Living up to its name, the book Network, a project by Chilean electronic musician Nicolas Jaar co-published by Printed Matter and Other People, can be opened at pretty much any point and read — if reading is even what you call it. Upon opening the book I saw a series of onomatopoeias, several pages featuring blocky text about wealth, a full-page spread of two hand-drawn Xs, some already filled out crosswords, multiple internet windows, and words arranged like numbers on a spreadsheet. Whatever you want call this, reading with Jaar is more akin to a cross between an art experience and solving a book of logic puzzles. Or seeing, hearing and reading simultaneously.
Or failing to do so entirely.
That failure defines the central structure of the book, which is a series of experiments that test our ability to simultaneously perceive more than one medium, or to interpret more than one ambiguous image. In addition to the hundreds of pages of free-verse text, Jaar includes black-and-white posters advertising shows from his series of semi-fictional online radio stations along with three short, text-based works from graphic designer Linda van Deursen, artist and provocateur Lydia Lunch, and the musician himself.
Together, the puzzles, rhythms, and words of Network read as a meditation on the success and failure of our current social, political, and economic structures. How Jaar got to that point, though, involves a bit of backstory. Jaar began the project as a radio play for a BBC commission, but when the play turned into an experiment making alien sound energy for a fake DJ, the network jumped ship. Jaar decided to finish the project on his own; in the end, it took the form of a book and a website hosting 111 radio stations with fixed loops of his own DJing and mock talk radio. Graphic designers Jena Myung and Maziyar Pahlevan worked with Jaar to draw text from show transcripts and use it in the book.
The result feels a bit like browsing an analog Internet, where memes mutate into free-verse poetry, while simultaneously channel-surfing noise radio stations. Catching a wave of thought can feel exhilarating and powerful, but just as often the organization of the book feels too chaotic to make sense of anything. It was several days before I even realized the three essays in the book were each only a few pages long, rather than making up entire sections.
As a reflection of the current mood, the book can feel eerily accurate. Columns and fonts of varying size and weight add a level of anxiety and confusion to even flipping through its pages. So do the anti-Trump, anti-income-inequality themes. In one spread, we see a play on the Trump/Pence “Make America Great Again” logo that transforms the words into the shape of a flag with the slogan “Jump the Fence.” Another consists of a list of billionaires that did not make the Forbes 100 list because their net worth was too low. Still another reads simply: “I feel a little helpless.”
As confusing as all this sounds, the book also offers ways to opt out of the culture. Don’t like what you see? There’s an “x” in the corner of some pages suggesting you can simply close the window. Or you can skip to another page. You won’t miss anything, and — unlike the Internet’s unreliable archives — the text will still be there when you return.
For me, the most compelling aspects of the book were those that used optical illusions and text puns like the Trump/Pence logo. They read like the kind of secret messages people once thought you could find on records if you played them backwards. In one instance the words “Don’t you wish you could listen to both at the exact same time” alert the reader to a construction on the following page. That page consists of a poster, advertising one of Jaar’s radio stations, that features the stacked words “LIVE GAZA.” Each letter of the word is made by repeating the letter in the word above or beneath it, thus creating “GAZA LIVE.” As with the famous “vase or face” perception puzzle, it’s impossible to read “LIVE GAZA” and “GAZA LIVE” at the same time: the brain can see both, but it can’t process them simultaneously.
But “Don’t you wish you could listen to both at the exact same time?” also alludes to the radio station itself. When I visited the station online (#219), I found a series of short news items about a Gaza zoo that painted their donkeys to look like zebras after they died of neglect in the Israel/Palestine conflict. “Children treat the donkeys with less respect than an actual zebra,” reported one journalist. I switched channels.
Station #69. The sound of a flag in the wind. Station #153. Beatles songs, but with a LOL ticker running above. Station #93. A long documentary on how economy of “the self” lead to pervasive belief that satisfaction of our individual needs and desires should be our highest priority.
There’s a corresponding poster for each of these stations peppered throughout the book, but it remains unclear what text was drawn from which poster, and mapping that out seems beside the point. It’s just one piece of a network that doesn’t rely on any single page in order to work.
Even Jaar’s three-page essay midway through the book could have been removed, and the book would still stand on its own. It would have suffered without that essay, though, as it does the best job of expressing the book’s core concept. Jaar writes, “When and if human “x” looked into the eyes of human “y” then x with two eyes saw only one eye of y.”
The essay goes on to tie this relationship to rhythm, (and visual relationships), but the base point is this: we only have the ability to perceive one thing at a time — an idea significant enough that it’s repeated throughout Network and even gets a nod on the book’s cover (“IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII see eee eee too”). That phrase is drawn from text later in the essay and is part of a larger imagined conversation. “What if we just had one eye?” it reads, “It’s surely good to have two eyes. One eye says to the other: eye, I see too.” As I understand it, the message is an address from one eye to the other, informing it that there are two eyes seeing. Spoken, though, it could mean any number of things beyond the original reading. “Yes, I see two” or “Yes, I see too”, or “Eye, I see too.”
All this resembles wordplay, but for me, it illustrates how much more mutable words are when they are said aloud versus written down. In the context of business, this slippery definition might have me decide that written communication is more reliable. In the world of sound, I might conclude that there’s far more room for creativity. In the world of politics, it reads “Watch your back.”
Network doesn’t offer solutions for synthesizing these worlds, but it does suggest that we might be able to draw meaning from pre-existing relationships. For example, Linda van Deursen’s visual essay uses two side-by-side columns with images, captions, and text to focus on linguistic play as it pertains to agriculture, radio communication and its relationship to authoritarian rule. On one side, we read about how broadcasting is considered the most economical method of applying seed to large areas of land. On another we read about how, in the mid 1920s the USSR started producing street radio speakers that anyone could use for the purpose of broadcasting. Ideas need tending to grow.
As an exercise, van Deursen took enough pains to make sure her narratives never completed themselves too easily that I could write an entire piece on her essay alone. It was thoughtful. Lydia Lunch, the book’s final contributor, did not manage this, offering only a long, stream-of-consciousness rant. Everything is terrible: the offense of Kim Kardashian’s selfies, the constant surveillance of citizens, an election that gave us no one to vote for last November because Hillary Clinton is friends with Henry Kissinger. Lunch’s tirade was clearly written prior to Trump’s inauguration, but it would have been just as unmoored then. Unlike Donald Trump, Clinton isn’t friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to undermine the electoral process and destabilize the NATO alliance. But potato potahto, right?
Eh. I immediately worried that complaining about politics is petty in a book as thoughtful as Jaar’s. I didn’t need to go there. But, such is the nature of our present political climate, where no differing opinion goes unrefuted. No one is immune: not me, not Lydia Lunch, and not Jaar. And there are real reasons for this. Vast income inequality, widespread corruption, and weakened democracies threaten everyone’s well-being. We’re scared, we’re tired and we don’t have the patience to hear any more bad ideas. The book seems to implicitly acknowledge this unpleasant physiological peculiarity through pages of splintered text. “Listen. So many arguments not worth having,” reads a blurb of text early on — only to later have Lunch dive in. There’s always someone who can’t resist.
Which may be why the rant is followed by spreads of quietly undulating single-color pages. At first, this section seemed out of place and superfluous, but every time I needed a break, I’d end up back there. It’s the one place in the book where every sense a reader has isn’t being taxed, and it’s a relief. “I see a color or two,” I thought as I paged through the book. That felt like more than enough.