I was introduced to “Theorem,” a collaborative book created by poet Elizabeth Bradfield and artist Antonia Contro, at Contro’s studio. Tucked away in Ravenswood, the studio is a sanctuary—private yet disarmingly inviting. Each time I visit, I have a sense of arriving at a secret meeting place filled with images and objects waiting for words to discover them. I returned here in early spring for a conversation with Contro and Bradfield on the genesis and nature of their collaboration for “Theorem.” “Theorem” itself is substantive—hand-bound, letterpressed, encased in a fabric wrap and over a foot square. Inside, delicately handworked pages alternate Bradfield’s poetry and Contro’s visual artwork. Unusually constructed, the pages decrease in size as the story unfolds.
Bradfield is author of several award-winning poetry collections and splits her life between work as a naturalist and a professor of creative writing at Brandeis University. Contro is a Chicago artist whose exhibitions and multidisciplinary projects include “Tempus Fugit,” American Philosophical Society Museum; “Ex Libris,” Chicago Cultural Center; “Closed/Open,” Newberry Library; and “Descry,” Museum of Contemporary Photography.
“Theorem” was released as a limited edition of thirty copies by Candor Arts in the fall of 2019. It will have a life as a trade book, to be published in September by Poetry Northwest Editions. Contro and Bradfield are working with other collaborators—a composer, violinist, animator and production designer—to develop a multidisciplinary experience of “Theorem.” The performance was scheduled to premiere this September at the historic Farnsworth House but was postponed due to the coronavirus.
In “Theorem” everything is born of exchange between Bradfield and Contro. The book is not merely a shared aesthetic; it embodies the obsessions and curiosities of two individually celebrated voices. “The revelation is not in arriving at a destination but in beginning to map the journey, as well as in recognizing that one’s perspective of past events changes as time goes by,” poet, critic and curator John Yau says of “Theorem.”
Our conversation unfolds in much the same way, exploring the tension between the physical and the digital, the legacy of secrets, the “truth” of experience and memory, and the stories that shape who we come to be. (Ashley Lukasik)
I’m fascinated by “Theorem” and the collaboration. Can you describe “Theorem” in your own words?
Elizabeth Bradfield: There are two ways to talk about it. One is the content and the other is the collaboration.
“Theorem,” as you said, is a collaboration between myself and Antonia. I wrote in response to a book of Antonia’s images which she had gathered for another project. Once the first draft was done, we revised and worked together—adding images, playing with narrative order, designing the material experience of the book and its wrap—to create what is now “Theorem.”
As for content, the images are distilled. They rely on collage and the delicacy of drawing—of the hand. The text leaps from those images to dance with a story about the legacy of a secret acquired at a key point in time, adolescence—thirteen years of age—and held through a life. It explores what it means to come by those secrets and to carry them.
Antonia Contro: I would add that when Liz and I began this process—with really authentic curiosity as well as innocence about a final product—the motivation for us was the exchange of ideas through images and words. It eventually became manifest and clear to us that it was destined to be a book, that this was the form our exchange should take. It was one of those rare experiences where we allowed ourselves to open to each other’s work and to allow our responses to shape the next iteration—in drawing or in words. And that’s a distinctly different thing than bringing on or partnering with an artist to illustrate your work, or a writer to describe your images.
EB: I think key to the development of “Theorem”—I’m just thinking about this now, Antonia—is space. Space is so critical to the experience of “Theorem” as a book, as a text. In “Theorem” the words and images don’t face each other on the page. You have to turn the page to move from one to another. And there’s a lot of visual space in the text itself. It’s a text that pulls back from full revelation. Space was really critical in bringing “Theorem” into a genuine and full expression for both of us. In making this, we each took time to listen to what had been created and what might become—space independent of each other, and space in conversation together.
We’re in a place where information and engagement can be so fleeting in a digital context. If something isn’t tangible and lacks permanence, is it less real and less meaningful? I definitely felt with “Theorem,” from the beginning, that it was part of a process and a choice to make it a book when it could have taken so many different forms. You said, Antonia, it was iterative as opposed to providing illustration for Elizabeth’s text. There’s something about the constant ebb and flow. The content itself actually feels ephemeral and nebulous, and yet a book in and of itself as an object is grounding.
EB: In some ways, “Theorem” is an opportunity for meditation and consideration. Rather than explication, it’s evocation.
AC: The images and the text individually and together definitely do that, Liz. The book form has intrigued me for years because of the almost slowed down, filmic experience it provides. The act of turning a page and discovering a new scene, a new image, a new experience. The viewer or reader has to activate that process—it will be a closed object unless it is opened and the pages are turned. To a certain degree, the book is an invitation to participate in the unfolding of the story. Psychic, emotional and physical engagement, too, are a particular aspect of a book that I find compelling.
EB: And I think, too, the way in which reading a book is both public and private. Here’s an object in the world. You see it, you hold it. And yet your engagement is unknown to anyone but yourself. For me, that resonates with the story being experienced in “Theorem.” The dance between the seen and unseen, the public and the private, the known and unknowable. And I see an aspect of that in Antonia’s images, too: the familiar shapes they often evoke and then the defamiliarization that they create through size, juxtaposition or other treatments.
The book had a profound, almost energetic effect on me the first time I was able to sit down with it. I’ve been trying to locate the root of that feeling—was it relating so much to the feeling of sisterhood, given I have two sisters of my own? But there was something about the public and private. I think it made me feel oddly exposed as a reader. You have these lines like, “I was very good at forgetting. I still am.” There are things in there that really give you chills to read that many of us relate to. I don’t think my experience with “Theorem” is an isolated one. And the feeling is even more pronounced in Antonia’s studio, which has a certain energetic feel to it, too—you come in and you’re in this, like, Antonia vortex.
EB & AC: Absolutely.
One particularly emotional passage:
Look: I can pretend to see things two ways. But the gut is singular and stubborn. It knows what it first knew as true. There is one form one story one vessel I keep seeing.
Can you talk about it?
EB: We all have experiences that are formative and confusing in our lives. The question of how you get to the truth of that experience, how you separate your memory from someone else’s memory or from external fact, how you root out supposition… I don’t know. I think that’s one of the deep mysteries of the world. And yet, there can be this certainty of “I know what’s right.” I’m interested in that complexity and contradiction. I’m interested in the ways we can be right and wrong at the same time. I’m interested in how it simultaneously matters and doesn’t matter. I’m not interested in solving the mystery; I’m interested in sitting with the mystery.
This is a departure I had not planned on, but the #MeToo movement has been interesting to me in that I’m really turned off by the expression of it in social media. Of course, I’m a feminist and I want people to be vindicated for things that have happened to them, and I want people to be held accountable for abuses, but I do not like the way that people are exposing some of their deepest traumas within a forum that feels so voyeuristic, uncareful and uncaring, and not to be trusted.
The exposure makes me almost panic. Maybe that’s the other piece of this which is compelling, relevant and necessary with “Theorem”—just the meticulous thought and carefulness and honoring of the story and visual work together. Antonia spoke a lot in her studio visit about “Theorem” as a work in progress, about the trust built between the two of you as collaborators in this. It comes through so strongly.
EB: I’m glad you mentioned #MeToo. We’ve talked about it as well, and we don’t want this to be solely a response to #MeToo, but there is a resonance in “Theorem”’s story.
When I sent Antonia the text of “Theorem,” I was terrified because it set a narrative to her images. Would she be okay with what I wrote being affixed or appended to them? I had no idea. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, Antonia.
EB: What if she thought, “Man, I don’t want this to be the story of my images.” Once we decided to move forward, I had to really think about whether it was okay for what I’d written to become public and what it meant for “Theorem” to become a public object.
You also are receiving and giving back to one another in a period where people are passively consuming with seemingly no sense that they are accountable for treating other people’s contributions with care.
AC: One of the things I haven’t done is take a bird’s-eye view of what we made and consider its meaning in the social and political moment we’re living in as humans. From the start, I was devoted to being a sensitive receiver and caregiver of Liz’s story, her words. We each made compromises and have had enormous challenges along the way. We’ve each given up one or two things we liked personally but felt would make the whole richer and more agreeable. We respect each other’s work. That’s a very special engagement with somebody, right?
Another thing that’s been striking in our conversations is that you’ve spoken a lot about your own process of creative becoming and how collaborative works fit within that. The idea of giving up ownership is a really interesting one—the only way to give up ownership is to get to a place where you’ve established full trust with your collaborators. I’d love to hear from you, Liz, about your pathway to becoming a writer and how collaboration fits in for you.
AC: Before you jump in—I do want to say, I’d pretty assuredly describe it as inviting co-ownership as opposed to giving up ownership because I’m a fierce owner of my work. I think that caring is important to making something really good.
EB: I’m glad you mentioned that. I agree. My path in becoming a writer is similar to a lot of writers, but the point at which it engages more interestingly with “Theorem” is, I think, this: since 2005 I’ve run a publication called Broadsided Press. Each month we publish a collaboration between an artist and writer. Broadsided has been a long and rich experience of enabling exchange and inspiration between people working in different mediums. However, at Broadsided, the writer has no input on the art that is created for their work. They have to leap off the cliff when they send work to us, and that’s part of the trust exercise of Broadsided: to see how the art influences the writing, to see how the writing influences the artists. To witness that dynamic is so fun, so fascinating.
When Antonia suggested working together, I was very excited to delve into a process—an experience—I’d been working so long to enable for others… and yet to do it in a different way. A truly collaborative way.
I’ve worked with visual artists before, and what’s interesting to me is that when I’m working with a visual artist, the writing that emerges is so different from my other work. Especially when the art remains as part of the reader-viewer experience. It gives me a huge freedom as a writer to not have to say everything. The art has its own thing to say, and I want my writing to allow space for that.
My writing becomes a lot more elliptical, elusive when I respond to visual art. Normally I believe that it’s the writer’s job to be really clear. That doesn’t mean to nail everything down, but to be responsible to the clarity of the emotion and narrative being presented. But with art too much talking shuts something down. So working with an artist and sharing visual space is a really exciting aesthetic opportunity for me. It allows the writing to have wider gaps for someone to leap across. I don’t think I would feel like “Theorem” was good work if it didn’t have the visual art. I wouldn’t release the text of “Theorem” without Antonia’s images.
AC: That was really fascinating to hear, Liz. We’re bringing up some things that we haven’t talked about or that maybe we have felt but haven’t articulated about the process. The idea is terrific that, very simply put, the images and the words build upon each other in a way that creates a whole that is both greater and yet preserves… The thing we keep describing as space. And that’s a delicate back-and-forth, an exquisite balance. If we achieved that, my god, I’d feel great.
I’m reflecting on a few things you said, Liz, and they’re a great way to talk about “Theorem” and maybe even some of what I learned from making it with you.
EB: Like what?
AC: If I admit one insecurity about my own work, it’s that perhaps there’s not enough content there, it’s not meaningful enough. Which harkens to my own insecurity, in general, as a human being, of course. But I think here, it’s something about how together with the words, my images feel more illuminated with meaning but also more open to interpretation, and that’s an amazingly artful balance to me.
As a graduate student in anthropology, some of my work focused on how women found online community around anorexia. What I came to notice was that when technology evolved to enable people to share photographs, the dialogue and dynamic changed entirely. There’s something in the narrative of phenomenology that resonates with what happens in “Theorem.”
EB: Yes. How can you evaluate and know a truth? This is partly why there’s so much I love about Antonia’s images and the way they play with scientific, objective forms. Shapes or graphing, maps. For me, that kind of imagery is resonant. Science is a way of presenting things with a pretense of objectivity that makes them easier to talk about. Simpler. Clearer. I know this intimately because of the work I do as a naturalist. And I think we also simplify difficult emotional subjects. I’m very interested in the ways that we can use objective language and imagery to talk about really subjective stuff. And, for me, the mystery of Antonia’s images are how they often present objectivity but have a very emotional impact.
AC: In some grand, overarching way, in our journey through life, we yearn to name, organize and structure our lives, the things around us in order to make…
AC: —of what is an unknowable eventuality. And so, I think that we—Liz and I—move in and out of that as well. What is knowable? What is nameable? Of course we yearn to do that—it’s the human drive and need—but I think we’re also suggesting that finding a way to hang in the balance in some of the discomfort of not knowing, that there’s enormous beauty and discovery to be made there. Right at that precipice.
EB: Yes. All of that, times two.
Wow, that was really beautifully said.
AC: I’m glad it resonated because I feel like this conversation has led up in part to being able to say that. A revelation of that.
EB: The one thing we haven’t touched on that’s important to “Theorem” in book form is the physicality of the book, the wrap that encloses it—like a thing hidden away. The way that the pages, section by section, get smaller and smaller. We both feel that the material experience of “Theorem” is so tied to the emotional experience of the book and the story the book is trying to tell. The pages getting smaller is both concentrating things—distilling things—but at the same time making them more distant and hard to see. That conundrum, that juxtaposition, is part of the power of “Theorem.”
There’s a quote by Denise Levertov which is my lodestar: “Accuracy is always the gateway to mystery.” I believe that. The more you try to understand something accurately and fully, the more closely you look at something, the stranger it gets. The telescoping of “Theorem”’s pages, the winnowing, is part of the strangeness. That important strangeness.
Antonia and I began working with other artists a year ago to see what might happen if we envisioned “Theorem” not as only a book, but an experience. The composer Eliza Brown, violinist Clara Lyon and animator Joseph Merideth have joined us as collaborators, and we are developing a performance of “Theorem” that will ask viewers to move through space and time. There’s so much to say about the ways this has deepened our investigation, but that might be a conversation for another time.
There’s also this feeling of—and this is true also of a lot of the three-dimensional work in your studio, Antonia—a lot of your objects are delicate and miniature. It’s like carving out this little bit of precious space for oneself. That is felt in “Theorem”…
EB: Yes, you want to crouch down, you want to bend in, you want to get close to it. It’s intimate. Absolutely.
AC: The other thing I’d say about getting back to this form is that we actually sought out the publisher who could bind the book and make those pages change in size.
EB: Which is no small feat. We’re so grateful to Candor Arts.
AC: But it’s also the surprise of it. You’re going along and you’re involved in the images, the words, and you turn a page and, what happened? The surprise of it is important.
EB: It’s the reconsideration that’s in “Theorem.” Let me look at it again, let me slow down time a little bit and reconsider.
AC: This has been a terrific—I don’t even want to use the word conversation but sort of a communion, maybe.
AC: I want to bask in that. Thank you both for this really rich conversation.