Conversātiō – in the company of bees
Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anne Brown
Massey University Press
Reviewed by Janet Hughes
This hefty collaboration between noted photographer Anne Noble, curator and art writer Zara Stanhope, and book designer Anna Brown is beautiful to look at, and variously appealing. It mixes commissioned essays with interviews and other texts clustering around the subject of bees; and of course with Noble’s striking photographs. They span art and science, and personal, technical, historical, and philosophical discourse. The zone of overlap is defined by the interactions of bees, people, and their environment.
The beautifully reproduced images offer various delights. They range from scientifically precise documentation to evocative semi-abstraction. There are mesmerising electron micrographs of bees; studies of insects in the hive and on the comb; and evanescent images using selective focus and movement blur to capture their fleeting interaction with light. And at the centre are Noble’s photographs of her 2017/18 demonstration hive installation Conversatio, which take in the gallery visitors viewing them, thus conveying above all a sense of a project brought to fruition. The generosity of the photographs struck me as slightly at odds with the rather stingy margins of the volume; but the tight layouts also convey a sense of busy-ness and plenitude that fits the hive-world nicely.
The content of Conversātiō tends generally to intensity and seriousness of purpose. Above all, it seeks to articulate the fruits of Noble’s long and deep inquiry into an environmental pressure point. But the design of the volume is marked by playful departures from tradition, with a tension between elegance and novelty. Book collectors will swarm along with photography lovers and environmentalists.
The construction and layout of the book play around with longstanding conventions. There are no boards, no spine, just paper covers. The whole bendy bundle is wrapped in laminated cloth, which instead of being glued to board is folded into the form of a dust-jacket. It has a conventional protective function – and though it’s gorgeous, you won’t be taking it off to preserve it, since the paper covers beneath are flimsy, and the stitching exposed. The attention-grabbing wrapper doesn’t grab the book so well. I had to stop reading repeatedly to resettle the jacket as the heavy slab of pages slid through it into my lap.
The cloth jacket is screen-printed (not stamped) with a design diagramming a bee’s flight-track, and tiny golden bees. The track meanders across the beautiful contents spread, the scattered chapter heads suggesting you might like to read in random order, to buzz around. Book design and construction conventions have endured because they work, in the practical sense of avoiding obstructions to reading, and protecting the pages. Challenging expectations can be creative, but it can also confirm the efficacy of the tradition, and here, as often, the effects cut both ways.
Layout and format expectations are shifting as we do more of our reading online. But there are certain optical realities: a narrow lower margin will still make a block of text appear to be falling down the page. The optimal balance between text and white space still falls into a fairly narrow range. A brief, eloquent correspondence between Noble and beekeeper/electron micrographer Jean-Pierre Martin, “For the love of bees”, exhibits the classic attributes of elegant traditional page design; but it is printed on a loose sheet, folded and slipped between the pages – novel, evocative, but easily lost, or torn from re-folding. A pocket would have protected it, and I could really see no point to its separateness, given the miscellaneous character of the whole volume.
Multiple paper-stocks differentiate sections of the text, underlining this miscellaneous aspect. The dominant stock is a sturdy cream paper, on which the colour photos glow softly. A coated paper brings out the clinical black and white of the electron micrographs accompanying the explanatory “conversation” between Noble and Zara Stanhope. A collection of historical texts are printed on mint-green paper – interesting or just odd, I couldn’t decide.
The diverse contributors are variously readable. I found the key interview between Stanhope and Noble the least satisfactory section, because it wasn’t convincing as conversation, so the interlocutory trope seemed forced. An engaging discussion of beekeeping between Jack Stone and beekeeper/volume designer Anna Brown, by contrast, feels genuinely conversational. Stanhope’s prompts are overlong, and mesh poorly with the replies. I struggled with her contributions generally, finding them wordy, and at odds with the general warmth of the volume’s tone. There’s a risk her frosty introduction might put a straight-line reader off at the outset. I was also bothered by the factual imprecision of her definition of the title.
Stanhope says conversatio is “a Latin term for the practice of attentive listening”. This is simply not accurate. Ordinary interaction between people, physical as well as verbal, is there among the Latin word’s secondary meanings. This usage takes in what we now call conversation but with an emphasis on action, exchange, and speech – none at all on listening. And this was a minor and late sense of a word which referred primarily to a way of life, especially a communal or monastic one – a meaning that would seem entirely relevant to honey-bee colonies, and to Noble’s exploration of the nexus between them and her environmental concerns. It looks as though a resonant metaphor has been reduced to a literal-minded etymology.
Conversātiō (if we follow the cover title – the diacritics disappear in the text) seems to be positioned as a potential collector’s item, for lovers of books as well as of bees. As such it is well priced and looks lovely, but handles awkwardly, and I have to wonder how well the binding and jacket will wear. The miscellaneous content appeals to novelty and a spread of interests. It is uneven, but comes out well enough on balance. The best bits are enchanting, the weaker ones felt self-indulgent. The crowded design somehow contributed – there was a whiff of the journal aesthetic, with its implied injunction to value the effort and feeling poured into every scrap of page, but some of the content did not deliver a proportionate intensity of experience and reflection. Or perhaps the handbook, trimmed of marginal excess, is the model being invoked – but the meandering pace and contour of most of these pieces does not fit. It’s a delightful book to dip into, but the dense heft of the packaging and the ambitiously theoretical introduction seem to promise something more consistently immersive.