French writer Anatole France was asked by someone admiring his library if he had read all the books in his collection. France responded by saying, "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?" Literary critic Walter Benjamin subsequently used the quote in "Unpacking My Library," an essay in which he tries to explain the perplexing qualities of collecting things. In this case, the "things" happen to be books.
Doug Manchee's work currently on display in the cloistered glass cases of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester also is about collections of things --- in particular, images of the pages of books. But what is perhaps new about this collection is that Manchee uses digital technology in the production of multiple scanned images that are layered one upon the other until all the information becomes a composite, or a "concretion" on a single page. All the text is there for us to see but not to read: in the process of stacking or collaging together a book's pages, all the lines of text come together as dense, black bands that efface all that was written. Nothing remains decipherable.
Manchee is forthright in admitting that, at least initially, this work was going to be a lighthearted jab at the dense nature of much contemporary theoretical writing --- essentially a visual metaphor for unreadability. But as luck (or irony) would have it, the first text that Manchee transformed was Walter Benjamin's, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Quite the unwittingly auspicious choice with which to begin a new body of work.
For starters, the book was originally produced by literal mechanical means. Then Manchee chose to reproduce it, also by mechanical means, and as such, it also now has become an art object as well. Of course, the new, composite image of text can be reproduced ad infinitum with the computer process that Manchee uses, but it actually resembles a drawing (as in, something done by hand) more than the computer scan that it is.
Indeed, an intriguing aspect about the layering process is that even the machine has its imperfections. For instance, the black bands created by all the sentences horizontally defining the pages do not quite line up, generating variable degrees of "fuzziness" depending on the book used. As the body of work progressed, Manchee also used old books and ones that have various annotations or markings done by readers (or writers) of the books. This marginalia, as he calls it, adds an even greater sense of a personal touch, a kind of hand-of-the-artist/author/reader that in the end tells no more or less than the barely visible remnants of the texts. Moreover, when layered, the pages from old books, with their aged paper, allow the new concretions to take on a rich, golden brown glow, a kind of aura.
While Manchee used a number of texts for this project, the use of the Benjamin essay is particularly appropriate: it comes from a collection of essays and reflections entitled Illuminations. The word implies both a revealing of something --- i.e., bringing to light or into the light of knowledge --- as well as the visual aspect of something that is illuminated through images, as in an illuminated manuscript. Manchee's concretions are texts that have become pictures searching for text lost, erased by the sheer volume of information itself.
Finally, we readers and viewers are about to come full circle. The first Benjamin essay in Illuminations happens to be the aforementioned "Unpacking My Library," which, while not a part of any of the literal layers of Manchee's concretions, is still very much present in spirit in all of them. For unlike the mechanical reproduction essay that speaks of dematerializing the object and in someway predicting the possibility of a world where, through technologies of reproduction, all is available for all, "Unpacking My Library" is about the private collector, the one who values things, like a child, not for their usefulness or their functional value but for the thrill of acquisition and possession. In the end, both acquisition and possession end up being the processes that preserve the fate of the objects, the things that we love and admire after the collector has come and gone, now that they have cultural value.
In this way, Manchee's beautiful yet unreadable textual pictures are unexpected and personal collections that, in their own way, preserve the texts. For that which is layered and concreted also can be carefully separated and reconstructed into something almost like itself once again.
Concretions: Textual Composites by Doug Manchee through July 31 | Hilfiker Gallery in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library, 2nd Floor, University of Rochester | Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday until 8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Sunday. Admission is free. For more info call 275-4477 or visit online at www.lib.rochester.edu/rbk.