Book Review: Collage Culture

Collage Culture Book Cover

Collage Culture: Examining the 21st Century's Identity Crisis by Aaron Rose and Mandy Kahn. Typeset by Brian Roettinger.2011. Zurich: JRP/Ringier. ISBN 978-3-037-64119-4

Without some prior understanding of the evolution of collage, I would have put this book back on the library shelf about two minutes after opening it. But—hang in there with me—I actually became a fan of this book.

Collage Culture is supposed to be visually challenging, especially in Mandy Kahn's essay, Living in a Mess, which appears first in the book. She wants readers to experience some of the disorientation (she talks of seasickness) that viewers of early collage works encountered. At first, people did not know how to interpret what they were seeing: shifts in visual space, disjointed or juxtaposed imagery. Roettinger constantly shifts the type, font size, and page layouts, so you have to work somewhat self-consciously to figure out what Kahn has to say. I found that, not unlike hearing actors speak Shakespeare's words aloud for the first time and wondering how the hell you are going to figure out what they are saying, Kahn (like the actors) repeated the important bits of her essay and Roettinger chose type and layout that guided you there. You, as the reader, do not have to take in all the visual bombardment to understand at least some of what she has to say. She writes:

"The twenty-first century is bigger and faster than we are. To consider a single bottle, we must be content to miss many others, which feels irresponsible: we've been trained to keep up. Concentration makes us different to the point of eccentricity." (p. 40).

Rules for Composition by Brian Roettinger comes as a bit of a relief visually in the next section of the book, but continues to challenge the idea of collage and its role in the 21st century. Roettinger collaborated with computer programmer and artist Chandler McWilliams to see if collage can be made without artists. They developed a rules list for composition, programmed a computer to identify the rules and generate artwork.

The wonk-a-doo layout returns in Aaron Rose's essay, The Death of Subculture, though by now, most of the way through the book, I did not find it as jarring. Rose argues for a world of new ideas in the form of releasing old, outdated ways of creating and innovating. He, too, references the bombardment we all experience in an age of technology where even unique and ideological thoughts are drowned out by the masses. He is envisions the obsolescence of collage and yearns for a time free of the urge to imitate. He writes:

"If we put aside our fear and consciously decide that we refuse to copy and continue to push through this, we may actually create a new culture. Once we become free from the imitation of the past, new areas of exploration will open up to us and suddenly this new millennium will finally develop a distinct identity all its own." (p. 90)

Collage Culture is as much an experience as a thought-provoking set of essays. It can be a challenging and frustrating read, but spend some time with the front cover insert (to get a feel for the intent behind the book) and relax about trying to take it all in. I think Kahn, Roettinger, and Rose have something important to say about collage and this book is well worth the read.

Have you read this book? Tell me what I've got wrong (or right!).

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Cheers!--Janyce