Paper as a Vehicle for History and Memory
On Friday March 3rd, I attended the “Paper as a Vehicle for History and Memory” event, hosted at the Center for Book Arts on W 27th Street. It started at 6:30 pm and was supposed to run until 8 pm, but ran late till approximately 8:45 as there were multiple panelists scheduled to speak and each had dense content. The purpose of the event was to introduce the 2017 History of Art Series which focuses on Paper and Material Culture. As their flier describes, this year they will “investigate the history of paper and papermaking, how papermaking can change society, and how paper itself has “haptic” qualities which affect our experience and understanding.” The event was different from what I was expecting, as it was a very casual and sociable environment. When I first arrived, the greeters requested a suggested donation of $5-10, and then directed all of the guests to some of the galleries. These galleries showcased assorted paper samples, with different quotes and writing pieces. Once the panel began, 4 speakers were introduced as well as the topics on which they would be speaking. John Bidwell, a curator at the Morgan Library, presented on “Hand Papermaking in England,” by walking us through the history of 5 different papermaking factories that once existed. Lisa Gitelman, NYU Media Historian, discussed “Paper in Motion: Circulation and Authentication,” with an emphasis on the fact that documents do not need to be paper, but can be anything. Alexandra Soteriou, Papermaking historian, presented, “Behind the Sheet: Paper as Cultural DNA,” with a focus on India and Central Asia. Finally, Donald Farnsworth, Director of Magnolia Editions, presented on “Studio Production of Large Format 16th Century Paper for Contemporary Artists,” chronicling the process he took to recreate a piece of paper similar to one on which Michelangelo drew.
Alexandra Soreriou’s presentation was most effective in showing me the difficulty of making paper, as she described her discoveries from years spent researching the papermaking process in India and Central Asia. While in India, she found the ruins of traditional papermaking structures which had been said to no longer exist, as well as descendants of such papermakers. Families who were involved in papermaking would take the last name “Kagzi,” coming from the word for “paper” in Persian. I never realized that papermaking was a process that was so important to a group of people, that they identified with it through the name they passed on through generations. This consistent last name enabled Soreriou to track the lineage of papermakers in India and Central Asian countries and introduced her to hundreds of former papermakers and village record keepers who were able to help her chart the migration of papermakers from China to India. In addition, finding such members of papermaking communities gave Soreriou the ability to learn more about the importance of the trade in papermaking communities. Fathers would teach their sons to make paper, as it was a tightly guarded skill in those communities which made their livelihood from the craft. The papermaking villages, known as Kagzipuras, allowed everyone to get involved in the papermaking process, even the women who did not directly work to make the paper. It was quite surprising to hear that a task that we never think about on a daily basis, represented the entire life of a single group of people. As Alexandra Soreriou explained, it was common for 500-1,000 sheets to be made per day in those papermaking villages, and it was back breaking work for those directly involved. Every community that took part in papermaking, did so with some small differences. For example, in some Hindu and Buddhist communities, the women could also make the sheets, and in other villages, translucent paper was made using snake skin. Such differences also gave way to the opportunity to analyze the environment in which the paper was made, by determining what materials were used. In some cases, the paper was coated in arsenic to protect it against insects while in others, the new sheets were made out of recycled old ones due to the poor economy in the village. I have never truly appreciated the importance of a single piece of paper, and the uniqueness of the different forms paper comes in. Hearing about the detailed processes that go into making paper made it clear to me that we take the use of every single sheet for granted, and each sheet we throw out once represented the back breaking work of a papermaker in a Kagzipura.
I can use the information I learned at this event to help me in our book making project by viewing it from a very different perspective. I can take into account what Lisa Gitelman explained, and choose to create my book on a material that is not paper, being that it can still represent the same idea that paper represents. Another way I can use this event to impact my book is by broadening my view of how I will make my book unique by choosing paper that goes beyond a plain white sheet, such as the way paper differed in neighboring Kagzipuras. While I have not yet decided how I will approach the “Book about a Book” project, this event has given me a different perspective of the actual physical components that make up a book.
The next event which I plan to attend is Part 2 of the “2017 History of Art Series,” titled “Paper as Social Practice, Engagement, and Intervention.” I look forward to being able to learn about paper in the bookmaking process as a continuation of this first event I attended. The next event is on March 17th from 6:30-8 pm, also at the Center for Books Arts. I expect the admission to be similar to this last event, in that there will likely be a suggested donation of approximately $5-10. Unfortunately, I will be unable to attend Part 3 of this series, therefore the third event that I plan to attend is “Images of Value: The Artwork Behind U.S. Security Engraving 1830s-1980s” at the Grolier Cub at some point in April, although I do not yet know what my schedule will look like. The Grolier Club is free for admission and is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday-Saturday, so I will plan to visit at some time in that range.