There is an undeniable magic generated when two creatives collaborate, although, like writer Adam Thirlwell and artist Mary Ramsden will say about their recent partnership on the visual art – short story book hybrid, RadioPaper, rather than a collaboration “It was very much two independent works that slotted in very well.” It is this semblance of independent creation while guided under a unifying trope that led Ramsden and Thirlwell to find success in a piece that could beautifully translate each of their respective talents. The friends, who met years ago at gallerist Pilar Corrias’ house, sat down in conversation to discuss the abstractness of language, the experience of looking, and keeping the suspense forever.
Adam Thirlwell: Is this the first time you’ve worked with multiples? Because of course a book is a multiple… Does it feel the same as working with a single object?
Mary Ramsden: It still felt like a very private encounter, and the fact that all of the covers are hand-painted means they’re all individual, in a way. Also, the nature of the images and how they were produced contributes to this feeling of the handmade, because they are a mixture of painting and collage. I worked carefully with Bookworks – who produced the book – to retain the color and shadow of the cut-line after the works on paper were scanned in so as to maintain this object quality to the prints.
Do you have any floating sentences you create a context for?
AT: My notebook is full of them. I used to love that sort of thing – if there was a line I liked I would be sure to fit it in, but now I worry it can cause too much digression. I normally like to write forms that give the illusion of being very rapid and improvised, and the danger of a notebook full of material you want to add is that in order to bring it in you have to write a page to get to that sentence and then –
MR: – all the rest is fluff. I was thinking about some of your short stories, and the way they are like marks and they kind of drive a punch in the same way.
AT: What I liked about writing these short stories for RadioPaper is they are all two paragraphs each – there’s no room for the extraneous. They’re pure speed. It meant they function as a sort of block of thinking. Which then, inadvertently, feels similar to the way your images relate to blocks or marks, too. One of the things I find interesting in pairing language to your painting is that language is inherently non-abstract, you always have to have something with meaning in it.
MR: I came across the anthology of American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus, and in his introduction he talks about the space between the reader and the short story; how if you could “paint” the place where language is filtering through to the reader, the imagery would get so morphed into this visual nonsense and ‘the picture would blacken into pure noise.’ I think if you are looking to describe that space, then as a writer maybe that would be the place where things are abstract, like reading poetry in a language you don’t speak.
It seemed to me like the clearest way to talk about these concerns was in a relatively abstract way within a typographical framework. It feels to me the most satisfactory level of communication.
AT: Do you think there’s a difference between the way you contemplate a story and the way you contemplate a work of art?
MR: I try and have a different pace to a lot of my works. I like that you might spend five minutes in front of a piece, and then another work demands a bit more attention because it has more going on and is slower or more labored. Those two different speeds can be quite a fun thing to play off against each other. That’s partly why, with the book, I kind of wanted to make an object you had to take your time with. When you stand with the book – especially that scale – you make yourself ready for the experience of looking, and there is something really lovely about that relationship.
AT: One of my favorite novelists, Laurence Sterne, uses various visual elements tricks, like when a character dies the page is just black and when a new love interest is introduced he says, “I can’t describe her; you should just imagine her as you want” and leaves a blank page for you to draw however you imagine her. I remember thinking only a crazy person would actually draw their idea – but then I talked to an academic who said there are actually copies from the 18th century where people drew on the page, and made their ideal portrait. Which is not, in the end, so stupid… Do you intend for people to cut the pages?
MR: Definitely not. I like that they are uncut, and I like the idea of still continuing to peek through and keeping it all intact. Some of the best marks are hidden in the folds but that’s all part of the feeling that something of interest is being concealed.
AT: I keep thinking about this question of what a book is – because for me it’s all about how to control attention. A novel is an experience that takes place over time – like a movie. I’m always quite annoyed I can’t control the flow of time in the way a moviemaker can because a book is a portable experience. I’m trying to think whether it changes for me if there are images in it or not. I remember Hans Ulrich Obrist saying “a book and an exhibition are the same thing.” Did it feel like you were mounting a portable show, or did it feel different?
MR: It felt different; even the making was very much at a table, a considered, quiet process. Sitting down it was much more hands than arms, closer to writing than painting.
AT: Did you try out different sequences?
MR: Yeah, I spent ages shuffling things about. As you say, you can’t dictate the order in which people read through a book, but there had to be a certain rhythm to it. Some of the pages are more gestural or slower or covered by the collage or more graphic. Similarly, the way the books were installed felt like I was creating a language – something that could be understood but you couldn’t quite get there. In a way with Kapow! you’ve already played with text layout, but there it was much more about the structure on the page. Do you think many people read the upside-down pages, or backwards sentences?
AT: Kapow! was a really creative collaboration, but it’s true, there’s a difference between that project, where the text itself is arranged in strange shapes, and what we did. With RadioPaper the text itself is standard text. The interest in Kapow! was definitely to see how you can use typography to force the reader to almost physically have to reorient themselves, but it was also designed so you didn’t have to do that, you could continue to read without reading the crazed digressions… When I knew I was planning these stories for you, and knew the different kind of stories that would be hidden behind the French folds, I didn’t quite realize you really still can’t read the second half.
MR: You have to sort of press it down to read it. Does it bother you that people won’t know the end of your story?
AT: I think I like it more. One of the things I was exploiting with the texts for RadioPaper was what is a cliff hanger, or what is suspenseful, so why not keep the suspense forever…? Do you think you want to do more?
MR: Yeah I was excited about maybe approaching other short story writers. I’m really enjoying the Ben Marcus book though; the introduction is punchy but it’s a great opener for the stories that follow. It sort of arms you for the experience.
AT: But also I feel like the word collaboration, especially the way it’s sometimes used in the art world, can become almost meaningless. It’s interesting – it was very vague, the way you introduced this project to me – basically you just said French folds, and my texts then added a digital theme, which I don’t think we ever talked about. I had the idea of creating a story that is suddenly broken off, and the selfie felt quite useful for that – the thing that you can see and the thing that you can’t see. Something which at first looks quite simple and then you realize there are hidden elements.
MR: I see your point on the collaboration thing, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the right term for the relationship we had on the book. I think it was very much two independent works that slotted in very well.
AT: I would say it was more mutually influencing. You influenced me by saying, “This is how I would like the structure to be and this is the nature of the story.” I’m trying to think if it can happen the other way around? For instance I just wrote a text for my friend Philippe Parreno, for the catalogue of his show, which is like a collaboration – but then I wouldn’t call it a true collaboration because he does something and I simply respond to it.
MR: Yeah, you sort of understand where he is coming from. Similarly in the way I responded to your book with the “Lurid & Cute” painting in my last show. I don’t know if we can even call that a collaboration, it was more like a strange exercise. How would you feel if we were to do another one?
AT: I think you’d have to think of a new constraint. It would be interesting to think how can we find a different technical oddity that then contains and organize the images within the medium of the book.
MR: Which might not necessarily be about the format of the book, I mean it would be fun to play around with other aspects.
AT: I was thinking – this project unexpectedly to me looks militantly anti-digital, like we are the last book people left on earth: it’s the combination of the title RadioPaper and the fact that it’s only in a tiny edition. But was that really part of your thinking?
MR: Not at all, and I wouldn’t see it like that. I’d say there’s a need for both of these fast and slow approaches to consumption. It was more about the difference between the way we sit down with a book in relation to the way we spend time looking at screens and pointing at those two spaces. I heard the other day the average concentration span is now three minutes, which is shorter than you can actually train a goldfish to focus. It’s not that I am demanding lengthy concentration with this project as it is also very playful but I think it’s something to make a thing which can be held and leafed through, with both hands.
Photography: Tegen Williams & Raf Fellner for NeueJournal