Words: the Book Works of CJ Robinson:
an essay by James Merrick
This essay first appeared in The Blue Notebook, Volume 5 No. 2, April 2011, by Impact Press at the Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE, Bristol.
I should probably admit straight away my connection with the artist CJ Robinson. I have known Robinson now for a number of years. Our lives have run almost parallel for much of the last decade and a half. We first met whilst studying at the University of Wales, Newport in the mid-nineteen nineties. Robinson was studying for a BA in Multimedia whilst I was studying Interactive Art. We share a common aesthetic history, a love of modernist literature and the ideas of the twentieth century avant-garde, and so it was natural that we became collaborators. My interests have since taken me in a literary direction whilst Robinson’s have taken him into the field of Visual Art. I write about art. He makes art about writing. The beginnings of Robinson’s work lies in collage. He was producing collage long before he began his book works, the subject of this article.
“I have long held a fascination for collage.” Robinson says. “Other than for purely aesthetic reasons it is a medium particularly suited to the use of satire and humour. It is also a medium which almost anyone can participate in. Unlike other art forms, which require a certain amount of capital and space, all one needs for collage is a pair of scissors, some glue, access to newspapers and magazines, and a little imagination. It is therefore a truly democratic art form.”
Robinson’s collage started out following the traditional format, that of taking elements from several pre-existing images and by novel juxtaposition creating a single ‘new’ image. But a couple of years ago, while studying for a Masters Degree at the University of the West of England in Bristol, he found himself wondering what would happen if he were to reverse the process normally associated with collage.
“What if, instead of taking several images and adding them together to make one new image, I took a single image and removed most of it. What would that do to the image?”
Robinson set about applying processes to images of fashion models, cut from Sunday supplements and fashion magazines. He set himself rules designing patterns and grids to arbitrate which parts of the image would be removed and which would remain.
“If I applied a grid to the image,” he says (a proposal openly referencing a particular period of modernist painting), “by reducing it to a series of squares for example, and using only every fourth square, with the remaining three I could make three more images, thus completing the reversal.” With the resultant Grid Series and subsequent Tile Series Robinson had found a way to make several ‘new’ images out of a single image.
On an aesthetic level these collages can be seen simply as colour studies, pleasing patterns and arrangements of colour, much like the sketch book works twentieth century painters began unleashing on the world as art pieces in their own right (I’m thinking of Kandinsky’s concentric circles and the like), but they also work on several other levels. New meanings can be interpreted by looking at the source of the images used, i.e. fashion photography. A fashion photographer has spent a lot of money and care to make sure that that was exactly the right shade of blue, the best shade of blue to sell clothes, and Robinson comes along and steals it. This act of theft in itself undermines the commerce of false desires that fashion represents. By applying his Grid and Tile patterns to these images Robinson is making visible the barrier the images place between the viewer (or consumer) and the object of their desire. Even if you could afford the clothes, you could never be the model. In these collages Robinson is highlighting the falseness of the image.
Regardless of meaning however something else is happening in these images. In a world of endless advertising, commerce, and increasing speed, where we are bombarded daily by millions of images on television, in the streets, and on billboards, where advertisers, recognising the increasing competition for our reducing attention, develop ever more novel ways to secure it, these collages slow the image down. By stripping away and simplifying the image Robinson is capturing it and stopping it in its tracks, allowing the viewer more time and space in which to contemplate it. His is a cool, slow, and understated art in response to a speedy, brash, loud world.
It is with techniques such as these that Robinson turned his attention from the world of the image to the world of the book. His first book works, though using already existing texts taken from books, did not use the form of the book. Early pieces, such as Mountolive and Words, used pages torn from books and displayed, as his collages were, mounted and framed. Octavio Paz, Single Words, Left Aligned 1957-1987 was in the form of a digital projection. It wasn’t until The Bell Jar that Robinson found his preferred format. With Mountolive and Words it was clear Robinson was striving for something, he was intervening with actual physical books making his own marks within them, in the case of Mountolive highlighting the symbolic use of colour within a novel (what does the colour blue signify, what does the colour red mean), in Words he was seeking his own original composition within the text of another author picking out an eleven word phrase in a novel of around one hundred and twenty pages, but it was with The Bell Jar he finally realised that the book could be the work.
In this work Robinson made a direct copy, or facsimile, of a paperback edition of Sylvia Plath’s famous novel. He removed all the text except the first lines and last lines of every chapter. On the outside the work resembles almost exactly the original paperback, except that the author’s name and the novel’s title have been removed from the front cover and spine, and the descriptive text has been removed from the back. But on opening the book it quickly becomes apparent that this book is not what the reader expects. Like the images used for the collage the text has been transformed into something else. After the first line of the first chapter the reader is faced with several blank pages broken only by the appearance of the last line of the first chapter and then quickly the first line of the second chapter and then several more blank pages. This pattern continues to the end of the book. The effect on the reader is interesting. It disrupts the unconscious conventions which have been built up over the several hundred year development of the book as a form. As Robinson himself states in his Masters dissertation The Thief’s Journal:
“Place a book into somebody’s hands and they will know without thinking what is expected of them. They will hold it so that the binding is to the left, knowing that the surface they are looking at is the cover, possibly momentarily turning over the book to read the blurb they will presume to find on the back, which will give them an indication as to what to expect from the contents, before turning it back. They will peel open the cover and turn to the first page of blocked text, flicking past the authors biography, the title page, the page on which the author asserts his moral rights, the contents page and the dedication if the book has one, to the start of the book proper. They will read the first word which appears closest to the top left hand corner of the page and read the words in sequence, left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom. They will then turn over the page to read the next in the same manner, and on, usually over the course of several sittings, till the last page and the last word, before closing the book and placing it probably onto a shelf containing other books in such a manner that the spine is visible telling all who care to look the title and the author of the book. It will spend most of its life sat here to be admired by visitors who will use their own personal knowledge of the book, its author, and the author’s place in the world of literature to gauge an impression, favourable or otherwise, of the moral and intellectual standing of the book’s owner.”
Robinson’s book works challenge these assumptions.
The effect on the narrative is equally interesting. It is fragmented and disjointed. The flow of the words has been broken up. The long pauses between sentences give time to reflect on the little information that is available to the reader. Most of the information is missing, but somehow the narrative remains. There is enough in these few bare lines for a story to be hung upon, and the gaps allow space for the rest to be inferred. Over ninety per cent of the universe is unknown (being made up as it is suggest Physicists of mysterious Dark Matter) yet we still have a picture of the overall shape of it. It may not be a complete or correct view, but it makes a semblance of sense to us and that helps us to live in it. A similar thing can be said to be happening in the disjointed narratives of Robinson’s book works. “I may not be telling the ‘right’ story or even the ‘true’ story,” he says, “it may not be the story the ‘original’ author intended, but it is recognisable as a story none the less.” This is even more apparent in the triptych of paperbacks that followed The Bell Jar.
The next three book works all take short novels of Francois Sagan as their starting point. The three novels are La Chamade, Sunlight on Cold Water, and Wonderful Clouds. They are all modern romantic novels. To La Chamade Robinson removed all text other than sentences beginning ‘She…’ up to the first piece of punctuation; for Sunlight on Cold Water all text is removed other than sentences beginning ‘He…’ up to the first punctuation; and for Wonderful Clouds the only remaining text is sentences beginning ‘I…’ up to the first punctuation. These three book works have the effect of providing parallel narratives. Although the starting point was three different novels, the narratives which come through the adapted works appear to be telling a very similar story (this could be taken to suggest Francois Sagan was writing the same novel over and over again), but it is a story told from three distinct points of view, one feminine, one masculine, the third an unknown internal voice. The many women and men in the novels are reduced to a singular woman or man, and their expressions and thoughts, as fragmented as the narrative, often contradict one another, with the result perhaps that the singular character Robinson has created with his intervention reflects more accurately the inner voice of a human being, the stops and starts of thought, the tangents, the dead ends, and the uncertainty.
This last point is a claim made by many of the avant-garde writers and movements of twentieth century modernism, a clear source of inspiration for Robinson. William Burroughs said the novel, a narrative structure whereby one moves characters around a plot, was a form as arbitrary as the sonnet, and that it didn’t reflect accurately how we actually perceive the world. He claimed that the cut-up, a technique whereby his own writing was collaged with the writing of others which he developed with the surrealist painter Brion Gysin, more truthfully mirrored our perception of reality. For example, you could be sat on a bus reading a newspaper, occasionally glancing out of the window to see signs passing by, whilst overhearing snippets of conversation from other passengers on the bus. Our consciousness is constantly cutting up and assimilating all these narratives at once.
Similarly, Alain Robbe-Grillet claimed the novel weighed narrative too heavily in favour of the human being, and that each object in a scene should be allowed to carry equal weight, and so his vision of the ‘new novel’ attempted to address this. Robbe-Grillet declared that the only definite statement that could be made about a thing, any object or person, was its physical presence, its being in the world, and too many authors were assigning human assumptions to things, things were being weighed down as arbitrary signifiers of something else, be it a mood, an emotion, or a motivation for some action within a plot. Robbe-Grillet wanted literature to reflect a rationalist, scientific, statistical view of the world.
In fact, many of these avant-garde movements and practitioners seem to suggest that their experiments were attempts to more accurately represent reality. Their collective claim was that the novel represented an outmoded, historical view of the world, a view which served only an earlier century’s bourgeois view of the world, when a belief in historical progress, scientific progress, even religious progress from a Creation to an end time, a Judgement Day, a beginning/middle/end narrative, was dominant.
Artists and writers have often taken the view that, along with philosophers and theologians, they are seekers of truth. If it is the case that narrative structures reflect the belief systems of a time, as I have briefly argued above, what narrative structures should we be looking for now, in a time of Relativity and of Quantum Mechanics, a time when more than ninety per cent of the universe is known to be unknown and belief in multiple universes is seriously considered, a time of both scientific rationalism and religious fundamentalism? I believe the book works of CJ Robinson reflect these current belief systems, with their long gaps separating the fundamental particles of narrative, their principle of uncertainty, and the space they provide for multiple interpretations of a story. I see Robinson’s approach, a painstaking, meticulous, experimentation driven by a rational application of seemingly arbitrary processes and rules, as equivalent to the experimentation found in a scientific laboratory.
Robinson says of these processes: “It is understood that if we want to know how something works a valid method is to take it apart and examine the pieces to see what each individual component does. Once we have this knowledge we can then try and put it all back together again. My book works do this with language and narrative. By isolating each individual component that builds up the structure of narrative (use of colour to describe something, beginnings and endings, points of view, etc.), I hope to begin to comprehend what effect that component has on the whole, and in such a way develop a deeper comprehension of the fundamental principles of storytelling.”
The final question I would like to raise with regards to the work of CJ Robinson would be familiar to anyone who has studied twentieth century literary theory or post-modern art theory: who is the author of this work? Roland Barthes, in his famous essay The Death of the Author, says: “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing…A text is…a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
Alain Robbe-Grillet says of the novel: “All novelists, and all novels, must invent their own form. No recipe can replace this continual thought. A book creates its own rules for itself alone. Even though the momentum of the writing must endanger them, frustrate them, perhaps, or even shatter them. Far from respecting immutable forms, each new book tends to establish its own functional laws at the same time as it brings about their destruction.”
And finally, I believe it would be pertinent to quote at length Jean Paul Sartre, from one of the novels Robinson has used to create one of his book works. It serves to show Robinson’s playful and joyfully childlike attitude to the words of others as being merely a palette from which to create his own unique works:
“A professor, his daughter, and a young, athletic explorer were going up the Amazon in search of a precious butterfly. I had borrowed the plot, the characters, the details of their adventures, even the title of a story in pictures which had appeared during the previous term. This deliberate plagiarism released me from my final qualms: it must be true because I had invented none of it. I had no ambitions to be published but had arranged it so that I was printed in advance and I did not set down a line that was not to be found in my model. Did I see myself as a plagiarist? No. As an original writer: I touched up and renovated; for instance, I had taken care to change the names of the characters. These minor alterations enabled me to blend memory and imagination. New and complete sentences formed in my head with the unwavering certainty attributed to inspiration. I transcribed them and, before my very eyes, they acquired the solidity of objects. If, as is commonly held, an inspired author is, deep down, something other than himself, I knew inspiration between the ages of seven and eight.”
 All quotes from CJ Robinson come from conversations with the author, unless otherwise stated.
 CJ Robinson, The Thief’s Journal: a Portrait of the Artist as an MA Student, the University of the West of England, 2009
 See Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs Literary Outlaw: the Life and Times of William S. Burroughs published by The Bodley Head, 1991
 See Alain Robbe Grillet, Snapshots & Towards the New Novel (translated by Barbara Wright), Calder and Boyars, 1965
 Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, quoted in David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (editors), The Book History Reader, Routledge, 2002, p223
 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots and Towards a New Novel (translated by Barbara Wright), Calder and Boyars, 1965, p47
 Jean Paul Sartre, Words, Penguin Modern Classics,