I wasn’t going to buy this book… I’m not too interested in archives, and despite spending a semester studying archives and their performance (don’t ask) as part of my MA studies at Stony Brook, and American Origami seems, at first (and fifth) glance to be a rather poor exploration of a particular archive.
But then it came time to renew my Light Work subscription, and as usual, I went with the “Book Collector’s” subscription, which is a book, usually a signed first edition, and a year of Light Work for $75 (at time of writing, and for the last several years), and so I ended up with a copy of it. Given its appearance on a whole bunch of 2019 best of lists, I guess I should probably check it out, so here we go.
First off, let me point you to Andrew Molitor’s review on his excellent photothunk blog.* (If you’re not familiar, go check him out. Good stuff, and a different, and largely more considered and confident, take on things than what you’ll find here.) Molitor refers to the design of the book as “a dumpster fire…” “…absurd and twee.” I’d call it deeply frustrating, maddening, even, but think it adds something, an overall reading perhaps, to the subject.
At a very basic level, American Origami is an exploration of school shootings… well… not really. What it explores is the memory of school shootings, and it does so in a sort of backhanded way that may or may not actually work… What we have is sort of two books in one: Book A, photographs of the suburban neighborhoods in Littleton, Red Lake, Blacksburg, DeKalb, Newtown, Roseburg, and Parkland, near where the Columbine, Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Sandy Hook, Umpqua, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shootings occurred, interspersed with interviews with survivors and people adjacent to the survivors and families of the victims of those shootings; and Book B, photographs of the archive of things that people from around the country/world sent to those towns as, in Molitor’s words, “performative grieving” from people who had no actual connection to the tragedy, except that they saw something about it on tv or the internets and decided they just had to send a teddy bear or a card or candle or whatever to the victims—or decide to go online and troll them. Gonzalez doesn’t discriminate.
It’s not a memoriam. It’s not a condemnation. It doesn’t offer any solutions or explanations or any real commentary. The interviews with (statements from) survivors are affecting, visceral, they make sorta more-real the, not horror of the event, really, but the long tail of it, the ongoingness of survivorship. The photographs of the various suburban areas around the schools doesn’t tell us much of anything: we all know what suburbia looks like (by “we” here, I mean people who live or have spent some time in the United States), even if the architecture looks a little bit different from place to place. The photographs of various bits of stuff are more reportage than studio, but are competent enough. The presidential speeches are pablum.
Speaking of presidents, the last Book A page shows Clinton, Bush, Obama, and whatsis with their eyes closed. Two of them look to be actually in prayer, one looks confused, like maybe he was praying but then felt some indigestion or something, and one looks like someone told him to look like he was praying, but he has no real idea what that looks like, so he just closed his eyes and continued to think about how winning he is.
I’ll leave you to suss out which is which in that.
And, again speaking of Presidents, I’m not quite sure what they have to do with any given school shooting. They’re not going to limit guns, or they didn’t anyway (a future leadership might) and if the First Lady decides to start an anti-bullying campaign, then that just means fuck all. They’re only good for “thoughts and prayers” and they’re not really even any good at that.
One of the interviewees, Peter Read, whose daughter was killed at Virginia Tech has a prescient comment: “How many people died in the United States from Ebola this year?… We were ready to shut down airports and quarantine people in a couple of states. Why on God’s green earth we can’t have that same conversation about gun violence deaths, I don’t know.” Short answer: Ebola doesn’t have a lobby. Long answer, same answer with some more words attached. Still. And this brings me to something, as an aside, that I saw on twitter not too long ago (and am not going to go hunting for) to the effect of “there have been no school shootings in the past three months and nobody’s praising the President for it!” I couldn’t tell if it was satire or not. Three months ago (mid-March, 2020; I’m writing in mid-June 2020) we were just starting the Covid-19 quarantine and all the schools closed. This is the same quality of claim whatsis made some weeks prior, that if we didn’t test so much we wouldn’t have so many cases.
Human brains are interesting things. Mine is no exception.
But I digress.
Other, actual, press and reviews of American Origami are gushing. Gonzalez has some links on his website, and you might get more out of Rebecca Bengal’s review in The Nation or Kelli Connell’s in Strange Fire, than I’m offering here (or Molitor offered in his somewhat more positive review (spoiler alert: he ended up liking the book…)), and for once (?) Molitor and Colberg seem to largely agree. Me, though, I’m unconvinced, and not only because of my academic training in archives.
Of his book, Gonzalez writes
American Origami is the result of six years of photographic research, and results in a statement of over 700 photographs which closely examines the epidemic of mass shootings in American schools. The project includes first person interviews, forensic documents, and press materials, as well as original photographs and texts. The varied elements repeat and fold into each other, illuminating relationships between myth-making, atonement, and collective healing. Bound in a unique way, the book creates a parallel world of the past and the present, showing the silenced landscape interwoven with the personal artifacts created by those left behind.blurb at http://andresgonzalezphoto.com/books
I’m reminded here of another course I took, maybe the same semester, on Performance, during which we read an excerpt of Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. I have the printout somewhere (and a copy of the book too, bought in a moment of nostalgia, but not (yet) read), but my hazy memory of the un/en/re-folding, and how different things touch depending on how we fold and twist the archive is sufficient, I think. And the whole apparatus of American Origami is fairly carefully organized around this folding and unfolding and refolding and enfolding.
Just flipping through the book gets to be a chore after awhile. And if you pay some attention, you’ll find that Book B is somewhat more substantial than Book A, really, in that it is really what the book is about. Before the Presidential responses, before the horror of the events, before pain of the survivors, it’s this detritus of performative grief that dominates. The photographs of the locations are secondary, interchangeable, not very good, and somewhat irrelevant (as Molitor notes), and the thoughts and prayers of the Presidents are meaningless. The interviews give a fair amount of color, but the B book gives some back story: 4chan chats where one of the shooters announces he’s off to do it and the other anons cheer and jeer and bully him about it; a segment near the end of B explains the “origami” in the title**
But if 4chan chats and paper cranes are the most interesting parts of a photobook, well, you’re in trouble.
Really, I’m being too hard on American Origami. It’s fine, or fine enough. The pictures are mostly competent, the idea was well-conceived (assuming the intent was to win awards), though as reportage or documentary, it largely falls flat, in my opinion. I’m not sure what I’d rather see. Peter Read, mentioned above, speaks of the “person-shaped hole” where his daughter used to be, and that persists even a decade later. I’d like to see that photographed, and more than competently. How one would go about that, I don’t know. No amount of stuffed animals, letters, origami cranes, or whatever will ever fill the hole Read’s daughter left, nor will a photobook or the thoughts and prayers from whatever person occupies the White House at the time.
I’ll vote largely with Colberg here and rate American Origami a disappointing 2.5 stars.
If you insist on buying a copy for yourself, maybe give your hard earned money to LightWork. They’re doing good work there, I think, more or less, and for $75 you can get a signed copy of one of the best photobooks of 2019 and 5 issues of ‘Contact Sheet,’ one of the better art photography periodicals I know of.
But, really, keep your dollars: given the current situation in the United States, it’s probably best to avoid frivolous expenditures.***
Honestly, now, what did you think of American Origami? Please, if someone can show me the light on this, I’d appreciate it. Smarter people than me gave it gushing reviews and very high ratings, after all. There must be something I’m missing.
*Molitor wrote a whole post about me back in January 2020, and my website got a ton of traffic for a few days, and I never reciprocated or thanked him, and I don’t read his blog regularly enough, though I enjoy his takes on things through Twitter.
** Check out the story of Sadako Sasaki and the one thousand cranes. In the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas section of the A Book, the B Book has a bunch of pictures of paper cranes and a brief explanation.
*** Hasn’t stopped me yet… and shame on me. My to-review pile continues to grow.