Unboxing David Allen’s ‘The Insolite’

Dave Allen’s ‘The Insolite number 0‘ is among my favorite releases of #27zine. It’s a little bit bizarre, willfully obtuse, frustrating, maddening, even, and I love nearly everything about it.

David Allen is a freelance mathematician, graphic designer, and video editor, currently living in France with his wife and baby, and photographing, writing, sketching, doing all sorts of other stuff in whatever spare time he has. Busy guy. I could take an example from him, for sure…

The Insolite is divided into four chapters: 1. uphaut; 2. mymal; 3. downbas; 4. A Translation.

  • In ‘uphaut’ the pictures are all shot with a splitzer, looking up at buildings, mostly, with one picture per page arranged this way and that
  • ‘mymal’ contains a few pages of images in negative, presented in a gallery format, 4-6 per page
  • ‘downbas’ is almost all pictures taken at eye level and employing multiple- and long exposures, with some splitzer action too
  • ‘A Translation…’ is an insolite short story

By way of an introduction, it opens with a selfy and a translation that defines ‘insolite’ as “bizarre, étrange, extraordinaire… procédé bizarre et insolite.” Larousse gives the definition as “ce qui surprend par son côté inhabituel” (or something like “surprising in its unusualness,” if my Google Translate interpretative skills are functioning properly). Collins translates it as “strange, unusual” and Word Hippo (perhaps the most helpful) gives “freaky freckled unusual unwonted unusualness.”

In any case, insolite near perfectly defines the layout of the zine, the short story in the back, the images themselves, and even the characters in the short story…  They’re all, well sorry, but OMC probably says it best.

Overall, with The Insolite, Allen has pushed the boundaries of the photozine to its very limits. You can’t just flip through the book: the pictures are aligned sort of haphazardly, little arrows give the ‘up’ direction, and if you want to see the pictures properly, you have to spin the book this way and that, often rotating it 180° on the same page. This is mostly there, I think, to frustrate viewers: in many cases, the shots look virtually identical in every direction and it doesn’t much matter which way is up, and even if they did, why not orient everything in one direction?.

Many of the pictures were shot with a splitzer, some others are double- or long exposures. Allen has mostly mastered the art of the splitzer, and he appears comfortable with double exposures too, though section 2 (mymal) includes a group of mistakes. Between the splitzer and the multiple exposures, most of the depiction function of photography has been lost, leaves us with geometric abstraction that looks disturbingly like some place we could go, but know that we can’t. I haven’t seen Inception, but I think it’s something like that. I feel a general unease about many of the pictures, and find myself longing for some clarity, some solidity, something absolute.

And that’s not all… The Insolite contains a short story at the end: “A Translation of a Letter from an Obscure Artist to the World.” At first, I wasn’t entirely sure this thing was fiction: it contains footnotes to actual scientific literature, and, despite being rather insolite, it’s seemingly plausible. I suspected it was fiction, but only fully realized the fictional nature of it when I encountered a similar tale on Allen’s blog. In “A Translation…” a narrator claims to have found a manuscript in a unique language made of symbols, documents the struggle he had deciphering the manuscript, and gives some notes on the translation itself. The story then shifts to the translated manuscript, which describes a strange, almost Cartesian merging of the body with the mind, combined with a Deleuzian body without organs: it’s sort of organs without a body, or a body of only organs. This new narrator describes producing a unique art project by turning increasingly inward until existence itself is in doubt. I didn’t really get it all in the first reading, or the second…

You’d have to read it yourself… It’s just too much.

Taken together, The Insolite is, quite simply, amazing.


The pictures themselves are interesting: Allen has more or less mastered the splitzer, and appears to often shoot, say, the top half of all frames on a roll, then rewind, reload, and shoot the bottom half of the frames. The design and layout contribute to the disorientation in the pictures and the story, and all the parts work together to create an exceptional whole.

Overall, I’d give it a strong 4.8.

My preordered copy (and perhaps all 50) came with a handwritten Thank You note and a strip of 3 negatives that “have never been used nor scanned.” I went ahead and scanned them… In addition to mathematician, graphic designer, writer, and photographer, I guess David Allen is also a bit of an illustrator…

I like to see this as a portrait of the Insolite from the story at the back, deconstructing himself in reverse, or something.

As far as I know, copies remain available. I pre-ordered late and ended up with #6 of 50, and that was a month ago. Strangely, they don’t seem to be moving too quickly. I maybe understand, sort of, and if people see the content, they’re likely to be a bit intimidated: The Insolite isn’t your typical photo zine. It is very high concept and may be beyond the reach of some viewers, but I thoroughly enjoy it as a project, and it’s set a new bar for my own zine(s), if I ever get started on them.

You can follow David Allen on Twitter, and check out his website: it’s full of good stuff. I have real trouble accessing it on my home network (and via LTE on my iPhone), but it’s fine on my work computer. It’s a SquareSpace site, and they’re usually rock solid, so I’m not sure what’s happening there. He also recently started a vlog, which is a bit interesting too, so there’s a bunch going on with him, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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