Translating Rubble: Misreading Mark Manders
The activity of reading in its detours, drifts across the page, metamorphoses and anamorphoses of the text produced by the travelling eye, imaginary or meditative flights taking off from a few words, overlapping of spaces on the militarily organized surfaces of the text, and ephemeral dances, it is at least clear, as a first result, that one cannot maintain the division separating the readable text (a book, image, etc.) from the act of reading. Whether it is a question of newspapers or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers; it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control.1
It is difficult not to misread the work of Dutch artist Mark Manders. For weeks now I have been mistaking the headline on his fake newspaper as “Translating Rubble,” though it clearly reads “Traducing Ruddle.” An otherwise dismissible error, my dyslexic reading in this case seems fortuitously apt in describing the futile pursuit of decoding Manders’s work, for Manders’s newspaper does not want to be read.
The newspapers were free for the taking, stacked in blank, white newspaper boxes peppered throughout downtown Vancouver. Printed on standard newsprint and typeset in neat columns, it is easily mistaken for a generic newspaper. The text, however, is incomprehensible. The newspaper is one of an ongoing series of such facsimiles, which, when complete, will contain all existing English words, but only once and in no particular order, like unarranged musical notes.2 It is language without syntax, a collection of words that recalls the form of language while throwing into question the promise of language to communicate effectively. “Pre-enacting ghettos/Sweetmeat mazers,” reads one heading, followed by, “whatchamacallits phyllaries/numberless antifoaming.”
I doubt that my misreading of the title was anomalous. “Traduce” means to “expose to shame or blame by means of falsehood and misrepresentation,” whereas “translate” means to “change from one place, state, form, or appearance to another.” If one squints, “ruddle” looks nearly the same as “rubble” with the middle consonants reversed. Yet “ruddle” is a red ocher whereas “rubble” refers to the broken fragments of a destroyed building or a “miscellaneous confused mass or group of usually broken or worthless things.”3 Following this, to “traduce ruddle” would mean to put a particular colour of red to shame, which makes little sense. On the other hand, to “translate rubble” would express in more comprehensible terms a confused and broken jumble of words. Is this misreading not more appropriate in describing the activity of reading a nonsensical newspaper?
Traducing Ruddle is the fifth in a series of fake newspapers by Manders. Between columns of texts are photographs taken from Manders’s studio.4 Like the text, they appear oblique, especially in the context of a newspaper—a vehicle for the timely delivery of information. They seem to be either grainy close-ups of microcosmic organisms or macroscopic depictions of outer space. The images’ illegibility is a fitting complement to the text. A 48-page supplement, Two Connected Houses, is inserted into the newspaper. A hand-drawn diagram on the front shows two houses connected via an underground tunnel with one adjacent to the Guggenheim Museum, a proposal developed in conjunction with the exhibition Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum (2010).
Together the newspaper and the insert suggests an endless, riddled logic, as if moving from one room to the next in Jorge Luis Borges’s parable of an infinite universe of hexagonal galleries containing every possible book known to humankind.5 As much a fancy as it is a metaphor for the mind, Manders’s newspaper is likewise a diagram for an architecture of thought, one that is not to be deciphered in its entirety, but is instead read partially, irreverently, even erroneously.
Manders’s work is nothing if not enigmatic. Since 1986, the artist has undertaken a monumental, long-term assignment: to create a “self-portrait as a building,”6 a project that has come to define his entire oeuvre. In a statement from 1994, he writes: “Mark Manders has inhabited his self-portrait since 1986. This building can expand or shrink at any moment. In this building all words created by mankind are on hand.”7 This self-portrait as building and as language has since taken various sculptural forms—usually as sculptural assemblages laden with thick symbolism and a labyrinthine logic. Everyday objects are purposefully arranged and, taken out of their ordinary context, appear familiar but are rendered strange by their displacement. His intention, “to write with objects,”8 imbues the work with a kind of linguistic tension, as if the work is composed with objects as a poet might compose with words. In the context of his artistic practice, a series of fake newspapers makes perfect sense.9
Exactly how does one read Manders’s fake newspaper? It is not something to be read from beginning to end. It is not to be studied or cited. It is not to be gleaned for pertinent and timely information as one might normally read the daily paper. Rather, this object suggests a kind of meta-reading, that one reads while consciously critical of the act of reading itself. I would argue that Manders’s work is about the very activity of reading and, in this case, how such activities are articulated and performed in public.
The performance of reading has changed over time; indeed, reading has a history. In the eighteenth century in particular, the increased consumption of reading materials was considered key to many social and political developments in Europe. Some historians have argued for the existence of a “reading revolution,” pointing out that until the mid-eighteenth century reading was performed “intensively,” in that people would own a small number of books and read them repeatedly, often for a small audience. After this point, people began to read “extensively,” going through as many books as possible and increasingly reading alone.10 During this period, Europe saw a proliferation of libraries, coffee houses, salons, and other spaces designed to accommodate the new practice of reading.
It was during this era that newspapers began to proliferate as well. Although news publications in the form of pamphlets appeared as early as the sixteenth century, the first use of the word “newspaper” in the English language dates back to 1670, when such periodicals began to accumulate in Germany, England, the Netherlands, and eventually America.
Interestingly, the precursor to newspapers, called “corantos,”11 were informational broadsheets printed in English in the Dutch Republic in the early seventeenth century, a trade centre and travel hub where the timely dissemination of news was in obvious demand. The earliest coranto, produced in Amsterdam in 1618, differed from other news publications in format primarily, abandoning a highly illustrated title page and single-column design familiar to German papers and instead adopting a broadsheet, two-column format and including a title on the top of the first page—the masthead still common in today’s periodicals. When, in 1660, the coranto format was adopted by the first regular newspaper publication in England, The London Gazette (first The Oxford Gazette), it decisively changed the standard look of international news printing from then on.12
It was the format of these early Dutch papers that we have inherited as the standard design of the broadsheet newspaper as it is known today (or yesterday, rather, as this form is becoming quickly outdated), and it is not incidental that Manders’s fake newspaper uses this format specifically, as these features are the recognizable signifier of the daily news.
The proliferation of the newspaper as a discursive forum for the dissemination of information and its ability to form public opinion folds into the rise of Enlightenment principles of emancipation and progress and the ideology that the common person can be “enlightened” through reason and knowledge. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s model of the “public sphere” has been cited often to explain the dissemination of ideas during this period, since his idea of the public sphere is uniquely tied to the practice of reading.
Habermas conceived of a public sphere as a primarily discursive arena in which people exchange ideas and opinions about matters of public concern unconstrained by external state or economic pressures. It is a space theoretically open to all citizens in which the public organizes itself and public opinion is formed.13 Key to Habermas’s idea of the political public sphere is that it was anticipated by a literary public sphere. New literary genres emerged during this time, including newspapers, which were widely disseminated and thus instrumental in the formation of public opinion. Critical discussions served as a counterweight to political authority and took place physically, in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses, cafes, and public squares, as well as in the media, in the form of letters, books, drama, and art.
Amongst the many issues that have been thoroughly critiqued in Habermas’s ideal conception of the public sphere14—unequal access to such public institutions, the systemic barriers inhibiting universal literacy, the class, gender, and race divides that limit any concept of a universal public, to name a few—the implication that one “is informed” through the activity of reading is also problematic in that it suggests little agency on the part of the reader. In the context of Manders’s fake newspapers in particular, the idea that one reads to become informed is rendered entirely absurd.
The idea of a passive readership has undergone numerous challenges. Amongst them, French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau argues that reading is a misunderstood activity, more akin to “poaching” than it is to “receiving.” This presumption, located in the ideology of the Enlightenment, is based on the notion that reading is a perfunctory activity in which the reader is the receiver of text and is informed and transformed by its content. On the contrary, according to de Certeau, we actually do the opposite: “to read is to wander through an imposed system.”15 It is an activity analogous to walking in the city or temporarily inhabiting another’s apartment.16 Every reader modifies the text, making use of the system of linguistic signs as a reservoir of forms from which to give a meaning, and invents something other than what the author intended. To read against the grain of imposed meaning is ultimately a political activity; it is, like other “everyday practices” identified by de Certeau, an act of resistance against the dominant economic order. The reader takes neither the position of the author nor an author’s position. He invents in the texts something different from what they “intended.” He detaches them from their (lost or accessory) origin. He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings.17
Certainly this idea is not new: we cite its precursors and echoes in much writing that reevaluates the critical role of the reader.18 To actively read is to become a co-producer, transforming meaning and challenging the authority of the written word to produce uniform interpretations on the assumption that meaning is somehow stable or fixed. Borges writes, “one literature differs from another...less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read.”19
Following Borges, if one analyzes the way texts are read rather than the way they are written, significantly different interpretations follow. A text could be read ironically, for example, seeking out doubled meanings where they might not exist. A text could be read suspiciously, specifically seeking out the faults of an argument in an effort to deconstruct it. A text could be read perversely, turning meaning in on itself and manipulating it to the reader’s own ends. Can one intend to misread a text? And, should this be the case, can one intend to misread Mark Manders? Or, as I implied at the beginning of this text, can one not help but misread Mark Manders?
It is interesting that de Certeau compares the activity of reading with that of a renter inhabiting another’s apartment or someone walking in the city. If reading is akin to a kind of occupation or détournement through an imposed system, can we then read Manders’s text as a kind of tenancy or a wandering? And, if so, to where does such a wandering lead?
The analogy between reading and walking in the city could not be more fitting in this case. Sheets from Manders’s Traducing Ruddle comprise the second part of the artist’s project, Window with Fake Newspapers, an installation in the windows of an abandoned storefront on 20 East Hastings Street, Vancouver, commissioned by Fillip in winter 2010. The façade is the former location of The Only Sea Foods, which operated as a small restaurant beginning in 1916 and was recently shut down because of health code infractions. Pages from the fake newspaper cover the windows entirely, obscuring the view to the inside. Set along a strip of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that fronts a number of boarded-up windows, Manders’s intervention blends in with the appearance of a neighbourhood in perpetual contestation, yet is perceptible to an attentive passerby. No signs flag this storefront as an anomaly; only up close does something appear awry. Plastered over every inch of windows, obscuring the view to the inside, the fake newspapers remain there months later—long after the project’s official run has ended—weathered and tagged as if to stay.
The installation of the fake newspaper in the windows of this deserted building is as opaque as the newspaper itself; it reduces the act of blocking the view inside to a strictly formal gesture. It is as if the building has been evacuated, and one’s reward for noticing is yet another puzzle.
If one considers the activity of walking through the city to be as much a practice in motility as the practice of reading—especially considering the ubiquity of text in public space, on billboards, streets, and storefronts—then the installation of Manders’s newspapers in the windows of an abandoned storefront is a logical extension of his larger project. And, in light of his ongoing intention to create a “self-portrait as a building,” repurposing the newspapers on a unique building reasonably follows. Yet as a gesture, it resists easy explanation, like much of Manders’s work.
A small note on page 41 of the insert within Manders’s fake newspaper offers a promise couched in parentheses: “(I will explain later).” Is this not the eternal pledge of Manders’s work? A debt to an exposition, one that I trust will be perpetually deferred.
- Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” in The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1, trans. Steven Rendall (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 170.
- Hans Gremmen, the designer who typeset each of Manders’s fake newspapers, described the process as follows: First a list of English words was assembled. This list was run through a computer program which randomized its order—a process which took several days to complete. This text is then imported into page layout software where it is cut and pasted into the document’s template. Conversation between Fillip Publisher, Jeff Khonsary, and Hans Gremmen, June 25, 2010. –Ed.
- See “traduce,” “ruddle,” “translate,” and “rubble,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://merriam-webster.com, February 21, 2010.
- E-mail message from the artist to Fillip, February 5, 2010.
- See Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 133–54.
- Melissa Gronlund, “Mark Manders,” frieze, no. 100 (June–August 2006).
- Mark Manders, “The Absence of Mark Manders,” Mark Manders, 1994, http://markmanders.org (accessed March 3, 2010).
- Mark Manders, Artist Talk: Mark Manders, Landmark, Bergen Kunsthall, 2008.
- Indeed, Manders’s newspapers often form central elements of his sculptural practice. Of the relationship between the two, Manders explains: All my works appear as if they just have been made; I can show works from 20 years ago next to a work that has been made last week. They all seem to be just left behind. A lot of fresh unfired clay (painted bronze…). All my work has been made in one super-moment. Ideally this super-moment is situated in 1986, the moment when I started this project. Sometimes a work needs a papier-mâché part or, for example, in the case with a work I finished last week [Ramble-room Chair (2010)], sometimes I just need a newspaper. In this case I wanted to put the wet clay figure on this chair and I needed a newspaper to protect the chair from the “unfired” clay. I cannot use a real newspaper since then this fragment of my work would be connected to a certain period, place, and situation on the world. My newspapers are timeless, and at the same time they serve as a great big pool of possibilities, this great amount of words. For example, Hallway with Sentences or Table/Corner/Typewriter. The newspapers are the opposite of On Kawara’s date paintings or Kurt Schwitters’s collages. E-mail message from the artist to Fillip, February 5, 2010. –Ed.
- See Rolf Engelsing as cited in Martyn Lyons, “The History of Reading from Gutenberg to Gates,” The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms 4, no. 5 (1999), 50–57.
- The word “coranto” derives from “current,” with the sense of “up-to-date” as well as a “stream” of news.
- See Newspaper History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day, eds. James Curran and Pauline Wingate George Boyce (London: Constable, 1978).
- See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991).
- See, amongst others, Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992), 109–42.
- Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life: Vol. 1, trans. Steven Rendall (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 169.
- This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient. Renters make comparable changes in an apartment they furnish with their acts and memories…, Ibid, xxi.
- Ibid, 169.
- I would include theory that reevaluates the critical role of the reader (in writing) or the spectator (in art) or the listener (in music) from Barthes, Blanchot, Derrida, Foucault, and Heidegger to Eco, amongst others. See, in particular, Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–48, and Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 124–27.
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw,” in Labyrinths, eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), 214.
About the Author
Kathleen Ritter is an artist and writer based in Vancouver.