By Lauren Palmer
June 14, 2020
The artist book No New Theories by Kameelah Janan Rasheed is not a work that you simply read, it is a work that you experience. The book, published in 2019 by Printed Matter, Inc., requires active engagement. Some pages are best viewed if you flip the book upside-down, tilt it, or squint at it—allowing time for each individual page to come into its own focus. The soft cover’s design, in black-and-white text and angular shapes protect the DIY aesthetic of the interior pages. This book was crafted together: lines of words floating in blank space and contrasting light and dark, cause the eyes to dart back and forth across the paper. Some pages are full of text, others of images, and some are a combination of the two. All command attention.
Rasheed is an interdisciplinary artist, in addition to being a writer and a teacher. She also characterizes herself as a “learner” and her boundless curiosity for ideas inherent in philosophy, science, mathematics, history, political theory, sociology, and literature is displayed in No New Theories through theorems, equations, bits of prose, and poetry. The book sets up a dichotomy between knowing and learning, where the static nature of knowing brushes up against the fluid state of learning. There is so much in this book to learn from and with—including details like handwritten annotations and sidebars—that reflects Rasheed’s dynamic approach. It is non-linear, iterative, and doesn’t lend itself to a specific timeframe. Single words or phrases are repeated for emphasis. She writes, revises, adds, and edits, then edits again.
The book resists orderliness, conveying a belief that the most effective ways of learning occur outside of educational norms, when process is emphasized over outcome. The table of contents lists only (page?) numbers, along with the phrase “Translated by a vile game of chance” along the bottom. On other pages, words and letters are enlarged, shrunken down, stretched, or condensed in all manners of manipulation. Blank spaces act as holes and fissures, demarcating the boundaries of a phrase or a single word or a character. They are given space to breathe and this gives the words power. The back cover reads “today I leak prepositions. so I will ask again, ‘do you have a sieve?’” Life, lived experience, passes through. The preface on the interior of the back cover reads “i am porous.”
“The patience and the rigor, the slowness, the recursiveness, the expansiveness, and the duration that our stories deserve is rarely afforded to us because there’s a publication timeline that dictates an accelerated pace for producing material about Black people. This is part of the reason why the book is organized around this idea of ‘no new theories’–because my major frustration is with this compulsion toward trying to theorize everything about Black people, Black lived experience, and Black gesture to the point that nothing has agility or mobility.”
A transcript of an interview between Rasheed and art critic Jessica Lynne is central to the book. The exchange plays out on the page through the layering of text and is an excellent example of learning through the process of conversation. Each woman shares her notes on and revisions of the interview, which is rich with marginalia. It slows the reader’s gaze, not allowing for a quick skim through their thoughts. “What does it look like when we nurture and take into consideration all of the permutations of that Black person’s existence when we write about the work?” asks Rasheed. “We deserve volume and density,” she writes elsewhere in an annotation, demonstrating that Black lived experience is multifaceted and multidimensional, worth returning to, worth expounding upon. In the wake of the recent—and recurring—cases of police brutality, attention to and elevation of the plurality of Black experiences is necessary in the struggle to dismantle systemic racism. This is an especially poignant idea worthy of critical thought in the art world and beyond. Institutions find themselves yet again scrambling to rectify years of negligence toward artists of color as protests across the country and the globe are bringing race relations to the forefront of the political arena. The time for mediocre improvements in galleries’ curatorial decisions is over; the time for an overhaul is (and has been) long overdue. Rasheed challenges the premise that work by Black artists must always be hypothesized, or condensed into a central thesis. The visibility and amplification of artists of color combats this, too, and must be perpetual.
Rasheed and Lynne touch on the importance of interconnection, relationships, “ecosystems”—intimate and personal narratives that exist within a larger network. Freedom exists in the individual particular details of a life that all people can relate to. Movement, approximation, and variability are all important to telling one’s story, or, how an artist establishes her practice. As this artist book is noticeably monochromatic, No New Theories displays the stark visual contrast on the page while its conceptual scope is amorphous, changeable, malleable. It adapts to the acquisition of information and the process of learning.
No New Theories by Kameelah Janan Rasheed is available from Printed Matter, Inc. 256 pp. $21.00.
Lauren Palmer is an art writer and critic based in Brooklyn, NY. Her interests meet at the intersection of art, culture, literature, and philosophy.