Read to Me: a psychometric collaboration with objects
From now until Christmas, WSA Library will be displaying an exciting new exhibition by artists’ book maker Sarah Bodman. In this guest blog post, Sarah discusses how an interest in Victorian spiritualists, telepathy and communicating object histories inspired her collaboration with a psychometric* reader to create the exhibition ‘Read to Me’.
*Psychometry or object reading is a form of extrasensory perception – perceived to be the ability to read an object’s history.
Fig. 1 China Couple and Swan Pencil Sharpener
Read to me is an experiment made in collaboration with a psychometric reader, as an attempt to transmit the emotional content of stories through a series of physical objects. Ten objects were selected to read chapters of novels, or short texts to. They were then posted to the reader who relayed their messages back to me.
This project began by accident in 2002 when I was awarded an Artist’s Publishing Residency for one month over Nov-December at Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY, USA. This was to produce a limited edition artist’s book The Marsh Test. The artist’s book was based on the first legal precedent of the test devised by James Marsh for the detection of arsenic in natural compounds. Marie Lafarge was accused and found guilty of poisoning her husband in 1840. The Arsenic Act of 1851 insisted that arsenical compounds should be coloured from that date with soot or half an ounce of blue indigo per pound of arsenic. This meant that arsenic powder could no longer be ‘confused’ with flour or sugar, as many poisoners had previously argued in their defence.
It snowed heavily throughout my stay, and the warmest place inside was the wonderful library and archive, a treasure trove of artists’ books. It was here that someone mentioned the Fox Sisters.
Margaret (16) and Kate (13) Fox launched their careers as spirit mediums with a public performance on 14th November 1849, at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York state, USA. Their performances played a part in the huge rise of interest in spirit rappings and in turn the founding of the Spiritualist Movement in 1850s America.
My fascination with psychic reading was piqued during the month spent at VSW.
As I sat at the table reading Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America by Ann Braude, I imagined that the Fox Sisters would have been at a similar table in a similar large mansion house in the same city over 150 years ago, thrilling their audiences with their spirit encounters.
Thinking about the Fox Sisters over the years I also drew inspiration from the works of artists dealing with the idea of performance, transmission and books.
Fig. 2: X Exercises for Kurt Johannessen by Sarah Bodman (2012). Winchester School of Art Library Artists’ Book Collection.
Tanya Peixoto of bookartbookshop introduced me to Kurt Johannessen‘s artists’ books in 2002. Exercises (1999) and Steinar (2002) for which he selected stones on a hike and read fairy tales to each of them. ‘22 stories for 22 different stones.’
I was also influenced by the practice of Sally Alatalo – AKA Sara Ranchouse, in how she performs the contents of books within her collection of romance novels, creating new narratives in books such as Unforeseen Alliances (2001) and A Rearranged Affair (1996).
Fig. 3: Imperfect Sutures by Sally Alabato and Anne Wilson (1995). Winchester School of Art Library Artists’ Book Collection.
Particular influence came from Susan Hiller’s The Sisters of Menon, 1972-1979. In a collaborative telepathy experiment Draw Together, Hiller attempted to send images to friends all over the world to draw but found herself the agent of automatic writing. This work became known as The Sisters of Menon, “which communicated powerful collective female solidarity of sisters.”
“Simultaneously participant & spectator, author & reader, singular & plural, ‘I’ feel more like series of activities than an impermeable, corporeal unit.” Susan Hiller, Notes IV, in Sisters of Menon, Coracle Press for Gimpel Fils, London, 1983.
It is also the first artist’s book I discovered as a student, by accident in the college library in 1991.
Fig. 4: Sisters of Menon by Susan Hillier (1983). Winchester School of Art Library Artists’ Book Collection.
The Fox Sisters stayed in my mind on and off whilst I thought about what I might make over the years. Thoughts lingered… I often make artists’ books about books, or the contents of books. I read about the Fox Sisters in the VSW library. I had found Sisters of Menon by accident in a library. Why not devise a project to see if I can transmit the emotional content of some of the books I love reading?
How would I do that?
Q: How hard is it to find a psychometric reader to collaborate on an art project?
A: It is very hard. It took me 14 years to formulate my plan, but then I got lucky…
Fig. 5: Small Biscuit Tin and Cameo Pendant
Summer 2017. A friend recommends a practicing psychometric reader who will help. I start looking for things I can read to. Ten objects to read ten stories to.
I choose a short story or chapter from a book to read to each object. Stories I think they might enjoy or relate to.
For example, I read some of Wuthering Heights to the framed photograph of an abandoned house I found in a charity shop. I finish the 10 readings and package the objects to send to the reader who lives in The Netherlands.
The objects are returned with handwritten readings in autumn 2017. They are perfect. Barely able to contain my excitement, I write about the development of the project in a photo essay for Axon: Creative Explorations, a free access online journal.
I book in for an artist residency at the London Centre for Book Arts (LCBA) in July 2018. The brilliant riso printer, artist Esther McManus does some colour test prints from my files before I arrive. I have 4 days to produce an edition of 100 artists’ books. Esther helps me print on their riso printer, we do all four-colours (Cyan, Florescent Pink, Yellow, Black) the first day.
Fig. 6: Producing the edition at LCBA
I chose to riso print the book as I wanted to instability of the experiment to be reflected in the print process, riso has a tendency to print slightly off registration – perfect for the idea of attempted transmission of thoughts from human to object to human.
The next three days are spent at quite a pace; cutting, folding and sewing with the help of Simon Goode, Ira Yonemura, Daniel Lehan and George Cullen in the LCBA studios.
Thanks to everyone at LCBA I headed home with an edition of 100 books in July 2018. The Read To Me exhibition is currently touring with the book and a selection of the original objects which were read to and from, until December 2019.
The first venue was Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY, from September –October 2018, which (finally) returned the original idea to the place of its inspiration.
It is now on show here at Winchester School of Art Library from 15 November – 20 December 2018. After this it will tour to the John M. Flaxman Library at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Collins Memorial Library at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, USA.
You can read more about the project here.
If you would like to view any of the books in the Artists’ Book Collection please make an apoointment by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fig.7: Framed Photograph of a House and Read to Me artist’s book by Sarah Bodman