Leandro Katz’s Self Hipnosis takes its title from a sign advertising self-hypnotism that the artist encountered on the Caribbean Island of Curaçao in 1975. Although the proper translation for “self-hypnosis” in the local language of Papiamento—a Portuguese-based creole—is “autohipnosis,” the sign opts instead to use the Anglo-Germanic “self,” suggesting the island’s history as a Dutch colony. In choosing this hybrid phrase for a title, Katz indicates the book’s central subject—a meditation on empire, historical time, and the cultural artifact of text.
Though he is now known for expansive photographic projects, Leandro Katz began his career foremost as a poet and bookmaker. After publishing his first poetry chapbook in his native Buenos Aires in 1961, Katz embarked on an itinerant, Motorcycle Diaries-esque journey through South and Central America during which he continued to produce visual-verbal publications: from poetry books with detailed illustrative engravings such as Uampungo (Tupiza, Bolivia, 1961) and Las Esdrújulas (Lima, Peru, 1961), to OOOO (Iquitos, 1961), an accordion book in which ominous poetry and found newspaper clippings are interspersed with printed moon phases to suggest the temporal material of a book’s pages. After years of travel, Katz settled in New York where, in 1969, he joined Frederick Ted Castle and David Lee in founding The Vanishing Rotating Triangle Press, an imprint spanning fotonovelas, poetry, and political texts. Katz’s own projects with the press included a fifteen-page homage to the Spanish letter Ñ in 1971 and the Spanish translation of an excerpted Guy Debord text in 1972. Published in 1975, Self Hipnosis coalesces Katz’s interests in time, the visuality of language, and cultural theory in a newly complex object that operates aesthetically, experientially, and politically.
Viper’s Tongue Books and The Vanishing Rotating Triangle Press
25 x 20 cm
Edition of 1,500
Paperback Glue Bound
CBA Collection no. FA.B122.2447
Each of the book’s central eighteen folios contains the same three elements neatly centered and bordered with white on the recto pages. On the upper left of every page lies one in a series of eighteen black-and-white photographs of the hypnosis sign from Curaçao, which were taken by Katz in a span of thirty-six seconds. To the right of the photograph, a rectangle of black extends from the image, with a Mayan numeral in the center, underwritten by the corresponding Hindu-Arabic numeral, running from seventeen on the first page to zero on the last. Below these visual elements, the lower half of the page is filled with an English-language text, written by Katz after the manner of theorists and writers including Roland Barthes, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Severo Sarduy, and Charles Ludlam.
Self Hipnosis uses the sequential format of the book to activate the temporal registers of these component parts. The images, falling on the right-hand pages, tempt the reader to fan through the book’s heavy, nearly letter-size sheets in quick succession and watch the clouds behind the titular sign drift languidly through the sky. The Mayan and Hindu-Arabic numerals also suggest the passage of time, calling attention to their seriality by following hypnotist protocol and inverting the standard pagination such that it runs from seventeen to zero, rather than one to eighteen. Copied or drawn from Sylvanus Morley’s study on Mayan script, the thick and rounded Mayan numerals represented in Katz’s book end in a zero figure that looks suspiciously like an eye.
By contrast, the artist’s accompanying text is poetic and labyrinthine, critiquing the alienation and theatrics of advanced capitalism and the artistic vanguard’s failure to realize political change:
We have come to this contemporary isolation where the food could be worse and is eaten in familiar formations of a timid royalist display vibrating with involuntary reflexes that may abruptly wake us up from the deep sleep, to find out between the eyelashes that, yes, we are still around.
Compelling but opaque, Katz’s writing further centers the reader’s focus on the shifting of their own attention. If the images and numerals hasten the reader through the pages, the text imposes a delay. The result is an uneasy lethargy; through the repetition of the image, the confusion of Katz’s writing, and the descent to zero, the reader is keenly aware of time’s passage while made to feel that it slows.
What waits at zero for the reader of Katz’s book? We may look for a partial answer in the temporality of photography. Katz writes: “For a photographic instant, we can see the concept of zero and photography simultaneously as a natural phenomenon.” If photography bridges past and present, zero bridges historical time with the forgotten past that precedes it: “There has been no invention within the manufacture of culture capable of the conquest of historical synthesis that does not represent the very beginning of historical time and the search for historical transcendence.”
The imperial implications of history would become deeply important to Katz’s later work, but even Self Hipnosis looks through an archaeological lens on text as a cultural artifact. The meeting of cultural and, indeed, civilizational histories can be seen in the cross-lingual text of the Curaçao sign or the numeric inscription that marks the book’s pages. The numerals themselves bespeak their roots: Hindu-Arabic and Mayan; contemporary and pre-Hispanic; both imperial, but one conqueror and the other conquered. Mayan numerals are the remains of something past, while Hindu-Arabic numerals live on in modern-day usage.
Katz’s frenzied and dream-like text is both an indictment of struggles for imperial dominance—“every war is a civil war as every war is a world war”—and a daydream about the end of one historical time and the dawn of another. As the book comes to a close, Katz wakes us from Self Hipnosis and with it—if the magic has worked—from our complicity in capitalist-fueled imperialism: “Look! Outside! The system has fallen! Nothing is true! Everything is permitted!”
In fact, the island only became a recognized country in 2010 and remains under the political and financial control of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The artists’ book librarian and critic Clive Phillpot cites OOOO as an early example of the “integrated visual/ verbal” play of the artist book form in Latin America. Clive Phillpot,“Twentysix Gasoline Stations that Shook the World: The Rise and Fall of Cheap Booklets as Art,” Art Libraries Journal 18, no. 1 (1993), p. 9.
As noted in Morley’s text, there are actually two systems of Mayan numerals—the bar and dot numerals and the head-variant numerals. It is now believed that the former were for common use and the latter were exclusively for priests.