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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.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

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  • 01 Jun 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The Book Arts Studio housed within the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library is home to a collection of approximately 20,000 photoengraving blocks that capture and preserve a surprisingly rich array of images from a world gone by. 

    The vast majority of the pieces in the collection were originally part of the collection of the Newcomen Society in North America. Established in 1923, its members were leaders from a variety of fields (industry, invention, transportation, communication, energy, mining, agriculture, economics, banking, insurance, education, and the law). Newcomen Society members addressed gatherings of their peers in talks focused on the history, triumphs, and challenges of their particular enterprise; these talks were held across the US and Canada. 

    Eventually the Newcomen Society in North America established a physical campus and headquarters in what is now the Philadelphia suburb of Exton, Pennsylvania. The campus, designed by architect Briton Martin, included offices, guest houses, a chapel, a bell tower with carillon, as well as many antique model steam engines. Also located on the campus was the Thomas Newcomen Memorial Library in Business History which housed some 2,700 volumes. 

    The business model of the Society also included Newcomen Publications, Inc. and an on-site print shop. The print shop produced a long-running series of pamphlets that served to document the presentations given at meetings. The booklets, which were generally paid for by the entity being recognized (the business or organization highlighted in the publication, whose leader had given one of the meeting addresses), were produced using a consistent design strategy for decades, and were illustrated first using both commissioned and antique engravings; later publications were illustrated primarily with photographs. With more than 2,500 institutions and organizations having been honored during the four decades the Newcomen Society was active, the number of commemorative booklets produced by Newcomen Publications, Inc., was significant.


    At its height, the Newcomen Society of North America had a membership roll of 17,000. Membership, however, declined significantly in the last part of the 20th century. The campus was sold; the collection of photoengraving blocks came to the University of Utah; the collection of antique engines was auctioned; and the Society officially disbanded in 2007. The organization’s remaining archives are housed in the National Museum of Industrial History located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 


    The University of Utah’s collection contains other photoengravings and zinc cuts, as well. These likely came from newspaper printers in Salt Lake City (the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News), as well as the University of Utah print shop. The provenance of individual pieces in the collection, however, has not been fully documented.

    The images on the physical objects are both photoengravings and line art that were etched onto thin zinc (sometimes magnesium or copper) sheets that were then trimmed and affixed to blocks of wood with small nails. The distance from the base of the block to the highest face of the engraving was calculated to 0.918 inches, the US industry “type high” printing standard.


    Cataloging the University of Utah’s collection began in earnest when the Book Arts Studio moved to its current location in the J. Willard Marriott Library in 2009. The engravings are housed in designated galley tray cabinets in the studio. The cataloging process involves cleaning and polishing the metal part of the block (this operation is largely limited to engravings that are extremely dirty, dusty, or appear to be stained or damaged); taking a proof of the image by printing it onto paper on a flatbed press; scanning the resulting proofs; assigning keywords and galley tray addresses to the scanned images; and, finally, adding an inventory number to the physical object.

    From 2010-2023, the resulting “Zinc Cut Catalog” information was made available through physical notebooks housed in the Book Arts Studio. Beginning in 2024, the physical catalog will be phased out and the photoengraving catalog eventually made available through the Marriott Library’s Digital Library Collections.

    More about this exciting development our next post.

    Sources: 

    Swearingen, John E. The Growth of Standard Oil Company (Indiana): 1889-1964. Princeton, NJ: Newcomen Society of North America, 1964.

    “Public Relations: The Newcomers,” Time Magazine, July 21, 1952, https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,859909,00.htm, accessed February, 2024

    Wikipedia. “Newcomen Society of the United States.” Last modified March 2, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcomen_Society_of_the_United_States


    mahala kephart, flutist by training and retired university development administrator, is a long‑time volunteer and student in the University of Utah’s Book Arts Studio. Work on printing and cataloging the photoengraving and zinc cut collection has proven to be a surprising marriage of the analog and digital worlds.


  • 15 May 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

     Warren Lehrer’s A Life in Books (2013) is one of my favorite contemporary novels. A Life in Books is Lehrer’s first novel, but as many of CBAA’s readers surely know, Lehrer has been composing artist books and experimenting with typography and multimedia since the late 1970s. Readers familiar with Lehrer’s earlier works as well as the history of artists books and book history more generally will find A Life in Books is not only an evocative love song to the book as object but a masterfully original and emotionally driven work of visual storytelling. A Life in Books also happens to be an exemplary multimodal book-archive.


    Warren Lehrer, A Life in Books, 2013, Goff Books. Front cover.

    The full title to Lehrer’s novel is A Life in Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley, The Long Awaited Memoir and Retrospective Monograph Featuring All 101 of Bleu Mobley’s Books.As its long title suggests, Lehrer’s novel is both a fictional memoir and a retrospective monograph written by a fictitious author and bookmaker named Bleu Mobley. Narrated from the confines of a prison cell, A Life in Books is Bleu’s 102nd and last book, transcribed from audiotapes, compiled and edited by a writer named Warren Lehrer, the real Lehrer’s fictional doppelganger. While I do not have the space to elaborate on how the novel explores issues of fictionality or matters of textual authenticity, nor do I wish to spoil the ending for those unfamiliar with the novel, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Bleu publishes a work of Fiction that he markets as a work of Non-Fiction, a kind of satirical hoax, written with the intention of exposing war crimes committed by the U.S. government—and that it is this literary scandal that eventually leads to Bleu’s imprisonment. 

    As a literary compendium of sorts, A Life in Books documents Bleu’s creative universe. It includes excerpts from 33 of his 101 published books, photographs of each of his 101 personally designed book covers, as well as book reviews, catalog copy, and artifacts from his personal archive—all woven together with Bleu’s life story. Much like Lehrer himself, Bleu experiments with all kinds of bookish forms. He creates letterpress books, scrolls, dos-à-dos books, accordion books, works of biblio-circuitry, VR book-installations, poetry on toilet paper, a mini television built into a book, flying poster poems, bookish furniture and children’s toys that look like books, and of course, Bleu cuts across virtually every popular genre at some point along the way. In other words, this is not merely a novel about the life of a writer and bookmaker, it’s about the institution of literature and the history of modern publishing. Each of Bleu’s books also reflects a technological stage in the development of printing and, given that many of the events narrated in Bleu’s memoir pertain to actual historical events, both Bleu’s life and his books index real historical events, too. Even the title of the novel is metonymic: Bleu doesn’t merely spend his life making books, his books stand in for his life—his life in books. As such, A Life in Books is paradigmatic of the more maximalist or encyclopedic variant of multimodal book-archives.


    Diagram in A Life in Books explaining the book’s format.

    Around the time when the book was published, Lehrer adapted several of Bleu’s books into short films. Embracing the expansive nature of the project, Lehrer took the 101 book covers he designed for A Life in Books, as well as the textual artifacts he produced that became the foundation for the novel, and exhibited them across the U.S. as a retrospective survey of Bleu’s extraordinary publishing career. In the spirit of archiving, I like to view this travelling exhibit less as a component of Lehrer’s book tour for A Life in Books, which it obviously was, than as a traveling book-art installation that showcases the Bleu Mobley archive.

    Photo from the exhibition A Life in Books: A Bleu Mobley Retrospective. Photo credit: Warren Lehrer.

    Just as some of Lehrer’s book titles from the 1980s end up being a part of Bleu’s oeuvre in A Life in Books (e.g., French Fries and i mean you know), Lehrer has recently taken some of Bleu’s stories and remediated them into standalone books. For example, Jericho’s Daughter (2024), which Lehrer co-authored with Sharon Hovarth, is an anti-war retelling of the Biblical tale of Rahab and takes the form of a bifurcated, dos-à-dos binding. Riveted in the Word (2024) is an interactive digital book, soon to be available at the Apple Store, that incorporates kinetic typography and an original soundtrack to explore a writer’s attempt to regain their language faculty after a stroke. Both books first appear in A Life in Books, albeit in different forms. That Lehrer continues to find ways to further elaborate on Blue Mobley’s textual universe is not simply a matter of postmodern recycling, it’s a testament, I would argue, to just how generative archival practices can be within the domain of book art and literature. 

    I encourage readers unfamiliar with Lehrer’s work to check his stuff out and, for those already familiar with his work, I highly recommend looking into the two aforementioned titles which are set to be published in June of this year.

     

    Brian Davis teaches English in the Upper School at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart as well as undergraduate courses in writing, literature, and film at the University of Maryland. His writing has appeared in Frontiers of Narrative Studies, electronic book review, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature, among others.

  • 01 May 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Most of my writing during and after graduate school has argued that contemporary multimodal literature, for the most part, employs an archival poetics.[1] Books like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) — which is arguably the most influential example — as   well as Steve Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture (2006), Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts (2009), Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009), Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams’s S. (2013), Warren Lehrer’s A Life in Books (2013), Thalia Field’s Experimental Animals (2016), Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (2017), Rian Hughes’s XX (2020), and many, many others, not only exploit the material and expressive possibilities of the book as object, they function as physical sites for compiling and organizing heterogeneous collections of textual artifactsfor narrative and other expressive purposes. I call these aesthetic objects book-archives and examine them through the lens of archival poetics, a poetics of documentation and preservation, of curation and transmission.

    In addition to employing a variety of literary modes and linguistic registers, book-archives often include reproduced photographs, paintings, drawings, handwriting, newspaper clippings, x-rays, maps, diagrams, charts, and other kinds of textual artifacts and ephemera. Makers of book-archives tend to also organize their books according to archival techniques and principles such as collation (the combining and comparison of objects), cataloging (the listing and inventorying of various things), annotation (commentary and diagrams of objects), cross-referencing and intertextuality (the citation of texts in other texts), indexicality (how textual objects point to specific places and contexts in the world), and conceptual metonymy (how textual objects stand in for larger psychosocial complexes, spatiotemporal continua, and other textual objects). 

    Given the physical dimensions, design potential, and portability of books, book-archives often take on the form of compendiums and dossiers. On the one hand, there are the more maximalist or encyclopedic book-archives like House of Leaves and A Life in Books, which recapitulate entire schools and traditions of literary history and printmaking. On the other hand, there are the more minimalist book-archives like Nox and Important Artifacts which are more modest in terms of their scope of documentation and narrative scale. At both ends of the spectrum, book-archives employ archival principles and techniques.

    The emergence of book-archives as a contemporary mode of writing and bookmaking occurs at the intersection of literary-cultural history and material-technological development. In recent decades, a wide variety of literary modes and genres, including encyclopedic fiction, metafiction, artists books, electronic hypertext, visual literature, and graphic narratives, among others, have tended to coalesce in individual works, and this convergence has come at a time when the technological affordances of new media, including software like QuarkXPress and Adobe’s InDesign and Photoshop, become readily accessible and fairly easy to use. Nowadays, authors and designers are able to incorporate practically all forms of media into their books. No longer limited to the pen, typewriter, word processor, or letterpress, writers are able to integrate virtually all types of inscription and media into a single object—the book—using various design software on their personal computers. This convergence in large part explains why we have seen the book-archive as a mode of writing and bookmaking emerge when it has. 

    The rise of archival poetics also overlaps with various responses to supposed threats brought on by digital technology to print and media culture, reading practices, public discourse, social trust and cultural memory. Central to multimodal book-archives are matters of textual authenticity—that is, of determining whether a textual artifact is real or fake, genuine or a copy. And of course, issues of authentication typically tip over into questions about authorship and attribution as well. 

    So while artificial intelligence and social media, for instance, have created real and pressing concerns pertaining to matters of authenticity, book-archives have tended to respond to these matters by drawing attention to how subjectivity, knowledge, discourse, and cultural memory are increasingly configured through distributed networks of people and artifacts in different social and institutional spaces. Book-archives, in other words, use the book object as a vehicle for interrogating some of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century. 

    In my next blog post, I will attempt to tie some of these threads together with a discussion of Warren Lehrer’s A Life in Books

    1] Those interested in reading more about archival poetics and multimodal literature may wish to read my interviews with Warren Lehrer and Bill Bly, both published at electronic book review. I have also published articles on Anne Carson, Bill Bly, and Mark Z. Danielewski

      

    Brian Davis teaches English in the Upper School at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart as well as undergraduate courses in writing, literature, and film at the University of Maryland. His writing has appeared in Frontiers of Narrative Studies, electronic book review, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature, among others.

     


  • 15 Apr 2024 11:19 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Recently I have been fascinated to learn more about how to use AI for teaching purposes. I have found it to be a great resource, always disclosing to my students that I am using it so that they use similar best practices and cite its use. To demonstrate some of what AI can do I asked ChatGPT a few questions. It is interesting to see its answers and how they represent ways that the information we share with AI influences the results it can provide. For clarity’s sake all the questions below are from myself and all the answers in all their redundant glory were generated by the ChatGPT’s AI.

    +++++

    Peter Tanner Question (PT Question): What is ChatGPT and what can it do?

    ChatGPT AI Answer: ChatGPT is a conversational AI model developed by OpenAI, based on the GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) architecture. It's designed to generate human-like text based on the input it receives. ChatGPT is trained on a vast amount of text data from the internet, allowing it to understand and generate responses across a wide range of topics and contexts.

    Here are some of the things ChatGPT can do:

    1. Answer Questions: ChatGPT can provide information and answer questions on a wide variety of topics, drawing from its extensive training data.

    2. Engage in Conversation: ChatGPT can engage in text-based conversation, responding to prompts and interacting with users in a manner similar to human conversation.

    3. Generate Text: Whether it's writing stories, poems, articles, or even code snippets, ChatGPT can generate text in a coherent and contextually relevant manner.

    4. Assist with Writing: ChatGPT can help with writing tasks by suggesting ideas, providing feedback, or generating content based on specific prompts or requirements.

    5. Language Translation: While not perfect, ChatGPT can assist with language translation tasks by converting text from one language to another.

    6. Creative Exploration: ChatGPT can be used for creative exploration, generating ideas, brainstorming, or providing inspiration for artistic or design projects.

    Overall, ChatGPT is a versatile tool that can assist with a wide range of tasks involving natural language processing and generation. However, it's important to keep in mind that while ChatGPT can produce human-like text, it doesn't have understanding or consciousness like a human does. 

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    PT Question: What is an artist book?

    ChatGPT AI Answer: An artist's book is a medium of artistic expression that uses the book format as its primary means of presentation. Unlike traditional books, which focus primarily on conveying written content, artist's books emphasize the visual and tactile experience of the book object itself. They can take many forms, including handmade books, altered books, unique or limited-edition works, and even sculptural or multimedia creations.

    Artist's books often blur the boundaries between visual art, literature, and design. They can incorporate a wide range of materials, such as paper, fabric, metal, wood, and found objects. Artists may use various techniques such as painting, printmaking, collage, photography, and typography to create their books. 

    The content of artist's books can vary widely, ranging from narrative storytelling to abstract expressionism to political commentary. Some artist's books explore themes of identity, memory, or social justice, while others experiment with the structure and format of the book itself. 

    Overall, artist's books offer a unique and immersive artistic experience that engages the viewer on multiple levels, challenging conventional notions of what a book can be.

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    PT Question: Can AI help create artist books?

    ChatGPT AI Answer: Yes, AI can certainly play a role in the creation of artist's books, either directly or indirectly. Here's how:

    1. Content Generation: AI can be used to generate written content for artist's books. For example, a language model like GPT-3 could be prompted with themes, ideas, or specific text passages to generate narratives, poetry, or other textual elements that can be incorporated into the book.

    2. Design Assistance: AI tools can assist artists in designing the layout and visual elements of their books. For instance, software programs equipped with AI algorithms can help with layout composition, image editing, and typography selection, ensuring a visually appealing and cohesive design.

    3. Collaborative Creation: AI can facilitate collaborative creation processes between artists and machines. Artists can interact with AI models to explore new ideas, experiment with different styles, or generate content collaboratively, leading to innovative and unexpected outcomes.

    4. Automated Production: AI-driven automation technologies can streamline the production process of artist's books by handling repetitive tasks such as image processing, text layout, and even physical bookbinding in some cases, allowing artists to focus more on the creative aspects of their work.

    5. Inspiration and Exploration: AI can serve as a source of inspiration and exploration for artists, providing access to vast amounts of data, images, texts, and other resources that can spark creativity and inform the conceptualization and execution of artist's books.

    While AI can provide valuable assistance in various aspects of creating artist's books, it's important to recognize that human creativity, intuition, and artistic sensibility remain essential throughout the creative process. AI should be viewed as a tool to augment and enhance human creativity rather than replace it entirely. Ultimately, the synergy between human and machine capabilities can lead to exciting and innovative outcomes in the realm of artist's books.

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    PT Question: What are key artist books from United States? 

    ChatGPT AI Answer: The United States has a vibrant tradition of artist's books, with numerous influential works that have contributed to the development of the medium. Here are some key examples:

    1. "The Birds" by Edward Ruscha: Published in 1972, "The Birds" is a seminal work by American artist Edward Ruscha. It features black-and-white photographs of various species of birds, accompanied by simple, descriptive text. Ruscha's use of photography and text in a minimalist format has had a profound influence on the genre of artist's books.

    2. "A Humument" by Tom Phillips: Tom Phillips' "A Humument" is an ongoing project that involves altering and reinterpreting the pages of a Victorian novel, "A Human Document" by W.H. Mallock. Phillips paints, collages, and obscures the original text, creating a new narrative and visual experience. The project blurs the boundaries between literature and visual art and has inspired generations of artists.

    3. "Diary of a Victorian Dandy" by Duane Michals: This artist's book by Duane Michals combines photography and handwritten text to create a fictional narrative about the life of a Victorian-era dandy. Michals' innovative use of sequencing and storytelling techniques has made "Diary of a Victorian Dandy" a landmark work in the genre.

    4. "Seven American Deaths and Disasters" by Kenneth Goldsmith: Published in 2013, "Seven American Deaths and Disasters" is a provocative artist's book by conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith. It consists of transcriptions of radio and television broadcasts related to seven iconic American tragedies, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the September 11 attacks. Goldsmith's appropriation and recontextualization of media texts raise questions about representation, memory, and collective trauma.

    5. "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski: While not strictly an artist's book, "House of Leaves" is a groundbreaking novel that incorporates innovative typographic design and unconventional page layouts to create a complex and immersive reading experience. Mark Z. Danielewski's experimental approach to storytelling challenges traditional notions of narrative structure and has inspired artists and writers alike.

    These are just a few examples of the diverse and influential artist's books that have emerged from the United States. They demonstrate the country's rich artistic heritage and its ongoing contributions to the field of book arts.

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    PT Question: What was the first artist book?

    ChatGPT AI Answer: Pinpointing the "first" artist's book can be challenging due to the broad and evolving definition of the genre and the long history of artists experimenting with book formats. However, one early example often cited as a precursor to the modern artist's book is the "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili," published in 1499.

    The "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili" is a Renaissance-era book that combines text with lavish woodcut illustrations. It tells the story of a protagonist, Poliphilo, on a dreamlike journey through a landscape filled with classical architecture, mythological figures, and erotic encounters. The book's intricate design and integration of text and image make it a landmark work in the history of book arts.

    While not a contemporary artist's book in the modern sense, the "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili" exemplifies many characteristics of the genre, including the integration of visual and textual elements, the exploration of unconventional narrative structures, and the use of the book format as a vehicle for artistic expression. It has inspired generations of artists and designers and continues to be celebrated for its beauty and innovation.

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    PT Comment: All the previous answers were generated by the ChatGPT AI. For many of you and myself, the repetition that we read can be grating, but that is important to note because it separates us from the AI. But also think about what these answers represent: An AI provided the definition of the artist book. That represents a non-research-based consensus found on the internet. It created a list of the most important books in the history of artist books in the United States, but it did not choose Twenty-six Gas Stations, which may perturb many readers. What should be readily apparent is that while there are vast amounts of information available for AI to use, there is a great deal of serious academic research that is not available for access by either AI or Google’s search engines. AI can only present us with an amalgam of the data that we have fed to it. The adage “garbage in garbage out” comes to mind. AI can generate many types of information. However, as humans and specialists in our fields we are the content authorities. The metadata is a proxy, not “the” thing.

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    PT Question: Who is Peter Tanner?

    ChatGPT AI Answer: As of my last update in January 2022, I don't have specific information about an individual named Peter Tanner who is widely known or recognized. It's possible that Peter Tanner could be a private individual, a professional in a specialized field, or someone who has gained prominence after that time. If Peter Tanner is associated with a particular field or area of expertise, providing more context could help in providing relevant information. 


    Peter Tanner teaches Spanish Language and Literature at Utah State University and is Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

  • 01 Apr 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In February of this year, I was in Chicago for the annual College Art Association (CAA) conference. It was, as usual, a fantastic opportunity to take the pulse of art historic trends, and it was also a chance to raise awareness about CBAA as I co-chaired a session with Levi Sherman on artist books. As I attended the various sessions that were of interest to me, I was struck by how often I encountered theories and practices that are relevant to book art and book art theory.

    In one session, an infamous book from México El libro negro del terror nazi en Europa: Testimonio de escritores y artistas de 16 naciones (published in Mexico City in 1943 under the auspices of the exile press El Libro Libre) was analyzed as a document that proves that information was escaping from Europe about the horrors of Nazi concentration camps to at least México, if not all of Latin America at a very early date, perhaps even before the U.S. knew of such atrocities. It emphasized to me the fact that books are and contain testimonies of assembled knowledge.

    In another session about community engagement with art and art history outside the lecture hall, artists and art historians both discussed how to use art object production in association with collections from regional museums and diverse art aficionados. This panel’s presenters discussed how teaching about diverse art objects from diverse communities enhanced student experiences in primary and secondary educational institutions. They also spoke to the importance and presented examples of taking art to the community. At one of these institutions, art history students and art students worked with people from a center for the blind and visually impaired, through interviews and descriptions, to create art that both permitted non-visual appreciation and opened up students’ understanding of diverse communities’ wants and needs. We could use some more outreach like this.

    There were also other sessions where theories relevant to the artist book and from the history of artist books were presented.

    The shallowest mention was in a session about how to get published. In that session one audience member asked the editors present if their particular publishers published artist books. My ears naturally perked up. I took the opportunity after the session to ask the person who asked that question what it was that they had meant by publishing an artist book. They had meant a monograph of some sort on a particular artist’s work, which is what I had suspected. However, to my surprise they had not heard about our field of activity, nor had they thought that an artist book could have any other meaning. I explained the difference in the time that I had with them, hoping to not appear to be as much of an artist book kook as I really am. The point of this interaction is that wide-spread knowledge of our field is not something that we can take for granted. To this point, one person who attended our panel had never heard of artist books nor CBAA until this conference. We are all ambassadors and educators for our field.

    One very interesting question that came up for artists and art historians involved how each discipline navigates its connection to advancing technology and AI in particular. AI represents a new connection between art and technology, and as such raises manifold questions and implications that are too broad to be discussed here. What I will ask instead is what kinds of artist books can be made using AI? How will artist books in all their varieties engage with similar technologies? While I do not believe that AI will replace humans or artist books and their makers, I do think that people who can use AI will redefine what we think of as possible in the creation of artist books.

    The most direct and profound reference to artist books was in a session co-sponsored by the Association for Latin American Art (ALAA) and the Institute of Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). In this session the keynote speaker, Dr. Esther Gabara, from Duke University, presented research from her 2022 book titled Non-literary Fiction: Art of the Americas under Neoliberalism, in which she explicitly applied to art in Latin America the theories developed by Mexican book artist and theorist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989). She argued that those theories contributed to a new way to interpret Latin American conceptual and theoretical art. However, what she missed is Carrión’s connections to the larger world of artist book creation (though I am hoping she points that out later in her book, which I have yet to finish).

    Through my attendance at CAA, I became further aware of two very important but conflicting perspectives. Artist books and book art have a great deal to contribute to the theoretical understanding of art and its long and manifold connections to technology, but it also labors in relative obscurity. What kind of solutions to these problems do you see?

     

    Peter Tanner teaches Spanish Language and Literature at Utah State University and is Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

  • 15 Mar 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    One of my favorite questions to ask artists is: if there was an apocalypse and you were the only person left but all of your basic needs were met (electricity still works, you have plenty of food, etc.) would you continue to make art?

    In my Considering Everything article, I discussed idea generation and where to start when you are beginning a project. But after you have your idea there are still a lot of decisions to make and all of the effort that goes into the creation of your work. The art-making process can be draining and it seems inevitable for artists to experience maker’s block at some point, so how do you keep your momentum and motivation as an artist? How do you stay interested in what you are making over the course of your artistic life? What do you do if you get stuck along the way? I do not believe there is a universal answer, so I would like to present some solutions and encourage a discussion about additional solutions.

    Monotype by Beth Sheehan

    Sometimes artists get stuck at the idea generation stage. When this is the case for me, I find that there are two primary causes. First, my output can only be as good as my input: similar to the way gas tanks function, if I have not filled my tank, my creative practice will run out of momentum. So, if I am not having success generating ideas and artwork, I consider what I have been reading, watching, listening to, and looking at. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but it has helped me to recognize what kinds of sources provide me with inspiration more frequently than others and then turn to those kinds of sources again and again. 

    The second cause that typically blocks my idea generation is often a processing issue. I may have many ideas and a lot of creative fuel, but if I do not spend time processing and organizing my thoughts, the fuel is not usable. To assist in my processing, I prefer to journal about my ideas. I usually ask myself questions such as:

    ● What interests me most about this idea?

    ● What part of my idea feels the least solid?

    ● What are the most important aspects of this idea?

    ●  Should this idea become several separate projects?

    ●  Are there any rules that I would like to impose on this idea (such as a specific size, form, medium, etc.)?


    Beth Sheehan graining a litho stone

    Sometimes artists get stuck at the execution stage. Perhaps you enjoy coming up with ideas but do not enjoy the actual making. There is precedent for creating non-object artworks, one form being what Gao Minglu terms “proposal art (fangan yishu)”[1]. However, there are also ways to push forward into actually making your work, as well. It should be noted first, though, that art does not have to be made within a specific timeframe, you are allowed to work on more than one artwork at a time, and you are not a failure if you abandon a project that is no longer enjoyable (it is good to remember that just because you have spent time, money or energy on a project, does not mean you need to continue with it, as per the Sunk Cost Fallacy). 

    During the execution stage, I find that it is easier to move forward if I produce test prints, material tests, or make multiple mock-ups of my ideas. Alternatively, I occasionally find it more beneficial to make smaller projects that I do not treat seriously. By focusing on something that is lower stakes and more immediate like a quick one-page book, a collage, or a monotype print, I can get into the mode of making without the pressure of executing my actual project. Using writing prompts as making prompts or using ideation decks can be particularly liberating.

    And finally, if I am further along in the execution stage and feel myself losing momentum, I find it best to invite an artist, art historian, critic, or curator to my studio for a studio visit. The visitor might see threads in your work that you have not seen, they may suggest artists or media for you to research that help reinvigorate your passion for your project, or you may even disagree with their insights but through disagreeing, you find you are able to think through what you think about your work in ways you were unable to do alone.

    [1] Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011), page 142.

     

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan & Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.


  • 01 Mar 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Lately, I have been participating in discussions regarding the artist’s role in artworks, specifically if the artist’s background and personal experiences should manifest in their artworks or if artworks should be more universally relatable and non-auto-biographical. In these conversations, the predominant mentality is in favor of non-auto-biographical works, which seems heavily tied to a desire for artwork to be accessible to every audience. These discussions have prompted me to contemplate the question: What do artists owe their viewer?

    My artwork is about memory and my drive to make my work comes from personal experience with Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory (SDAM). SDAM primarily manifests for me in an inability to visually replay moments from my past, thereby making it particularly difficult to determine if my memories are genuine recollections or if they were fabricated from a narrative I created or embellished. But memory is universally untrustworthy for all people and that universal unreliability also plays a role in my work as I use my own lack of memory to frame questions about the truth and reality of a past that is inaccessible in the present.


    Beth Sheehan, “Memento,” 2015-2022

    I find myself on a potentially less-popular side of the auto-biographical art discussion, as I would argue that artworks should not (and cannot) cater to every member of an audience. I would like to further assert that by generalizing the accessibility of their content, an artist can lessen the importance and impact of their artworks for the community that relates to the artist’s auto-biographical works. Further, the removal of the personal can rob a viewer of the potential to understand experiences that they are unfamiliar with.

    Through my artworks, I have connected with people who did not realize that their cerebral experience was abnormal because discussing the intricacies of memory and perception presents a difficult stage for communication. For example, if two people are discussing a shared memory, both may use the phrase “I remember,” but one person may be using visual recall to replay the memory like a movie (episodic memory) and the other person may be simply accessing the factual information their brain stored (more similar to the way we recall trivia). If my work contained no relation to my personal experience and instead focused solely on universal experiences of memory, I feel I would be doing my viewer a disservice.


    Beth Sheehan, “In the Moments,” 2023

    However, even though my personal preference favors works that are founded in the artist’s experience, I also feel that everything is best in moderation. If an artist’s work stems from personal experience and that artist creates work that is self-referential and completely unrelatable, I would begin to question if the work should be shared with the public. So, then, I come back to my initial question: What do artists owe their viewer?

    To unpack that question further, I’d like to consider the following as well:

    - Does the artist owe the viewer relatability, understanding, connection, universality, authenticity, or their story/experiences?

    -  If the viewer is owed something, are they owed that thing within the artwork itself or in the artist’s statement or interviews?

    -  Is abstraction kinder to the viewer because it has the potential to be equally relatable/accessible regardless of the viewer’s experience? If the viewer presumes artwork will have a deeper meaning and then they cannot glean one from abstraction, will the work no longer be accessible?

    - Should art be for everyone? Does your answer change if I phrase the question differently: Should all art be for all people?

    -What are the sacrifices made when art becomes less personal and more universal? What are the sacrifices made when art IS personal?

    - Do the expectations for the viewer/artist relationship change based on medium? Does visual art demand something different for the relationship than a medium like poetry?

    Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan & Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

  • 15 Feb 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For this post, I intend to create a space for conversation about the reading and performance of artist books, as well as introduce an Artist Book Reading Series co-hosted by myself and Aaron Cohick.

    During Codex 2021, Aaron Cohick of New Lights Press and I began a conversation about the lack of reading events or book performances in the artist book world. Why weren’t public readings of books more common in the book art world? My own interest in reading and performing artist books started with my thesis defense in 2014 and became a practice I continued to engage with via CBAA conference panels (1, 2) and live poetry readings and other literary events in Tallahassee, FL and Reno, NV. Reading and performing my artist books has always felt like a natural progression of the artistic work of my book objects, as they include primarily poetic experimental texts and typography intended to be performed aloud. In a book object, the sound of the text being read aloud is determined by the shape of the page and the caesuras and margins offering visual and audible pause. I, like many writers, compose text aloud, so when that text is letterpress printed onto the page, the act of reading aloud (again) causes my tonal breath to mix with the sound of a finger rubbing along the paper edge of the book, the small crack of the spine giving. The reader of an artist book gets to have a similar engagement with text and object, except with their own inner reading voice. However, the performance of a book allows for another iteration of the book object. These readings and events can include elements of choregraphed performance, or audio and visual presentations.

    The literary world, including the behemoth Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), has embraced the physical embodiments of literature, including performances (have you ever seen Abraham Smith perform his work?), reading events that include audience participation, or the like. The literary world and the artist book world have previously collided and there are a number of artists working in performative reading modes, including, I Wish To Say…Vol 2. By Sheryl Oring and Selected Durations by David Abel, two artist books in the Cynthia Sears Artists Book Collection Bainbridge Island Museum of Art as discussed by Yuka Petz on Artist’s Books Unshelved on June 17, 2023.

    For a very recent example of artist book readings, this year at CODEX, Michelle Wilson & Anne Beck hosted an “evening of readings and performance” at the Rhinoceros Reading Room & Ephemera Collection. I hope this reading event is the beginning of a new series!

    I’m continuing to research the history of readings and performance related to or happening within the book arts world, looking to the audience of the CBAA Book Arts Theory and Criticism Blog to chime in with some suggestions. I suspect there have been many of these performances or readings that may not have been documented in any formal way and I am hoping that book arts peers can help me build up that archive.

    In the meantime, I will include the call for proposal for the Artist Book Reading Series co-hosted by Aaron Cohick and me. 

    SUBMIT PROPOSAL HERE 

    CALL FOR READERS

    • Artist books will be interpreted very broadly for this series. All visual/text formats are welcome: zines, limited editions, fine press, open edition artists’ books, visual poetry, comics, animations, digital art, hybrid media, etc., but all submissions must be tied to a physical book or other publication.
    • Individual readings will be 10 minutes long with four readers per event. Initial events will take place on Zoom but we are hoping to do some irl events in the future.
    • Readings can be live, recorded (audio or video), and/or can include visual elements. They could also be a combination of all those things (& maybe others!).
    • These are not talks about artist book projects. They are performative readings/enactments of the “books.”
    • All readers will be paid $150. Funding for this series will come from paying subscribers.
    • The deadline to submit for the May 2024 reading is March 1. The deadline for the fall reading is July 1.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana and holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. Her poems have been published in Puerto Del Sol, The Call Center, American Letters and Commentary, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Her artist books are collected nationally and Unidentified Found Object Song was a semi-finalist for the 2022 MCBA Book Prize.

  • 01 Feb 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In Fall of 2023, I started as Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. As newly appointed director, I was eager to make the book arts and papermaking studios my own. Taking over an institution like the UNO Fine Arts Press and Book Arts Program, with its long and robust history of fine press printing, and its excellent undergraduate book arts curriculum, was exciting, intimidating, complex, and also involved reassessment of the program’s aesthetic, vision, priorities, and budget.

    The University of Nebraska Omaha Fine Arts Press and Book Arts Curriculum began with Harry Duncan in 1972. Duncan developed the curricular program and published as the fine press Abattoir Editions, producing fine press books in editions of 200-300. Naming the press after Omaha’s stockyards tied the publishing work to Omaha’s mid-western landscape and sensibility, and planted the roots of fine press publications until 1985 when Duncan retired. After his retirement, Bonnie O’Connell directed the UNO Book Arts Program until 2019.

    Before I joined UNO, previous instructors, adjuncts, and gallery directors approached the task of clearing out and organizing the potential archival materials, even transporting those materials to the Special Collections Library on campus to be catalogued in the Fine Arts Press Collection. In fact, the recent exhibition at UNO Gallery, Pressing Matters, explored the history of UNO’s Fine Arts Press and the book arts curriculum. The exhibition occasioned an intensive inventory of the books and other archival materials, including its student work archive, as a way to organize materials for the display at the exhibition. This exhibition also used many items from the informal archive, including carved blocks by Karen Kunc (collaborator), newspaper articles about Harry Duncan and Bonnie O’Connell, and letters between Duncan and authors.

    I have worked in extremely well-organized studios, such as the studios at Florida State University and Small Craft Advisory Press, and at University of Nevada, Reno, and Black Rock Press. Those studios have developed systems to determine what elements of an edition’s production to keep, and what elements can be recycled or upcycled into student work. These systems prioritize both “perfect” proofs as well as “interesting” proofs that contain the kind of misprints that look like a whole new piece of art. As a working artist, I’m inclined to keep every small scrap of paper (and all of the proofs) because paper is expensive and I need paper to make mockups for the next project. But I know for the most part what the imperfections of each print look like and can assign them value according to how close to the final edition they are. Understanding the value of materials I’m less familiar with is proving to be more difficult.

    In the UNO book arts studio, I have encountered stacks of unbound sheets, original drawings and early mockups by Bonnie O’Connell, Harry Duncan, former students, and even surplus Abbattoir and Fine Arts Press title labels for books. Absolute treasures! The history of fine press printing is told by these stacks of sometimes-unfinished editions. Luckily, I can call on Bonnie to clarify whether some of the parts of books are TBB (To Be Bound) or simple overage that can be whittled down to a few copies for the Harry Duncan archive in the Special Collections Library on UNO’s campus. However, and for example, Abattoir Editions has not produced much new fine letterpress printed work since 2001, but much of the completed books and material components of print and binding production remain in the Fine Arts Press studio storage area, leaving me with decisions to be made regarding where or if to archive these materials.

    Surrounded by the materials, separated into stacks for the UNO archivists to peruse, I’m asking myself the following questions:

    What are the benefits for keeping some of the archive in-studio?

    • These materials can be used for examples for class
    • They allow me to make repairs to books, including those that are in the Fine Arts Press archive in the UNO library and beyond
    • For studios that house Presses, the students are exposed to the overage, and can integrate them into their projects
    • Students can see the process of a piece, including sketches, inspiring new ideas and approaches, encouraging them to keep going during the slog of makeready.

    What are the downfalls for keeping so much archival material in the studio? Mostly, it is an issue of space. And, somewhat, a preservation issue. I don’t yet have archival boxes for keeping documents in an acid-free environment, but I plan to build up this system of safe-keeping in the next year or so.

     

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana and holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is Assistant Professor of Book Arts and Papermaking at University of Nebraska Omaha. Her poems have been published in Puerto Del Sol, The Call Center, American Letters and Commentary, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Her artist books are collected nationally and Unidentified Found Object Song was a semi-finalist for the 2022 MCBA Book Prize.

  • 15 Jan 2024 11:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In this follow up post to Let it Bleed, part one, I will explore further the relationship between basic color interaction theory and the ways that full bleed photographs influence one another. I will compare three artist books ­­– two made by former students from my Book Arts classes – along with one of mine that I have used in classes as a teaching tool for the past few semesters.

    The first book, The Nature of Us by Ashley Swindell, is a case bound book with full-bleed images and flyout pages throughout. This combination allows for the flyouts to be pulled out to interact with a page spread or tucked back away at any time. The photographs in her book depict the transition from previously rural small-town Ohio into a more suburban new housing development reality. The images in the book layer upon one another; past, present, and future are inextricably linked both in binding and in image interactions. As there is no space between the images, they are always seen in relation to one another. Flyouts at times appear as details of faraway elements in the photographs. Other times they extend the image outside of the standard book length, and when left out they inform the subsequent images. This relates to the subject matter of The Nature of Us in that it embeds and expands the dialogue between loss of the rural and replacement with the suburban; we cannot see one without consideration of the other.






    The Nature of Us, consecutive page spreads, case bound book, Ashley Swindell

    The second book, Home by Maggie Myers, is a “cased-in” accordion binding with occasional “half-pages,” and the page spreads throughout the book are full bleed photographs. In Home, Myers is conflating photographs taken in her childhood home with photographs taken in her college apartment. The photographs are close ups of walls and surfaces. Light and shadows move through the accordion pages, with the binding knitting together the two separate spaces. Diagonal rays of light seem to transcend the edges of the individual images, resulting in a sort of panoramic viewing of one single space. In this, a comparison can be made to the study showing three colors appearing as two (see color study example in part one) in that images of like subject matter/formal relationships can reduce down, such as three images becoming more like two. 


    Home, accordion binding, Maggie Myers

    The third book, Ground by Jeff Nilan, was initially constructed as a “board book” with full-bleed photographs and one “flyout” page spread. I have always been fond of this book – the photographs and their sequential order – but to me it has never felt like it was settled or comfortable in its binding. Over the past few semesters, I have used this book as a teaching tool by redesigning the layout and binding style while keeping the original nineteen photographs in their original order. With this, I can begin to talk to my students about image/layout /binding relationships through a direct comparison of the same content. The images below show the same page spread as presented in three different binding types: an accordion binding, a Japanese four-hole binding, and the most recent iteration, a traditional case bound book. The case bound iteration is the first to include space between the images, along with removing the potential for altering the sequence as is possible in the accordion version.


    Ground, case bound page spread, Jeff Nilan 


    Ground, accordion page spread, Jeff Nilan


    Ground, Japanese binding page spread, Jeff Nilan

    Relating the image interactions of these three books to our discussion around color relativity, flyout full-bleed images, and accordion image progressions is like adding additional background colors to the Albers style color studies. In the color study example below, we see that the turquoise strip on the bottom is the same as the strip and individual bars within each of the four backgrounds. There are five distinct color files being used for the study. However, due to the color subtraction and simultaneous contrast effects, we get the appearance of nine hues – 5 distinct colors interact to appear as 9 hues. The turquoise hue is changed in varying degrees of value, intensity, and hue, depending upon which background it interacts with. The turquoise then is a constant, but an inconsistent one; it is unable, when submersed into the full bleed background colors, to show itself for what it is on its own. The turquoise is always seen and interpreted in relation to the background color. Colors influence one another and so, too, images influence one another, especially when the images are flush against one another on at least one contiguous edge.


    5 hues appear as 9, digital color study, Jeff Nilan 

       

    Jeff Nilan received an MFA from Indiana University in 1999. Growing up in Nebraska, Nilan’s art draws influence from the landscape and culture of the Midwest and he is interested in the ways art reflects and shapes the mythology of this region. Jeff resides in Delaware, Ohio and is Professor of Studio Art at Ohio Wesleyan University. 

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