A folio of prints

Some thoughts from/about Ed Ruscha have gotten stuck in my head from the preface of Graphic Works by Edward Ruscha, written by Henry Geldzahler on the occasion of an exhibition in Auckland, New Zealand in 1978:

In June 1970, Ruscha was invited to London by Alecto Editions to produce a series of prints—the result was the highly eccentric portfolio NEWS , MEWS, PEWS, BREWS, STEWS, DUES. Ruscha describes the prints as “organic” since in place of traditional inks he screened a variety of organic substances, mainly processed food stuffs, flowers, and even axle grease. . . .

News means that England is a tabloid minded country. Mews is a little alleyway found in many towns. Pews is Westminster Cathedral. Brews refers to English beverages—beer, stout, ale. Stews is my idea of British cooking, with little rooms, smokey kitchens and fireplaces, warming by the fireside. Dues is dues, the story of Robin Hood, unfair taxation, the British protest. It all came together in my head as a series of images, a six-word message to deliver to audiences.

. . .The hors-de’oeuvre to NEWS, MEWS, PEWS, BREWS, STEWS, DUES is STAINS, a silk-lined box of 78 loose-leaf pages, 75 of which bear small central stains of many different substances. The first is Los Angeles tap water, the last stain is the artist’s blood; No. 2 is Pacific Ocean salt water, No. 12 is human sperm, No. 40 Coca-Cola, No. 67 Cocoa butter and No. 74 molasses. The truly ironic touch is No. 9, spot remover. Many of the stains are almost invisible and hardly visually appealing. However, Ruscha stresses the importance of seeing the stains as a whole and not as individual images:

The minute someone hangs one of these things on a wall they miss the point entirely . . .what I’m interested in is in illustrating ideas.

The photographs from Ruscha’s books are likewise never displayed on walls, but are confined to the pages for which they were produced. (15-16)

The particularities of each mode of delivery (museum wall, book, folio) seems crucial to the way that meaning gets made. This is why I have so much difficulty with all things Internet. Clipping (as I have done here) always changes the message in subtle ways. To experience the folio of stains is not the same as experiencing the photograph of its cover, nor is it the same as a halftone of that photography reproduced in an exhibition catalog, or a scan of that halftone placed on the Internet along with some text that lies at the opposite end of the book. The reading of my excerpt is also influenced by its surrounding container—be it an RSS window inside a feed reader, or the way that I have crafted its presentation surrounded by a system of associated links and images.

It is inevitable that the loss of physicality changes our experience of ideas; the word-sequence in a folio is different from the same sequence on a wall or a book. A folio, unlike a wall or a book, can be “random access”—and so is the Internet. I’m not sure exactly how to differentiate between them other than physicality. But it is dangerous to equate things that are physical with things that are pleasing or even interesting. Sometimes physicality isn’t meant to be profound—it’s just supposed to be physical. Perhaps it’s just a variation on a curious game of “what if?”