called out of
At the start of this century, the modernist critic Beatrice Warde likened fine typography to a crystal wine goblet, bubble thin, which in its transparency focused the connoisseur's attentions on the essence of its contents. Beautiful typography was imagined as an invisible conveyance. The back-page colophon, cryptic notes on the fonts and the paper, was the only place the invisible typographer dared show his face.
The typographer's ghostly hand, however, touches and shapes every word that makes a book, and as subtle as they may be, those fingers leave prints. It seems appropriate then that the author of a book which professes a fascination with the hidden, with skin and surface, would consider the epidermis of his book a site for an elaborate typographic tattoo.
We met Mark Taylor through ANY, a small architecture magazine in which we had been making typographic experiments that elaborated on traditional notions of good typography. As a member of the ANY board Mark had followed the development of the magazine design. We knew of his body of work and heard that he was interested in collaborating with a graphic designer on a new project. We were flattered to be invited to join him on Hiding; little did we know exactly into what we were getting.
As we started peel away the layers, Hiding seemed to grow more complicated. We continuously found new aspects to elaborate. Our design process, in which we attempted to analyze narrative structure and use that structure as engine for producing typographic composition, seemed to run by itself at times. And as the process progressed over months, and years, our own changing notions of typography necessitated major redesigns. In the midst of it all, Mark turned out to be a designer's dream collaborator--visual, insightful, willing to take risks, and most importantly, patient.
Clearly, Mark is the sole author of this work. We don't believe designers are authors; that term is simultaneously too generous and too limiting. Our role is more akin to performers improvising on Mark's score. Mark had already built the simultaneity into the structure of the writing. We examined the temporal structure of the work and tried to give it a visual life.
Such an experiment calls traditional notions of the unchanging codex into question. How is one supposed to read this book? Where does the meaning reside? Is there a correct path through the typographic maze? These questions have become all the more current with the intrusion of electronic publishing and the plethora of possibility offered by the internet. But in another sense the design of this book is not so much about virtuality as grafting. Barthes' notion of a text as "a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture" extends to a pastiche of typographic genre; the university press book infiltrated by the newspaper column, the scientific tome, the comic strip, the tabloid, the glossy magazine, the dime novel.
Hiding's structure is based on the five chapters and a number of subtexts that interlace the central narrative. From the beginning we had decided it was not our intention to create expressive typography. (In fact, we tried to exorcise expressive typography altogether.) We determined instead that the book should toy with the structure of traditional academic texts. We also decided that we would compose the pages to exaggerate the two-dimensional qualities of the relationships rather than create the illusion of depth or transparency. We wanted these pages to be flat.
Hiding begins with a reversal. The Library of Congress cataloging information is inflated to a title page. But the early pages of the preface and chapter 1 are quite innocuous. As the book progress, that simplicity begins to break down. Aberrant secondary voices rudely interrupt the pretty justification of the core text. Images intrude, the pages get thick with ink and information. In "Dermographics" the paper gives way to a cheap, thin stock. The verso cannot defend against the recto images bleeding through. A fragment of fashion magazine seems accidentally bound in and the text responds with "De-Signing," an analysis of the interloping pages. In "Ground Zero" Hiding breaks into a two-way street, a Las Vegas Strip, the twin texts competing for the readers attentions. Finally chapter 5, impatient to start "Interfacing" with the rest, detonates, obliterating the site of "Ground Zero."
Making this book was, in turns, exhausting and exhilarating. It is a product of many different hands and temperaments. It was a rare opportunity for our studio and we appreciate the real risks Mark, his editor, and publisher are taking. Looking back there are hundreds of decisions we would have made differently. That is one of the tortures and joys of committing to print, publishing demands decisions that mark the end of design process. But then again, we see Hiding as a book that remains in perpetual process. It is the reader, of course, that ultimately completes the circle.
180 Varick Street, Ninth Floor
New York NY 10014
Mark C. Taylor
With a Foreword by Jack Miles
Paperback, 360 pages, color and b/w illustration throughout
© 1997 ISBN: 0-226-79159-9
The Réal, Las Vegas, Nevada was written by Mark C. Taylor and José Márquez, illustrated by José Márquez and Ralph Kelliher, programmed by Noah Peeters, with music by Alexandra Vázquez and monologues produced by Becky Bond. It is published by the Massachussetts Museum for Contemporary Art and the Williams College Museum of Art and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.
CD-ROM for both Windows 95 and Macintosh OS platforms. Price: $15.95 ISBN: 0-913697-22-2
To order the CD-ROM go to the University of Chicago Press page for The Réal.
Mark C. Taylor
in conversation with
Buck Tampa: Throughout Hiding, you suggest that images and surfaces are now nearly all-powerful. Is Hiding a critique of the pre-eminence of surface and superficiality in contemporary culture, or a celebration of it?
Mark C. Taylor: From the title to the final aphorism, Hiding is haunted by a certain duplicity, which leaves everything undecided--though not, I think, undecidable. My hope for the book is that it works simultaneously as a critique and celebration of the ways in which surfaces function in contemporary culture. Depth is supposed to put an end to the play of surfaces by securing their foundation. Thus when depth disappears, surfaces become infinitely complex. This complex superficiality and superficial complexity is both disorienting and energizing--full of creative possibility.
BT: In drawing together such different cultural artifacts as Edgar Allan Poe, Las Vegas, high fashion, Enlightenment philosophy, and computer networks, doesn't Hiding amount to a kind of surface play?
MCT: Yes, the work--I will not call it a book--is a surface play. It should be obvious that design is "integral" to the text. I worked with the designers, Susan Sellers and Michael Rock, from the beginning of this project. Our aim was to bring the verbal and visual together in a way that allows the design to perform the argument. The argument itself is layered; turning the pages is like peeling away layers of skin. Even single pages are layered in ways that allow space for the reader's imagination to play. Rather than a closed book, Hiding is designed to be an a kind of interactive game.
BT: What then of possible criticisms that Hiding is just superficial? Is there anything wrong with deep thought?
MCT: I hope Hiding is profoundly superficial but not superficially profound. I think that there is often something wrong with so-called deep thought. We have to ask what function depth or the longing for depth serves. I believe that depth is where the gods hide when they have been chased from the heavens. Gods don't simply disappear; they go underground and become the foundational structures that support thought and underwrite existence.
Surface has never been accepted and embraced as such but is always justified in terms of the heavens or the depths. When height and depth collapse, we are left with nothing more and nothing less than the proliferation of fleeting surfaces. To insist that these surfaces obscure more secure depths is to flee the creative-destructive effervescence that is our condition.
BT: Is everyone experiencing this kind of weightlessness? For example, are poor communities or racial and religious minorities experiencing the same kind of "effervescence"?
MCT: The fate of poor communities and racial and religious minorities is increasingly left to chance. Another name for this chance is, of course, the market. But the market is cunning; while often ignoring social conditions, market forces attempt to exploit the poor by incorporating and assimilating the disadvantaged. The culture of images plays a crucial role in this process. Consider the role that Nike plays in the lives of inner-city kids. This is not, of course, a one-way relationship because the youth culture of many of the marginal communities often generates provocative images which the advertising industry appropriates and recycles. In addition to this, the street deploys the imaginary register in subtly subversive ways. Fashion cycles are very complex and potentially very disruptive.
BT: Many of your arguments in Hiding suggest that you are developing a critique of capitalism suited to your philosophical concerns. Are you planning to take on the "global economy" with the same critical eye you used to dissect phrenology and the Modernist vanguard in Hiding?
MCT: This is a very complex issue and I have been considering it for a long time. There is much talk today about globalism but very little analysis of what exactly going on in globalization. The postindustrial economy is an information economy in which currency is information and information is, so to speak, the token of the realm. In this world, the Marxist model of superstructure-infrastructure no longer works. Again, it's an issue of surface and depth. If currency is information, then the infrastructure and the superstructure are made of the same "stuff." This stuff is the play of signs. When people ask me what I mean by virtual reality, I often say "derivatives." Our economy has become virtual--it is a play of signs grounded in nothing other than signs. You might call it a casino economy, an economy in which everything is a gamble. To understand global capitalism, go to Las Vegas. You will learn more about Wall Street on the Strip than anywhere else.
BT: Much of Hiding is devoted to upsetting hierarchies of "top/bottom" or "high/low"--for example, the sections on Ed Hardy the tattooist, Fakir the suspensionist, or Paul Auster the mystery writer. How does the attack on such hierarchies--in the art world or in society at large--fall into your overall argument about the search for meaning and nothingness?
MCT: You're absolutely right--the design upsets many structures that we tend to take for granted in any book. Everything is left in suspense. That is one of the reasons we used the image of Stelarc's suspension on the cover. The other reason, of course, is that hiding is not only about concealing but also about skin. Everything takes place at the boundary. The question not only for me as the author but for Sellers and Rock as designers is, How can the boundary be figured? It is simultaneously there and not there--always in play but never locatable. It can be suggested, implied, only through a certain performance enacted verbally and visually.
BT: If surface and surfeit are the modes of the day, is a return to profundity on the horizon?
MCT:The proliferation of surfaces occasions the return to depths. This is how I understand the political shift to the right and the return of religious fundamentalism. The play of surfaces in today's culture creates a vertigo that is terribly unsettling. In the midst of contemporary confusion, people seek security and certainty. This is the function foundations are supposed to serve.
BT: Many of your statements about a post-Marxist vision of the global economy, a proliferation of images, depth vs. surface meanings evoke strains of Jean Baudrillard. At the same time, there is a kindness and generosity in your work that is absent in his. What are your feelings towards Baudrillard's work and how do you wish to set your own work apart from his?
MCT: I've learned quite a bit from Baudrillard. He was one of the first philosophers to take the media seriously. But as you suggest, my conclusions are rather different from his. Though he draws on Marx and Bataille, his thinking remains dystopic. What I am trying to do is to articulate the conditions of alternative cultural practices. I'm convinced that in the twenty-first century, the domain of social and political contestation will be the symbolic order or the imaginary register. That is where what once was called "reality" will be constituted. I see it as incumbent upon us to understand these structures and processes and to develop strategies and tactics that will enable us to intervene effectively.
BT: In your last chapter, "Interfacing," you seem to be arguing for an ethical imperative--one that begins by acknowledging that nothing is ever hidden and that only through exchanges is meaning produced. This strikes me as an almost religious overture. How do you explain your optimism about networks and exchanges?
MCT: I'm not sure I would go so far as to describe this conclusion as "optimistic" but I would agree that there is a religious or theological dimension to Hiding. I have always found religion most interesting where it is least obvious. I believe there is a religious dimension to all culture. Though not obvious, religion runs through all of the cultural practices figured in Hiding. Let me mention two aspects of this religious strand. The first is western--Christian: Hiding explores the way in which the "real" becomes incarnate in the endless play of images. The death of God does not signify the simple vanishing of the divine but suggests the transformation of the sacred into cultural practices. The second is eastern--Buddhist: In a certain sense, Hiding is about (in all senses of that word) nothing. Today's culture of simulacra expose the insubstantiality of "reality" that has long been acknowledged by Buddhists.
BT: In his foreword to Hiding, Jack Miles drawn an analogy between the author-reader exchange and wrestling. I'm wondering if there isn't another opponent implicit in the "intellectual contest" of this book: a Modernist. What would you say is the face or the name of that opponent? Religious fundamentalists? Philistine bankers? Academics "like" you?
MCT: All of the above. Something is passing away and something is emerging. Such moments are both unsettling and liberating. Unfortunately, far too many people see uncertainty and insecurity as problems to be overcome rather than opportunities for creative intervention. The task of thinking is to make things more rather than less complex--but no more complex than they always already are.
BT: In retrospect, is there any other cultural practice you would have liked to include in Hiding?
MCT: There are other cultural practices hiding in Hiding. I've stressed that I worked with Susan Sellers and Michael Rock from the outset. But there is another aspect to this work. As you know, we are simultaneously releasing a CD-ROM entitled The Réal: Las Vegas, Nevada. Hiding and The Réal are different versions of the same project. Most of the cultural tendencies I track in Hiding are on display in Vegas. In The Réal, we treat the same issues considered in Hiding in something that approximates an electronic artist's book. If Hiding is a "book" that is hypertextual, The Réal is a multimedia hypertext that is not quite a "book." In The Réal, we are able to add audio to the verbal and the visual. Taken together, which is not to say as a whole, Hiding/The Réal creates a different kind of cultural object.
BT: Your writing really soars when you take up so-called primary materials--recent fashion magazines, dusty criminology tomes, heady architectural abstracts. Has your work made you something of an anthropologist of "domestic" culture?
MCT: I never thought of it that way, but I rather like that description. If one accepts the kind of incarnational process to which I have referred, everything is worthy of reflection--high or low, popular or elite, public or private. I have also tried to fashion styles appropriate to what I am examining. For example, in the chapter on fashion, I have written some of the sections as if they were fashion magazine articles.
BT: And after you finish this hypothetical "next work" on capitalism, will you write one about the science-technology industrial complex?
MCT: There is a book that is beginning to take shape in my mind about information society. I don't think we have a very good understanding of what me mean by "information." What I plan to do is to use information theory to help me rethink Hegel and to use Hegel to help me rethink so-called information society. In the course of this analysis, I'll end up very close to where you are pointing--a reconfiguration of the science-technology industrial complex. What I think I detect in the midst of this complex is complexity. Complexity is where it's heading--or at least where I'm heading.
Buck Tampa is a frequent contributor to SOMA and Digital Video.