deeply provincial Ipswich in his home county in his first hour of art school. Brave and bold as he still is, now not my student of course but a friend of forty years standing.

JB: Finally, the floor is all yours: is there anything else you would like to say?

TP: This seems a good opportunity for promotional adverts; so here they come. I’ve enjoyed using new technologies since co-directing my version of Infero with Peter Greenaway. The whole idea of a website instead of lots of catalogues is wonderful. I take pleasure in maintaining it and in keeping up a personal blog. I love my iPad and have produced an app for it which contains the whole of A Humument looking like church windows, each page truly part of an illuminated book. My latest venture in medieval modernity is to make a USB of Humument pages with myself reading the text. Recently I’ve started with Twitter. I like its constraints and add one of my own to make it more interesting. All my tweets are in rhyming pentameters. Not poetry exactly, but fun to do; and another vanity.

My sincerest thanks to Tom Phillips and Lucy Shortis!

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sulki & min

February 28th, 2013

0220_Lolita_A“I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. If we cannot find that kind of artistic and virile painting, let us settle for an immaculate white jacket (rough texture paper instead of the usual glossy kind), with LOLITA in bold black lettering.”  – Letter from Vladimir Nabokov to publisher Walter J. Minton of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, April 23, 1958 in response to five submitted cover designs for the first US edition of Lolita.

Sulki & Min‘s cover for our new book! The gray rectangle shows the area of glossy varnish on the otherwise matte white cover.

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the rings of saturn, w.g. sebald

January 27th, 2013

For those who love the work of the late W.G. Sebald, erudite, elegaic, steeped in melancholy and Weltschmerz,  it is not a stretch to declare his somber books sacred texts. Little wonder, then, that the prospect of a film based on The Rings of Saturn could produce in such a person anxiety bordering on panic. However, Grant Gee’s superb film, Patience (after Sebald) part documentary, part gloss, part travel diary, manages to achieve the unthinkable: an intelligent and interesting exploration of Sebald’s world. And, organically woven through the film, inseparable from it, is the extraordinary music of James Leyland Kirby or, rather, his project The Caretaker.


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winners: design contest 8: arya bakhsheshi & andy chen (tie)

October 10th, 2012

In general I like the ones that are more hazy and indistinct, and offer less information — ones that don’t try to force a particular viewpoint on the viewer. Too much visual information gets in the way of imaginary soundtracks for imaginary films. -Geeta Dayal

After much deliberation, and in order to honor a complex competition which generated a particularly diverse set of images, as well as to respect the divergent perspectives of the jury, two winning covers have been selected: those of Arya Bakhsheshi of Iran and Andy Chen of the United States.

Arya Bakhsheshi (front)

Arya Bakhsheshi (back)

On Arya Bakhsheshi’s cover:

This is a beautifully considered piece of design, again both the front and back. It stays very close to established Eno-esque imagery — it’s impossible not to think of Eno’s Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan skylines and the Obscure Records covers — and it has a photographic quality that seems to locate it in the period (1970s-1980s) when Eno was moving more deeply into non-vocal, ambient music. The “obviousness” of the imagery could count against this cover, and yet the delicate judgement of mood, the photos’ sombre melody and soft twilight melancholy, the jewel-like dying sun, the transmutation of the ordinary into something magical and poetic, are so close to my experience of listening to Eno that I can’t resist it. If this were to be the album’s new official cover it would give me pleasure every time I got it out to play it — far more than the existing cover — and I know I would never tire of it.  I feel the designer has lived with Eno’s music and deeply appreciates what it is about. In two variations of the same scene, the designer suggests the temporal lapse of film with the subtlest, most contemplative of gestures. The typography occupies the spaces in the images with the same intelligence and sensitivity of touch. If only Eno’s later album covers had been this good. -Rick Poynor

Whilst I find this image to be slightly derivative, reminding me somewhat of Eno’s “Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan” video work, I do like its overall quietness, which is only broken by one flaring luminescent light. The typography and overall design of both front and back covers is very tight, thoughtful and works perfectly. -Russell Mills

Andy Chen (front)

Andy Chen (back)

On Andy Chen’s cover:

I like the mysteriousness of this purely abstract black and white submission. I feel it also echoes Eno’s strengths, being that he operates best, innovating approaches to sound, when working at the edges of the mainstream, constantly experimenting. (The mainstream generally catch on and appropriate his ideas and techniques about three years after the event.) -Russell Mills

I do think it’s a fine piece of work — both the front and back cover. It’s the kind of highly finessed design that would emerge as a favourite and perhaps winner in a more general design contest, if designers alone were the judges. That’s partly why I resisted it  — because from a design-world perspective it seemed too much the obvious choice in its refinement and tastefulness. Over the years I have become a bit tired of the predictability of the results when judging design competitions. Also, for me, although I appreciate the cover as an abstract image and as a piece of typography, it doesn’t strongly evoke my experience of the album’s music. -Rick Poynor

There were many strong entries. You can see some of them below, or see all of the submissions here.

Alice Twemlow singled out Anibal Perez’ cover as a particular favorite noting:

I like its visual references to piano keys, circuit boards, plugs, fret boards,  speakers and an LP itself, and also to the endlessly circular nature of Eno’s music which a number of the cover artists pick up on. But I especially appreciate its allusion to the darker, more mechanical sounding aspects of this album (felt most strongly in Patrolling Wire Borders) through the reference to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon plan for a prison in which the staff of the institution are positioned at the center of a circular arrangement of cells and are able to view all  the inmates around them. Inmates would not know when they were being watched. Maybe its just me but there seem to be some associations between ambient music with mind control (all that knob twiddling and wires I suppose) and the physically arresting effects it has on the human body, so the imagery seems to fit. 

I like its restrained use of black and white and its avoidance of retro tropes, or too- obvious allusions to trippy journeys through outer space. You can use it as an op-art piece, staring into the central eye and letting the radial elements spin and pulsate, if you need to. 

Frith Kerr liked David Castillo’s cover for its most successful consideration of type and image.


Here are some other wonderful submissions. From top to bottom, Jamie Keenan, Charles Chamberlin, Duncan O Ceallaigh, Adam Green, Robert Jarrell, Randy Slavin, Brad Konick.

Russell Mills singled out Howard Gardener’s:

I like the subdued nature of the image, which I suspect is simply an inverted photograph i.e. in negative. The row of anonymous un-labelled cans, some opened with smoke or vapours pluming from within, suggests  mysterious contents of unknown potential, very like the music of Music for Films, each track conjuring up the atmosphere of previously unknown environments, physical landscapes or mental mindscapes. The framing of the image, its composition and the careful placement and treatment of the typography thoughtfully and appropriately mirrors the tone of the photograph.”

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design contest 8: music for films, brian eno

June 29th, 2012



Brian Eno

“As an intellectually mobile loner, scene-setter, systems lover, obstinate rebel, techno-prophet, sensual philosopher, courteous progressive, close listener, gentle heretic, sound planner, adviser explorer, pedant and slick conceptual salesman, and devoted fan of the new, undrab and surprising, wherever it fell between John Cage and Little Richard, or Duchamp and doo wop, or Mondrian and Moog, Eno busily and bossily remodeled pop music during the 70s. He looked at what the Velvet Underground, Can, Steve Reich and the Who had done, went forth and multiplied. Eno created an atmosphere, and helped determine what the history of electronic music was between the avant garde 1950s and the pop 21st century.” – Paul Morley

If it’s not clear from the laundry list in the quote above, the absurdly-prolific ‘non-musician’ Brian Eno has done enough over the past forty years to variously impress, interest, annoy or alienate just about everyone. There are, of course, his early art school inflected Kraut-, glam, and prog-rock beginnings and his later work with ‘ambient’ and ‘generative’ music; his long list of now-legendary collaborative efforts and producing credits (among a certain subset of rock cognoscenti Eno is the eternal brilliance behindand everything good aboutRoxy Music, David Bowie, and Talking Heads); and, finally, his disparate extracurricular activities: Oblique Strategies, Obscure Records, 77 Million Paintings, The Long NowA Year With Swollen Appendices not to mention his ubiquity as an interviewee and lecturer on art, music, science and technology. Eradicate most of the last 25 years, and step back into the mid-70s, and the man and his oeuvre become at least somewhat manageable (no best-selling Irish rock bands, no Windows 95 start-up sound, no Spore). This was arguably Eno’s most fertile period: in just those few years he generated (or helped generate) such a startlingly wide range of music with a ridiculous number of brilliant collaborators (in particular Robert Fripp who, in my opinion, was an indispensable component of Eno’s sound and process during their long and fruitful association) on so many different records that it would surprise no one if one or two albums should fall through the cracks.  From that era Music for Films, in particular,seems to be perennially overlooked.

Music for Films

“This album is a compilation of fragments of my recorded work over the last two or three years. Some of it was made specifically for use as soundtrack material, some of it was made for other reasons but found its way into films; most of it is previously unissued in any form.”  -from the back cover of Music for Films

“It is not Eno’s fault – although it’s not been to his disadvantage either – that the ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film’ concept is now so commonplace that it no longer stands up as a concept, it’s just a thing, a clump of words, no more meaningful than ‘rock’ or ‘punk’.  – Frances Morgan

“The real films in [Music for] Films are the ones on the backs of your eyelids or behind your forehead, much as they must have been when Eno was first creating them.”Serdar Yegulalp

“This and much else of Eno’s music has its own psychological landscape in our shared consciousness. By design it is not the bumper-ridden library music typical of a broadcasting industry interested in moving participants by cuing advertisements. Music in film can foment empathy which can be difficult to restrain when you know the music a director has chosen, a sense of sharing a secret in total silence as you stare at the screen steeping in your own past. Where might Eno’s music prove effective as just such a means, of passively compelling trust, honesty and assent? Who would tend to trust the message of a film with an Eno soundtrack? Clever bastards like us.” – Tim McGowan

1978 saw the ‘official’ release of Brian Eno’s Music for Films, a collection of 18 short and musically disparate instrumental tracks, a handful of which had previously surfaced on a 1976 promotional LP of the same name (which consisted of 25 musical interludes, including some unreleased and others that appeared elsewhere, notably 1975’s Another Green World). Not officially part of Eno’s Ambient Series nor, in fact, strictly ‘music for films’ they range in tone and mood from impressionistic sketches of an ‘ambient’ nature to darker, quirkier and, in some cases, louder pieces that could just a easily be at home on Before and After Science or Another Green World or might be found on one of the Dieter Moebius/Hans-Joachim Roedelius collaborations (or even the slightly later My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne). Perhaps never considered to be among Eno’s very best work of any period or genre (overshadowed at one end by the more conceptually ambitious Ambient 1: Music for Airports with its four long glacially-paced looping tracks, and at the other by the controlled mania and kitchen sink maximal-ism of his earlier ‘rock’ albums), nevertheless, Music for Films remains a consistently interesting and quietly surprising album.

The Cover

Brian Eno’s album covers have always tended toward the interesting, (one or two I find exceptional, notably Music for Airports), and he was fortunate to count work by the brilliant artists Tom Phillips and Russell Mills among them. On some level, however, the covers have always seemed more intent on establishing Eno’s artistic, intellectual, and theoretical bona fides (and, especially with the earlier albums, his overall weirdness) than anything else. The cover for Music for Films, however, is radically different.  Not so much designed as intentionally left blank, the chocolate brown Helvetica text is pushed to the extreme upper edges of the texture-less and indescribably beige cover (the same text layout was used to good effect for the Cluster collaborations After the Heat and Begegnungen). This apotheosis of neutrality avoided the plain brown wrapper look in favor of what in retrospect seems closer to the generic packaging popular in grocery stores in the late ‘70s (or perhaps a reference color from Interiors, Woody Allen’s beige-est Bergman-esque film, also from 1978). Importantly, the cover is not ‘conceptual’ in the way that Richard Hamilton’s design for The Beatles’ ‘White Album” is, nor has it the cool rigor and studied minimalism of any number of ECM or Factory Records covers that – brilliant as they are (and they are brilliant) – somehow appear positively baroque in comparison. Rather, music and cover co-exist nicely as a unit, the latter providing no commentary on the former (or anything else for that matter), simply existing as a visual analogue to the wordless music. It’s a nice conceit.

The Contest

So in spite of the fact that Music for Films perhaps already has the perfect cover, and because we prefer difficult projects and are very fond of the album and believe it deserves new listeners (and re-listeners), we are sponsoring a competition for a new LP cover. You can find all of the rules and gobbledygook here (read them, please), but keep in mind that the deadline for submissions is 1 September 2012 and that there will be a $500 US prize for the entry that jurors like best as well as some special Eno-related prizes to be announced. All of the tracks can easily be found on any number of video-sharing and music-streaming sites ( Note: There were two different track orders. The later EG version with the revised sequence is now the standard so, unless you have a 1978 Polydor or Antilles LP, this is the sequence you will most likely hear.). If you have any questions you may e-mail us at: admin {at} venusfebriculosa {dot} com

The Jury

Were honored to have as jurors:

Geeta Dayal, staff writer specializing in culture reporting at;  electronic music journalist; columnist at Frieze Magazine; contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music; author of Another Green World; commentator, Brian Eno, 1971–1977: The Man who Fell to Earth.

Frith Kerr, director of the graphic design consultancy Studio Frith based in London, frequent collaborator with artists and architects, including Juergen Teller, Michael Clark, Tate Modern, Valentino, Victoria and Albert Museum; member of Alliance Graphique Internationale.

Brad Laner, founder of the beautiful/noisy/guitar-y/drone-y band Medicine (of particular note is their 1992 debut Shot Forth Self Living) and the experimental electronic project Electric Company; musical genius in and behind many other  bands; contributor to Brian Eno’s Another Day on Earth.

Russell Mills, artist;  illustrator and co-creator of More Dark than Shark; book and album cover designer (most famously Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral as well as the Eno collaborations Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and The Pearl); sound installation artist; recording artist (Pearl + Umbra).

Rick Poynor, writer/essayist focusing on design and the visual arts; cultural critic; design historian; founder of Eye magazine; co-founder of Design Observer; contributing editor of Print magazine; author, with collaborators Brian Eno and Russell Mills, of More Dark than Shark.

Alice Twemlow is a British-born writer and educator based in New York. She is chair and co-founder of the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and also a PhD candidate in Design History at the Royal College of Art in London. Alice is a contributor to Design Observer and writes about design for publications including Eye and Architect’s Newspaper. She is the author of What is Graphic Design For? (Rotovision) and of numerous essays.


UPDATE: We hope to have the results of the contest posted by Monday, October 8. We apologize for the delay!

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sanja planinic

June 16th, 2012

Sanja Planinic, a graphic design student at the Academy of Fine Arts Sarajevo sent me a link to a project she had recently completed for a book design class. The book was Lolita, and the resulting red, white and black images, reminiscent both of Barbara Kruger’s critiques of power and sexism as well as constructivist photo-montages, act as potent commentary on the story. The key lies in understanding that the black text represents Humbert while the red text and “the little red childlike interventions” act as Lolita’s gloss on Humbert’s text as well her small yet persistent bid for autonomy and her attempt to carve out her own identity amidst the crushing authority of Humbert’s words.

I found Planinic’s text selections quite intriguing. Be sure to click on the images above to appreciate them full size.

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