A Reconstituting Deconstruction: Richmond and Annesas Appel’s Notebook

This February, we pedaled ourselves out to the CODEX 2013 International Book Fair at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California. I was reluctant at first to make the trek, but the fourteen-mile ride from Oakland to Richmond ended up being really enriching. We’d never biked on the Bay Trail all the way to the old Richmond shipyards. Usually, the northernmost terminus for our rides was the Albany Bulb, a landfill-turned-park spotted with signs of its former life and its vigorous regeneration: large-scale scrap-metal sculptures, graffitied concrete slabs, the makeshift shelters of itinerant communities, and stands of fragrant fennel abuzz with insects.

Not far beyond the Bulb, the trail leads to the bayside edge of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Managed in part by the National Park Service, this historic area was home to Henry J. Kaiser’s booming shipyards during the Second World War. When Kaiser expanded to Richmond in 1940, the city’s population exploded, quintupling within three years. The wartime’s demand for ships and Kaiser’s cutting-edge assembly-line techniques promised work for thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers. Still reeling from the Great Depression, Americans from all parts of the country were attracted to the shipyards by both a sense of duty and the prospect of a steady paycheck.

The loss of able-bodied white male laborers to active duty forced Kaiser to open the doors to a new workforce. In many ways, the commercial and military demands that made an opening for nonwhite and female workers added to the impetus for future civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Kaiser famously recruited women with his Rosie the Riveter and Wendy the Welder campaigns, and, though female shipyard workers faced continual discrimination, they had access to new possibilities for life. The infusion of women into the workforce also led to the creation of the first work-sponsored childcare centers in the nation. Previously, the New Deal had made publically funded childcare available only to impoverished families, but, with capital funding from the Maritime Commission, Kaiser was able to offer childcare to working mothers, reducing absenteeism at his shipyard.

African Americans faced a longer, harder struggle to gain employment opportunities at the Richmond shipyards. Trade unions initially blocked African-American membership, eventually establishing auxiliary chapters for blacks only. But rather than promoting the advancement of their African-American members, these auxiliaries reinstated Jim Crow practices in their bylaws; they reinscribed blacks’ subordination to whites, denied blacks the right to vote on union matters, conferred representation of black auxiliaries on the nearest white locals, severely restricted possibilities of promotion for black workers, and limited insurance benefits to blacks. To fight against these and many other discriminatory policies, African-American servicemen and war industry workers organized the Double V (or Double Victory) campaign, a proto–civil rights movement that called for victory over both tyranny abroad and racial discrimination in the U.S. The movement highlighted the hypocrisy of a nation that would fight against ethnic cleansing overseas while permitting racially motivated violence and oppression at home.

The legacy of Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyards is a mass of interlinking inheritances that can be variously valorized under the banner of Progress: women’s rights, civil rights, work-sponsored childcare and healthcare (from which Kaiser Permanente arose), speedy assembly-line manufacturing relying on the prefabrication of parts, industrial pollution, the impact of economic monocultures on industrial districts, the beginning of the military-industrial complex, and the seed that sprouted the Golden Age of Capitalism and consumer culture.

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This year’s venue for CODEX, the Craneway Pavilion, sat almost in the middle of the old Richmond shipyards, right next to the newly minted Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center. The pavilion also played a role in World War II production in its previous life as the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant. When America entered the war, FDR banned the manufacturing of civilian cars, so Ford transitioned the plant into the Richmond Tank Depot, assembling jeeps and armored vehicles for the Pacific Theater. Enlisting as part of FDR’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” Ford became another player in the inchoate military-industrial complex. Built in 1930, the plant was designed by Albert Kahn, an architect who worked on well over 1,000 commissions from Ford, Packard, General Motors, and Chrysler, including many auto- and war-industry buildings in Detroit (another outpost of the “Arsenal”).

An example of Kahn’s “daylight factory” design, the pavilion is as spacious and luminous as a palatial ballroom–sized greenhouse. The east-, west-, and south-facing sides of the building are virtually floor-to-ceiling windows, with the longer south side looking out onto the bay toward Brooks Island, Oakland, Treasure Island, and San Francisco.

The sun blazed down on the 180 exhibitors’ tables inside, illuminating so many letterpress and book arts treasures—of all shapes, sizes, stitches, folds, bindings, media, and genres. The fair was too rich with pleasures to describe. The amount of care, precision, knowledge, craft, and inventiveness involved in printmaking and book arts astounds—the control, patience, attention to minute detail. And the beautiful print or book object that comes of all the artist’s care is so gratifying to hold, open, manipulate, read—made at such a welcoming human scale. So many of the works at the fair merit mention—merit the same concentrated attention of their beholders as was given to them by their makers. But I was most drawn to one work.

After visiting the tables of Bay Area locals Kala Institute and San Francisco Center for the Book, we wended toward the only exhibitor from the Netherlands, the Johan Deumens Gallery. As we approached, Deumens put aside the slice of appeltaart met slagroom he’d been eating dutifully, and made himself available. Jorrit chatted him up in Dutch, while I started looking over Annesas Appel’s Notebook, a deeply satisfying exercise in ritualistic compulsion and categorization. According to Appel (transl. apple), the genesis for Notebook was an accident. Somehow she unintentionally exposed the interior hardware of a 15-inch PowerBook G4 (400 MHz), and she became fascinated with the architecture of the notebook’s printed circuit boards. Interested in highly aestheticized infographics and visual taxonomies of form, Appel set out to deconstruct the notebook, illustrating and codifying each piece as she went. The final project extends out of Appel’s ongoing analysis of the designed structures that arise out of civilization. Her previous projects all parse and translate industrial design, cartography, fashion, or typography and language into new systematized visual languages, often through mathematic analysis and computation.

Completed over eighteen months, Notebook consists of four hand-bound books of ink-jet prints on Japanese shoji paper (45 grams): Deconstruction (28.6 × 19.7 cm, 160 pages), Decode (28.6 × 19.7 cm, 138 pages), Writing System (28.6 × 39.4 cm, 122 pages), and Index (28.6 × 19.7 cm, pages 24). The first book, Deconstruction, is Appel’s record of the PowerBook’s disassembly, part by part. Each page is devoted to a single component, which is illustrated in silhouette as though it were lying flat on the surface of the paper. The components are drawn to scale, appearing in the book in both the location (on the page) and order they were found in the PowerBook.

For Decode, Appel narrows her focus to the smaller architectures on the surfaces of the larger, easily separable components of the PowerBook’s nine printed circuit boards. Using eight formal categories—flat surfaces, lines, imprints, circles, dashes, rectangles, squares, and miscellaneous—Appel orders the structures like with like. But she still depends on the larger component (to which the substructures belong) as the unit of the page. Again, she draws the structure to scale in the same location on the page as it appeared in the computer. She also adds another formal-spatial reference: Illustrations in paper white (shaped by a black contour) indicate that the structure was found on the front of a circuit board (i.e., the side facing up toward the keyboard). Illustrations in black indicate that the structure was located on the back of a circuit board.

As the unit of observation becomes smaller and more specific, the recorded structures become less recognizable as computer components, inviting a greater number of associative connections. The Decode drawings remind one of subway or sewage system maps, genealogy trees, blueprints for a building, aerial views of cities or parking lots, city lights at night as seen from a hilltop, Neoplasticist paintings, sports fields, gel electrophoresis tests, studs on the cylinders of music boxes, spilled beads, geographical demarcations, Scantron forms.

In Writing System, Appel goes a step further. Keeping to her eight categories as chapter groupings, she whittles down the architectures from Decode to their most atomic elements: a network of lines is separated out to its individual lines; a cluster of circles atomizes into a series of discrete circles; and so on. Then each design element is laid out on the page in the manner of a script—in horizontal and vertical registers that can be read from left to right or right to left and top to bottom or bottom to top. With this new metamorphosis of the referent, a different set of associations floods in. As Appel noted in an email to me, the forms in Writing System take on the appearance of stenography, Arabic, or braille, depending on their formal category. Dashes could be Morse code; lines share similarities with Hebrew and Thai scripts; the imprints resemble hieroglyphics with Roman alphabet letters and Arabic numerals incorporated as glyphic building blocks. The flat surfaces look more like 8-bit birthmarks, irregular political boundaries, or odd bodies of water than a writing system, and often retain their reference to the larger components in Deconstruction.

The final book, Index, includes thumbnails of all the pages in the first three books. Additionally, it includes calculations of the occurrence of the eight formal elements, capturing another formal quality: quantity (or frequency).

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What I find most interesting about the Notebook project is the ways in which it does and doesn’t meet the requirements of analytical deconstruction. It reworks the still-current axiom that form follows function. In the printed books, computational information is excised from this artifact of “information technology”—no bits or bytes course through the illustrations of the components. And by reducing the PowerBook to a collection of signifiers, Notebook succeeds momentarily in interrupting the union of signifier with signified, destabilizing meaning. The signifiers become little gutted buildings with various options for remodeling. For example, the forms in Writing System are not explicitly assigned meaning beyond the idea that they comprise a script (indicated by the book’s title and the fact that the forms are laid out like script in a book object). The writing system also doesn’t offer clues to its phonetic or semantic consequences.

For an instant, form follows form, but, very soon, function and meaning come rushing into the vacuum of the empty container. As I hinted earlier, the illustrations of the dissected components magnetize a whole slew of associations. Like a Rorschach inkblot, the signifier fills up with these associations, resituating the forms back in the Symbolic Order—back into the textures of our designed, unnatural world.

Notebook also doesn’t destabilize hierarchical oppositions, ironize, or point out inadequacies and inconsistencies in terms of the print circuit board’s and PowerBook’s more specific politico-historical contexts. It doesn’t investigate the printed circuit board’s beginnings as a WWII and post-WWII military technology; interrogate Apple’s questionable manufacturing practices at the Foxconn plant in Longhua, Shenzen, China; or work as a DIY manual democratizing computer construction and repair.

Similarly, I found myself considering how oppositions of the organic and the inorganic or the body and technology were or weren’t challenged. The project’s literalized punning on notebook (computer notebook versus analog notebook) and printing (printed circuit board versus printed paper) brings the PowerBook into a different relation with the body. A body interacts very differently with a book than it does a laptop. Instead of clicking, scrolling, typing, and gesturing, the reader turns the book’s pages. A computer is smooth and hard to the touch, whereas the pages of a book can be supple and downy. The handmade shoji paper Appel used for Notebook is arrestingly human—like the skin above a woman’s upper lip.

On the other hand, the illustrations in Notebook are not humanized by hand drawing. They are inhumanly crisp—probably rendered with a vector graphics program—and printed digitally. Still, Appel’s procedure for Notebook oddly corresponds with biological processes. I laugh to think that using a computer to draw the parts of a deconstructed computer is a bit like mixing chicken parts into chickenfeed. The “dead,” disassembled computer is digitally reincorporated into the body of a new computer; the print of the computer parts is the offspring enriched and shaped by the input of digital information related to the deconstructed computer parts’ forms.

With a little distance, Notebook seems as devotional as it is deconstructive or scientific; it actually reconstitutes the nontechnologist’s mysticism for computer technology. The complexity of the circuit boards humbles. The self-immolating intensity of the project can be compared to a pilgrimage or hermitage, sanctifying the artist. (In his copy for the piece, Deumens says that Appel’s “process may be compared to the meditative life of a monk.”) Each drawn part becomes an ex-voto to be placed on the altar of the modern Mac-centered church of design.

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As a short coda, a light note that Appel’s work brings up a question for me about the tendency to associate authentic or meritorious artwork with the ideas of obsession, compulsion, and a well-defined project. Craig Dworkin, a former prof of mine, recommended Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project when I told him I wasn’t awardable because my work is rarely project-oriented. (He quickly added that he disagreed with Lasky, so I haven’t been enthusiastic to read her pamphlet.) I also attribute merit to project-oriented art, but I feel the need to defend artwork that’s less cohesive and doesn’t emerge from obsession. An open-ended question.

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2 comments

  1. You kick ass. I was scrolling through a forgotten bookmark folder and re-encountered your first post, which, of course, led me to read this one. And (re-)reading makes me wish I could read more.

    If you haven’t already considered it, you should submit a Shotgun Review to Art Practical: http://www.artpractical.com/about/
    )m

    1. Thank you for your encouragement! I’ll take a look at that link!

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