Based in Krakow, Poland, Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer are creating, curating, documenting and theorising a literary revolution : Liberature. Since Fajfer coined the term in 1999 – which could be used not only to describe the kinds of works that he and Bazarnik were creating together but could also be applied retrospectively to works by writers such as James Joyce, Stephane Mallarme, William Blake and Laurence Sterne and equally applied to a range of more recent and contemporary works by writers such as B.S. Johnson and Jonathan Safran Foer – the couple have been prolific in producing, publishing and researching around this previously undocumented area of literary activity.
Katarzyna has published widely in academic contexts on Liberature, including the 2014 Incarnations of Material Textuality, and has a book forthcoming this year. Zenon’s collected essays from 1999-2009 can be found here. Together they edit and run the Liberature imprint at Krakow-based small publisher Korporacja Ha!art, which has published several notable works including the first publication in Poland of Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a specially-formatted version of Mallarme’s Un Coup de Des following the writer’s original directions for the text, and the first foreign translation of Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller’s Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm. The Liberature imprint has also published works by B.S. Johnson, and publishes a range of liberatic works by Bazarnik and Fajfer themselves.
Liberature takes its name by replacing the Latin ‘liter’ (letter) with the Latin word for book, ‘liber’, which also means ‘free’.
What distinguishes Liberature from literature is the focus on the form of the book as an integral element of communication within the structure of the whole. Where generally the bound codex is rendered invisible – and in the digital age, almost obsolete – as simply the carrier of the message of the printed word, Liberature recognises and foregrounds the book’s physical materiality as a vital component of the literary work printed onto its pages.
What distinguishes Liberature from the Artist Book is that the primary focus is on the literary text in its relationship with the book object – the marriage of material form and literary content – where the Artist Book in general explores the possibilities of the book form without requiring specific literary content.
On 12th August, Joe and I met Katarzyna and Zenon at the Liberature Reading Room in Krakow where they showed us their collection and spoke about their work. The Liberature Reading Room is a research resource housing books from their own personal collection, theoretical and scholarly publications, promotional material and press clippings, all related to contemporary and historical works that are considered to be works of liberature, or ‘liberatic’.
The book for which the term was coined, Oka-leczenie (2000), is formed of three interlinked codices bound together – a deliberate decision to present a physical experience of the book’s content in material form. Spanning the stories of a death, a birth and an intermediary period between the two, the book can opened at the beginning of any of the three codices which never end but open onto one another in an intentionally endless cycle. Thus the book is no longer an invisible component, subordinate to the text in the communication of meaning, or at least intention. In a work of Liberature, the material structure of the book is employed as an integral dimension of communication in the design of the text as a whole. This, for those who have attempted it, is a radical act that questions some deeply held assumptions.
The focus of Western literary production and its critical reception has overwhelmingly been on the words of the text, rather than the design of the book as an object. This echoes the cultural prejudice that has traditionally valued the intellectual over the physical. The physicality of the book remains invisible and unquestioned, as it has largely been the intellectual work of the writer in creating the text that has been most valued. In this way, it’s become easy to ‘lose yourself’ in a good story – the physical act of turning the pages becomes no interruption to the mental and intellectual act of reading the words and reconstructing an imaginary narrative. But this kind of reading can neglect, or at worst negate, the body: the physical processes at work not only in the act of reading, but in the experience of being human. To me, this replicates the age-old theological dichotomy between the body and the soul, which again demonises the former in favour of the latter. Liberature aims at bringing the material form back into play, to foreground its relationship with the immaterial and raise questions about its role.
The codex form itself, far from being an innocuous and insignificant vehicle for the written word, developed at a culturally and spiritually significant point in time. The first codices were Coptic – designed to encode the biblical narrative. In the structure of the codex form, with its linear temporality and teleological focus, we can see the structure of the biblical narrative embodied in material form. Every novel ever written and produced within this set of structures is to a greater or lesser degree reproducing the structure and story of the Bible. Its structures and codes have dominated our narratives for so long that they are now an unconscious and unquestioned part of our lives, shaping the ways that we think, interpret and experience the world.
For these reasons and others, I believe it is the vital work of writers and artists to draw attention to and question our unconscious assumptions about the material form of the book.
In his ’emanational texts’ – the literary texts that become the content for the liberatic material forms – Fajfer goes further still in probing the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. Each book contains both a visible text and an invisible text: the invisible text emanates from a close reading of the first letters of each word of the visible text, until only a single seed word remains. The seed word becomes both the origin and the end point, or the birth and the death, of the visible text on the page. In this way, both the visible and the invisible carry equal significance and weight, as each gives rise to the other.
An exploration of the relationship between the physical form of the book and the physical form of the body, and the energising of silent spaces in relationship with the word, are integral elements in the work of our book The Unfinished Dream, which we donated to Katarzyna and Zenon for the Liberature Reading Room while we were there. It was exciting to discuss our work in the context of Liberature: particularly being told that The Unfinished Dream is a liberatic project in their opinion. Overspilling the boundaries of the codex, The Unfinished Dream is also a performance and a film with each element of the project designed to foreground the relationship between the physical forms of the book and the body and the interrelationship between word and silence in speech and on the page.
The physical object of the book is a central concern of The Unfinished Dream. The project explores the ways that the materiality of the book is ignored and made invisible at the expense of the words and ideas it contains, in a similar way to the relationship between the physical human body and the concepts and ideas that are generated by the mind. The Unfinished Dream explores writing, drawing and creative practice as embodied, physical processes – processes that take place in, of and through the body, and which may be experienced physically, viscerally and emotionally by those who come into contact with them. The foregrounded interrelationship between word and silence is intended to raise questions about the relationships between self and other, subject and object, writer and reader: creating a non-linear multiplicity that requires the collaboration of the reader to engender meaning.
In Fajfer’s words, Liberature is ‘total literature’ in which every aspect of literary production is engaged and controlled by the writer as a potentially meaningful component of the work. I find the phrase ‘total literature’ difficult to subscribe to, due to the ways that I work with energising silence to co-create a text that overspills its pages and finds its meaning and its locus somewhere in the spaces between self and other, subject and object, writer and reader – it doesn’t reside in the pages of the book, and I as the writer am not fully in control of its meanings. I asked about this while we were there and Katarzyna explained that the term comes from the idea of ‘total theatre’ in which all elements of theatrical production are employed to generate the overall effect. Total literature is intended to reflect this all-encompassing method of production, and not to be conflated with totalising. This is something I understand, but still find uncomfortable in its terminology. For me the defining phrases ‘spatio-temporal literature’ (p62), or simply ‘literature in the form of the book’ describe the work and impact of Liberature adequately, whilst avoiding the complication of unintended ideological connotations.
In the UK, the London-based small publisher Visual Editions has published a number of works that could be considered liberatic, employing the spatio-temporal aspect of literature and constituting literature in the form of the book, including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, Kapow by Adam Thirlwell, and a redesigned contemporary edition of Tristram Shandy.
It was incredibly inspiring and energising to meet with Katarzyna and Zenon to discuss Liberature, and we’re grateful to them for their generosity and their genuine interest in our work as well as the vibrant and animated conversations we had that sparked so many ideas. We hope to continue the conversation for many years to come.
Sally is researching for a PhD in utopian theory and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, and works as the research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press project. The Unfinished Dream is a collaborative project between Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans.