Sarah Bryant’s Radiant Republic

Sarah Bryant designs and produces artist books under the imprint Big Jump Press. Her work often incorporates analytical imagery, reference material, and innovative binding structures. Books from Big Jump Press have won numerous awards, including the 2011 MCBA Prize. They can be found in dozens of collections including The Yale Arts Library, The Houghton Library at Harvard University, The New York Public Library, and The Darling Bio-medical Library at UCLA. Bryant currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is an instructor & studio manager for The University of Alabama MFA in the Book Arts Program. Her work can be seen at www.bigjumppress.com and www.bigjumppress.wordpress.com

Red Butte Press: Tell us about an idea for a book that hasn’t yet entered the production stage. How did this idea originate?

Sarah Bryant: I am currently working on a book that has yet to come completely together. I am thinking about Platonic Solids and (somehow related) the impulse to design an “ideal” in terms of city planning/architecture. In particular I am interested in the arrogance of this kind of thinking, the boldness and thoughtlessness that accompanies the impulse to create a city from the ground up. I am gathering text from Plato’s Republic and from Le Corbusier’s The Radiant City and seeing where it takes me.

An engraving of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, by Jan Saenredam (1604)

from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City), 1933

RBP: What influenced/triggered you?

SB: This year has been a simply awful year, right? A year that makes you think a lot about utopia/dystopia, about the flawed concept of the ideal, about the flexible nature of truth, about a select few making shockingly selfish and short-sighted decisions that impact society at large. I’m angry, and I think this is going to be an angry book.

Tracing the idea from its embryonic, conceptual form and evolving into the design stage, can you tell us how your idea has progressed through its various iterations?

This project has involved a lot of reading and not yet a lot of making (the making, I hope, is coming up on the horizon quite soon.) I did begin by making, however. I was thinking at that time of how to talk about the futility of attempting to create a perfect object, so I started making platonic solids out of paper using the various templates that exist all over the internet. Then I would crumple them up, or wax them, or put them in water. Eventually I stopped destroying them, and started arranging them, then photographing them. I’m using that imagery now to make a set of prints that will hopefully move my thinking along for this book.

At the same time that all that was going on, I was reading in two directions. Because Plato wrote about these solids in his dialogue Timaeus (c. 360BC) I started reading that, then shifted to The Republic after a few conversations with philosophy colleagues. An architecture friend who saw me playing with those Platonic Solids pointed me towards Mostafavi and Leatherbarrow’s On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, and this in turn led me to The Radiant City and Le Corbusier. Something about these two men 2,000 years apart, each designing a city from the ground up, both texts echoing with arrogance and riddled with ethical landmines, seemed to bring this project into focus.

from Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow’s “On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time” (1993)

Right now I am extracting language from both texts and my next task will be to make some kind of a mockup using that language in combination with the imagery I have been working on. That mockup will inevitably be some kind of failure, then I will make another one, and another one, and another one, each of which will eventually, hopefully feel less and less like failures until I decide that it is time to roll with it.

RBP: Would you mind sending along a few passages from Plato and Le Corbusier—passages that exemplify the “thoughtlessness that accompanies the impulse to create a city from the ground up,” or passages from these two source texts which you are thinking about incorporating into your project?

SB: First of all, Le Corbusier speaks so broadly. Language like “All the cities of the world are equally sick, battered by the rising machine-age tide, bewildered by the new turn of events. The cities of the world are living in an anguish of uncertainty.” To say there is a lack of nuance in his articulation of the state of the, you know, entire world, is an understatement. The text is riddled with exclamation marks, bold declarations, italics and ALL CAPS OUT OF NOWHERE.

Then of course, there are plenty of moments like this: “If the wife goes back to her home, to her children, then there will be less labor on the market. The result would be less industrial unemployment.” Or, “He has not been educated, he is not ready to live in such apartments.” And, “Authority must now step in, patriarchal authority, the authority of a father concerned for his children.”

Really, though, the core of The Radiant City is a plan which calls for the demolition of existing cities (Paris specifically, but also every city in Europe and perhaps the entire world depending where you find yourself in the text) and the construction of this fictitious, sterile, ordered environment that Le Corbusier believes so strongly is not only necessary but morally correct for the entire population. It is completely gross. And if you don’t like it, you are part of the problem. Perhaps part of what he describes in this way: “How many of those five million are simply a dead weight on the city, an obstacle, a black clot of misery, of failure, of human garbage?“

So, you see, it is troubling.

There are mountains of writing about problematic aspects of The Republic. I almost think the most frustrating thing about Plato is the structure of the text. What is labeled and celebrated as “dialogue” could just as easily (and perhaps more accurately) be described as manipulation. There is no real opportunity for other voices to disagree, the language leads very deliberately just where it is intended to go. Do you not agree? Am I not right? Is it not obvious? (And is not efficiency in war more important than anything else?).

On top of that though, there are basic assumptions that go unchallenged by Socrates’ companions (and, by extension, the reader). Just one example that is right in front of me today: Plato suggests that certain children should be “disposed of” and Glaucon declares: “These are certainly reasonable proposals.” Of course, I am reading and responding to an ancient text that comes from a completely different place than my frame of reference allows me to fully understand. But truly, this text is more of a monologue than a dialogue, and the idea that the ideas put forward in it are more robust because they have been challenged in some way within the text is a fantasy.

Both of these texts, actually, remind me of Ayn Rand. It is very easy to prove that your philosophy (fanaticism) is right, is just, is the only possible path, when you place it in a fictional world and provide only fictional challenges for your views. Frail arguments against your vision are easily overcome, of course, by dashing protagonists, contemplative philosophers, or enthusiastic and enlightened city planners.

RBP: Do you know if Le Corbusier read Plato’s Republic? And, accompanying the “ethical landmines” and general hubris that’s pervading these works, what other connections have you made between the two works?

SB: I don’t know if Le Corbusier read Plato’s Republic, but I do know that he had a deep respect for classical architecture and philosophy, so I would be surprised if he had not.

Although these works and their authors are separated by time and context, both are concerned with designing a perfect city and a belief that there is an inherent connection between their design and a universal form of justice or moral virtue. Aditionally, both of them use the structure of the text to weaponize their argument, LE CORBUSIER ATTACKS THE VIEWER WITH ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! while Plato tangles the viewer up with leading questions that coax agreement at the end of each paragraph. Do you not agree? I’ll also say that the other thing that strikes me is that both these voices are so profoundly male, although this is no real surprise or rarity.

RBP: Are your mock-ups for this particular project designed digitally, in analogue format, a combination of the two?

SB: I did teach an artist book class at Penland this last August and used that time to make a very rudimentary first iteration of this project. But the final version of this book will be very different. In the past, my mockups have been a combination of analog and digital. I work digitally, print it out and bind it so that I can see it in three dimensions and control the sequence with my hands, then make notes and changes for a next draft. I often take mockups to friends whose opinions I value and incorporate their feedback into subsequent drafts. I am sure this book will proceed in the same way. I have some ideas for how it might come together, but until I have some text ready that will help answer critical questions about the book (text heavy or text light? Divided into chapters or parts? One voice, two voices?) the structure will have to wait.

RBP: What do you foresee as a significant challenge when transitioning from the design phase to the production phase?

SB: The hardest thing for me right now is finding stretches of uninterrupted time. This is the first major book project I’ve undertaken since having a son and then moving all of us back to the US for a job at The University of Alabama. The rhythm of my life has altered so completely in the last two years that I’ve had trouble getting started. The project is coming together now, and I have to make space for it in my life. I think that the production phase will actually be easier to manage (she says confidently with no evidence whatsoever) because the design process is the part I find to be the most demanding of silence and concentration. Nothing sounds more appealing to me at the moment then cranking through a run on the press. My brain is a lot slower than my arm, I guess, is what I am saying.

RBP: I’m curious to hear more about your thinking regarding the form/structure of the project, and how the book form might relate to your takedown of ideal forms generally, and ideal cities in particular. If you’re at a complete lost about where this project is moving formally, maybe you could speak about your own thinking as it relates to the intersection of form and content generally, in your body of work? I’m interested in these shapes you’re made from templates, which in the abstract are mathematically perfect, ideal shapes; however, when they gain materiality, they get reified, and that process allows them to became imperfect, subject to change, “failures,” vulnerable, etc.

Mockup of “The Radiant Republic,” Sarah Bryant, 2017

SB: I am considering including an epigraph, an excerpt from On Weathering: the Life of Buildings in Time—“Every physical thing carries within its deepest layers a tendency towards its own destruction.” This has a bearing on how I am thinking about these paper templates/forms that I plan on using as source material for the images in this book. Perfection when an abstraction or a plan, Flawed and on some kind of doomed or entropic path when realized in physical form. I am considering my options, and there are many:

• creating scenes out of shapes I am building and using them to accompany the text in a straightforward way

• folding templates into the platonic solids, then unfolding them and sewing them directly into the book

• folding full sheets into patterns of equilateral shapes and using them as dividing papers throughout the text

• printing the text on its own, then housing it in a box of platonic solids made of wood/plaster/other that can be assembled by a viewer in different orientations

• nothing is off the table at this point and there are plenty more ideas to play with.

Mockup of “The Radiant Republic,” Sarah Bryant, 2017

Mockup of “The Radiant Republic,” Sarah Bryant, 2017

Generally, when I am working on any project, I am trying to find a way to design a structure that enables the viewer to unpack my meaning in the way I intend. So my last book was made up of drafting film meant to be layered. I made a wrapper with a three sided box for the drafting film that opened up onto a dedicated area for the viewer to experiment with layering that drafting film. That kind of design is quite straightforward, while this project is a lot more in my own head right now. I want so create something that is all having the same conversation. How to do that hasn’t yet come together. As always, I need more time than I have so that I can sort it all out!

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