BY Sarah Shin AND Vanessa Peterson in Opinion | 24 OCT 22
Featured in
Issue 230

Ignota Press Creates Space for the Unknown

Sarah Shin shares the history of the press and its interest in different forms of communication

BY Sarah Shin AND Vanessa Peterson in Opinion | 24 OCT 22

I founded Ignota Books with Ben Vickers in the last days of 2017 as an experiment in the techniques of awakening. In many ways, we felt part of a hinge moment, in which the old narratives were no longer working in the face of an increasingly challenging set of political, historical, ecological, spiritual, psychic and material conditions.

Our name comes from the 12th-century lingua ignota (unknown language) devised by mystic and polymath Hildegard von Bingen. During this moment of historical confusion and political pressure, we thought we could open up a space for the unknown, which, as Audre Lorde says in ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ (1985), is ‘nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt’. Ignota is interested in different ways of communicating, and particularly in direct experience of, for example, rituals and thresholds. In The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present (2020), Byung-Chul Han writes about how they give shape to things and create moments of meaningful change and exchange.

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, 2018, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás. Courtesy: Ignota Books

Our books and projects look to reconsider our relationship with the world and what we think we know. Ignota’s first title, Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry (2018), edited by myself and poet Rebecca Tamás, takes poetry as a method of transformation and an architecture capable of holding complexity and contradiction.

Exploring language as a tool for transmitting and expanding consciousness – whether between humans or between different species or intelligences – is at the core of the Ignota project. In 2019, we republished Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ (1986), with a foreword by Donna Haraway and new images by Lee Bul. Le Guin’s essay expands the idea of technology in relation to narrative, drawing from anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher, who wrote in Women’s Creation (1975) that the first tool of human evolution was not the hunter’s phallic spear, but the humble container. Instead of focusing on ‘the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic’, Le Guin proposes the story as a ‘carrier bag’, which gathers and holds things in narrative relation to each other.

We’d always conceived that publishing would be the starting point for Ignota, but we also now organise retreats, events and rituals. Deep Deep Dream (2020), for example, was an invitation to take an interior journey to the dreamworld, through a set of exercises for the Transmissions online television series.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, 1986/2019. Courtesy: Ignota Books​​​​​

Recently, we were commissioned to create Memory Garden (2022) in the Italian Dolomites for the 2022 edition of Biennale Gherdëina, curated by Filipa Ramos and Lucia Pietroiusti. At its heart, The Garden explores the relationship between language and ecology. The design comprises a formation of healing medicinal plants, each section of which is associated with the different phases of the moon and its energy cycles. We wanted the garden to be a space where people could take a moment and connect with an inherently relational cosmos. I consulted and commissioned three gardeners who helped me to select plants appropriate to that altitude in the mountains. Memory Garden is accompanied by a book, Seeds (2022), which includes plant profiles and rituals as well as a fairy tale by Ignota and historical texts from biologist Lynn Margulis, historian Frances Yates and poet and artist Etel Adnan.

We’re interested in experiments with writing that operate on the knife-edge of what a book can be, expanding the possibilities for our experiences of reality. We plan to continue our research into altered states of consciousness, mysticism, healing, AI, ecology and quantum entanglement. Ignota works at this porous boundary between what is possible and what is difficult to articulate, that S-shaped river between the unconscious and the conscious, the known and the unknown. The press is a journey of discovery for ourselves. That’s the nature of the unknown – it’s the path that unfolds as you walk it.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 with the headline ‘At the Threshold’.

Main Image: Sarah Shin and Ben Vickers, Deep Deep Dream, 2020. Courtesy: Ignota Books

Sarah Shin is a publisher and curator. She co-founded and directs Silver Press and Ignota Books and founded New Suns, including New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival at the Barbican Centre.

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.