It is a towering, temporary construct in the middle of publisher Mount Analogue’s Pioneer Square gallery/storefront. It resembles a child’s blanket fort: some white sheets hanging from the ceiling, adorned with glittering strands of tinsel and crinkled-up tinfoil and spritzes of brightly colored artificial flowers. The structure is surrounded by Mount Analogue’s usual décor — handmade books and ceramic cigarette packs and gloves with weird phrases sewn into them — and a large collection of potted plants. “Everything is walk-through-able,” Mount Analogue publisher Colleen Louise Barry tells me, encouraging me to get closer and investigate.
Around the entrance to the fort, printed out in multicolor sequins, is a statement. If you glance at it, you might think the meticulous letters reads “NATURE IS INSIDE” — meaning, perhaps, inside the structure — but the word “YOU” trails along behind, printed in duller sequins that might escape your first notice. “NATURE IS INSIDE YOU.”
Inside, it’s a junk-store wonderland: white sheets pointing up to the ceiling, dotted with artificial flowers like comets trailing strands of tinsel. On the ground, a bowl of water bottles and a mess of green disposable cameras surrounded by four comfortable pillows. You’re meant to sit, and cool off with one of the tiny portable fans, and maybe take a selfie or two.
This installation is called “Mothership,” and it’s the physical manifestation of Mount Analogue’s newest book, Fumetti for the Mothership. “Fumetti” is the Italian word for “comic book,” though in English it’s generally used to describe a popular Italian subgenre in which the comics are illustrated not with drawings but with photographs. You won’t find word balloons or panels or other conventional comics features in Fumetti: it’s a collaboration between Barry and photographer Stephanie Passantino, and Barry’s poems interact in fascinating ways with Passantino’s images.
Fumetti is an artistic conversation that unfolded over the course of a year. Passantino would send Barry some photographs she took with a disposable camera, and then Barry would write poems to respond to and interact with the images. They went back and forth twenty times like that, before publishing the dialogue in a book and building a temple to the conversation in Mount Analogue’s space. (You can visit “Mothership” at Mount Analogue’s space at 300 S. Washington St. through the end of the month.)
In the introduction to the book, Barry says she believes the conversation is all about dichotomies and contrasts and the intrinsic failure of labels: what is unnatural? What is natural? What’s the difference between a text and an image — aren’t they similarly representational?
I’m less interested in the contrasts between Passantino’s images and Barry’s words, and more interested in the way that they interact. Under the photo of a hand giving a thumbs-up over a partially eaten slab of salmon, Barry writes “Things come apart.” Under a photo of a hand squeezing a paint-roller in a sink, she writes, “Everything has a throat.” The words change the photographs, moving the viewer’s eyes from the hand to the salmon, and adding a violence to the photo of the sink that wasn’t there before. When you experience the work through Passantino’s eyes and the sound of Barry’s “voice,” you are finding something that didn’t exist before the two women interacted.
Passantino’s photographs tend to illuminate through obfuscation. Something is always obscured in these pictures: a wall is hidden behind Halloween cobwebs, a globe is hidden under a clear plastic dome, a pair of hands peek out from the edge of a diner table. And Barry writes:
One net is obscured by another then another
until the net and not what it attracts
becomes the attraction.
One small mistake flies in front of the other.
Later, Barry reflects on the way it’s impossible to keep everyone’s business out of everyone else’s business:
In the city we’re so close
everyone hears everyone’s
emergencies crawl howling down the street
While we often credit photographs for giving us the truth of a situation, in this case it feels as though Barry is the clarifying agent, and Passantino is the obscurer. Some of these photographs are entirely inscrutable, but Barry uses clean, pure nouns and adjectives that put the image square into your eyeballs: I dare you to not picture an image in your mind when you read this sentence: “Two gray dogs springing across a Park and Ride toward a woman in blue scrubs.”
Passantino and Barry have built something fascinating together — and I’m not just talking about the “Mothership” structure, though that figures into it. For me, Fumetti feels like a portrait of a friendship. It’s highly unlikely that Barry’s words are always getting at exactly what Passantino is trying to communicate with her photographs, and vice versa. But they keep communicating, in hopes of building something truer and better than they could build on their own.
Sitting inside “Mothership,” staring up at those shooting-star flowers and feeling the cool plastic breeze of a tiny pink fan on your face, you feel as though you’re getting a rare glimpse inside an interior world created by and for two people. It’s an opportunity to occupy the friendship of two women, and to physically experience the interior joy of what they’ve built together.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant