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By Hilary Clark

Pas de Chance
Box 6704, Station A
Toronto, ON, M5W 1X5
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Pas de Chance publications

Simply put, Toronto’s Pas de Chance produces some of the most fantastic, ornate, interesting small-press artifacts in the world. These are not just books: they are gorgeous, subversive, compelling cultural acts. True to all Pas de Chance publications is an attention to both the physical presence of content and the purely mental relationship a reader has to a text. No one else explores the tactile with the aim of completely transcending the limitations of substance better than Pas de Chance. And with more than 100 of these intricate titles it’s hard to believe that Pas de Chance is just one person: Ian.

Ian started using his first name out of a paranoia that goes back to when he was a zine maker. Today he still uses only one name, but his reason has changed: “I don’t want people to focus on the creator of the books, but rather the books themselves.”

But his zine background remains crucial to any discussion of his books today. “Zines literally saved my life,” Ian explains. Growing up gay in small town Northern Ontario, his discovery of zine culture kept him from the dire isolation of a homogenous, mall-ridden, hockey- worshipping straight world. His evolution from zine maker to chapbook master came naturally.

“Each [publication] progressed into something more and more complex in structure and content,” he says. He also credits fellow creators and mail art makers like Julee Peaslea, Mark Pawson, and Mille Putois as major influences that moved him from zines to chapbooks.

Ian’s books defy our present culture’s view that texts are widgets, and that art, culture and politics are, or should be, solely commercial ventures. They also further subvert even more enlightened expectations of what a book is physically. Ian makes each book by hand, and sells them at cost. He prints enough for 300 final copies and, with particularly intricate books, he only assembles the first 50 or so, putting together more as they get ordered.

Many of these books are collaborations with writers and poets, most of whom are from outside Canada: “I guess,” he says, “everyone here has a publisher, because I really don’t get approached by many people here about doing books with them.” Perhaps that’s part of why he sells more work internationally than he does here at home.

But most of Ian’s books are solo efforts, even though Ian says: “I don’t write.” And although that may be technically true in that he doesn’t actually write, his use of reprinted, recreated text might just be the epitome of deconstructionist, or rather reconstructionist writing. He finds, borrows and creates narratives from a vast array of sources; a whole new level of cut and paste. Moreover, he uses every trait of “book” to collude with the found text and sometimes borrowed, sometimes original artwork to make the end results truly original.

Consider his book on nurses convicted of killing their patients. Angels of Demise weaves the text of actual media reports of several psycho-nurses’ exploits into interspersed pseudo- dialogues from old 1950s dime store nurse novels.

Now imagine this is what you physically hold in your hands: Slightly skewed full colour images from period novels offsetting each page of text, staggered with pages of hand-cut, thick, tissue-like paper. Then bright red stitching made with an industrial sewing machine binds the whole thing to a cover of shiny thermal paper that changes colour to the touch.

Tone and sensibility meet theme and subject like wallpaper and paste. And Pas de Chance books are not just remarkably different from most books, but from each other. For instance, each copy of Snacks, Pas de Chance’s famous chapbook series of lost pet posters from around the world, comes with a dog tag and a Milkbone. Lest there be any question of the authenticity of the bone, I can report that when pictures of Ian were being taken for Broken Pencil, a dog actually came along and started to eat a copy of Snacks. This was a tragedy, since every one of the ghoulishly titled little books contains a unique compendium of lost pet posters.

A dog eating a book is probably the most direct example one has of Ian’s little books making their way through the world. That is, these are small books, and the way they approach their subject matter reflects a certain diminutive respect for the power of communication. For the most part, Ian’s publications don’t comment on the world the way many small-press publishers feel that they need to, that is, through overt, disconcerting and often threatening texts firmly rooted in existential despair and blatant social commentary. Sometimes, though, this can be frustrating for Ian. For instance, most of Pas de Chance’s books don’t feature specifically gay themes.

“I’d like to do more visible queer stuff,” Ian says, “like the work I used to do with zines, but the projects I’m working on now seem to have a subtler tone.” Witness his most recent and astounding book on Sailors which features, among many other things, antique photographs of sailors and the men they loved.

With scores of titles scattered around his apartment in various states of assembly, Ian keeps his freelance day job to pay for them. He’s done the math, he’ll never make his living this way but, of course, that’s not the point. He says: “I’ll never stop. I’m too obsessed with them. Even if I went completely broke I’d just make books out of garbage. I already do.”

The following is just a meander into what is, literally, the Pas de Chance world; like a hike through a wilderness you wish you could live in, the landscape once passed can never be left behind — ‘I’m coming back’, you think, and you are.

Something about Sailors ($10)
The lap of the salty waves, the doomed hum of a tanker’s vibrating shell, the heart-beats of the men, tight packed in their oily canister, waiting to catch just a glimpse of the shore they only so long ago longed to leave forever. Something about Sailors is mail-art at its best, a world-wide compendium of sailor related imagery in the form of writings, photographs, drawings and collage. But this is no happy-go-lucky join the navy and see the world homage. Something about Sailors is like a marker unnaturally moored to land, tombstone to a watery mass grave, bodies never found, legends never told, dreams caught in the foggy mist of early morning and lost by the sunny breaks of early afternoon. An incredible book, it captures the sailor myth with all its incipient homo-erotic tension and all its percipient delicacy, without ever losing sight of the land- bound irony of its scope. As a flawless explication of naval culture from the perspective of a land-lubber, Something about Sailors is the last port for our presumptions, a place where the tide never comes in and the boys never come home from sea.

Traces ($3.50)
Graffiti is the ultimate urban expression, a subversion of advertising and a celebration of the freedom of language in society. Unfortunately, it is also mostly dim-witted garbage advertising the all too accessible depths to which we plummet. Traces, nevertheless, sets out to capture the graffiti that extends the boundaries of art and politics, graffiti artists whose work stands as a monument to what it is still possible to do on the walls at night. These works come from Europe where graffiti retains some degree of its initial artistry and purpose. Not slogans or mundane pronouncements of love, this is stenciled graffiti, laboriously crafted and quickly sprayed. From the facade of a muscled back fading into a bullish shadow in Madrid, to the specter of a prancing ant-humanoids in Paris, these are disturbing, accessible images meant to re-imagine an urban dialogue free of consumerism and never ending violence.

Tombstone Cozies ($2.50)
Mourning a dead loved one? Worried about keeping the memory of a long departed relative fresh? What better way to celebrate the natural end of the cycle of life than by fitting your favourite tombstone with a cozy? Or, as our handy guide to knitting a sweater for a grave marker says, “transform your closet of old knitted articles into useful objects of adoration.” Fun for the whole family, printed on nice-to-touch finger painting paper, it includes answers to some of your questions like: “What if the tombstone I hope to cover is of a more irregular shape?” Before and After pics help you fire up your imagination.

On Seeing Montgomery Cliff Drunk As He Was ($12.95)
The lovingly constructed spiraling scrawls of spare green foliage and silver clouds (all done on hand-made paper) perfectly complement poet Elissa Joy’s 12 part elegy to youth, fame and fallacy. Joy’s poetry, lost, poignant and completely cutting, reminds me a bit of Ondajtee’s poem/novel recreating the life and times of Billy the Kid. Desperate out-laws trapped in a world of their own making — as Joy writes: “carry this as a calling card. memorize your credentials.”

Whimsey makes the world go ’round

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