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BiblioFile // Elisabeth Tonnard


Elisabeth Tonnard. One Swimming Pool. Elisabeth Tonnard: The Netherlands, 2013.

Book made from swimming pool: Installation size ± 648 x 648 cm. Book size 14.8 x 18.8 x 19 cm. Full color digital print, 3164 pages, bound in 9 sections attached to each other, plus inserted fold-out sheet with overview and instructions for installation. 

Liz Sales: You’ve made exceptionally structured books including a book that is a portable swimming pool that can be put on a bookshelf, a small book that comes with a magnifying glass and a book that is completely  invisible.  How would you define the word “book”?  How do you decide which form will best embody which book project?

Elisabeth Tonnard: I have to admit that I would at the start define the book in quite a boring and mechanistic sense, a stack of sheets bound together in a cover, that has had a particular role in our culture of conveying information in an orderly fashion. It is also an apparatus that has a nice feature of portability included. Like a hammer, it is a machine that in a few hundred years can still be used without recourse to additional tools or accessories or power supplies or instructions. I love that simplicity combined with the fact that this little machine can come to mean a whole lot of different things. In a sense it is a finite thing that is infinite in its possible manifestations, sort of like the alphabet itself. The parts of the machine that interest me most are the pages, the fact that there is a consecutive order of sheets that flip over, and the fact also that every page has its double right next to it across the gutter. The reader is in constant interaction with the book, without the reader the book is just limp, dead. So, I like to make my work for readers, rather than for viewers. Part of the decisions about form are informed by these notions, but the form is often already included in the project itself, such as in the examples you mention (which all happen to be books that are in one way or another amplifications of form). The small book Another World is about tiny little insects making love. The photos in which the insects appear are paired in the book with news flashes of big events elsewhere in the world. The book and the type is small so that the reader feels there is a distance physically, it takes effort to see what is going on. The handling of the book is clumsy on purpose and the magnifying glass really only shows you more pixels, not more information. In this way I wanted to show how both these worlds felt equally distant and incomprehensible, the world of the insect that we spot in front of us and the world of the media flowing around us talking about things from afar that we are supposed to care about but that most of the time we really don’t have any direct relation to. So, the form of the book is not separate from the content, it goes hand in hand. 


Elisabeth Tonnard. Whiteout. Elisabeth Tonnard: New York, 2006.

LS: Works like “Let us go then, you and I”, which is written in white ink  and “Whiteout“, which conflates the definition of meteorological whiteout with the clerical product, Whiteout, seem to play with the space between presence and absence. Could you talk about your interest in exploring specter states (if that is an apt description)?

ET: Mmm I like that description, had not thought of it as specter states before. White space always attracted me as a space where the reader comes in with his or her own imagination. Similar to how I love the world in wintertime when there is snow everywhere, it gives more freedom than a world that is completely filled out with details. The odd thing is that Let us go then, you and I, and also We are small, are books that employ the product whiteout to actually reveal information through the act of hiding information. They reveal information that was already present but almost invisible in the amount of information on the page. In both these books I have applied whiteout over and over again to only one text, in the one book a T.S. Eliot poem, in the other book a letter that I received. On each page the same text is present, but parts are painted white. By doing so new texts are revealed that were already there, but lost in the crowd. Once you start leaving things out, you see how incredibly packed with information everything actually is all the time. It is only because we constantly filter all input already that we aren’t going completely mad. Your phrase specter state is also apt I think in the sense that I am often interested in small transformations of a state that is never quite stable or present. It is like being on the way towards a fixed state but never reaching the destination, the only thing present is constant flux, repetition of absence. 


Elisabeth Tonnard. The Man in The Crowd. Elisabeth Tonnard: The Netherlands, 2012.

LS: Literature is another strong motif in your work, “In This Dark Wood”  contains 90 different English translations you collected from Dante’s  "Inferno", “The Man of the Crowd” is based upon a short story by Edgar  Allen Poe,  and “Speak! eyes ― En zie!“ consists of poems made from existing works of literature. What is your relationship to these works and to literature in general?

ET: Right, I am tuned into literature, and interested in working in a literary tradition. This is why I started making books. I had the idealistic notion that they could broaden the field of literature a bit (which in The Netherlands is a rather tight field from which some necessary developments seemed to be missing, for instance the incorporation of other languages or of found texts). Right now my books have come to light in the field of artist’s books, but I feel many of them should be seen as literary works as well. We talked already about what a book is as a thing, to elaborate on that, for me books do also refer specifically to the field of literature. Literary books are the books that I grew up with and that I feel at home with and that I always come back to. I held an MA degree in literature before I went to study fine arts and am also for instance publishing poetry. My books are referring to and alternating on the form and conventions of literary books. This is all not so much a conscious effort I suppose, just a consequence of having read things which then later turn up in relation to other phenomena, which was for instance the case in The Man of the Crowd which you mention. I saw a situation in a street in Paris and was immediately drawn to understand it as a scene from Poe’s story. 


Elisabeth Tonnard. The Gospel of the Photographer. Elisabeth Tonnard: The Netherlands, 2013.

LS: "The Gospel of the Photographer” is a rewrite of the gospel according to Mark, casting photography a religion and “The History of the  Invisible Book” is a set of visible postcards tracing the history of “The Invisible Book”. Could you expand upon your interest in alternate/counterfactual/secret histories?

ET: I don’t take myself too seriously as a producer of alternate histories. As fakes my rewritings are totally unconvincing. It is obvious that they are manipulated, they are rather grotesque and it’s all in plain sight. I am interested however in seeing how small changes can affect texts and meanings. How for instance you can replace one word and come up with an entirely different reality, even though the reader is in on the fact that this is not an actual reality at all. It becomes a joint imagination. Part of the action is showing in broad daylight how easy and crude the manipulation is, rather than hide it away and create a perfect illusion. In The Gospel of the Photographer I enjoyed it that the resulting text with Jesus taking photographs all the time had this ambivalence of sounding both logical and entirely incongruous at the same time. A new perspective was created by changing just a few words. Another example is the booklet Enduring Freedom, The Poetry of the President in which speeches by George W. Bush are presented as his poetry. All it took were some simple line breaks and there were his poems! I haven’t explored this thought fully, but while thinking about your question I am wondering if there is a connection between these alternate histories as you identify them and the concept of metaphor. In a metaphor you use one thing to describe another thing, even though on a literal level everyone knows it is false. You introduce a new notion with the help of an old one; both new and old are present simultaneously (maybe this should be called a specter state as well). If there is one thing to take from this, it is that it only makes sense to publish an invisible book if all the other ones are visible.  

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BiblioFile: Matthew Carson

The International Center of Photography’s Triennial, A Different Kind of Order, includes a spectacular installation of photographic artists’ publications, curated by my friend and colleague, Matthew Carson.  His desk at the ICP Library, where he works as a librarian and archivist extraordinaire, is several feet from my own, so, I thought I might ask him about the show…

LS: What was motivation behind including a photobook installation in this years ICP Triennial?

MC: Artists’ photobooks are extremely relevant right now, for the last five or so years they have enjoyed an increasing popularity. The making of books is very much part of a photo based artists process and practice. The ICP triennial A Different Kind of Order is a show that is truly about the now of contemporary art and artists’ photobooks are very much part of the now. They had to be included.

LS What lead to the decision to house the exhibition in a specially built 3-story metal structure?

MC: With any group exhibition in a relatively small space (the ICP gallery is not the largest) there is always a lot of competition for art real estate. The curators and the architects worked together to maximize the spaces available. The three tiered scaffold for the photographic artists’ books is built in a new space that wasn’t there before for other ICP shows. Essentially it was a smart use of space. The books are showcased at the center of the gallery on a very sublime scaffold. It’s fun and it works. I like to think of it as being a book shanty town. It will be a shame to see it go.

LS: How were the self-published and independently published photobooks included in the installation selected?

MC: They cover the time period of roughly the last 3 years – although a few are from 2009. The photobooks are a core sample of what is happening in the photobook self-publishing and independently publishing world as of now. We selected photobooks that reflected the types of materials that are being made by bookmakers from newsprint to print-on-demand to the more hand-crafted. The selection is a core sample of the extraordinary photobooks to show to the museum going audience. The uninitiated museum going audience is a little different to the knowledgeable crowd that attends the book fairs and zine festivals. We wanted to reach out to this new audience while maintaining as much of the feel of the former. Hence the photobooks on the scaffold can be handled, touched and sniffed. Accessibility is vital for making sense of these photobooks. A vitrine showing a particular page spread is essentially meaningless for these photobooks. In terms of content we were looking to include books that were highly experimental and the book installation is very much about a Library as photobook laboratory.  

LS: For the purpose of the exhibition, how did you define “photobook”?

MC: Photographic Artists’ Books is the term we used for the installation. The term I prefer is photographic artists’ publications. I feel that photographic artists’ publications is a broader definition and a more accurate description.  Artists’ publications  includes the hand-made and hand-sewn and craftily made, but also the POD (print-on-demand), the small press, the zine and the newsprint, etc.  That said we went broad and we didn’t get hung up on the definition of the materials we were talking about. When you see them it is easy to know them as being something more distinct to that of the more mainstream photobook.

-Liz Sales