The Visual Essay’s Many Lives

The Visual Essay’s Many Lives

Zoë Bossiere
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On an overcast March morning two years ago in Athens, Ohio, my twelve undergrad students and I climbed the brick-paved hill toward Ohio University’s Trisolini Gallery. We were on our way to view the opening of essayist Sarah Minor’s Beasts of the Interior installation, an experience that flyers around campus had promised would familiarize viewers with sculptural texts, a term Minor adapted from the art world to define the merging of literary and visual media.

The term describes work by artists like Ebon Heath, Damian Aquiles, and Jaume Plensa, whose sculptures are composed of letters and numerals. The text that these shapes comprise is not intended to be “read” by viewers. Instead, the sculptor uses language in a symbolic capacity for a specific aesthetic purpose. For example, the steel letters, taken from nine alphabets, that form the humanoid figures in Plensa’s Soul series work to express how the oneness of human experience transcends language barriers. In a similar mode, in his typographic mobiles, Heath strings paper letters together, hanging them from the ceiling to give three-dimensional shape and movement to traditional two-dimensional textual expression. In each case, sculptural texts turn reading into an act of viewing; because viewers cannot make literary sense of the text, they must instead focus on its aesthetic qualities.

Sarah Minor’s interpretation of sculptural text turns this paradigm on its head. Her work troubles the line between reader and viewer, asking the audience to inhabit both roles at once. Minor’s aesthetic resides somewhere in the space between the visual arts and the literary world. Most of her work—whether on the page, on a screen, or as a physical artifact—braids legible text with visual, tactile, or mechanical elements. Her first print book, Bright Archive (Rescue Press, 2020), continues this experimentation with two visual essays adapted from the sculptural texts in the Beasts of the Interior installation, alongside seven other pieces. This is a boon for readers, as Minor is a formidable essayist whose contributions to nonfiction are not limited to formal innovation. Bright Archive also interrogates questions of sexuality, refuge, and familial legacy. As the title of its cousin exhibit implies, the essays catalog the unseen: what one might find hidden beneath a rushing river, or tucked away in kitchen cupboards, or stuffed down a laundry chute. Minor wonders what beasts are lurking, more figuratively, beneath the human psyche, what aspects of our history are buried within us. Her essays stress what Sigmund Freud, in 1919, called the “unheimlich,” or the uncanny—that which at first appears to be familiar but, upon closer inspection, resembles something unknown and strange.

Minor’s writing differs substantially from the narrative nonfiction I had assigned my students that semester. Though I didn’t know then what we might encounter at the Beasts of the Interior exhibit, I had attempted to prepare the class for our visit with one of Minor’s digital essays, “A Log Cabin Quilt” (DIAGRAM, issue 18.2). The essay is visually arranged on-screen in the pattern of a log cabin–style quilt, with numbered sections, each comprising a paragraph of text. The sections are embedded into overlapping rectangles meant to represent the stitched lengths of fabric in a finished quilt square. One interacts with the essay by clicking a series of arrows to rotate it, spiraling from the first section all the way to the thirteenth and final section, in the essay’s center. My students seemed to appreciate the novelty of this text, and discussed their individual experiences interacting with the essay as we worked toward a collective understanding.

As we filed into the darkened Trisolini Gallery, I directed students first to a five-foot-tall sculptural text tucked into a far corner of the room. To our collective surprise, “A Log Cabin Quilt” existed not only in digital space but also as a working machine: the DIAGRAM essay was printed on large, overlapping sheets of fabric stretched over a wooden frame and installed on a rotating base. The machine allowed the audience to physically turn the essay, and its movement gave the illusion of each section spiraling into the red center square—the literal and figurative “hearth” of the piece. In the gallery, the sculptural machine version of the quilt was placed before a backdrop depicting an empty kitchen, along with a vintage table and chairs for reader-viewers to sit in. The scene surrounding the work was familiar, even inviting, yet also vaguely uncanny: the kitchen, sewing supplies on the table, and the quilt worked to remind visitors of a 1950s housewife sensibility, even as the object itself was unlike anything one had likely ever seen before in a domestic space.

The inclusion of the kitchen backdrop—a spatial element specific to the gallery setting—speaks to the myriad ways Minor renders a single essay new through multiple formal revisions, each conceived with a specific venue and audience in mind. The experience of reading and viewing the digital version of “A Log Cabin Quilt” on the DIAGRAM website differs from that of the physical object my students took turns spinning in Trisolini Gallery. Both of these experiences, in turn, differ from unfolding the printed version of the piece, retitled “A Log Cabin Square,” from the Bright Archive book and rotating it in one’s hands (the essay is printed on a large sheet of paper, folded, and tucked into the book). Though the essay’s content remains the same across all three versions, each iteration introduces a new consideration of the reader-viewer experience: How will one—quite literally—approach the work? Will one encounter the piece in a public space or in the privacy of one’s home? What are the tactile and kinetic differences between manipulating an object, whether a machine or a book, in person versus on a screen? While it would be easy to dismiss the many lives of Minor’s visual essays as a gimmick, the differences in experiencing them are so stark that I became momentarily convinced, as I encountered each version, that I was reading a completely new essay. Or, perhaps more accurately, that I was reading “A Log Cabin Quilt” again, but for the first time.

I carried this strange, dreamlike feeling of déjà vu with me into the second sculptural text on display in Trisolini, “Foul Chutes: On the Archive Downriver.” The essay was printed on a long, suspended sheet of paper, its words arranged like a relief map of a river. Paragraphs written above and below the blank, sprawling center gave the impression of movement, of wending one’s way downstream. My students and I followed the words across the paper tunnel, shuffling silently one after another as we read the essay deeper and deeper into its center. Our movement through the physical work mirrored that of the young Minor depicted in the essay— who traversed the winding, eight-mile Mississippi River Basin model—spiraling further, metaphorically and otherwise, into the shadowed spaces of her own psyche. Unlike “A Log Cabin Quilt,” this essay and reading experience were entirely new to me. Later, when I opened Bright Archive, I was surprised to discover that what resembled a river in Minor’s sculptural text was something else in print form. The essay is printed sideways, so rather than reading it in the standard left-to-right orientation, the reader turns the open book ninety degrees to the left and reads each page from top to bottom. Turning the pages in this manner, combined with the way the text is oriented, makes it feel like the words are tumbling down the pages as though from a laundry chute—one of the essay’s many objects of interest. 

Content aside, there is something distinctly uncanny in this act of revisiting—to have a new experience with a text one has already read several times. But this multiplicity comes with certain risks. In an age of instant and constant communication, literary works ask a lot of contemporary readers. An essay asks us to be present as we follow its language, to be patient as the writer’s thoughts unfold on the page, to think critically about the information presented, to be open to the reward of arriving at some new revelation or understanding—a sliver of something like truth. None of this work is immediately gratifying, and Minor’s sculptural texts take the equation a step further, asking audiences not only to engage with the text on a literary level, but also to actively participate in a physical experience of the essay form. Her work invites us to touch and to inhabit language—to sit in the proverbial hearth of the uncanny kitchen and welcome the essay into our consciousness as we would a guest into our homes. The experiences Minor depicts in the visual essays on display in Trisolini Gallery are singular, personal, and private. But the act of interacting with these essays renders them a collective experience between the reader-viewer and the writer-maker that’s not easily replicated in traditional print-based mediums. Or so I had thought. 

Now, after more than six months of rarely leaving my home during the coronavirus pandemic, I think back with some awe to the day my students and I visited Beasts of the Interior in Trisolini Gallery—about how closely and carelessly our bodies moved in that space. In the presence of a deadly contagion, ours is an era defined by the unheimlich, where once-familiar and innocuous public spaces like the grocery store, the classroom, and even the gallery have become strange, potentially dangerous sites of the abject. For many of us, these collective experiences now take place in the privacy of our homes, alone, in front of a computer screen. We have begun the project of rethinking what it means to “come together,” inventing novel ways to approximate communal interactions in digital space—celebrating birthday parties over Zoom, taking digital guided tours of the Louvre, or meeting up for first dates in Animal Crossing. In the wake of the pandemic, the world, and our conceptions of safety within it, may never be the same, but innovations in human connection have never come more quickly or been more urgent.

At this time last year, I might have described Minor’s genre-bending essays as “ahead of their time.” On our visit to the gallery, my students and I shared our impressions of each sculptural text as we read and interacted with it. We laughed together and took pictures to share on social media with our families and friends. At the time, the blending of literary and artistic modes in Beasts of the Interior felt revolutionary, unlike any reading or viewing experience I’d ever had. But now Minor’s work seems perfectly suited to the new world we are creating, because beyond their ambitious literary experiments, these visual essays prompt an expansion of the mind, a reconsideration of how we use literary mediums to both relate our experiences and learn from one another about the many ways we are human. Since the isolation of the pandemic, especially, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle ways Minor’s body of work calls attention to the point of reading—too often considered a solitary act—as a means of reconciling the unfamiliar perspectives of others with our own in order to build an understanding of our shared world. 

The visual essays in Bright Archive are playful invitations to kinetically participate in the act of reading—to spin the book around, to cut and reshuffle the pieces of an essay, to turn pages upside down, to fold out a paper quilt square, to untie a series of linguistic knots. Much like the contradictory notion of socializing “together, apart” during the pandemic, the tactile nature of Minor’s essays works to render what we thought we knew about interaction a little strange, but also vaguely familiar. This, even as her essays remind us how many ways there are to approach a piece of literature, and especially that how we read a written work has the power to change the way we understand it. The result is a collection that is both on the cutting edge of what contemporary creative nonfiction can do and a necessary exploration of how we relate to others through the texts we consume, create, and carry with us into the world. In this way, Bright Archive is not just a book but an artifact for our era. A companion guide, an archive, a record of what can be found in the obscure corners of human consciousness. It illuminates what was always inside of us, hidden in plain sight.

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