The experience of watching Sara Cwynar’s films is one of sentences running into one another. Images and objects flash across the screen in disjointed jewel-toned saturation. A breathless, disembodied voice-over reads from a series of fragments and aphorisms, untethered from their origins. Onscreen, discarded and outdated consumer goods—nostalgic in their dusty velveteen, culled from late night eBay browsing—are rearranged in color grids in Cwynar’s studio, far away from the people who put them up for sale.
Where her films run through a rapid series of objects and references unattached to their sources, Cwynar’s monograph Glass Life meticulously annotates the film scripts for the film trilogy Soft Film (2016), Rose Gold (2017), and Red Film (2018). The scripts are a color-coded web of lines and numbers, each reference explained and cited in small sans-serif font in the right margin. Mapped-out and diagrammed, the scripts expand the films like an accordion folder, revealing the research archive behind the screen. Each script is preceded by inserts, shiny film stills printed on thin glossy paper like the pages of a fashion magazine. The filmed objects retain their shine from page to page, the brittle melamine cups Cwynar collects in Rose Gold gleam in their vintage colors. Creamy matte paper peeks over the cropped inserts, emphasizing the contrast between the still images from the film and the script, lifted from the screen and made readable on the page. Flipping through the glossy square pages of the inserts is closer to swiping on a screen than to turning a page. In Rose Gold, the narrator asks, “when did you learn to swipe?”
In the script for Red Film, the sentence “Some consider the packaging a second skin,” is accompanied by footnote 48. A Kelly green line points to the reference behind it, a new and sustainable packaging developed by the Champagne House Maison Ruinart. Instead of a traditional gift box, the “second skin” was created from paper, molded to the shape of the bottle. The paper “skin” looks almost like leather. The cover of Glass Life is maraschino red and soft to the touch. It has the sheen of leather, but like Maison Ruinart’s “second skin,” it’s made of paper rather than hide.
Printed in China during the pandemic, Glass Life recalls the Shen-Fevered world of Ling Ma’s 2018 novel Severance, which follows Candace Chen, a production coordinator at Spectra. Her specialty is outsourcing Bible production, though she wants to work on art books. One can imagine Aperture, the publisher of Glass Life, on Spectra’s fictional client list. For Candace, “the Bible embodies the purest form of product packaging, the same content repackaged a million times over.” She has worked on so many Bibles that she “can’t look at one without disassembling it down to its varied assorted offal: paper stock, ribbon marker, end-sheets, mull lining, and cover.” The endsheets of Glass Life are cyan blue. Its cover is wrapped in faux-leather, a synthetic second skin. The edges of its pages are varnished with a thin layer of red, almost like a Bible.
Candace observes that the Italian company she sources her polyurethane from also supplies fast fashion chains, the faux leather “to be made into wallets, coin purses, shoes, other lifestyle accessories.” It’s easy to imagine these faux leather lifestyle accessories finding their way into Cwynar’s studies of discarded consumer objects. Synthetic croc-leather watch bands and jewelry boxes, photographed and listed on eBay, sold to the highest bidder, nestled in pink packing peanuts smelling faintly of cigarettes. Cwynar’s films and photographs linger on the easy purchases that accumulate and become increasingly difficult to get rid of. In Red Film, a mechanical arm dispenses dollops of face cream into iridescent pots destined to clutter up a bathroom vanity, but the physical objects of Cywnar’s films are contained neatly behind the screen, for which Glass Life provides a detailed legend. Terms, thumbnail images, and things are diagrammed and illuminated, the meaning and manufacturing behind them made clear. Like Candace’s ability to break a book down to its parts and pieces, Cwynar peels apart her films’ dense collage of references in her annotated scripts.
Bound in red leatherette, Glass Life adapts the screen to the page. The book has a satisfying weight in my hands. If it’s not hand-sewn, or handmade, the book is hand-produced. Hands operated machinery, shrink-wrapped, packed and assembled, and clicked through the emails that coordinated its production through the screen. Maybe someone like Candace was on the other end, confirming shipping dates and page counts. In and beyond the world of Severance, chains of emails linking across countries, continents, and quarantines, turn PDF files into finished books.