In 2011, I had the privilege and the honor of curating a show at the Berardo Collection Museum in Belém, Lisbon, focused on the contemporary scene of Portuguese comics and how they responded to formal and aesthetic experimental concerns as well as to see how certain artworld objects or from contiguous media could be addressed as being part of an expanded vision of comics themselves. This was entitled Tinta nos Nervos, and it counted with the help of many friends, including the participating artists. Among them was a young experimental artist who had not produced that much work by then, and not known at all. In fact, it is still not that known today, as Cátia Serrão – that’s her name – has made choices that are not conducive to fame and fortune. Then again, every time one mixes the words “comics” and “experimental”, more often than not one is going down a world of trouble.
However, even though we can not say that “things are changing”, nevertheless there is indeed a larger number of platforms for truly alternative takes on comics as an artistic language and practice. There have always been individual authors with outstanding work that truly investigate the expressive and meaning-making affordances of comics, such as Vaughn-James and Barron Storey, or publishers with a truly engrossing catalog, such as Fréon, but today we have a wider array of platforms and meeting points for this sort of work, which also includes the possibility of reaching an interested and knowledgeable audience. As I was saying, we cannot really speak of “game-changers,” as the game is not changed that much, but there are more agents attempting these approaches, at least. And a little bit everywhere, including in countries where even the mainstream or commercial approach to conventional genres and forms of comics is not that strong. Nevertheless, there is still a dearth of attention towards this, shall we say, attitude, hidden away by the overwhelming attention paid to the practitioners of a more conventional manner, even if glorious. For instance, even within the pages of The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, the pages dedicated to comics, dubbed “Graphic narrative,” and penned by Hillary Chute, not only is the idea that comics are an American form reinforced in new clothing as the focus falls on the usual suspects, from Winsor McCay to Lynd Ward, and then on to Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel and Linda Barry. There’s a passing reference to Richard McGuire’s first iteration of “Here,” but it does not become a pivot for thinking about new forms of comics. Great canon, no doubt, but put side by side with the likes of Ruppert et Mulot, Aidan Koch, Tim Enthoven, Marc-Antoine Matthieu, Ilan Manouach, Samplerman, Pedro Franz, Diniz Conefrey, Bertoyas, Vincent Fortemps, and so many others, the word “experimental” starts to feel a little diluted.
The point here is not to create an hierarchy of value judgments. To make experimental comics is not necessarily better than making conventional comics. You may have outstanding examples of quite classical forms of comics and pretty mediocre experimental approaches. But one does have to take the experimental experiments, in their randomness of processes, materialities and even results, if you will, as they come.
The Latvian publisher kuš! is but one of those purveyors of this sort of truly re-inventing comics. Moreover, as a bona fide international publisher, they have put out work by artists from the most varied of national backgrounds. This is not the first time that they put out a Portuguese artist, but that is beside the point here.
Purportedly, Acquisition could be seen as a very oblique adaptation of one of the episodes of the avant la lettre pataphysical Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. Serrão’s book opens up with a sort of science-fictiony introduction, where two characters (disembodied, apart from a floating Mickey Mouse-like glove and wig and unattributed speech balloons) are preparing to watch a video, which then takes up the whole of the panels. Actually, this video-within-a-story corresponds almost verbatim and imagetically to a video piece that Cátia Serrão created in 2010, entitled A fala do pato (“Duck’s Speech”), which pretends to be the report of a scientific experiment on animal linguistics.
As it is known, this lovely unfinished novel follows the dynamic duo of clerks with too much time and fortune in their hands. For that reason, they devise multiple imbecilic attempts in trying to understand the whole of the universe by dabbling empirically and amateurishly on a multitude of disciplines. More often than not, their basis is limited solely to what they know from books, that is to say, language, that is to say, symbols. Within those attempts, they try to mate different species, crossing animals that, if possible, would beget monsters… Serrão uses a direct quote, a paragraph, at the end of the book, on that precise experience. Her own text, that explains the duck’s speech experience, is born out of that “influence” in a very loose manner, but it still creates sufficiently strong links to Flaubert’s character’s life and endeavors. The attempt of understanding of a duck leads to exercises of Gematria-like permutations of letters and numbers, in order to excavate deeper meanings. Despite resulting in pure gibberish, or “quackery,” to quote a used term, such a conference is met with apparent success within Serrão’s booklet, where an hitherto invisible audience explodes in applause.
It is way less important the exactness with which Serrão creates this adaptation – after all, there are no truly representational images showing the two characters and their experiences, but rather a combination of permutable colored shapes – than a sort of reflection of the almost fantastical actions by Bouvard and Pécuchet and the translation of the failed compartmentalization of meaning into manageable units of the duck’s speech into the also compartmentalized shapes employed by the comics artist. Serrão has worked extensively with techniques such as collage and painted-over pages from cheap comics in order to extract abstract compositions, somewhat akin to the practices of people such as Pascal Matthey with 978, Samplerman, Niklaus Rüegg in Spuk, and, of course, and especially, Jochen Gerner (T.N.T. en Amérique, Panorama du Feu, Abstraction, etc.), even though she has created some of these materials before these projects. [I’ve written about all these books, but because it’s in Portuguese, I’m not adding links].
The video employs the scanned covered-up pages, the dark inks covering the figures and intelligible forms and leaving behind the mysterious shapes. These pages were turned into digital files and then turned into the video shots. The present booklet, however, redraws all these materials, in colored felt-tip markers and, for the fine line drawings that introduce the video and the lettering across the pages, believe it or not, copying pencil. It all has a low fi vibe to it that is also reminiscent of C.F.’s work on Powr Mastrs, with which it shares its quality of an almost futuristic, absolute yet inscrutable storyworld.
The experience portrayed in the book, as the title makes crystal clear, aims to supposedly understand language acquisition. It is as if Saussure had added too much absinthe in his own theories. And this untidy composition of images and text concocted by Serrão was also a complete distortion of the more “natural” ways of creating meaning within and with comics, forcing us to see everything not as an “invisible” or “transparent” screen into a fictional world, but as an opaque surface of the permutations at hand. We become aware, quite consciously, of the efforts in the participation of meaning-making and its failure. This does not mean that, in the end, we acquired nothing. Quite the contrary. But what we did acquire is probably a tad oblique.
To read Acquisition under the auspices of Flaubert’s book may pay off. According to Georges Steiner, “[t]he furnishing of our lives are consequent on processes too complex and impersonal for anyone to master. Isolated from sensuous reality, repelled by the inhuman drabness of the factory world” Bouvard et Pécuchet creates then a “refuge,” a “retreat” from such a situation. Cátia Serrão choice for an unintelligible robotic voice in the video (it’s the artist’s own voice, but backwards and with distortion effects), and the disembodied body parts of the visual renderings of both video and book are not only part and parcel of the adaptation of the literary text but of the reduction of the world to a set of commodities, prepackaged and isolated as such. Our minds try to follow the seemingly careful steps of the logic used in the recombination of meanings, letters, numbers and the emergence of a system, but it ultimately fails, as it ultimately does no matter how sound the meaning-making processes may seem. To a certain extent, the crisis that Serrão introduces in the system of comics is a commentary upon the human hubris in believing that we are able to make meaning out of “the furnishing of our lives.”
Whether Acquisition is a new way of creating comics is beside the point (and even less so if it’s a “good” or “bad” experience). As I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes “experimental” means opening a new door, but a door that leads directly into a brick wall. The point is not always to create new paths, “solutions,” repeatable processes, still less inheritors, imitators or epigones. But the will to attempt it. Despite the interrupted ending of the novel, Flaubert planned to have the two companions retiring from their many experiences and returning to their jobs as copy-clerks. Making a double co-joint secretary, buying equipment and plunging into copying. As Flaubert forcefully puts it, “Ils s’y mettent.” As many writers have pointed out, such as Enrique Vila-Matas, Bouvard and Pécuchet belong to a wide constellation of characters, which includes Kafka’s bureaucrats, Fernando Pessoa and Robert Walser (themselves and their characters), and Melville’s Bartleby. Arguably, they are the anti-Bartleby and, for that reason, the patron saints of experimentalism. The raison d’être of such works might as well be under the banner of an affirmation: “I would prefer to.”
A thank you note to Cátia Serrão, for the copy of her booklet and allowing me to upload her video.