Thursday, January 2, 2020

Crit: American Origami by Andres Gonzales

I've briefly mentioned this thing in passing before, passing judgement on the, uh, remarkable book structure itself. I described it as a dumpster fire. I may have softened a little toward it, but I remain, at best, ambivalent about this physical structure. I have a horrifying vision of Lots More Of Them coming down the pipe.

It happens that I have borrowed a copy of this object, and have spent some time with it, and then more time organizing my thoughts on it, and I am still doing so as I type this. The book itself isn't a dumpster fire. It's pretty good.

Let me make one remark which I will then mostly set aside: if this book was a movie, it would be properly characterized as Oscar-bait. This doesn't make it a bad book, but one can pretty clearly see that somewhere along the line someone or someones realized they had an useful device for attracting awards. The design, while remarkably on-point, is still absurd and twee. The topic is Extremely Weighty And Important. The photographs hit pretty much every contemporary Serious Photography Trope. The book is overstuffed. The only thing it lacks is some "texts" from some suitably pompous establishment dolts. And for that last we ought all to be most grateful.

Contrary to what many reviews suggest, the book isn't about school shootings, as such. It is about the archives of material left over from these events, specifically the archives of material evidence of a kind of grieving which occurs. The book also contains leftover material (and discussions with the author, if you look around) that suggest the book began as an investigation of school shootings in a broader sense, but in the end is it about the archives of grief. The leftover material, while often powerful on its own, renders the book's final position kind of ambiguous and uncomfortable.

Onwards, then.

When a celebrity dies, or when some tragedy like a school shooting, a ferry sinking, a mountaineering disaster, occurs with loss of life, there is a kind of performative grieving that people who are unaffected do. I don't pretend to understand it fully, but there is surely a mixture thank God it wasn't me or mine blended with a genuine I am terribly sorry for your loss. I think it is also in part a ritual to purge the terror of random death, death which could visit us at any instant. For some reason this does not occur when ordinary strangers die in the ordinary way. Particularly with school shootings, people from all over the world send things. Notes, letters, cards, stuffed animals, and so on. Sometimes enormous quantities of this Stuff arrives, and it can turn in to a logistical nightmare. Some of it ends up in archives.

This book is fundamentally about these archives, and by way of those archives, a kind of discussion, analysis, or evocation of that performative grief. I make this claim despite there being a lot of bits and pieces, a lot of ways, in which the book fails to be the book I think it wants to be. It is possible that I've got hold of the thing by the wrong end, but I don't think so.

I should note in passing that when I describe this grief, felt mostly by people who were not affected, as performative I do not mean to belittle it. It is a real and human thing, and in some sense I guess it's a good thing. This does not mean that it's not performative, because it is. These are profoundly public acts, actions intended to be seen by others. This seems to be an essential part of the ritual.

What Gonzales has wound up with is, essentially, two books which are embodied in the bizarre book structure. The book structure itself creates an outer, obvious, book, and a second "secret" book tucked in literally behind and inside the first book. The two books are physically intertwined, inextricably woven together. Gonzales places the material of grief into the secret book, for the most part.

The outer, obvious, book, is a collection of the by-now standard bland photographs of locations. These locations are competently photographed. They're boring as hell, but there is a pleasing balance to most frames, they're carefully shot rather than the usual MFA "just jam the camera out there and embrace serendipity" bullshit we're so used to. Also contained in the outer book is the only human material, a series of interviews and pictures, essentially mug shots, of the interviewees. Presidential speeches also appear, in a sans font, which I like to think means something.

The conceit is obvious, and, I think, inescapable. It is surely deliberate: the outer book represents a banal layer of suburban normality and calm, a false veil drawn over the secret darkness revealed in the second book of photographs of archived grief. The interviews also appear out here, which fact conflicts with the book's conceit as this human material, whatever it is, is not part of the facade, the veil.

The first and very much the largest problem with the book is this: the performative grief here is anything but secret. It is, after all, performative. We've never seen it revealed in this way, extracted from archives and photographed like a bottle of shampoo, but we've seen it piled against the fences and heaped around makeshift memorials dozens if not hundreds of times. This is thoroughly public material. The book's design wants to be about the dark forces, the mysterious and incomprehensible forces, that cause these shootings, but Gonzales offers no insight into them. The dark forces remain incomprehensible, and so the book must settle for hiding this ultimately not-very-secret pathos inside its secret passages.

There is a brief feint at these darker forces in the first section, on Columbine, where documents which are surely Evidence appear. Notably a poem written by one of the shooters, inexplicably given to us as a raw dump of a Microsoft Word file. Even this feint is marred by the fact that Gonzales can't decide whether the Evidence goes into the inner book or the outer one. Bits appear in both places. This is where Gonzales attempts to "get at" the underlying event by way of the archives, and fails. Happily, be moves on from this effort quickly. After the Columbine chapter, though, things which are Evidence largely vanish.

There is also a single brief nod toward cause, in one of the interviews (in the outer book — see?) we hear third-hand or so a reference to bullying. This thread never re-appears, which is telling. You cannot seriously investigate cause here without talking about bullying.

The second problem here is that the outer layer, the suburban normalcy, is more or less pointless. If the blandness of the suburbs had something truly dark and secret to contrast with, they might sit here better, but they do not. The vaguely glum, superficial, blandness of the suburb rests instead against a profound sadness that isn't all that much less superficial. Again, I do not mean to denigrate the grief of those faraway people boxing up the stuffed animals and mailing them to Newtown, that grief is real, but the ritual of sending the teddy bear is designed to, and generally does, wash away that grief. I have done my bit thinks the person, and then they get on with life, because at the end of the day the tragedy did not touch them all that much.

Something I found interesting was that Gonzales always photographed the suburbs around the school. At Sandy Hook and at Columbine, these houses represent if not the actual dwellings then at least the kind of homes lived in by the victims, the shooters, the people directly touched. At Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois, this isn't true. These are schools at which most of the students are from out of town. Their families do not live in those homes. They have somewhere between little and no connection to this urban/suburban environment. These photos are merely a generic placeholder for the idea of homes where the victims might have lived, a step removed.

The fact that there is a third body of material, the interviews, further mucks things up. Gonzales places these in the outer book, although they arguably belong with the inner material. This may have been a smart choice in terms of making the book interesting, since these interviews are certainly one of the few "hooks" the book has, so perhaps best to place them where they can be found easily. The interviews themselves, while powerful, often detract from the book itself. Some of them are with victims, and thus make some vague attempt at understanding the underlying event, without really making any progress. Some of them are concerned with the grieving process, and are therefore more on-point.

The presidential speeches are of course all about grieving and healing, with a side of "we must do something, and we shall!" which, of course, we ought to smirk bitterly at. Still, they do hit the theme of grieving, and they are a part of the whole thing. The suggest, but do not pursue, something about the frustration around nothing ever actually getting done. This is another thread which is simply dropped.

A man named Ryan, a survivor of being shot at Red Lake, offers first-hand testimony in the form of an interview (outer book) and then again in the form of a hand-written essay of some sort written nearer to the event itself (inner book). His testimony, while harrowing, offers no real insight. It is riveting, exciting, because it is harrowing, because it is true, because it is first-hand, but it offers nothing beyond that. The testimony allows us to, in a way, recapitulate our own reactions to mass shootings, our interest and our fear, but it in no real way peels back the covers. We are not enlarged by this experience.

The fact that Ryan's testimony is present twice, once in an interview and again as photographed hand-written documents tells us something about the way the book was made. The team that made the book was more interested in this material than in making a tightly edited book. This strikes me as award-bait.

It is only in the last few chapters that the book seems to find its feet. The inner and outer books are clarified, and on point. There is at last a clear flow to and a lear role for the inner book, and it ends really quite strong.

I quite like the book. It does work, after a fashion. The contrast between inner and outer, between public and secret, is not terribly vibrant, not fully credible, but it's not bad, and it ends well. It's strong enough to work. We do grasp something about that performative grief, we feel something of what those distant ritualistic grievers feel. We are reminded of, and we do feel, the contrast between the normalcy of the suburbs and what we suppose to be the horror of a shooting.

The book would be much better, to my eye, if Gonzales was willing to cut quite a bit of material. The inner book should be clear from the outset, and it should drop any pretense of grasping the shootings themselves. You can't get there from the archival material, not with photographs anyways. The inner book, to my eye, should be about the archives and the performative grief contained therein. You could argue that the book maps the evolution of Gonzales' research and thinking, that it is in fact a book about how he came to make the book. That would explain the shift away from investigating the shootings themselves to investigating the archives of grief, and the grief they archive. That probably is to some degree true, even, but that's a miserable and lazy way to make a book.

I cannot help but think that some of the clumsily inserted material that tries to get at the actual shootings, remained in the book purely to maintain its position as a Book About School Shootings, rather than being obvious a Book About Grieving, which is less likely to garner awards and shortlistings. Like a proper Oscar bait film, the book is a bit overstuffed and doesn't always make sense. Trimmed to 2/3 of its size, it would be a much better book, but it wouldn't have appeared in many of the Best Photobooks of 2019 listicles.

As it panned out, though, it certainly worked. This thing is on damn near every Best Photobooks of 2019 list out there, and I gotta say, despite its flaws it probably belongs there. Arguably as much because the bar is very low as because it's a good book, but it's still pretty good. Cut down and re-edited to be tight instead of overstuffed, it would with a certainty have belonged on the lists — but it would not have appeared.


  1. One of your more coherent and perspicacious postings, so thanks for that. I'm curious, was the one about archives your first take on this project?

    "I quite like the book. It does work, after a fashion."

    This contradicts everything that preceded it, but o.k.

    1. My first take was probably that it was a pretty typical MFA-student "investigation" into school shootings, i.e. a bunch of pictures that investigate nothing much. It took a while to come around to the archive-of-grief reading, but having gone through the book quite a bit I think I'm right.

    2. Yeah I meant your "Working With Archives" piece. The archives angle is intriguing, what you seem to be describing (or relating about the book) is Stuff That Hasn't Been Landfilled. Yet.

      Somehow it reminds me of another award-winning book concept: Rubbished Landscapes + Bad Poetry.

    3. Oh, ok. Well, "working with archives" is absolutely A Thing if you poke your nose into the right insular little cliques, and American Origami is instantly recognizable as one of these things.

      So, that got me thinking in general about this weird habit of photographing archived material, and the limits of doing so.

      American Origami is, to my eye, at its best when it is a book about the archives, about what the photographs are actually of, and more or less at its worst when it tries to be about school shootings by-way-of the archives.

      Sometimes it good, maybe even very good, and sometimes it is fairly lousy.

  2. it's a book about how ineffective we are at changing the status quo which is the tranquil, generic lawns and streets of america, and word-words-words veneer that covers pointless and ineffectual grief -the thoughts and prayers and speeches and all the muddy trodden teddy bears and drawings and letters that everyone sends and speaks, that are literally, literally, trash and ashes, nothing and useless... the identical purse-lipped, regretful, prayerful-pointless expression on the last four presidents' faces... children and paper birds and paper books folded and mashed for nothing. No answers, no solutions. [stone seal]

    1. I think that's probably a legit read, although I did not read it that way. I felt a certain positivity when he ended up with the cranes, but maybe I just like cranes.

      It is striking how completely Gonzales avoids the issues of causes and of solutions. A little nod toward our failure to pass suitable laws, maybe.

      The more I think about it the weirder the impulse to archive all this shit seems. Just.. toss it. Once sent, the ritual is complete. The card, the flowers, the teddy bear, they no longer carry meaning. It's ok to throw them out.

      These things are sky lanterns, sent for the benefit of the sender.