This is an item which hasn’t been seen by the many for some years. Lightsong 2 by Bob Cobbing.
There are 6 pages and they’re somewhat roughly hand cut; so that, though the images remain the same size, the page sizes vary by up to approximately half an inch.
It was hand-printed by Bob Cobbing on a Gestetner ink duplicator and they vary slightly in image; but, looking from another mental angle, the set is remarkably consistent considering the depth of black ink required.
This is a particular problem with ink duplicating and it is a greater and greater problem as one increases the amount of black. In a case like this it would have been difficult to even hold the stencil together.
It is so easy to end up with a mess & it is even easier to make each print look quite different to all the others. When the image is very black, as here, the greatest likelihood is that ink will not be evenly distributed across and down, but will instead come out blotchily or in excess.
Incidentally, when pages are this black, they never quite dry out, so even now it is still possible for ink to transfer – that’s one of the reasons for putting the booklet in an envelope – to stop ink transfer and to stop damage to the books as they are handled by prospective buyers.
There isn’t much that Bob couldn’t make that duplicator do; and this object is proof of it.
He is not the only person who achieved such heights. Here and there among the output of what was hyperbolically called “the mimeo revolution”, one finds prints of great Gestetner skill. I don’t know anyone, however, who did quite so much of it and in some many versions of mechanical impossibility over such a long time. It wasn’t the occasional surprising job, but a sustained exhibition of expertise.
Originally, Cobbing wrote the title of the publication in capital letters at the top left hand of the back of the final page and signed his name and the press name at the bottom right hand. It was done demotically.
This reissue uses some copies he had not so inscribed; and the data have been written on, in the same place and in the same manner; but not attempting to imitate Cobbing’s writing.
Because everything is so dark, it would be easy to give in to lazy observation and dismiss an object like this as having pages which are all the same or pages which are just black… or maybe “too black”.
But look again and you will see variation and order and wit. This is Cobbing the painter, transposed into an art mode and genre of his own making; though few painters lay the dark colour on quite so. But I’ll qualify that remark in a minute.
Comparing it with specific painters would mislead us and likely demean Cobbing’s work; but some ignorant types have made comparisons with Pollock: any comparison to Pollock, except perhaps in the idiosyncratic difference to almost everything else that has been done, would be misleading. One needs to look carelessly to think that it’s like Pollock. In Cobbing’s work, the image has been placed carefully in all its parts and the means of delivering it to the carrier paper has been mechanically controlled at a remove.
The process of the reproduction of the poem has its own method within the generic method of ink-duplication.
It’s not the layering of pigment that you get with, say, Auerbach. The ink would never dry! It’s of a different kind. The blackness of these pages stands out because it is so unexpected and perhaps because many of us know it is so difficult to achieve. He pushed the duplicator beyond its intended capabilities by a long way.
It isn’t just putting more and more colour on. It may feel that the ink is thickly applied as one looks at it, but actually it isn’t like that. There is only one application here, one pass through the machine.
There may be a connection here with his often repeated Cagean advice that if a performance wasn’t working then one kept going till it did. Not that I suggest that this poem didn’t work at an earlier stage. I mean that there is a point or points, extremes to some maybe, at which the poem works; it may be difficult to access that point; but one just stick to it till one gets there.
He did put the paper through the machine twice on some occasions. He did that in Winter Poem # 1 where, it seems he judged, the only way to get two quite different effects of very light ink output and very heavy ink output in much the same space was to use two different stencils. Note, then, that he knew where the apparently impossible became actually impossible; and he had a way round it.
It is, of course, for that reason that each image copy made by Cobbing was slightly different to all the others, because registration is not the ink duplicator’s strongest point.
Thus, one could not use this fix in every situation. Mixing non-alphabetic image and text would be difficult to handle with a misregistering printing machine; so that, as Mottram noted the appropriateness of design to the contents of wf publications, printing techniques were also applied as appropriate. Simply put, Cobbing knew what he was doing; it was just that he was doing things few people had thought of. And he didn’t say what he was doing. Instead he urged you to read the products attentively. That makes more sense. He wanted people to enjoy the outputs, rather than write about them, copying quotes from him, without engaged understanding.
Look at the blackness of these pages; and remember that the title is "Light Song". Where’s the light? Is it the white or is it the black? I’d say it’s both. I’d say that as a text for reading he would have been reading the differences, the changes, the conversation between the background of the paper and the foreground of the image; and I think I could go some way to substantiating that.
Imagine it in negative and you will find something quite different to the positive. This way is the right way round. It’s not “darkness visible” then; but it’s not not “darkness visible”.
Finally, a few words about consistency of production. The need to get the same image every time from a printing machine is a human idea, not an innate fault of the machine. The tendency is inherent in the machines ‘ tolerances. We choose to reproduce the image the same way each time, as if repeatability is the same as quality. Perhaps, though, variability is also a characteristic of quality if one lets it be.
This suggestion may not be very popular with those who deduce from their muddy ideas of the properties of democratic life that everyone should have complete access to everything.
Cobbing was quite a democrat and his hand made books could be seen as artistic multiples without that name; but he also accepted variations in production.
Mass production need not be the same as identical production. Repeatability in production originated because of the manufacturers’ desire to make everything as cheaply as possible and sell as many as possible.
I like the carefree – not careless – way that these booklets vary in size. He rarely allowed a page size to vary quite so widely; so there is a suggestion here of deliberation on the poet’s part, of appropriateness to the poem.
There aren’t many copies of this booklet left; and it presents some problems to reprint. Ink duplication is out, were the equipment and materials available now anyway. Photocopying is possible, but there will be probably be dropout. In some ways, we are up against the problem – for those who want accessibility at all costs – of the original work; but it may be valid to select one version and reproduce it by photocopying, or high resolution ink jet or litho and live with any slight degradation of the image from the original. A copy has already been put on one side for that purpose in case its needed.
Of course, however good the reproduction, that will freeze one version as the version, subject to any variations which the process may introduce.
In the meantime, you may buy one of the originals.
Copyright © Lawrence Upton February 2007