Nancy Spero’s 1976 Torture of Women confronts the viewer with what appear to be receipts of violence carried out on women…34 years later Siglio Press wrote to Spero with a proposal to make a book of her epic work which had never been reproduced in full before. The process was a three-year journey distilling Spero’s public call to action into the more intimate book scale.
The paper takes the heat as the taser-like printer head furiously burns back and forth with each purchase. Against the serrated blade, the evidence is torn, and I am to hold onto this for how long—until it, crumpled like shed snake’s skin, turns to dust in my pocket? There are no returns, refunds, or exchanges for memory.
Nancy Spero’s 1976 Torture of Women confronts the viewer with what appear to be receipts of violence carried out on women. By doing so, Spero articulates the position of the female body in relation to the triad of power, violence, and desire—on a monumental scale…Her 20 inch by 125 foot installation of 14 panels engulfs the viewer in voices, voices which she empowered through her bulletin typewriter hammering out horrific accounts from Amnesty International, The New York Times, and The Nation to name a few.
Thirty-four years later Siglio Press wrote to Spero with a proposal to make a book of her epic work which had never been reproduced in full before. The process was a three-year journey distilling Spero’s public call to action into the more intimate book scale.
Richard J. Goldstein: How did you come upon the project?
Natalie Kraft: I’m the resident designer at Siglio. We simply wrote to Nancy Spero and proposed publishing Torture of Women in its entirety. The design process began in tandem with the editorial process—they’re inextricable really. The book is not a catalogue or a traditional monograph, nor is it an artist’s book. It is, instead, a translation, of a large-scale artwork into book form.
RJG: How did you keep a potent reading experience in the form of the book? Is this what you mean by “translating”?
NK: The book is such an intimate form and this 125 foot work is a monumental and public cry of outrage. And yet, what also makes the work so extraordinarily potent is how Spero also—with distinctly feminist intentions—subverts that monumentality. The paper is fragile and wrinkled; there are seams, raw edges. She creates almost private spaces for the first person testimony of the torture of victims by collaging smaller pages with typewritten text onto larger pages. She leaves vast fields of space empty for the silences, for the pain that can’t be described.
What a challenge—to attempt to take a work of art that has a very spatial and public presence and find a new form for it in the very private space of reader and book.
To translate anything you have to understand where there are equivalences and where there are not. Of course a book can’t replicate the experience of being in space and seeing all of the work at once—not only by standing back, but also by looking closely while being aware of what’s in your peripheral vision. But “the book” gives the reader time. Not only can the reader spend as much time as she likes on a single page, but she controls the pace of moving through the book and its direction (you can enter anywhere). With a book, the reader can also return to it, read it again and again in different ways. Creating a space for Torture of Women to be read was perhaps the most urgent motivation of making this book. That it can be read at all is primary: When Torture of Women is installed (which is fairly rare), panels are often stacked vertically in an exhibition space. What’s above eye level is simply out of reach. Thus the book creates a legibility, immediacy, intimacy.
The idea of the reader’s engagement drove the “translation”: rather than making a catalogue that serves as a neutral and static document, I attempted to create a different but parallel space in which Torture of Women could live, and I had to think about how this work would inhabit the page. Each spread was very concertedly composed: sometimes the edge of the paper in the original work lay just at the edge of the book page, sometimes the images were cropped and reframed to heighten the reader’s attention of particular details. I was also very aware of how the reader turns the pages, moving from one spread to the next. So I used repetition, shifts in scale (and sometimes even sequential shifts), and an attention to the empty spaces to allow the work to unfold for the reader, to allow the experience to accumulate, in the most dynamic way, without—I hope—predetermining a particular experience.
RJG: Were fold-outs considered?
NK: I considered a lot of things and ultimately my decision was based very much in how the reader would hold the book, turn the pages, and remain inside the experience. I did consider gatefolds for their ability to communicate the continuity of the images, but I nixed the idea early on because I thought it would be distracting to unfold pages and then have to tuck them back in before moving on to the next image.
The next idea was to reproduce each of the 14 panels as an accordion-folded page. You could actually turn the “pages” and keep it folded like a book, or unfold the entire panel and lay it out flat. That might have been a “truer” reproduction, but scale shift was tricky and I’d have no control over where the folds fell—potentially interrupting the images in weird ways that undermined their power.
For a long time, I thought I’d leave the book block “naked” so that handling the book would have the intimate feel of touching a body. It would be cloaked only in a raw artboard sheath. In this case, the sewing and glue (reminiscent of a stitched wound) on the spine would be exposed, the book limp (once you took it out of its case), making the reader a caretaker for this body, this book. I loved this idea—I still do—but it works only as an idea. Once I had a dummy to handle, I realized the idea just didn’t manifest in the physical object.
I think I ended up with something that is more subtle but no less powerful. For instance on the cover, the title is stamped black in letters with jagged edges (type that Nancy used in a variety of her work). When you run your fingers across the stamping, it evokes a range of sensations—from the force of the artist’s hand to the texture of scar tissue. I wouldn’t expect most readers to consciously make these connections, but I do believe that the accumulative sensations contribute to the experience.
RJG: Did you have any conversations with Nancy Spero about the development of the project? If so, what was she like to work with?
NK: Few people radiate both extraordinary warmth and genius. Nancy was one of them. She could concern herself with your having enough to eat one minute and in the next reveal some extraordinary insight that just completely rearranged the way you might see something. Her feedback on the design drafts was absolutely essential, but she also really entrusted us with the work. Her generosity was immense.
I got to know her just a little over the course of the project which was completed just a few weeks before she died last year. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent time in her presence. That she loved the book means the world to me.
RJG: What was your relationship to Spero’s work before and after the project?
NK: Before this book, I knew of Nancy’s work. I certainly didn’t know it. I had read about it and seen it reproduced in various books, but I had never experienced a large-scale installation. I was deeply frustrated with those reproductions: one could never really read the texts, or, if they were actually legible, the selection was very limited. So I always liked the ideas in her work and the way it looked, but I never felt as if I had actually experienced it. We felt that this is probably not an uncommon experience and why we thought Torture of Women would be a very compelling book: finally, a chance to experience an entire work by Nancy Spero.
Over the course of designing any book, a strange intimacy with the work grows. You are so deeply familiar with the work and think you know its every little detail. Sometimes the work disappears as you’re dealing with banalities of design and production; it seems as if you’ve become inured to its effects. But with Torture of Women sometimes I had to consciously block it out in order the deal with the quotidian. At the beginning of the project, Nancy made us promise not to work on it right before going to bed; she was worried that it would invade our dreams or keep us awake.
The power of this work just can’t be contained. When I was working with Nancy’s assistant Samm Kunce on the last round of color proofs, we were examining a detail of panel 12 where some of the most brutal testimony is typed out and collaged. We looked up at each other at the exact moment, both of us quite breathless. How many times had each of us seen this particular passage—Samm certainly even more than me—and yet we were brought to tears. My awe of Nancy’s work has only grown over time.
RJG: How does the book fit within the mission of Siglio?
NK: Siglio’s mission is to publish works that live at the intersection of art and literature—whether image + text works, artist-writer collaborations, visual works embedded with narrative, fiction driven by visual structures, etc., anything where the literary and visual are in conversation. These are also works that exist uncomfortably in only one world, works that are inimitable, unwieldy, and uncontainable. In a world of the quickly digestible, Siglio publishes works that are not. We believe in “the book” as dissent, beacon, nexus, and object.
Torture of Women is all of those things. But I should say that, of course, Torture of Women is a work of art and now has a firm place in the art world (yet, only after decades of singular dedication by Spero for her work to be recognized). But it’s also an extraordinarily complex, layered—and riveting—narrative. It’s a work that’s not only meant to be looked at but meant to be read. And yet, how many people who love Spero’s work have actually engaged it as readers? This book is really a first. I also believe that if Torture of Women were better known in the literary world, it would be read, and those readers would see how the visual can expand the text in very provocative and surprising ways.
Torture of Women is out now from Siglio Press.
Read Nancy Spero’s 1994 roundtable discussion with Martha Rosler, Robert Barry, and Marjorie Welish on BOMBsite.