Back in late 2013, I wrote a piece for Book Arts/Arts du livre Canada, the magazine of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild. The editor wanted a description/announcement rather than a critical review for Decomp, Stephen Collis/Jordan Scott, Coach House Books, Toronto, 2013.
Much about the book disappointed me, but I did manage to find some good things to say because the book was nicely produced by Coach House.
Here’s what I did with the book after writing the piece:
and here’s what I wrote.
Several projects in recent years have involved placing books outside. Some were large temporary installations, like Literature vs Traffic by Spanish collective Luzinterruptus, which appeared under the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010 and in a larger iteration in Melbourne, Australia for a month in 2012. Some involved single books and the photographic documentation of their decay. The largest on-going project in Canada began in 2010: Jardin de la Connaissance, designed by Berlin landscape architect Thilo Folkerts and Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle, was installed at Jardins de Métis for the eleventh International Garden Festival. Thousands of discarded books were used to create walls, floors, and benches in a forest clearing. The books were inoculated with mushroom spawn and the installation was left to return to the forest.
All of these undertakings used random discarded books, so I was intrigued by the project of poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott. They took one specific text, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and placed copies in multiple outdoor locations in British Columbia. These were left to be altered by the environment —weather, wildlife, random hikers— and collected after a year. The books were photographed, in situ where possible, then Collis and Scott wrote poetry in response to the found text.
The result is Decomp. Organised by locale, each copy of Darwin’s book is illustrated generously with colour photographs. The text includes the “readable” portion of the exposed book, diary entries describing both the placement of the book and its retrieval, and the poets’ writings in response to the found text. There are supplementary quotations from Darwin and others, and a foreword by Jonathan Skinner.
Decomp is well designed, a challenge when so many disparate forms of writing need to be brought together cohesively. To my delight, it has one of the best colophons I have encountered in some time. My compliments to Coach House Books on a job well done.
Nailing the book to a tree was most satisfying. It seemed an appropriate destiny for a book based on letting brand new copies of On the Origin of Species rot in various locations. I have been monitoring the book since January 3, 2014, and David and I have photographed it occasionally. Two weeks after putting it out (and after a fairly big snow storm with high winds) it looked like this:
Not a lot of difference — just a bit of rotation, some fanning of the pages, and a few dinged corners. After eleven months it looked like this:
The paper and ink used by Coach House have held up remarkably well. The book continued to change very slowly, but I was waiting for something special to happen. It finally did.
After twenty months of waiting, I got exactly the result I had hoped for: bald-faced hornets are turning the book into something useful. About 12 meters (40 feet) from the book, in a cluster of small branches, they are building a nest.
A really big nest.
I suspect that materials other than Decomp are being used —bits of tree bark, wood, and leaves— but the book is definitely a major source of cellulose.
As I mentioned on last Friday’s post, I have made paper using abandoned hornet nests. There is a possibility that Decomp might experience an even further recomposition.
A later post containing additional information may be found here.