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Reviewing the Reviewer—Observing the Observed


In this episode, our series reexamining the art of the review pauses to examine textuality through the lens of visual art. Exploring the work of artist/poet Holli Schorno, Kristin Prevallet reveals Schorno's textual compositions for what they are—living primitive apparatuses refracting their digital-age origins with terrifying candor.


            —Dan Machlin


      * * *



Godzilla vs. The Tower: The Collages of Holli Schorno
Kristin Prevallet


The NASDAQ MarketSite Tower—opened in December 1999 and located at the heart of Times Square—proclaims itself the largest video screen in the world. Given that it's eight stories tall and occupies 11,000 square feet, this isn't difficult to believe. What is difficult to believe is that The Tower is actually a building with offices and windows. From the street it looks as if the video images are simply being projected onto the building from somewhere else, until you realize that, in fact, the building itself is the TV. Of course, calling it a TV is like calling a DJ's turntable a record player. The exterior walls of the building are a display which transmits "Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology", a larger-than-life resolution screen showing 18 hours of advertisements, news, and up-to-the-minute stock information.

However, the six hours of the night that The Tower is turned off are almost more interesting than when it is barraging mesmerized jaywalkers with oversized Calvin Klein ads. For when off, The Tower is covered with the residue of digital video signals: little red and blue dots and white lines scattered randomly across the Tower's gargantuan black screen.

This may not have struck me as being so impressive if I hadn't been thinking about the large scale collages of Holli Schorno. This isn't because Schorno's process has anything remotely to do with digitalization—there isn't even a computer in her studio. Her materials—comprised of discarded biology and chemistry textbooks, obsolete maps, dusty encyclopedias, foreign language workbooks, and grade school primers—are somewhat the opposite of high-tech. They are the casualties of the now evolved digital superhighway, driven to obsolescence by high-speed web engines and hyper-textual multi-media environments. Yet, like the server of any network, Schorno's bookshelf looms high over the studio, asserting itself as the organizing principle, the central hub of her work.

Like the Tower turned off, from a distance Schorno's work looks like a digital grid made up of colors, dots, lines, and random shapes: a network of data strips that could expand infinitely if it weren't for the boundaries of the canvas or the exhaustion of the maker. These grids are made out of precisely aligned two inch strips (5 cm. x 5 cm.), cut out of the kinds of books mentioned above. Schorno laboriously pastes them together one at a time as interconnecting rectangles and squares that spread across her canvas like a virus: a self-perpetuating orderly web that, standing back, looks like an aerial view of a city, or a map of a circuit board. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the grid is readable. This is The Tower turned inside out: whereas the digital residue of the video signal means there is no information being transmitted, in Schorno's work it is the digital residue itself that contains the information. Each strip is readable and provides an essential link with the next, and so on, and so on, compiling a massive web of information.

In A Humument, the artist Tom Phillips created poems from the pages of an old Victorian novel by "plundering, mining, and undermining the text". He crossed out lines of text in order that an alternate text be revealed in its place. He then painted images and patterns over the text he had eliminated, making the words that were chosen stand out; in the midst of this colorful layering came the emergence of a new story. Although Phillips' project transforms the original book into a work of art, it still maintains the form of the book. Schorno takes this process one step further and eradicates the original books by restructuring them into a brand new textual apparatus that looks nothing like a book, but is still readable. Although abandoning the form of the book, Schorno's "apparatuses" still function as texts.

In spite of the obvious digital and architectural analogies one can make to Schorno's compositions, the work is inherently organic. The strips on the grid are not random. In cutting up the books, Schorno carefully reads each strip for how it will fit in with the larger compositional whole. Obviously, Schorno is not an ordinary reader. Like a thief entering a house and taking only what she wants and needs, she looks for an exact series of conditions to be present before she begins snipping strips out of books. She reads, for example, books for their color: a blue and yellow diagram of a chemical compound; red and blue marginalia over the tops of words; pink, yellow, and orange highlighter in a book read by several people. Schorno follows the track of the highlighter, marveling at where it stops, overlaps with another reader's highlighter, skip chapters, and continues. She remarks on the marginalia of a reader who started writing notations in blue ink, and then switched to red. She wonders why the reader suddenly switched inks midway through the book. Does the fact that the writing on one page is sloppier than on another indicate that the reader was having a bad day? Flipping quickly through a decades-old biology textbook she points out the color schemes used to draw diagrams and charts.

Although reading for color, she also reads for language. It is not surprising that Schorno began by "making" poems, cutting-up texts and pasting short phrases together onto a small canvas. Like the cut-up poems of Ronald Johnson (Radi Os) and Susan Howe (Eikon Basilike), Schorno's poems are almost more visual and audible than they are readable, at least in a traditional sense. Yet, like any book, there is a sequence to her poems, an imposed order that gives them a fragmented but lyrical continunity [ Poem 1 | Poem 2 | Poem 3 | Poem 4 | Poem 5 | Poem 6 ]. From this initial plunge into language, (what Steve McCaffery might call "the interplay of a graphic 'surface' and a heard 'sense'") came her desire to transpose the sounds of language into the colors of painting, and visa versa. Reading a Schorno collage is like reading a densely layered, projective poem that is layered not for sense or narrative, but for the sounds and the way the images, words and colors all interact to create the grid.

Just because she cuts strips out of a book doesn't mean they will appear in the collage. She reads the strips, and those that "make it" are placed in a large bowl. Those that do not—and there are literally thousands—are scattered all over the floor of her studio like confetti. Seeing this process of elimination makes Schorno's collages come alive as organic, living apparatuses that are extremely finicky eaters. "Aide-Moi" uses strips cut from comic books, and the words and images come together as screaming mouths and proclamations, voices severed from their context and protesting loudly. In this piece Schorno's editorial control is particularily visible, but all of her pieces exude this rigourous process of elimination. There must be a precise continuity of colors, words, and shapes that work to feed the compositional whole.

The sketches on the wall in her studio of her next project are leaving behind the square and rectangular grids to explore the circle—clusters of shorter strips forming oblong shapes joined together by straight lines—and look uncannily like chemical models. In fact, scattered throughout the linear grid of her most recent work-in-progress, "Elastic Collision", are circles: a helium model, spokes of a wheel, sketches of galaxies. The grid is gradually shifting its shape: its base is shifting from digital to molecular.

The MarketSite Tower boasts that each image projects 18,677,760 light emitting diodes. Although lifelike and resolute, those diodes lack the matrixical beauty of Schorno's project. As I was standing in Times Square in front of The Tower I imagined a battle between the diodes and the strips, one representing hyper-technology and the other textual intelligence. I imagine an artful Godzilla emerging from the paper mitosis of Schorno's collages, smashing the monstrous NASDEQ tower and scattering the poetry hidden in blinks of data all over Times Square.



Bibliography:

McCaffery, Steve and Jed Rasula. Imagining Language: An Anthology. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.



On Holli Schorno:

Holli Schorno's works on paper were featured in "Destroyer/Creator" at the John Weber Gallery, New York, "Scripta Manent" at the Esso Gallery, Houston, TX, and "Lontano Da Dove?" at Galleria Alberto Peola, Torino, Italy. Her collage poems have been published in Newark Review (Volume 2, Set 3 [clicking on the cover image will bring you to the first page of the issue; at the bottom of this page is an index link, from which you can find more work by Schorno]). A new project, "I have no mouth, and I must scream" will be included in Newark Review's upcoming cybertext issue. She currently lives and works in Newark, and is preparing for a show in January 2001, at Gallery 16 in San Francisco.

 





Issue No. 14 Copyright © 2001 The Transcendental Friend. All rights revert to the authors upon publication.