A television screen faces out toward O Street from behind the windows of Constellation Studios.
But there’s no video running on the screen. Rather, there are pages of text. Text taken from Willa Cather’s classic novel “My Antonia.” Six specific pages of text each day.
On Tuesday, for example, the monitor scrolled through two-page layouts (two minutes at a time) of pages 24-29 from “The Shimerdas,” one of the five books contained within “My Antonia.”
Those were the pages de jour for the “Slow Read,” a public literary/art project by Portland, Oregon, artist Barbara Tetenbaum designed to create a summer-long, community (in its widest definition) reading of Cather’s masterwork during its centennial year.
Available on monitors in a dozen public venues across the country, including Constellation Studios, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library and Union College in Lincoln and the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, the “Slow Read” pages can also be found online at slowread.org.
The “Slow Read,” Tetenbaum said in her statement announcing the project, is "a chance to find a deeper connection to her words and the issues Cather was illuminating, which are still relevant today. Some readers will stumble upon this novel for the first time, others will be re-reading it again, discovering something new in her story. I want to offer a piece of culture in the form of shared daily ritual, to be experienced slowly over time, providing a counterweight to the spectacle-based world we live in.”
That time began May 30 and will end on Aug. 11, six pages a day taking the reader through Cather’s novel that is, arguably, the most famous and enduring work ever written about Nebraska by a Nebraskan.
“Cather shows us what it was like to live on the 1890s Nebraska prairie, a life that was tough and beautiful at the same time,” Tetenbaum says in her statement. “Cather herself grew up in Red Cloud around immigrants from Central Europe and Russia. ‘My Antonia’ reads as a chronicle to their humanity and struggles during the formative years of the American Plains. The immigrant experience is particularly relevant in our current political climate, and perhaps there is a way to find a meaningful dialog through Cather’s story.”
The “Slow Read” grew out of a project Tetenbaum began nearly a decade ago, when she listened to “My Antonia” about 40 times and created a visual and spatial “map” of the novel she called “My Antonia: Instructions for Seeing.”
“I just happened to choose ‘My Antonia’ without having ever read it before,” Tetenbaum said in an interview. “In the process of listening to it as I’m putting tape on the floor, I fell completely in love with it. It got completely under my skin.”
Initially installed at Reed College in Portland in 2010, “My Antonia: Instructions for Seeing” came to Constellation Studios in 2016, the map of ropes and stripe, arrows and numbers sprawling across the floor and onto the walls of the 2055 O St. printmaking studio and gallery. That exhibition was timed for it to be seen by Cather scholars from around the world taking part in the 60th annual Willa Cather Conference and 15th International Willa Cather Seminar, held in Red Cloud.
“At that time, I think she was dreaming up some continuation of this obsession with ‘My Antonia,'” said Constellation’s Karen Kunc. “All along, I said, 'I want to be included.'"
Tetenbaum, however, denies that.
“People were asking me, ‘What are you going to do for the centenary?'" she said. “I hadn’t planned to do another Cather project. I took a video mapping workshop and thought, how would I ever use this? Then I imagined text on a wall and turning pages. It dawned on me: What if I encouraged people to read ‘My Antonia’ a few pages at a time?’”
Tetenbaum quickly abandoned plans to show the text on walls in multiple cities — “It’s a real pain,” she said. She is, however, doing a few wall projections this week as she drives back to Oregon from Chicago,
But the “Slow Read” is now on the monitors and online — making it universally accessible.
“The beauty of this is you can find a monitor, like at Karen’s, Love Library and Union College, or you can do it on your laptop, which a lot of my friends are doing,” Tetenbaum said.
Or Kunc said, “you can just buy the novel and follow along in there.”
If you’re looking to read some of the pages at Constellation Studios, Kunc has some valuable advice.
“The best way to read it is actually in the evening or at night when the light isn’t so glaring,” she said. “If you come during the day, we can turn the monitor around in the gallery and read it inside. I don’t know if people in the street are reading it. But it’s the thought that people from all over are reading it at the same time.”