25th Trillium Award

“What Reading Has Become”: derek beaulieu’s Upcoming Exhibition, How to Read, in St. Catharines

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How To Read at NAC on March 22

By Phil Miletic

How do you read? Seriously.

How are you reading this very article? Are you reading it on your laptop, your home computer, a Kobo eReader (regular, Fire or Fire HD?), an iPhone, an iPad (2 or mini?)? What font size, what background colour, what is the colour of your words? Maybe you’ve printed this article, folded it up, shoved it in your pocket for later and are now reading the article, its text wrinkled, on a subway, in a waiting room, on a park bench. I also wonder what kind of paper you might have used to print this article: lined Hilroy paper, cheap computer paper or one of those nice thick white pieces of paper that impresses all who touch it. Perhaps you started this article on your iPhone, but, having to recharge your phone because you’ve been texting quite a bit while reading, finished the article on your laptop. Or perhaps you never “finished” the article but skimmed through it to get the gist.

Really though, besides this article, do you know how you read on a daily basis, do you ever think about it?

derek beaulieu, a Canadian “linguistic architect” from Calgary who specializes “in the building of impossible lettristic edifices,” asks you and anyone attending his upcoming exhibition, How to Read, this seemingly simple question. As the title implies, there is a sort of instructional element to the exhibition; however, the exhibition doesn’t teach us how to read, derek explains, it “displays what reading has become.”

How to Read will be derek beaulieu’s first major solo exhibition and will be featured at the Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) in St. Catharines beginning on March 22, the launch starting at 7p.m. For those unfamiliar with derek and are unsure what exactly a linguistic architect (his own description) is, and how could he possibly build the impossible, derek creates concrete and visual poetry, as well as conceptual art. In other words, derek treats “language like LEGO, ignoring the instructions on the packaging in favour of new, unimagined constructions.” By freeing himself from the authoritative “instructions” of language, derek is able to construct language in ways deemed impossible by language’s instruction booklet.

His books include Flatland (information as material, 2007), Local Colour (ntamo, 2008), How to Write (Talonbooks, 2010) and, most recently, Seen of the Crime (Snare, 2011), a collection of essays on conceptual writing. Throughout his career, he has challenged how language appears on the page and the authority of the page, having had his Prose of Trans Canada “published” on the side of the Calgary tower via projection (albeit only temporarily, giving the concrete poem an ephemeral publication). He believes that “poetry has been most impressively used by graphic designers and in corporate logos — the Nike Swoosh, the golden arches — and that poets must learn to make poems that are easy to consume and as emotionally convincing as those used on billboards and commercials.” And this is where How to Read comes in.

How to Read will feature both visual and conceptual writing, an interesting composition as it may reveal the tensions between the two forms of writing, as well as mark derek’s own transition from visual to conceptual writing. To explain the two forms concisely, “conceptual writing is the transporting of text from one container to another, whereas visual (or concrete) explores the graphic possibilities of text.” In How to Read, derek blends both conceptual and visual writing to explore the materiality of the book and of the reading experience. For example, one of derek’s exhibits, Flatland, is also a book of his (the text and the exhibit are also connected to E. A. Abbott’s Flatland, but I leave it to you to explore this further), and by exhibiting parts of Flatland, he has transported the text into the container of the exhibition, emphasizing the graphic possibilities of Flatland beyond book form (I should also add, teasingly, that derek’s Flatland contains no words but is still readable).

Today, we don’t just read in book form. Instead, in addition to books, there are ebooks and various eReaders, whether it be a Kindle, a tablet or a phone, newspapers and their online incarnations, informational signs from the street to the airport, cereal boxes, advertisements (from billboards to pop-ups) and Google to find and download a text. Yet this is nothing new. As I mentioned above, How to Read displays what reading has become, it is not attempting to re-teach reading practices to people who have forgotten.

How to Read will draw attention to the fact that “as readers we more frequently gaze, skim and cut-and-paste than actually read. We have replaced reading with the digital ‘find’ function.” In a way, the exhibit allows the reader (or digital explorer) to be confronted by his/her reading practices. I picture it like this: Whenever you Google an image of, say, an abstract painting, you passively glance at it at whatever size and resolution you found it, and once you’ve had your fill, you quickly go back and continue to browse; however, when you stand in front of the actual canvas of that painting, the canvas confronts you and demands you to read it. The canvas may be larger than you so that you’d have to physically explore the canvas, or may be smaller than you so that you’d have to stoop in to study it closely. These are two different readings of the same image, and I can only imagine How to Read will be presenting readers/viewers not with the actual canvas but the passively glanced Google image on a “canvas.”

Since How to Read is exhibiting what the reading experience has become, this exhibition’s experience will, as derek describes it, “fluctuate between the read and the seen.” What this means is the readers/viewers of How to Read will be encouraged to read texts that are typically seen — as in skimmed over, glanced at or copied-and-pasted — and texts that are typically read may be presented as something seen. Ultimately, How to Read’s reading experience will show readers/viewers “how we can craft texts outside of narrative, emotion and sequence, with a focus instead of design, layout and colour.” What exactly will be featured, derek did not reveal. However, he did reveal titles for some of the exhibits — “The Newspaper,” “Flatland” and “The Alphabet” — and that they will involve “Alphabits cereal, newspaper and the layout of science fiction novels.”

Although the exhibit will be featured at the NAC for a couple of months, there are a very good couple of reasons to attend the launch of How to Read on March 22nd. The opening event, starting at 7 p.m., will include a “raucous party.” There will be readings from a new collection of visual poetry from around the globe, The Last Vispo Anthology, and derek will also be launching his Please, no more poetry: the selected poetry of derek beaulieu (edited by Kit Dobson and published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press). The night will also be derek’s first performance in Ontario in several years. Be prepared for “graphic design and information management, radical poetics and conceptual writing” all in one night!

For those of you from out of town, don’t assume the exhibit will come to you. Currently, the NAC is the exclusive venue How to Read will be showing at. And the NAC provides an excellent location. As derek pointed out to me, the NAC has “presented a number of text-based art [exhibits] in the past, are deeply involved in the literary community of St. Catharines and are hosts for some great events.” derek also added that St. Catharines is home to “extremely strong and some amazing, investigative, personalities,” and I can vouch for that.

I encourage all of you who read this, however you are reading this, to go to the launch of How to Read on March 22nd at the Niagara Artists Centre in St. Catharines. The event starts at 7p.m. The night will be curated by Eric Schmaltz and will feature readings by derek, Jenny Sampirisi, Sharon Harris and Karl Jirgens. This is going to be a crazy (in a good and excellent way) night, jam-packed with all different kinds of reading going on.

Phil Miletic is a teaching assistant at Brock University. Fresh out of the English MA program at Brock, Phil hopes to continue down the road of academia scattering poems, stories and whatever else he can along the way.

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