The Chopped-Up Novels and Appropriation Poetry of an Artist and Bookmaker

Printed Matter’s exhibit Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision includes experimental magazines, printed ephemera, and newer digital works.

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In 1993, Chicago-based writer and book artist Sally Alatalo established Sara Ranchouse Publishing. According to its manifesto, the goal of the imprint is “to provide opportunities for interaction with art in everyday experience” by making art “that takes the form of books and other printed objects” so it can be encountered in a range of settings, including one’s own living room. The basis of these books is the appropriation of commonplace commercial texts and images. Printed Matter’s exhibit Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision celebrates the publishing legacy of the artist, whose interest in bookmaking stretches back to the mid-1980s when she began the serial magazine DuDa (later renamed several times, once as Chicago Dada, as an homage to Man Ray’s New York Dada). The show includes issues of DuDa, printed ephemera, Ranchouse paperbacks, and several of Alatalo’s newer digital works.

DuDa used experimental printing and binding techniques, with issues held together by saddle-stitch binding or wire-spiral binding and made from odd materials like felt. The majority had limited color palates and were between 10 and 20 pages in length. Inspired by Dadaist publications, Alatalo combined imagery traditionally associated with women — such as cookware, fashion spreads, and home décor — with found text fragments to create appropriation poetry. DuDa Vol. 4 No.1 includes images of hamburgers printed in blue as backdrop for text reading “All bags must be checked” along the top and “I can see / But you know / and you don’t / know what / you can’t tell” below it. Another page shows a cup and saucer with the title “Stand clear of the door” and below that, “my hand. I can see / back there see / what you’re thinking about / about. I / You can feel my head.” There is something melancholic about these snippets, even romantic in the consistent evocation of the proverbial “you.”

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, installation view

Romance factors heavily into another of Alatalo’s publishing projects, the Sara Ranchouse Pulp Series, which appropriates the language and format of genre fiction, particularly that of romance novels. These books, which Alatalo both wrote herself and published by others, unite diverse pulp fragments of text and imagery, playing with the universal template underlying the genre. The collage stories, despite the shifting character names and differing specific details from page to page, are remarkably legible as a new narrative. What’s useful about the show is that, since Printed Matter is both an exhibition space and bookstore, the titles in the exhibit are displayed in a glass vitrine as well as available for sale on a store table, where the viewer can browse, handle, and read them at leisure. Especially since they are published as cheap paperbacks, this seems especially necessary for understanding Alatalo’s publishing vision, to which placing her artworks in homes was central.

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, installation view

Kevin Riordan’s 1994 noir appropriation novel, Misdirection, is a slim volume that includes black-and-white images that could have been pulled from newspaper advertisements or history books, collaged together with uniformly printed sans serif textual narrative running throughout the spreads. It’s a mystery in both form and content. It begins with the narrator recounting a strange dream and continues on toward possible crimes committed and escape plans made. The larger bold text of the preface (titled “The critics criticize”) explains, “The uncanny thing about this book is that, were you to take away the scintillating dialogue, strip it of the suspense and disregard the labyrinthine plot, you’d end up with essentially the same book.” Meant as a critique of the lack of textual narrative, this comment actually demonstrates what the series investigates: How is narrative built, what’s the underlying structure of popular literature that makes it so successful and legible, and how are these structures present in other media we consume?

On the occasion of this exhibition, Printed Matter republished one of Alatalo’s titles that was also done in this collage style, A Rearranged Affair, as An Arranged Affair. Unlike Riordan’s book, Alatalo’s, published under the pseudonym Anita M-28, preserved the integrity of each page she appropriated in full, recto and verso. She took these pages and strung them together to form new combinations and narratives, the jump between them occurring in an open spread as one two-page story joined another at the margin. For the new publication, the text remains the same but is fully retyped, making the margin transmissions even more seamless. At times it’s not until halfway through the second page, when a proper name is used, that the reader notices the shift, as one shared meal or lovers’ quarrel bleeds into another. Collage is both nostalgic and contemporary, so well-suited to capturing the way we encounter and read materials digitally. As art historian Hannah B. Higgins writes in the forward to the new edition, “This editorial process moves Alatalo into direct dialogue with our hypertext, word-search world, where a search for one common term yields hundreds or thousands of similar, but not identical, results.”

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, installation view

It’s no surprise, then, that Altalo’s more recent projects more directly involve digital media. This is the case with her 2017 piece, “(for example, pictures of empty sky),” whose backdrop is the note on digital memory cards that images deleted from them may not be fully deleted. Many devices suggest replacing the deleted images with those that do not contain personal data: “for example, pictures of empty sky.” Taking this directive literally, Alatalo created an edition of unique books, each filled with images from a full memory card. “(for example, pictures of empty sky)” continues her early publishing practices that interrogated technology’s relationship to the structure of the book, and more expansively, technology’s relationship to public and private narratives. Genre fiction is often for private consumption, filled with sexually explicit details that indulge our most private desires. Similarly, the camera roll on our phones and digital cameras have become another narrative form that reveals private histories — why else would we go to such lengths to ensure that these images are fully deleted? What stretches across Alatalo’s diverse body of work is an interest in public and private narratives, and how images and other commercial methods tap into these narratives, revealing what’s universal in even our most private longings.

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision, installation view

Sally Alatalo: Narrative in Revision continues at Printed Matter (231 11th Ave, Chelsea) through June 24.

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