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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 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cathleen Miller and Marieke Van Der Steenhoven discuss the artist’s book from the perspective of academic special collections librarians who are responsible for artist’s book acquisition and access at their institutions. 

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: I’d love to talk a bit about issues of access and artists’ books. Lately, I’ve been thinking about access in terms of acquisition, description, preservation, and interpretation. I’ve been tethering collection development, limitations of cataloging systems, and issues around closed stacks, reading room, and teaching to these concepts to try to better understand where we are as stewards of artists’ book collections… and where we want to go.  

    Cathleen Miller: I feel like we’re in this strange moment where so many of us are talking about opening up our collections, dismantling barriers to access, and making our collections more welcoming, and yet, we’re still constrained by centuries of ideas about, and practice of, library and archives staff acting as gatekeepers. It is intimidating for so many people to walk through our doors, so when they get here, I do my best to create an atmosphere of exploration with as many open doors as possible. I try to explain our often-barrier-creating descriptive tools and try to make the experience of using our collections one of joy and discovery. 


    Bowdoin students at a special collections pop-up event that included unfolding Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip 

    MV: All of Bowdoin’s artists’ books are represented in the library’s catalog – a shared database with Colby and Bates College. Browsing the catalog can be tricky and is strictly text-based, and depending on when a book was catalogued (and by whom) you can find broad variances in subject headings and key words (is it an artist book? artists books? artist’s book?). In some ways you need to know what you’re looking for – especially since the stacks (where we store the books) are closed to the public. So most often, I serve as an intermediary offering recommendations to patrons (students, faculty, staff, public). 

    CM: As librarians and curators, of course we impact the experience—certainly, in teaching, I am choosing what books to show because I have an idea about what the students are supposed to be looking at, but I could be completely wrong about what they need. And every class is different; every visitor to the archives is in search of something unique. I try to be a gate opener so that people can have the experience they are seeking out, but I am always the mediator of some part of the experience, which I guess we can’t really get around when we’re not providing open-stacks access.


    A glimpse into the closed stacks at Bowdoin College Library’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives 

    MV: Another way we mediate experiences with artists’ books is through collection development and acquisition. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the early days of Bowdoin’s collection (1990s) we had a somewhat encyclopedic approach to collecting (like museums did in 19th century and general libraries did in 20th century) and for several years we’ve been transitioning towards a much more strategic collection policy. It’s interesting to see how the parameters of strategic collecting are reflecting the college’s priorities, to include artist’s book acquisition based on issues of diversity and inclusion, changing curriculum (emphasis on interdisciplinary, digital scholarship, etc.), and pedagogy. 


    Bowdoin College student printmakers examining book forms at a special collection pop-up Zine Fest

    CM: Building our artists’ books collection has been so enjoyable. At first, I was buying from mostly artists we already had represented, but as I began to see the potential for using artists’ books as teaching tools that shaped the ways that I looked for books. Knowing that many of our students are going to become health professionals or scientists, I look for books that have some relevance to them. I am always on the lookout for books that represent health and illness experience, environmental themes, marine life—anything that bridges the gap between the arts and sciences. I like experiments with form, as well as really traditional forms for their value in teaching what a book can be.

    MV: Yes, I totally agree!
    CM: Also, my goodness, it is fun to spend someone else’s money! Of course, I am accountable to my collection development policy, colleagues, and institution, but within those constraints, it’s an incredible thing to be able to buy the first book someone has sold to a collection, or to support the career of a hard-working artist. This is the part that brings a lot of joy to me as a curator—knowing that when I build our collection, I am supporting a community of artists who have nurtured the culture of book-making in Maine. My budget is small, but each year, I buy a few pieces to add to my teaching palette and the collection becomes richer and more representative.


    Cathleen Miller serves as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.  She holds an MLS from Drexel University and an MA in English with a concentration in Poetry from Temple University.  Cathleen’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies.

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven is the Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian at Bowdoin College. Marieke holds a BA in Art History from Smith College and an MA in American and New England Studies with concentration in Public Culture and History from the University of Southern Maine. 



  • 01 May 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cathleen Miller and Marieke Van Der Steenhoven discuss the artist’s book from the perspective of academic special collections librarians who teach with artists' books. As a potentially transformative site of encounter, Miller and Van Der Steenhoven share their experiences and articulate the pedagogical power specific to artists' books.


    Students from the University of Southern Maine engage with artists' books from the Maine Women Writers Collection 

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: What was your first experience with artists' books? What was that encounter like? How does that inform how you interact with them now? 

    Cathleen Miller: The first time I encountered an artist’s book was in a graduate poetry seminar. My professor took our class to the library’s special collections to look at some of their fine print books, zines, and artists' books. This was probably my first visit to an archive and it was formative as I developed my own work, and later, my career path. I remember the feeling of handling these new (to me) objects. I felt a sense of excitement, possibility, and maybe a bubbling up of joy because finally, I could see a way in which my art-making and my poetry-writing could come together. When I went back to school, I had chosen writing over art. I believed that I could only do one thing—that I had to choose between the things that made me feel most alive. That class—the two hours I spent enchanted in the archives—changed my course as a writer, and arguably changed my whole life course. I try to think of that impact when I bring artists’ books into the classroom; I try to create the possibility of an opening up into some new understanding.

    MV: Similarly, I first encountered artists' books in an academic setting, in an undergraduate art history seminar. I had no idea what an artist’s book was, I had never been in a rare book room before, and I did not know what I was walking into. Week after week I returned to the rare book room to look and respond to books, thinking about form, content, and reader experience; by the end of the semester I had interacted with dozens of examples and experienced something transformative that continues to manifest in how I approach my work today. The contemplative, meditative directive wholly informed my interactions with all sorts of objects moving forward. And the framework for that class wholly influences how I teach with artists' books now.  There is power in the tangible, contemplative, and exploratory experience of artists' book, and I think we’d both agree in the reading room and classroom.  


    Romano Hänni's Typo Bilder Buch (2012) and students from Maine College of Art with Bowdoin's book arts collection

    CM:  How do you teach with artists' books? How does it differ then how you teach with other materials? If there is a distinction, then why does that distinction exist? 

    MV:  I work at a fairly small liberal arts institution and the instruction program I’ve developed emphasizes active learning for information, archival, and visual literacy. The emphasis on active learning places the student at the center of our instruction design, providing the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning to build transferable skills that directly promote students’ academic growth and development.  Artist’s books are incredible teaching tools for active learning: the form demands engagement and when well executed, a work forces students to confront what preconceived notions they have about the book: its form, the act/performance of reading, and the transmission of knowledge. Artists' books inherently encourage students (and all readers) to consider how form influences content and vice versa. When I design instruction sessions around artist’s books there may be a bit of introductory material, a few words about handling, and perhaps some guiding questions – but mostly it is giving students the space and time to engage with the work.


    Bowdoin College art history students engage with artists' books in Library's special collections classroom

    CM: Because the college where I work is not liberal arts, but has more of a focus on science and health care, artists' books are often the means for me to get students into the archives or get the books into their classrooms. The form of the artist’s book is inherently flexible, and the visual nature of the experience provides an opening to have conversations that might not otherwise happen in an environmental science or narrative medicine class.  When I bring artists' books into the classroom, I try to guide students in ways of looking at the books as objects since most of them are unfamiliar with this format. I attempt to give students context for the experience, relating it to the reason they are using objects in the classroom. I think the experience of using artists' books is different from interacting with other materials because students have less preconceived notions about what they are and what they mean. There is room for surprise and inspiration. The texts speak differently than, say, diaries or letters or novels. In my opinion, the form demands a different relationship.

    MV: I agree, as a pedagogical tool, artists' books open up dialogue. I work with classes across the humanities and social sciences and use artists' books for instruction in visual arts, history, languages, literature, and sociology classes. The form disrupts or resituates conceptions, perceived narratives, and more. Because of their time-basedness and the performative aspects of reading, artists' books also offer a place to acknowledge a sensory experience that is not always present in academic discourse.  


    Cathleen Miller serves as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.  She holds an MLS from Drexel University and an MA in English with a concentration in Poetry from Temple University. Cathleen’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies.

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven is the Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian at Bowdoin College. Marieke holds a BA in Art History from Smith College and an MA in American and New England Studies with concentration in Public Culture and History from the University of Southern Maine. 


  • 15 Apr 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In my previous blog post,  I introduced an ongoing research project about gender and print production in artists' books. In this post, I’ll share the early results – some expected, some surprising, and some that call for additional research. (Before I dive in, let me begin with the caveat that my sample sizes are still very small and I will continue to work through many more data points for a longer analysis.)

    I began by questioning whether letterpress was indeed a women-dominated area of book art (in relative terms, since around 75% of book artists are women). Having looked at books from a university collection, a dealer, a journal and a self-reported survey, I can definitively say: yes – but in relative terms, not by a huge degree. 22% of artists’ books by women were letterpress printed compared to 19% by men. Letterpress accounted for 17% of books by non-binary artists (but a sample size of only two artists makes this data inconclusive).

    I also wanted to find out if offset printing was dominated by male artists. Again, yes. 11% of books by men were offset printed compared to only 6% by women. The discrepancy here is significantly larger than with letterpress – men were 74% more likely to print offset, whereas women were only 20% more likely to print letterpress than men.




    So, what results weren’t expected? It turns out letterpress is overrepresented in collaborations between men and women. Based off the individual numbers, letterpress should account for around 20% of mixed-gender collaborations. Instead, a whopping 62% of collaborative books are letterpress printed. This is even more remarkable given the physical constraints of a letterpress collaboration versus processes that more easily accommodate virtual collaboration online. So what does this mean? Though possible that letterpress is either better suited for executing collaborations, or somehow better at inspiring them, I think this shows that artists choose to collaborate as a means of accessing a press. Are these collaborations the artistic equivalent of helping your friends move because you own a pick-up truck?


    Access to offset printing seems to require a different strategy. Offset-printed books were much more likely to be published by an organization than those by other methods. It’s difficult to assess this factor clearly since publishers are also more likely to place books in collections and send them for review, but that only illustrates the importance of these organizations in the field. For example, 80% of the offset-printed “books reviewed” from [my current sample of] The Journal of Artists’ Books (JAB) were published by or at an organization. If the 74% disparity in adoption of offset reflects a disparity in access (as suggested by the preponderance of publishers), then this number is quite problematic. 

    The outsized influence of relatively few institutions (for publishing, collecting, reviewing, etc.) is an expected feature of such a young, small field. It requires a researcher to approach each question from multiple angles and look for causes and connections in unexpected places. Since I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, and I hope to encourage others to look at the influence of social factors on the production and reception of artists’ books, I will close by examining some some of these methodological contingencies. 

    It is critical to understand the interrelation of technologies. I found that the University of Missouri’s collection represents letterpress much more than offset, which seems peculiar since letterpress is not a strength of the art department. However, hand paper-making is particularly strong at MU. By fulfilling their mandate to support the curriculum – in this case emphasizing books with handmade paper – MU special collections has built an impressive showcase of letterpress printing as well.

    A related point is the need to understand how organizations’ policies shape the visible tip of the artists’ book iceberg (previously a field, apologies for the mixed metaphor). Collections and dealers show only what is bought, not what is made. JAB focuses on editions, and Printed Matter, for example, requires a minimum edition size of 100. I couldn’t have done the research I’ve presented thus far without catalogues, but the results of the survey I created offer a much richer view of the discipline, including the visibility of non-binary gender, and the inspiring, dizzying numbers of books created (but probably not all sold) by some practitioners. It is clear that artist’s books demand examination from various perspectives all along the communications circuit. 

    I am still compiling data, so please do fill out my survey if you haven’t already. Thank you to everyone one who has.


    Levi Sherman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer in Columbia, Missouri.


  • 01 Apr 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The organization Ladies of Letterpress has the tongue in cheek tagline, “dedicated to the proposition that a woman’s place is in the print shop.” My involvement in the book arts community has given me the impression (no pun intended) that letterpress is indeed a woman-dominated area. I’ve decided to see if the numbers confirm that perception, and compare the number of artists’ books letterpress and offset printed by gender. My preliminary research at University of Missouri’s library does show that letterpress is more common in artists’ books by women than men. I will discuss those results and methods in greater detail in my next blog post, but the basic approach is simple – counting artists’ books in collections, dealer/retailer websites and reviews, and noting the gender of the artist and the book’s print production method. I also hope you will help me with this research, which I’ll address at the end of this post. First, a few questions.

    Why does this matter?

    Gendered presumptions could limit women’s access to, or interest in, offset printing, causing artists to miss out on large press runs, low unit cost, and photographic reproduction. After all, the Ladies of Letterpress tagline was aimed at very real and recent pushback that women artists faced in this field. Additionally, if qualities of letterpress, for example, are theorized reductively in gendered terms, we run the risk of missing those qualities in other processes or failing to notice other qualities and potentialities in letterpress. These concerns also affect the reception (criticism, scholarship, collecting, etc.) of both processes. Gender-biased reception comes, sadly, as no surprise, but a more subtle concern brings me to my next question.

    Why am I writing about this on the Book Art Theory Blog?

    I believe gendered theorizing of print production may lead critics and scholars to attribute aesthetic considerations to aspects of an artist’s book that are the result of pragmatic, economic factors. Take, for example, the association between letterpress and the oft-spoken phrase “the materiality of language.” Presumably the handling of type, the physical formation of words, make letterpress the perfect tool for exploring this concept. But the materiality of language has as much to do with the fact that written language has a visual form; that it is always also a picture. This important idea can be explored as readily through offset as letterpress, so might the appeal of letterpress lay outside aesthetics?

    No doubt any medium or process will have unique features, or a combination of features, but I hope the brief example above shows the value of considering what else may be at play (and at stake). Access to studios and residencies, publishers, training, mentorship and, of course, money all play a role. These elements of production may be especially relevant to letterpress and offset, which have made their way to book arts from the male-dominated commercial printing industry. Museums, galleries, dealers, retailers, collectors, critics and scholars also bring with them gender disparities that I believe must be examined along with purely aesthetic interpretations of an artist’s work. Other studies have examined gender in print production more broadly (like the 2013 APA “State of Letterpress Questionnaire,” created by Kseniya Thomas), and I believe an examination of letterpress and offset within artists’ books specifically will reveal instructive similarities and differences.

    Why now?

    Neither offset nor letterpress are new to the field, and of course artists all along the gender spectrum have made important contributions in both mediums. However, a look at the gendered distribution of print production more broadly is important at a time when Risograph, print on demand and other technologies are reshaping the field. It is important to understand who has access to production technologies and what systems grant that access, explicitly or through market forces. I’ve focused initially on letterpress and offset for two reasons. First, they are commercial processes that retain gender dynamics from their industrial roots. Second, offset is the new letterpress: cheap presses are plentiful as print shops scrap their offset duplicators for photocopiers. Simple computer-to-plate systems eliminate darkroom pre-press just as photopolymer brought letterpress into the digital world. These presses are powerful tools in the hands of an artist, and book arts will benefit if all artists can adopt and evolve offset the way women have letterpress.

    How can you help?

    If you make artists’ books, please take the time to fill out this anonymous survey. I’ve listed various print production methods so users can simply enter the numbers of books they have created using each. Users will also write in their gender identity. My survey encompasses all manner of print production methods. My initial analysis will focus on letterpress and offset for the reasons I’ve listed above, but I hope that myself and others will return to this data to learn more about trends in other print production methods. Feedback is welcome. My next post will discuss the challenges with my other research methods, primarily quantitative bibliography, so know that your participation is very valuable.

    Note: Thanks to India Johnson for bringing the “State of Letterpress Questionnaire” to my attention. The results can be seen here.


    Levi Sherman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer in Columbia, Missouri.


  • 15 Mar 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shooting, artists looked for a way to make a difference in the conversation taking place across our nation. Ellen Knudson of Crooked Letter Press, Gainesville, FL and Lisa Beth Robinson of Somnambulist Tango Press, Greenville, NC organized the Enough is Enough! print portfolio collaboration to benefit Everytown for Gun Safety. The portfolio is a current example of book art as “an agent of social change,” to quote Johanna Drucker (The Century of Artists’ Books). Everytown is a movement of Americans working together to end gun violence and build safer communities. Gun violence touches every town in America. This group seeks to take common-sense steps that will save lives and make a change as everyday Americans continue plans towards a safer future.

    This series of prints works to bring the conversation to the forefront. Examples of prints that are striking and cause heartache include Jessica Peterson’s type only solution outlining a child’s early years in a timeline and how long, in contrast, the shooting took place. The timeline is heartbreaking in its minute details of motherhood, our worries, our fears, our responsibilities, all contrasting to those few seconds of a failed system. We all face risks every day with our children and her piece speaks to the profound loss when a child dies.


    A piece printed by Eileen Wallace equates dots on the page to the number of shootings in the United States each year; it also relates the cranks of the press to the number of people killed between January 1, 2013 and February 15, 2018. The visual of the dots and their relationship to the labor required to produce the print leads us to imagine the repetitive motion, almost like a ticking rhythm of a clock.


    These complex relationships of image and content are in contrast to the simplicity of other prints in the portfolio. In “HOME GROWN HATE,” Jarred Elrod presents the graphic symbol of a baby in an American flag holding a gun, which points to what we hold as a right from birth, the right to bear arms. The image of this right, placed in the hands of a babe, jars the viewer. Another strong print is by the artist Denise Bookwalter, in which she shows her two young daughters alone in space, at the bottom of which is the call for gun reform: “PROTECT OUR CHILDREN NOT GUNS.” Bookwalter, also in Florida, shared the loss of innocence for the students of Parkland on February 14, 2018. They will never be able to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day again. The pain of this date will be seared in their cultural awareness, as is 9/11 for all Americans. These images challenge our idea of who we are fighting for and how the future will be affected.


    The poetic simplicity of the prints by Mary C. Bruno, Jessica Spring, and Dan Elliott are shown below. The target, the color red, and school-lined paper are all symbols we are familiar with and point to the need for change. The colors and minimal elements of these pages and others express a powerful call, “#NOTONEMORE.” The text on the print  that begins “You must get an education” suggests a reality that is as true today as in our history. The straightforward “FUCK YOUR G*NS” with a pointed finger speaks of the frustration of nothing changing to prevent these tragedies and to the fact that g*ns are now the dirty word in our divisive culture. All of these pieces speak to the cycle we are in of accepting gun violence as a part of our modern world.


    The print by Mare Blocker with an image of Emma Gonzalez below Sister Mary Corita’s quote draws on hope in the darkness for those living through the experience of losing friends and family at the hands of a gunman. Protests and lack of action in the face of devastating loss continue to be a part of the national dialogue. A work by Andrew Huot with a map of guns in the shape of the United States with red dots representing mass shootings in the recent past and a Edna St. Vincent Millay poem points to our becoming desensitized as the number of shootings continues to grow. All of these voices honor the dead and support an organization that works to implement meaningful change.


    The creators of the idea for Enough is Enough! print portfolio created a strong call for gun control. Lisa Beth Robinson of Somnambulist Tango Press calls for “BAN THE 2ND” as a statement we should all consider. The right to bear arms was created in a very different time and place than where we are now as we shoot our fellow citizens. The work by Ellen Knudson of Crooked Letter Press shows the path that has resulted in America’s being compared to a war zone and the sad reality of the loss of the lives of innocents of all ages, from all walks of life. Both raise the question of why we are not doing more to make gun regulations a priority.


    The techniques in the print portfolio include classic letterpress with text, linoleum cut, and screen printing. The participating artists are professionals in the field of book arts: printers, binders, educators, and fine artists. This portfolio is our offering to the future of common-sense gun safety and regulation of assault and military-style weapons. The portfolio is introduced by this cogent statement: “As artists and printers, we created this print exchange to visually address the issue of gun violence, the sale of assault weapons in the United States, and the devastation and fear the problem has brought upon the citizens of this country.” All profits from the sale of the portfolio (through Vamp and Tramp) will go to Everytown for Gun Safety.

    Participating artists: Hannah Batsel; Mare Blocker — The MKimberly Press; Denise Bookwalter — Small Craft Advisory Press; Brian Borchardt & Jeffrey Morin — Seven Hills Press & Sailor Boy Press; Mary C. Bruno — Bruno Press; Dan Elliott — Pieces of Craft; Bridget Elmer — Flatbed Splendor Press; Jarred Elrod — Jet Pilot Designs; Caren Heft — Arcadian Press; Josh Hockensmith — Blue Bluer Books; Andrew Huot — Big River Bindery; Molly Kempson — Spotty Boy Press; Ellen Knudson — Crooked Letter Press; Craig Malmrose — Trade Union Press; Emily Martin — Naughty Dog Press; Penny McElroy — Five & Dime Press; Jessica Peterson — Paper Souvenir Press; Lisa Beth Robinson — Somnambulist Tango Press; Jessica Spring — Springtide Press; Ashley Taylor; Emily Tipps — High5 Press; Eileen Wallace — Mile Wide Press.


    Suzanne Powney is a book artist and letterpress printer, founder of BlackDog Letterpress in 2004. She explores themes of tactility, color, and pattern in her work. She is an Associate Professor of Art at Mississippi State University.


  • 01 Mar 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    As the coordinator of a book arts BFA program, I have recently been contemplating the possibilities for a kind of program that focuses primarily on the exploration of “the book” as it is currently situated in our post-digital world. The term “post-digital,” as I am employing it, suggests that digital technology is now so commonplace that it no longer holds the revolutionary position it once did. Consequently, a post-digital book arts program would be one in which print and digital media co-exist, no longer forced into a narrative that pits one against the other. Such a program would, necessarily, acknowledge the traditional practices of the field all the while scrutinizing the roles that they once held (or continue to hold), considering what it means to make books in an ever-shifting “now.” Such a program questions whether the “book arts” of decades past are still — and should remain — those of today. The following is a brief sketch of what some aspects of a post-digital book arts program might entail.

    Thinking about this hypothetical program provides the opportunity to consider which long-standing aspects of book arts education are still relevant and which might be de-emphasized. Doing so might allow for the inclusion of some of the activities and theories circulating within adjacent fields (design, literature, publishing, digital art, &c.) that have yet to widely break into the conversation within the greater book arts community.

    As much as feasible, I am curious to see a program which attempts to teach “the book” as a subject/framework dispassionate about specific media. Greater emphasis would be placed on exploring and developing a conscious and practical understanding of the fundamental conceptual underpinnings of the book, in particular those that can be observed across multiple media. Students would investigate how to enhance, combine, and otherwise manipulate these concepts to enact an idea in book form, seeking to answer that most elemental question: what do books do and how? Such resources as Keith Smith’s Structure of the Visual Book and Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read (which represent more serviceable inclusions within a less-than-robust selection of literature) could help provide a foundation of theory for such investigations and the development of a pedagogical approach.

    No medium, material, or process would be considered implicit in the creation of a book within a post-digital program. Other than the elemental framework of concepts that manifest in books, such a program should take very little as given when drawing upon precedent established by myriad book arts practices and pedagogies. A “media agnostic” approach to book arts education would give latitude for decisions of media and material to arise from the development of concept and content rather than being assumed or assigned. This would require an active effort to avoid prescription and encourage students to explore media of interest outside of the context of a core book arts curriculum (a potential challenge for programs not affiliated with institutions that provide a broader arts curriculum). Additionally, it would be advantageous to advocate for the use of widely accessible media in order to help students maintain continuity in their studio practices after graduation without the need to adapt to losing access to processes with high economic and logistical barriers to entry.

    A post-digital book arts program would promote active engagement in the flourishing discourse and activities taking place around the field of publishing (“traditional,” “experimental,” and as “artistic practice”). Students would be asked to think with new depth about what it means to “create a public” through a work — “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to [works] and their circulation” [1]. They would also be encouraged to develop practices that could nimbly participate in emerging spheres of activity such as “urgent publishing” [2] or “publishing as intervention” [3]. Practitioners and theorists such as Silvio Lorusso, Paul Soulellis, Eva Weinmayr, Temporary Services, and Publication Studio, among others, would provide groundwork from which students could launch new approaches.

    In this context, the weight of the concept of the edition might be lightened, making it no longer an exercise in multiplication and the attainment of technical uniformity, but embracing it as a “spatially discontinuous object” [4] shared by a public (a public which, again, is created by its circulation). Along with this, room might also be made for the version, a concept from the digital world, through which an idea can be given the time and freedom to emerge and evolve, and the hybrid or differential work [5], where content exists within a constellation of digital and analog formats with no one format being definitive.

    This is by no means an exhaustive consideration of what might be possible should a program adopt a post-digital approach to book arts. Where any of the above is already happening in current programs, I am very much interested to hear how it is being approached in the classroom through exercises and projects and articulated in pedagogical discussions. That said, aspects of this post-digital philosophy have started to be implemented within the book arts program at Montserrat College of Art [6, 7] as we examine our curriculum and our vision for the type of graduate we would like to see emerge from the program.

    References

    1.   Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics: Zone Books, 2002, 66.

    2.   Soulellis, Paul. “Urgency Lab,” https://soulellis.com/teaching/urgencylab/index.html

    3.   Weinmayr, Eva. “Publishing as Intervention,” https://fk.hfk-bremen.de/eva-weinmayr-publishing-as-intervention/

    4.   Van Laar, Timothy. “Printmaking: Editions as Artworks.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 14, no. 4 (October 1980): 99.

    5.   Perloff, Marjorie. “Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,”  http://marjorieperloff.com/essays/digital-poetics-and-the-differential-text/

    6.   Hanscom, Bill. “Approaching the Book” [Course Syllabus] http://bit.ly/2UaJMVQ

    7.   Hanscom, Bill. “Independent Book Publishing & Production” [Course Syllabus] https://bit.ly/2IzzYDr


    Bill Hanscom is an assistant professor at Montserrat College of Art where he serves as coordinator for the BFA book arts program, and a conservation technician for special collections at the Weissman Preservation Center within Harvard Library. He also has meandering and sporadic studio, writing, and research practices.


  • 15 Feb 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Before the end of my last post, I brought up the example of an artistic (or say: creative) versus scholarly (or say: intellectual) approach to knowing and thinking through a concept. This is because I believe there is an inherent tension between these two approaches. A long time cheerleader for the research-based practice, I have always argued neither approach should be valued more than the other; that both provide the reader, viewer, et cetera, a specific pathway to knowledge. However, as I also mentioned in the last post, there are certain instances or contexts where one’s use may be more appropriate, or better serve a certain purpose. [1] 

    Context can be understood as conceptually related to frame, or the process of framing. [2] In making such an association, context understood as synonymous to frame may (at least semantically) allude to a structure. Though, as relative terms, I think this requires some tweaking. Rather than align context directly with structure, I would say: the integrity (structural; framework) of a given concept varies depending on the particular context (frame) in which it is encountered. 

    The reason I make this point is because I associate structural integrity with the previous quality of concreteness as one of foundation. The context dictates the stability of a particular concept’s foundation. This noted, I will situate context as separate from the other qualities in the list I made in Part 1. What is the context then? Or, what is/are the frame/s I am evaluating? 

    Book and publication are two frameworks, whose frames overlap. This implies a non-mutual exclusivity, and a bit of entanglement. While they do share something, there is also all of that which they do not share. It is not that a book is a type of publication, because it is published. It is a type of publication when it is published. Simply put: not all publications are books, and not all books are publications. Of course, the question is then: why does this matter? 

    I’ll return to the personal baggage I bring to the table. As of late, I have found myself growing more and more fickle with the increasingly flimsy framework of “publishing” or the “publication” as/in artistic practice. This fickleness is located within myself, and my work, which evokes this nomenclature. It has occurred to me that “publishing as artistic practice,” [3] at least stateside, as a conceptual framework, feels to have been haphazardly slapped onto the already shaky framework of book in an effort to theoretically expand the book. Yet, in this way, it’s a retrofit—and if the previous statement is taken as a given, the framework of book falls within publication and not the other way around. [4]

    This retrofit is well-intentioned (from the outset it appears laden with the potential to help define a new contemporary field!), but it has been launched out of a thing of which it already was a part, and to be more of a “catch-all” for whatever else is out there that we want to account for—or bring in to our field. Poetically, the book is increasingly unstable (nod to Aaron Cohick here), but at the end of the day, when it comes down to types, the book and a long list of other material publications (see screenshots taken from Wikipedia below for quick reference) are what they are. What is the context for publishing, for the publication, in/as artists’ books? My belief is that by bracketing things and activities that may best be understood strictly as publication arts under book arts is a considerable misstep. 

    Is there a point when we have taken too much “poetic license”— when the affective elasticity stretches to a point of simply snapping? I would argue, yes. And especially yes if that which it has stretched to, it is actually a part of? Is it really that horrible to say, this is something else and should be stated as such?  

    While art may be considered most powerful because or when it challenges established and preconceived notions, ideas, values, etc., within the context of “art practices” and writing about “art practices” the artist’s book, and now publication (which, is not a new phenomena at all!), may be looking like the end of a well-played game of Jenga. The fact is that our understanding of book arts is ultimately tethered to our understanding of the the book. This, however, cannot be applied to the publication. (See Fig. 1 below.) 

     Fig.1: elaborating on significance of types as formats within the process of contextualization

    It is a matter of destabilizing the structural integrity of the object as a concept through non-specificity (or elasticity); frame within a frame ad infinitum. We understand the history of the book, but do we fully grasp the multi-nuanced complexity of the history of the/a publication(s) in such a way to bend it? Especially if we consider the implications of my referring to a pluralized thing—“a/the publication(s)”—it alludes and points to multiple formats, or sub-types, and a multiplicity of histories. (See reference again Fig. 1, and see Fig. 2 below.) 


     Fig. 2: screenshots from Wikipedia for examples of specific types of publication

    This does not discount that some publishable formats are also, of course, direct descendants of the book, or that they too were designed to perform similar tasks and share similar qualities. But the fact is they are different, and have a specific history and materiality that should be accounted for as they become mobilized within our curricula and our practices. To distinguish between doesn’t hurt book arts, but may actually allow a/the publication(s) to offer what it has promised—perhaps even more—and actually provide the book with more robustness afforded by a critical untangling.   

    I will continue this discussion in my September blog post.

    --

    Notes:

    [1] Appropriateness should be understood as “more suitable to the given circumstances” and does not necessarily indicate a higher value.  

    [2] This is specifically in reference to: Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986). Frame analysis or frame theory is a social theory research method much utilized by communication studies. It is particularly apt to consider here, given the media involved in publication share the common purpose of communicating, and are inherently social. Further, if one of the draws of publication as an artistic framework is its quality of social performativity and engagement, it would be useful to use in more critical application. Here it is in reference, but as a more complex method, is not implemented; ‘context’ and ‘frame’ will suffice.  

    [3] See: Annette Gilbert and Hannes Bajohr, Publishing as Artistic Practice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).

    [4] An example of this retrofit can be found in comparing the Clive Phillpot’s Artists Books Diagram to its 2013 revision by Kochi Kione (HalfLetterpress).   


    H.R. Buechler is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and founder of OXBLOOD publishing. Her work is broadly concerned with historic and contemporary communication technology, classification, and the valorization of aesthetic objects. 



  • 01 Feb 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    There is a door. The door is of worn wood, maybe oak, with a brass handle tarnished from years of turns and turnings and entries and exits. This door is much like many other doors which line a familiar hallway that so many have passed in, out, down, up, through—generally about. 

    Of note is the location of this handle on what is generally understood by the occupants to be an interior. 

    It is a doorway. 

    Of note is the relation of this handle on this door to handles on other doors facing this interior that has seen nothing but a continual growth of occupants, say luminous beings, of which are found amassing around one particular door. Or another door. 

    There, is another door. 

    There, is another doorway. A light creeps in from just below the sheet metal mounted upon its base, a metal lined with rubber stripping, which here, seems less tight, perhaps slightly ill-fitting. This light is glimmering, bouncing off another piece of material, call it a composite metal, situated on the floor just beneath the aforementioned strip said to be ill-affixed to the door above. 

    Strip parallel to strip, ill-fittings, light seeping—qualities of distinction. This secondary metal, the composite, the retrofit, defines (in some way) a here-ness or there-ness, as light crosses the gap—a threshold—between metals, between above and below, now and again, and this light juts wildly into a void of unknown expansiveness.

    There is a light crossing the threshold. 

    There are lights seeking to cross the threshold. 

    There are lights. Occupants. Beings— 

    Particles—scattered into this great unknown, that must be somewhat known for them to find themselves nestling in like lights in the sky waiting for a world to be shaped around them or to shape that world as they accumulate. Yet, part of them remain just on the other side, on the interior, perhaps penetrating more well traversed doorways, fully crossing their thresholds of brass, lead, and gold and resting in their well structured exteriors. 

    But still, for whatever reason, there is an increase in activity at this particular threshold, where we are, in the present-past, forever unable to self-actualize in an always unraveling conceptual future. We should think of this activity as an amassment of luminescence waiting to be heated, rather than water at a dam, as these two phenomena are not synonymous; they are qualitatively distinct.   

    So, my question is: what is keeping us from fully crossing this threshold? Is it a matter of articulation?

    *

    It would seem only appropriate to continue to appropriate the use of interiors (their implicit exteriors) and doorways, passageways, openings, and expansiveness, or well-traversed and well-defined, and fracturing or fractured, and light as devices to begin to, well, open the floor on a subject that I find of acute concern: contemporary artists books [versus/and/or?] publications—what they are and perhaps what they are not, and where the blurring between them actually occurs. 

    Despite how ill-defined the book may be and consequently equally ill-defined the artists book may be [1], everyone who works with these “objects” (here: this can be as much a physical thing as it can be a conceptual framework) seem to have their own understanding for what it is and how to identify it. And, the writer is no exception. In this foray, exposé, meandering—me/wanderingit may just be better to agree (best we can) that within the realm of artistic activity (or matters of aesthetic production) sometimes we simply do not have the right word (rather, terms). Further, one could suggest that to produce from, within, and outside of the multitude of disciplinary fields that funnel in and out of the artist book honestly may not require any sort of unified concreteness at all. Since, if there is something to be seen as concrete, it will simply be challenged. 

    As stated, the writer is no exception to carrying a set of predefined notions. 

    The bulk of my current research activities over the past 3 years has been concerned with (the) publication, and not exclusively as a zone of artistic activity, but by its significance in the history of and current employment in communication media. At present, this work is positioned as a matter of classification [2]. While my artistic practice is crucial to understanding the affective elasticity of any particular concept, I want to acknowledge that this artistic-forward methodology has its limits. At a certain point, some concepts necessitate the restrictions and rigor of traditional scholarship. For the purpose of this series, I will be focusing on and utilizing the artistic (in this case, poetic) method in an effort to highlight its limits so that I may better argue for the unsung potentials of specificity.   

    So, let us return to the preceding poetic foray. At the same time, keep in mind the previous poetic forays it embodies. In doing so, we can begin to draw out some similarities:

    + an understanding of a space, as constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, imagined, etc. 

    + an understanding of a form, as mutually and non-mutually exclusive from a space, constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, imaged, etc. 

    + an understanding of parts, as that which construct and are deconstructed through restructuring, structuring, and imagining, etc. 

    + an understanding of process, whereby parts, form, and space gain relativity through physical and/or mental handling. 

    + an understanding of activity, as a quality of process(ing), but also that which manifests beyond an initial making (or handling), and may better account for the thing-constructed’s actual lifecycle and should be thoroughly considered when…we think of understanding the context where all qualities engage. 

    I would like to instead return to the supposition that “to produce from, within, and outside of the multitude of disciplinary fields that funnel in and out of the artist’s book may not require any sort of unified concreteness at all.” In this supposition we can highlight the word concreteness as a quality of a foundation. This allows us to first: see them as relatable to one another, and second: relating to the previous qualities of something constructed (form/space) of particular parts by way of specific process that involve a certain activity manifesting in a given environment (context). The tethering of these qualities is significant. The quality of their tethering is contingent on their context. 

    Context, as we know, is everything.

    --

    Note

    [1] I encourage anyone to visit the entry for ‘book’ in the appropriate volume of the complete Oxford English Dictionary, and would also encourage one to look at ‘publish’ or ‘publication’ moving forward.

    [2] If you ask Google to define classification you’ll get: “the action or process of classifying something according to shared qualities or characteristics.” In my case, I am interested in terms as classification frameworks and the degrees of agency these frameworks afford the qualities they contain. 


    H.R. Buechler is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and founder of OXBLOOD publishing. Her work is broadly concerned with historic and contemporary communication technology, classification, and the valorization of aesthetic objects. 




  • 15 Jan 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    On page one, Michelle Ray’s book The Cave Protection Act of 2013  defines the cave as “[a]n empty space, void, receptacle, musty smelling and awaiting deposit of trash or carcass; hiding space for weapons, unsent love letters; glory hole; home to…animals obliged to live underground.” The book concerns the decades-burning underground anthracite coal mine fire in Centralia, PA.While a plethora of popular media have addressed the fire and relocation of most of the borough’s residents (including a This American Life podcast and a feature-length documentary), Ray’s work slips genre to engage the calamity and peculiarity of the Centralia fire via language, form, materiality, production method, and typography.

    The book’s simple structural design generates a surprisingly complex object. Four accordions of varying panel width are stacked then sewn through two opposing valleys, creating a layered V-shape in the center flanked by four pages on either side. Each page is successively wider than the next, which adds to the layered effect. The form speaks immediately to its subject; the reader peers into the curious formation of the folded depths as into a miniature cave. Holes in the pages lend additional perspective complexity and affect the movement of light and shadow through the textblock. 


    Printed on a neutral, machine-made paper, The Cave Protection Act bears some resemblance to a government document. The tiered pages allow for semicircular thumb tabs to indicate sections. Closed, it resembles a pile of papers atop an institutional desk. But the trappings of officialdom are gestures, rather than an overarching conceit—pointing to the role of governmental agencies—broadly with regards to land protection and more specifically to events in Centralia—from the beginnings of the fire in a mine-pit-turned-landfill to the declaration of eminent domain that relocated its residents.


    The layout supports two textual modes. The first part, in landscape format, presents the language of the titular “Act,” which might be described as poetic legalese. The Act is broken into numbered sections and lettered subsections. Pale green text in a larger point size floats on two pages, offering speluncean didacticisms: “The cave should pose a question, rather than an answer,” and, “There needs to be room in the cave for contemplation.”


    The second part, in portrait format, has a lyrical voice, loose poetic structure, and reduced ironic distance. The alternating orientation requires constant rotation of the book literally to consider the problem from multiple perspectives.The divisions between parts, however, are porous (like the textblock and the ground in Centralia); the intimate voice of part two seeps into the bureaucratic language of part one; for example, from section 2A, “No person shall be held liable for injuries. The older I get, the closer the acts of laughing and crying become.”

    Ray’s production methods also engage her concepts. Laser engraving leaves a trace via the removal of material, visually supporting the idea that “there is meaning and identity to be found in natural erasure” (sec. 1A). Laser cutting leaves a signature burn; in this case the laser is both an efficient tool and a reference to the fire burning underground.


    The imagery was created using 3D imaging software. Its technical acuity and fineness of detail resemble an architect’s plan. Laser-etched circles and lines radiate as abstract diagrams. Line drawings of identical houses interact—scattered and sparse, then crowded and overlapping. The forms are skeletal, non-specific representations, whose meaning changes based on their relationships to other house forms.


    Section 1C reads, “Identity starts with the home. A home will remind you of who you are, ground you in your you-ness. Place is her anchor. In the absence of a physical home, would-be dwellers begin to ask the real questions of their place.” This speaks to the impact of the underground fire on community in the literal quagmire of Centralia. Simply structured and thoughtfully designed and produced, The Cave Protection Act quietly “poses question[s], rather than…answer[s].” It doesn’t explain the origin or the science of the fire; the methods tried and money spent fighting it; nor does it retell the narrative of the political turmoil and conflict among and surrounding the community. It subtly alludes to Centralia and the strangeness of a particular environmental reality precipitated by human land use amid a broader exploration of home, community, absence, and presence.


    This blog post is adapted from a paper presented at the twelfth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. 

    Photos taken by the author in the Rare Book Department of Special Collections at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.


    Emily Tipps is Program Manager and Assistant Librarian (Lecturer) at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, and the proprietor of High5 Press. 


  • 01 Jan 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Where strictly textual books must always grapple with the challenges of conveying meaning through abstract signs, the multi-faceted artist’s book can employ the visual, tactile, and inter-mediated to engage its concepts. Artists’ books—through engagement with materials, structure, production, scale, action, text, texture, color, and image—are well positioned to participate in environmental narratives and dialogs. As (typically) sequential, book forms are ideal to render or interpret environmental change. Lin Charlston’s 2011 book Fragment by Fragment: Signs of the Peat Bog Disperse into the Wind navigates a particular instance of environmental destruction using unique visual-textual methods.


    Fragment was shown in an exhibition “in which six artists responded to a damaged peat bog in the Black Mountains of Wales.” The book acknowledges its materiality immediately: “Main book constituents: cellulose, lignin, lipids, dyes. Main peat constituents: cellulose, lignen, humic breakdown substances, lipids.” Here, Charlston effectively asserts that the book and bog are materially analogous. Notably, the book does not wait to deliver concept; this assertion appears in the front matter alongside the standard bibliographic information. 


    The bulk of Fragment is digitally printed in Peatbog, a font Charlston designed for the project.She describes the process in her artist’s statement: “I made hundreds of drawings of tiny fragments of peat. En masse, the drawings were transformed into a written language, obscure and unfathomable, reminiscent of Xu Bing's Book from the Sky.” Unlike Bing’s unreadable asemic marks, Charlston’s text is obscure but decipherable. Its legibility is challenging enough that the casual reader might give up. (It took me an hour to decipher a paragraph, so I was relieved to find the same text repeated throughout the book—the same landscape marked over time.)

    The book is bound as a pamphlet, opening into a 21” x 6” landscape format, upon which the erosion of the literal landscape of the peat bog is enacted. Two tissue end-leaves, in shades of green, overlay the first page of text. The tissue is fragile like the flora blanketing the peat bog.


    On the first spread, three lines of text in a clear roman typeface provide the ecological baseline of the peat bog narrative. These lines are printed in green and brown—representing the “coverlet of sphagnum moss, brown moss, grasses, and other specialized damp-loving flora” they describe. Below this are substrata of text, printed in black in the Peatbog font. This visual matter triples as language, micro-image (derived from drawings of peat fragments), and macro-image—an abstracted, representational cutaway of the bog.


    The second spread makes a radical visual shift: a photographic image of a landscape horizon and sky, printed in fiery orange and purple, bleeds off the edges of the page. The landscape appears charred and the atmosphere tumultuous. The saturated color, realism, and singularity of this image mark it as an important moment—the damaging fire referred to in the text, an event that precipitates a turn in narrative and ecological momentum.  



    Ten subsequent spreads depict the systematic erosion of the landscape, with “signs” migrating from the tail to the head and off the page. The strata gradually deteriorate, with the final page being nearly blank. Aesthetically, there is nothing bothersome about this dissolution; on the contrary, as an abstract image the progress is pleasing—the pages well balanced with a predictable, almost meditative pace. 

    The anxiety of the piece stems from the tension between the work’s aesthetic values and its environmental critique. The peat (the signs, the meaning) is a resource. The difficulty of decipherment implies that attentiveness, research, and patience are key components in negotiating the complex of cultural, economic, and scientific factors affecting this resource. The problem can only be understood through careful study; in the meantime, the resource—wherein lies the very potential for understanding—dwindles. 


    Though the outlook appears bleak, a reader might encounter the turning of the final page with optimism. Following a solid black end-leaf, two fringes of delicate green emerge. The tabs of the tissue paper blanketing the initial page of the book could be simply a structural necessity, but the meticulousness of the book’s design suggest something more: new growth on the scarred bog. Furthermore, the repetition of the title at the end of the text suggests the book may be read backwards, reversing the erosion.


    This blog post is adapted from a paper presented at the twelfth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. 

    Photos taken by the author in the Rare Book Department of Special Collections at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.


    Emily Tipps is Program Manager and Assistant Librarian (Lecturer) at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, and the proprietor of High5 Press. 


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