Recent Blog Posts

01 Oct 2016 12:00 AM • Susan Viguers
15 Jul 2016 12:00 AM • Bridget Elmer
Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

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  • 15 May 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Last summer, for the first time in years, I published a large edition of handmade hardcover books.

    Through the struggle of making each book the best I could, I became acutely aware that each editioned book was in fact unique. One-of-a-kind. A hand-printed book, a hand-bound one: each sheet cut by hand, sent through the Risograph and the Vandercook multiple times, folded by hand, hand collated; text blocks glued by hand, trimmed by hand; boards cut by hand; covers wrapped by hand; spine pieces cut by hand, foil-stamped by hand. So many opportunities for difference.

    This process, this practice, is of repetition: a study. One hundred opportunities to get it right, this time, finally: but never. Always a different book. At first I was acutely, achingly aware of my failures. In early summer, I lay awake at night, poring over them. But then, gradually, I began to realize that these imperfections were embedded in the process of a part-time publisher producing an edition by hand by herself: as designer, typesetter, printer, self-taught binder, publisher: so many opportunities, I began to think, not for error but for difference, for learning, for engagement of the hand and the mind.

    In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi writes that the “art of imperfection” is a natural result of the craft process. He wrote that the completely precise “carries no overtones” — “everything is apparent from the start.” But, like any other handcraft, making books by hand is a process with many steps: “there is always a little something unaccounted for.” “Slight irregularities come by chance, and not by any deliberation.”

    Of course Ruskin cited printing as the first industrial process: printing was not a handcraft but an industrial one, with “copies” instead of one-offs, one right after another. Books produced by master printers and binders also are testaments to the attainment of apparent perfection — whether they also feel the same as I, all too aware of the inconsistencies, I do not know. Perhaps they do, too. Or perhaps those most practiced and committed to their craft take the stance of David Pye in The Nature and Art of Workmanship: the craftsmanship of risk. In each moment, an opportunity to ruin all the work that came before. But with this mindset, how do you think of the finished piece? Is it the inevitable culmination of the process? Is it a struggle for unobtainable perfection? Is it both these things at the same time?

    Each process has developed its own relationship to the idea of perfection, as each maker must. While traditional letterpress printers cultivate and revere consistency and strive to pull each print exactly the same, in Riso printing the opposite is embraced. Risograph printers proclaim that prints will have wheel track marks, registration will be imperfect, the ink will never truly dry and will always smudge: and these are all to be embraced as defining characteristics of the medium. So you could say it is embedded in the processes that made them that no two of my 100 books, with Riso as well as letterpress printed pages, will be exactly alike.

    What I came to realize, for me, in making the books one after another over the course of a very hot summer: absolute uniformity was not my goal. It could not be. It was a miserable goal, chasing after an impossible future instead of being in the present moment, each moment, allowing the hands to coax the materials into a book, the mind both here and freed by the hands to ponder other possibilities. It was this strange double-mind I maintained while editioning: making the book the best I could, one at a time, one right after another, adapting steps, changing tactics, trying new strategies: but simultaneously letting go of the slight variations that were inevitable. My goal had to be the immersion in process, in each step, of letting the hands learn and remember, creating their own knowledge separate from the mind: living the freedom and richness. “All that there is, is the Eternal Now” Yanagi wrote. That is what making books by hand is for me.

    This is not to say that I did not have certain standards of workmanship: a threshold of acceptability. I combed over all of the prints to select the best ones for the book. I ripped the spine off some covers, remade them. I threw out spine pieces cut off square, or poorly foil stamped. I took care in making each book, this book, and this one, and this one, the best that I could, in the moment. And after the moment, I stopped fixating on the gap between my best and perfection.

    So far, number 14 is still my favorite. I clipped the corner of the cover paper too close to the back-cover’s board, the miter exposing some bookboard beneath. I cut a tiny triangle off the clipped-off corner and pasted it down on the board to conceal my mistake. But during steps where other copies commonly gave me trouble, this book slipped by with grace. It is the copy I am keeping for myself.


  • 01 May 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Often you’ll hear folks saying they prefer LPs to CDs (please don’t even ask such people about MP3s). It isn’t that the LP has greater fidelity to the original recording. It doesn’t. Instead, these listeners prefer an aesthetic of interference. They like the sonic limitations inherent to the process of recording for vinyl, and perhaps they also appreciate the homey crackles of the surface noise.

    Apparently many of us like this aesthetic of interference — emphasizing the medium of the message — in our images, too. The halftone image was developed for printing to replicate continuous tones. Now, a plethora of online tutorials offer instruction on how to create halftones for digital images created and circulated exclusively electronically. (Not to mention: Instagram’s filters which replicate film prints.) The aesthetic of interference is ubiquitous.

    What does the halftone image signify today? Historically, gritty half-tone images typically meant mass media images, the cheap printing on cheap paper of a newspaper or comic book. “Halftone” meant news or pop culture: a public, printed image. Now, the most widely circulated news images are digitally born, and digitally circulated. Many may never be printed.

    So in 2017:

    Is a halftone image a nostalgic image?

    Is a halftone image a historical mass media image?

    Or: is a halftone image just an aestheticized image?

    In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote that a widely disseminated (read: mechanically printed) copy of an artwork diminished the aura of the original. But now in the digital age: print has its own aura.

    Of course digital images have their own particular composition, which creates their own medium-native artifacts: pixels. Early bitmapped image were quickly aestheticized. The Digital Primitives (April Greiman, Emigre Fonts, etc.) eagerly exploited the look of the new technology. Now, thirty-something years later, the aesthetic of early computing and video games (think Super Mario Brothers Lego landscapes) is replicated using digital tools capable of creating images with much greater detail (i.e., higher fidelity). Bitmapped images and typefaces also embody an aesthetic of interference. (As I write this, I can’t help but think that “aesthetic of interference” also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance… perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.)

    But what has yet to be aestheticized is the more run-of-the-mill pixelated image: for example, what you get when you print out a 72 dpi image. These images still look bad to us. How long until they are aestheticized? Until the specificity of this format is appreciated for its own unique characteristics? Similarly with the MP3: will its lossy compression be appreciated in the future in a way we just can’t fathom today? History suggests: yes.

    Will it be when once high-res images replace low-res ones that we will appreciate the visible structure of digital images? Or: will it only be when a different medium (virtual reality?) replaces digital photographs that we will find appealing those images that reveal their illusion of simulated reality? (As Marshall McLuhan wrote: when a technology becomes obsolete, it becomes an art form.) Is this appreciation even about an “aesthetic of interference” at all, or is it actually a Baudrillard-like revelation of the undergirding of all visual culture, society at large, seeing how the sausage is made? The reminder that our reality is constructed, representations, simulations?


  • 15 Apr 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    As a teacher of the book arts, I have repeatedly observed students responding excitedly to making paper, printing letterpress, and binding books by hand. Contemporary college students seem to consistently respond enthusiastically to the haptic experiences they have in library-based learning laboratories as part of class visits, semester-long courses, and student employment. I did wonder, however, about why the students got excited, so I conducted a pilot study to investigate why students liked engaging with the book hands-on in the context of a liberal arts college.

    The primary research questions I developed is:

    • How do undergraduate college students characterize their experience with hands-on book-related inquiry?

    In addition to my primary research question, I wanted to explore these additional questions:

    • In the twenty-first century, what about the book engages these students?

    • Why does book history, presented to them in highly interactive, in-person formats, engage and excite students?

    • How do students relate their experiences in these book-oriented environments to other aspects of their educational experience?

    •How can knowing more about these phenomena inform the institutional context in which collections, facilities, and expertise combine in order to steward cultural heritage resources for future generations?

    I based my pilot study at Wellesley College, which has an active interdisciplinary Book Studies program that incorporates the book arts (including hand papermaking, letterpress printing, and bookbinding), conservation, special collections and archives. With my research questions in mind, I did participant observation in the Book Arts Lab, the Conservation Facility, and Archives and Special Collections. I used the themes I discovered through observation to generate interview questions. I conducted and transcribed interviews with current and former students and select library colleagues. I then developed a series of codes that helped me to identify themes in the transcriptions. I coded my transcriptions and analyzed the results.

    Preliminary findings indicated that students were engaged with the book as an object, the opportunity to do hands-on work, the social aspects of their learning experiences, the library-based context of the work, and the career opportunities associated with the book. In addition, students were intrigued by the various ways in which space and time were reflected in books themselves.

    I hope to be able to repeat this study on a larger scale and I welcome feedback from others. Why do you think the students you teach get excited about hands-on book-related activity?


  • 01 Apr 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In my role as Book Studies and Book Arts Program Director at Wellesley College, I seek ways to integrate the book arts into the liberal arts curriculum. In addition to teaching special sessions in letterpress printing, bookbinding, and hand papermaking for classes offered by many different departments, I regularly teach ARTS 222 Introductory Print Methods: Typography/Book Arts, which is a 200-level Studio Art class. This semester I am teaching a first-year writing seminar, ARTS/WRIT 115 Word and Image Studio, for the first time.

    The class fulfills the first-year writing seminar requirement and is also a 100-level studio art class that may be counted toward a major in Studio Art, Art History, or Media Arts and Sciences. As I developed the iteration of the course that I am currently teaching, I embraced the design challenge of meeting the expectations of the Writing Program and the Art Department while adapting the class to be taught with an emphasis on the book arts. The class has 15 students and is based in the Book Arts Lab, a teaching studio in Clapp Library. I hope that this class will serve as a useful example for combining the teaching of writing and the book arts.

    Word and Image Studio was taught previously by Phyllis McGibbon of the Art Department at Wellesley College. When I was developing the iteration of the class that I am teaching now, I did not revise the course description, which reads in part, “Our studio activities and discussions will explore fundamental visual concepts while cultivating an increased awareness of visual rhetoric and typographic design. Throughout the semester, considerable attention will be placed on developing more effective written commentary, critical thinking, and oral presentation skills relevant to visual investigation.” I did, however, craft my own learning outcomes for my students, which I labeled “Class Goals for the Semester” on the syllabus:

    • Continue to develop your writing practice at a college level

    • Practice giving and receiving feedback on your work

    • Reflect critically on readings and on your reading habits

    • Explore book studies: the past, present & future of the book in any of its forms

    • Learn basics of bookbinding, letterpress printing, and hand papermaking

    • Learn and practice safe studio practices

    • Investigate the creative possibilities of text, image, structure, sequence, interactivity, and collaboration in artists’ books

    • Gain an appreciation for the art and history of the book

    • Study the history and principles of typography and page design

    • Reflect on your trajectory as a writer and set goals for the future

    • Develop research & project management skills with respect to writing and creative projects

    The Writing Program guidelines recommend that a first-year writing seminar include four units and that each unit have a substantial writing assignment associated with it. The four units I developed are Artist’s Books, Books and Their Histories, Typography, and Reflection (with Poetry & Papermaking). This final unit will take place in April, which is National Poetry Month. I will also introduce students to papermaking in the college’s newly renovated Papermaking and Screenprint Studio. In addition to writing assignments, each unit has a studio art project. For instance, in the typography unit, students are writing research papers and are printing an edition of broadsides from wood type for a class exchange.

    In addition to writing and creating, the students are reading. These are the textbooks for the course:

    • They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.

    • A Pocket Style Manual, Seventh Edition, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, 2015.

    • Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, by Ellen Lupton, 2010.

    These books were used when the class was last taught. The first two books were recommended by the Writing Program. I have been pleased with how well the three textbooks work together. I am also assigning articles and chapters of books that address specific topics that the class addresses and are good examples of academic writing.

    Throughout the semester, I have encouraged the students to engage in a variety of activities that will help them improve their writing and creative practices. During the Artist’s Books unit, I encouraged the students to post a comment on the Book Art Theory blog. This dovetailed nicely with a Writing Program initiative to get students engaged in public writing. In the next few weeks, the students will design and propose their own final project for the semester that will include both written and creative work. The students are working towards submitting a portfolio, which will include final revisions of their written assignments, at the end of the semester.


  • 15 Mar 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In the UK most of the book arts programmes have disappeared and the skill amalgamated into broader degrees in graphic design, illustration, photography and craft. At the University of Chester, where I am a senior lecturer across a few art and design disciplines, we have no formal tradition of book arts curriculum. A few lecturers are introducing the skill in various ways which in turn is having an impact on final year students’ embracing of the method as a way of communicating their intended ideas.

    This blog will consider the way in which across five years I have invested my personal time and emergent skills base to introduce students to basic binding structures in a collective and social workshop environment away from the studios where their “official marked work” is developed. Here I will discuss the impact the workshops had on me as an educator and practitioner, and on the students as self-selected participants.

    These workshops developed directly from my practice-based PhD inquiry The Artist Book: making as embodied knowledge of practice & the self which emerged from my curiosity of whether new knowledge of practice, creativity, expression and the self might emerge from the embodied practice of making with one’s hands. I was inspired by the research of Reid and Solomonides (2007) who suggest that for creative students to engage successfully in their studies they must have the opportunity to “develop a robust Sense of Being [sic]”(p.37). The most valuable pedagogic conditions, according to Reid and Solomonides, will be those that create learning opportunities that encourage this embodiment of the creative self.

    The bookbinding workshop developed from my desire to seek ways to engage with and alongside students in my practice and research to ground my own making within my pedagogic practice. In this way students were not being ‘instructed’ by a skilled specialist but rather collaborating with a committed enthusiast and researcher learning from their practice and experience.

    I sought to explore how the workshop experience and setting, situated away from the studios where assessed work is produced, might influence students’ creative confidence through what Merleau-Ponty (2002) suggests is the body ‘understanding’ a new habit, ritual, skill, “to understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in a world” (p. 167). Within these workshops I asked students to use their bodies and minds in new ways, explicitly to use new tools (and familiar tools innovatively) to construct meaning which the body cannot perform itself (Merleau-Ponty, 2002): with ruler, paper, bone folder, folded signatures, sewing guide, awl, thread, beeswax block, needle, set square, glue, glue brush, book cloth and cover board.

    An important aspect of the discourse produced in students’ handmade books is that these artefacts are wholly valued for the learned process and embodied skills they represent; these artefacts were not assessed. I was clear from the outset: students would not be fully skilled book artists after eighteen hours of workshop engagement. The value of their bound books is in the exploring and testing out new skills and methods they represent rather than their sale, or even, use value. These workshops are extracurricular and students voluntarily attend. The artefacts they produce in the course of the workshop series are signifiers of their newly acquired handcraft skills; the only expected learning outcome is that they ‘have a go’ (American: ‘try it out’).

    Crucial to students’ gaining confidence in their making skills is my leadership on questions of quality, namely, that the artefacts they produced in the workshops are of ‘production quality standard’ rather than ‘absolute quality standard’ as termed by Sennett (2008, p. 79). Through working to the standard of production quality, students are encouraged to view their work as ‘work-in-progress’, as functional books that work like books, that signify ‘bookness’. Here we work to Sennett’s standard of “what might be possible, just good enough” (p. 45). My intention here is to lead students over six weeks of three-hour workshops from the folded book to the hardbound encased stitched book so that they are building upon their skills from the previous week and gaining confidence as they tackle a new structure. Were we to focus on Sennett’s (2008) ‘absolute quality standard’ students wouldn’t have moved beyond learning how to fold at exactly 90o with the bone folder. With this experience students learn enough structures with enough experience of folding, gluing and stitching that they are then able to learn other structures, stitches and bindings, proof of which is in their stitched artefacts displayed at their degree show.

    In anonymous questionnaires I distributed across the years, students have responded positively to the experience. One graphic design student was interested in how making books has helped her understand the user’s experience: “It has enabled me to think outside the box a bit more in terms of design pieces that the audience are able to handle and manipulate”. A photography student felt more confident in finding new ways to display photographic work: “Confidence levels in my practical design abilities have increased and will enable me to present my photographic work in more creative ways without compromising on professionalism”.

    Lawrie (2008) ponders whether design educators could encourage in our students a deeper understanding of their subject beyond skills leading to employability and entrepreneurship. She suggests, “…an answer may lie in the intersection of embodiment, meaning and signification” (p.205). I propose here that the elective extracurricular skills development workshop may be a pedagogic method that brings embodiment, meaning and signification of practice together in one experience. 

    University of Chester students from a variety of disciplines (Fine Art, Graphic Design, Photography) participating in the bookbinding workshop series


    Lawrie, S. (2008).   “Graphic Design: can it be more? Report on Research in Progress.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, (6)3, 201-7.

    Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. New York, NY and London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

    Reid, A. & Solomonides, I. (2007). “Design students’ experience of engagement and creativity.” Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, (6)1, 27-39.

    Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.


  • 01 Mar 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    This blog-post will discuss and celebrate the original contribution to knowledge that practice-based research circulates through considering my own journey of practice-based doctoral study, successfully completed in December 2016. Inspired by Barrett (2007) this blog-post will shift the critical focus away from the evaluation of ‘the work’ as a product towards an understanding of both studio enquiry and its outcomes as process.

    The initial research question for my practice-based doctoral research project was to ask, “Is it possible to develop a more confident, self-conscious creative voice able to articulate one’s identity more clearly through the making of handmade artefacts?”. My original contribution to knowledge through this enquiry is the identification of the ways in which the exploration of identity through autoethnographic, creative and pedagogic methods encourages an expanded field of self-knowledge, self-confidence and sense of creative self.

    Central to this study was my development of embodied, theoretical and material knowledge through learning the craft-based skill of hand bookbinding, and my emergent confidence to encase my visual practice in handbound artist’s books. The visual element of this practice-based PhD is a series of handmade artist’s books which contain collaged digital photographs of walks I took in my home town. The thesis evidenced that through learning these skills I have developed greater self-knowledge as an artist/designer/maker. Through the critical analysis of empirical and practice-based methods engaged in during this study, I argued that the artist’s book, as performative autoethnographic practice, evidences embodied knowledge of one’s identity and creativity by encasing the self within the book.

    This blog-post seeks to open up a discussion to explore possible answers to the question Barrett and Bolt (2007) asked creatives, “What new knowledge/understandings [do]…studio enquiry and methodology generate that may not have been revealed through other research approaches?” (p. 1).

    The term ‘process’ is of particular importance: my meaning here is that I will foreground in my discussion of the visual and embodied methods which I employed to create my artefacts what I have learned about myself, my identity, the culture of the place examined. In doing so I will argue that through being mindful of the process and performance of creativity I have found ways to support alternative views of myself, my past, my memories and the contested space of my youth. I suggest that the various visual and embodied methods I employed to create the books (photography; walking/movement through space; collage; bookbinding; and personal linguistic narrative) all add meaning to the artefacts themselves.

    Barrett and Bolt (2007) argue that “knowledge is derived from doing and from the senses” (p. 1). They further state that this type of research is epistemologically, ontologically and pedagogically productive due to the necessity for the creative researcher to draw on “subjective, interdisciplinary and emergent methodologies that have the potential to extend the frontiers of research” (p. 1). They note that creative arts research, because of its potential to generate subjective and personal knowledge, has the ability to further an understanding of the experiential, problem-solving nature of learning and the variety of intelligences that are involved in the process of producing and acknowledging the acquisition of knowledge (p. 2). Sullivan (2009) suggests that research within the arts produces distinctive forms of enquiry (p. 55) and outcomes (p. 75) which are represented in various non-traditional forms and media. As artists are not social scientists, so, according to Sullivan (2009), the situatedness of visual arts research calls for an “acceptance of a diversity of approaches to research” (p. 75). It is Barrett’s (2007b) discussion of the importance of valuing ‘process’ in the creative research project that best reflects the focus of this thesis. She encourages creative researchers to shift critical focus away from evaluating creative work as product of a research enterprise, but rather to consider both the studio-based investigation and the outcomes as process (p. 135).

    Like Sullivan (2009), Barrett (2007a) is concerned by the limitations on knowledge development and production when the outcomes of artistic enquiry are judged by social scientific standards of objectivity and factual evidence. Such expectations of outcomes ignore the features of dwelled experience from which situated knowledge emerges (Barratt, 2007b).


    Elizabeth Kealy-Morris, A Walk of Twenty Steps, 2016. Hardbound concertina book containing full-colour inkjet printed digital photographs on 140gsm cartridge paper, 9cm x 14cm


    Barrett, E. (2007a). "Experiential learning as practice in research: context, method, knowledge." Journal of Visual Art Practice, 6 (2), 115-124.

    Barrett, E. (2007b). "Foucault’s ‘What is an Author’: Towards a critical discourse of practice as research. " In Barrett, E., & B. Bolt, eds. Practice as research: Approaches to creative arts enquiry. London, United Kingdom and New York, NY: IB Tauris. 135-146.

    Barrett, E. & B. Bolt, eds. (2007). Practice as research: Approaches to creative arts enquiry. London, United Kingdom and New York, NY: IB Tauris.

    Sullivan, G. (2009). Art practice as research: Inquiry in the visual arts. (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: SAGE.


  • 15 Feb 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Today is a fine day to talk etymology. You were expecting politics? Let’s go with something more rooted for now: the slip and slide of words across tongues and time. Take, for instance, the word “cloud.” Imagine you’re an Angle, Jute, or Saxon circa 1100 AD. Look up into the Old English sky, heavy-laden with rain. What do you see, etymologically speaking? A clud (mass of rock or dirt) but this one formed of evaporated water heaped on high. Later, in Middle English, skie became a lexical stunt double for “cloud.”


    Cloud Study, John Constable, 1830, Tate Britain

    The rhizomatic wriggliness of words illustrates our core nature as metaphoric beings. Everything reminds us of everything because—according to particle physicists and Object-oriented Ontologists—everything is everything. Consider a “book.” The term derives from Old English bōk, a document or charter; Dutch, boek; German Buch; and English beech, a wood on which runes were written. Contents may vary, but most consist at minimum of: paper, ink, thread. This means your average book might harbor traces of: forest (root systems, understory, wind in canopies, shade and shadow, snowfall, nightfall, and nurse logs); fields of cotton or flax (sunshine, seedpod, and, according to Emily D, at least one bee); and for ink, soot or bone (ribcage, femur, fire). Viewed in this light, books are compressed remediated habitats. Maybe that’s why I’m charmed by images of books reclaimed by insects or left in rain, the pages’ raw materials reshuffled in the natural order.

    Some artists embrace such vibrant dis/order, collaborating with rivers, silkworms, or other “actants,” to borrow a term from Object-oriented Ontology, in order to create new “assemblages.” For River Avon Book, Richard Long dipped each page into the river’s mud, as if allowing it self-representation. In 1990, he published a series called Papers of River Mud, with cotton paper handmade with sediment from the Umpqua River in Oregon, the Rhine, Nile, Mississippi, and Amazon, among others. In today’s political climate, with the EPA under fire and the world flirting with another extinction event, we could use more artwork that accommodates the fundamental creativity of dirt.


    River Avon Book, Richard Long, 1979

    We think of soil as inert, as “dumb as dirt,” yet as any garden-variety farmer knows, it teems with life. Geoscientists dub soil the “skin” of the earth, and like skin it’s a living membrane that can be damaged and even destroyed. To raise awareness of this essential biome, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of the Soil. The University of Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library marked the occasion with an exhibit of artist books. Among notable exhibitors were Mare Blocker, Catherine Michaelis, Alex Borgen, Clarissa Sligh, and Jenifer Wightman.

    Wightman’s project, Gowanus Canal, explores “the underbelly of NYC.” She collected mud from the canal, a Superfund site, and used “a 19th century microbiology technique to induce bacteria to synthesize pigment.” Exposed to light, the bacteria yielded “transforming colorfields from a variety of ecosystems,” which the artist documented using time-lapse photography. The resulting images evidence that “the underbelly…is alive and thriving, metabolizing wastes to make a beautiful livelihood."


    Gowanus Canal, Jenifer Wightman, 2012

    It’s encouraging to think that even in the most forsaken of places, a Superfund site, Earth refuses to play dead. All around us—under our feet, over our heads—small miracles are gathering mass and momentum, if only we’d slow down to notice. As Ilya and Emilia Kabakov point out, “It’s only when you are lying flat on the earth…that you begin to look at the sky.” Looking Up. Reading the Words, a project they made for Sculpture Projects Münster invites viewers to do exactly that. You encounter what looks at first like a transmission tower in a grassy field; then, from directly below, you see it is a love letter written in German addressed to anyone who pauses to look skyward. “My Dear One!” it begins. “When you are lying in the grass, with your head thrown back…there, up above, is the blue sky and clouds floating by—perhaps this is the very best thing you have ever done or seen in your life.” In other words, cloud/clod: everything is everything.


    Looking Up. Reading the Words, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 1997

  • 01 Feb 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I sat down recently with Christopher Michlig, a colleague at the University of Oregon who serves as Graduate Director and Core faculty. Christopher’s artwork spans media, but he has a special interest in outmoded print technologies such as letterpress and Risograph. He co-edited In the Good Name of the Company, a book about Colby Poster Printing Company in LA. We talked about a large-scale poster project he has underway.


    Chistopher Michlig


    RC: Can you describe the project?

    CM: I’m interested in interpreting one medium through another, in this case, a re-presentation of The Medium Is the Message as a series of 64 posters in wood type. The long essays aren’t included, just moments made typographically noticeable by Quentin Fiori’s design. I like re-presenting McLuhan’s ideas in a format that preceded his criticism. There’s a kind of time travel.

    RC: What happens in that disjunction?

    CM: When a page becomes a broadside, the anecdotal phrase takes on an event quality. It announces itself singularly, without context. As for the time travel, I like how it acknowledges the trajectory of printed media. The press that printed the posters, Tribune Showprint in Indiana, is the oldest operating letterpress company in the US.

    RC: What was it like working with them?

    CM: They refused to work with me for about three months. They thought the project was too big. I said it was fine if it took 6 or 7 months, which it did. The only thing I asked was that one person work on it so I’d have a contact. I had approached them previously about doing a type specimen book, but they absolutely couldn’t. Everything had been moved around; typefaces weren’t complete or identifiable. I used their interest in a specimen book as a hook. From one poster to the next we cycled through as much type as possible. Eventually the printer was working with typefaces she hadn’t used for as long as she’d worked there.

    RC: How much direction did you give?

    CM: I laid out basic formatting, but I wanted the printer to use her own methods and have creative latitude. Some posters were too long to set in one typeface, so she came up with exciting mixtures. I wasn’t there in person. We were playing telephone or she was texting me photographs of proofs. We fixed typos by text or email.

    RC: Why was it important to forfeit control?

    CM: To allow efficiencies and expertise to happen. That’s the magic of letterpress job printers. Setting type across a page, it makes sense to use a condensed or expanded letter in the same size to avoid wasting time with furniture. That economy results in a specific visual language I like. I wanted to open up opportunities for miscommunication to happen. That’s very much in the spirit of The Medium is the Message, how communication mutates or warps from one medium to the next.

    RC: So having someone set the type also introduced space for communication.

    CM: Tribune works this way for one-off posters, but a longer project revealed the potentials of the interaction. I like printing—the paper, ink, and experience—but the back and forth was essential. Tribune had no interest in the project’s artistic merit or in authorship. Their name is on every broadside so they acknowledge their creative labor within an economic structure. But for them it’s not a matter of whether they want to do a project, but if it’s possible. In this case, yes, the book can be re-typeset.

    RC: What was their reaction to the posters?

    CM: Matter of fact. They wrapped them as though they were circus posters and sent them to me. I wanted an interaction like that.

    RC: They focused on the medium, not the message. In this case, maybe the medium is the medium.

    CM: The medium conveys how they’re thinking. When a poster came back with five typefaces, then that told me something about how they’d responded. It said it was read; there was a tuning to the voice of the text.


         Chistopher Michlig

  • 15 Jan 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cangjie, c. 2650 BCE

    Legend has it that a man with four eyes who may or may not have lived in a mossy cave invented the Chinese writing system. Cangjie was record keeper for the Yellow Emperor, circa 2700 BCE, and times had become too complex to continue archiving with sequences of knots in rope. He needed a more robust mnemonic device. So Cangjie rolled up his sleeves and got busy: staring at clouds, following bird tracks, mulling over veins in turtles’ shells. By observing natural patterns, he realized how forms and experiences could be translated into pictographs. The invention of script was said to be so astounding that grain rained from the sky and ghosts cried in the night, lamenting the living’s forthcoming tell-alls. And the poor turtles—their shells were used as substrates for divination.

    Centuries after this new technology hit the streets, we’ve become blasé about the transubstantiation that occurs when spoken word morphs into mark. “Speech is unique among systems of animal communication,” writes Michael Studdert-Kennedy in The Handbook of Speech Perception, “in being amenable to transduction into an alternative percetuomotor modality.” Alphabetic writing, in particular, is a synesthetic experience: drawings of sounds that when seen (read) effervesce back into sound. This is no small feat. Studdert-Kennedy notes: “We can understand language through the artificial medium of print as quickly and efficiently as through the natural medium of speech.” Yet: “Alphabetic writing and reading have no independent biological base; they are, at least in origin, parasitic on spoken language.” This parasitism is at the core of culture. Think, for example, Renaissance. Or Saussure’s semiotics. Or closed-captioned Britcoms.

    Imagine a medieval scriptorium with monks hunched over lambskins copying words that many of them couldn’t read. The blush was not entirely off the rose of writing; it seemed a potency best kept chained to a lectern. Silent reading hadn’t been conceived yet, and there must have been some uneasiness about where the human voice went when it slipped into form as ink staining animal skin. In a 1322 manuscript about the preaching of Ramon Llull, strings of rubricated dialogue float free from their speaker, not unlike how novelist Jeanette Winterson imagines utterances thickening the skies in Sexing the Cherry. But unlike in Winterson’s scenario, the Breviculum Codex’s buoyant wordiness doesn’t need scrubbing from the parchment’s skies.


    Electorium Parvum seu Breviculum, 1322, Baden Memorial Library, Karlsruhe, Germany

    In 1947 R.K. Potter, Director of Transmission Research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, published a book called Visible Speech. During WWII the US military funded research into directly rendering speech legible, in part to root out voiceprints of spies. In 1945 Potter patented the sound spectrograph, which Bell Labs touted after the war as a visionary device. Potter boasted in Visible Speech, “If it comes into general use as a voice-written language for the deaf it could even start a trend toward modernized writing and printing.”

    Spectrogram of “Science Unravels Speech,” Bell Telephone Laboratories

    Alas, there was no Grain Rain (谷雨) and no ghosts howled in the night, but the spectrograph was instrumental in many discoveries, including that some birds can voice two sounds simultaneously, not unlike Tuvan throat singers. Four-eyed Cangjie may have invented a new way of seeing—one set of eyes for sight, the other for “hearing”—but the spectrograph allowed us to see the wild blip and blur of our “noise bursts” as they actually occur, with no neat mapping of phoneme onto grapheme.


  • 01 Jan 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    “Speed now, Book…A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire…” —from the publisher’s note distributed with The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493

    Books are threshold objects. Even with their backs turned on us, spines out, they seem to beckon. Like unearthed artifacts, their appearance is charged with incipience, their small heft suggesting pockets of space and time a reader might re/enter through the conduit of her body (eyes peering, hands grasping, the theater of the mind set into motion). Both as symbolic objects and as experiences, books possess the allure of the real and expansiveness of the immaterial, marking a dilation of presence in absence.

    The codex serves as metaphor for both embodiment and ensoulment. In her plaster casts of the negative space around shelved books, Rachel Whiteread evokes the ghost in the machine of the book, so to speak. In her room-sized Untitled (Paperbacks), we find hollows where the library’s volumes once were, the impress of fore-edges in the plaster like the postures of witnesses at Pompeii. Here the book represents a palpable break in the skin of the known. 


    Gaps (books 1), Loris Cecchini, 2005

    Loris Cecchini, in his Extruding Bodies series, also uses the book as a symbol for threshold states. Gaps (books 1), like Whiteread’s Untitled (Paperbacks), employs an all-white palette to lay bare what Cecchini calls “poetical distance”—a murky space of emergence into material being. Jumbled spines press against a skin of polyester, as if straining to tell their stories. There is a fragility yet stubborn insistence to this gesture, the bodies of the books limning a gap between the graspable and the ineffable. This urge to become, to emerge and persist, is one that all living things share; for us humans that urge extends to the persistence of memory, for which books are both medium and metaphor.


    Alchemist's Handbook, Alexis Arnold, 2013

    It could be argued a book only “becomes” in the mind, its contents crystalizing moment by moment in the imagination. But what if a book lies fallow, unread? Alexis Arnold addresses the transience and vulnerability of the physical book in her artwork. She collects discarded paperbacks, transforming them into colonies of borax crystals. She speaks of this almost as an intervention, an attempt to immortalize the body of the book by replacing inert text with living crystals. “The books,” she writes, “become artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia.”

    Books themselves may be time capsules of personal and cultural memory, intended to extend knowledge beyond one lifetime, but in the artwork discussed here, it’s the very bookness of the book that matters most, not its contents. The suggestion of its form is enough to provoke reverie or something bittersweet, a pang of loss. Even when closed, a book offers a kind of window, a glimpse beyond, as well as silent witness. Saskia Hamilton captures this threshold quality in her beautiful poem from 2014.

    Zwijgen
    I slept before a wall of books and they
    calmed everything in the room, even
    their contents, even me, woken
    by the cold and thrill, and still
    they said, like the Dutch verb for falling
    silent that English has no accommodation for
    in the attics and rafters of its intimacies.


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