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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 Jul 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    0.1

    I believe that it is critical for artists to continually interrogate and develop the conventions and assumptions of their medium or field, and/or how art exists in the world as a whole. This includes the conventions of the art/objects themselves, but also the conventions of how we approach our activity in the studio. So while these posts about the “emergent book” deal with technical specifics of how books get made, at the same time they also talk about the frames, conventions, and assumptions around what happens in the studio, how processes are structured, how tools are used, etc. For me, the dis-location/articulation of conventions comes through working with the material.

    10.

    The emergent book is not the same thing as the collaborative/assemblage book, though it does have similarities. By assemblage books I mean the type of book that is put together from many different sources and/or artists, and that may involve elements of chance in its composition—Dieter Roth’s various books made of found newspapers, etc. are one example. In assemblage books there is something really exciting about the variety and differences articulated from page to page. But those books also usually fail to cohere in a meaningful way. Ideally the emergent book would balance the thrill of chance with thoughtful editing and revision, the kind of re-ordering that sutures a film or novel together as a time-based experience for the reader/viewer. Not strictly narrative, but a unit of coherent and felt time. 

    11.

    Something to read, something that makes reading visible. Dis-location/articulation.

    12.

    The binding of these “emergent books” immediately presents a technical problem. How to deal with imposition and sequence? How can you add or delete pages? A drum-leaf binding, which uses a single, joined spread as its base unit, seems like an obvious choice. It would be simple to remove or rearrange spreads as necessary. But I probably won’t use it, because I want the recto/verso and the density of a multi-signature book. I am also intrigued by the constraint of having to work ahead and behind at the same time. So for my hypothetical book: short signatures, 2 – 3 folios each, either a coptic stitch or a sewn-boards binding. Flexibility and constraint. I will probably need to figure out a workable way to split and join pages into new folios, and it has to be a process that is both efficient and that achieves a durable result. The thought of having to do something like that across an entire edition makes me want to abandon this whole idea. But that is normal.

    13.

    The technical: the imposition of pages in most bindings seems to demand that the artist plans ahead, and thus it makes perfect sense to resolve the book in a mock-up form that includes the binding and imposition, and then to go about making the book. The conclusion that then becomes the frame: production separated from generation. Traditional printmaking has a similar frame—you proof until you get the print where you want it, then execute to make a perfect edition. The larger frame of both is a warning: DO NOT FAIL. 

    14.

    I often go back to the essay “Artists’ Books: Production, Production, Production,” by Emily McVarish [1] because it provides a detailed narrative of how a book emerges: not an idea that seems complete and is then executed, but as a series of steps developing from a braid of process, past work, new attentions, and practice, practice, practice. The essay describes the making of the book Flicker,and what McVarish details is in many ways an ideal that I aspire to: the text is thoughtfully composed, emerging from a committed practice of writing, and the same can be said for the visual and physical book. All of the components inform each other through a series of connected loops. But the process is definitely not this “emergent book”—McVarish is still planning and then executing. So if what she describes is an ideal, yet I still (partially) reject it, then I have to keep interrogating myself: what is the desire to attempt this unplanned book? A weird laziness about mock-ups? About craft? A legitimate push into the unknown? A desire to fail? I think—I tell myself in this moment—that it is a desire to be in time in a different way, to pull that time of production into the time of generation, and in that process let go of control.

    15.

    But also to exert a different kind of control, later. Or to always be in that noise state of no control/control.


    Note:

    [1] Emily McVarish, “Artists’ Books: Production, Production, Production,” Mimeo Mimeo 2 (Autumn 2008): 2 – 11.


    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.



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

    0.

    These posts are a meditation on process—in fragments, chunks—accumulating the way that ideas do in the studio. Disjointed, awkward, inarticulate, sprawling and retracing. I think that I have to have an idea at least three times before it sticks. I have probably written some of these things before. I am hoping that this is useful as an articulation of the frames in which ideas develop, ranging from practical/structural concerns about process and form, to conjecture about ideas and how they happen. Again and again I return to the question: what am I—what are we—actually doing in the studio?

    1.

    I am basing the form of these posts on the work of Nancy Spero. The Siglio Press version of her 125’ drawing/scroll, Torture of Women, helped me to realize that Spero’s multi-panel, text-image wall pieces can be seen as books. Beyond that, they provide a possible model of freedom for the artist that makes books—the freedom to edit, rearrange, erase, repeat, remove whole sections, etc. The freedom to not commit until the piece is finished. This is also the freedom of the writer, of the filmmaker. So here I am, writing in chunks, arranging and rearranging. Decomposing and recomposing. Dreaming about books that do the same. The central question: is there a way to make an artist’s book, one that I am actually printing, that stays open and flexible, that is in flux until it’s finished? And maybe longer? And does that provide something better/different than a book that is composed the same way, but is made with a single original and then reproduced later?

    2.

    I can’t be quite sure when it began, but for maybe 6 years now I’ve been consciously approaching printing in way that is open-ended. That is, I am not executing a design that I’ve already finished (which is how I was taught, and how I approached printing for the first 13 or so years), but setting up a series of possibilities with only a vaguely defined end goal. Just a vision, perhaps. And the challenge is to get to that vision, while the process fights, complicates, alters, improves, and/or ruins it. This generally includes lots of press runs, a willingness to test the limits of legibility, and a willingness to fail and start over. And failures do happen, though my solution is usually just to keep printing.

    3.

    I can’t resist the pun of the idea that a book that is first designed, then dutifully executed, is meant for the library-as-graveyard, for the reader-as-solemn-mourner. We should be building/producing/creating/synthesizing/elaborating/constructing/birthing/growing/vomiting/singing/etc. our books, not executing them.

    4.

    I often have doubts.

    5.

    I am calling the book that isn’t finished until it’s finished “the emergent book.”

    6.

    The emergent book would not be resolved in a mock-up. The emergent book would be written and printed simultaneously. The emergent book would show its edits, its seams. The emergent book would arrive at the moment of assembly, or at the moment of reading. The emergent book would be editioned, but that edition would most likely be highly variable. The making of the emergent book would be closer to writing, or shooting and editing a film. The emergent book would risk failure all the way to the end. The emergent book would avert failure by not stopping—more press runs, more pages, more layers, a new sequence, pages split and glued together, painted out or stripped away and reprinted, reprinted, reprinted.

    7.

    I often have doubts.

    8.

    As of this posting, seven other sections of this text were drafted but were removed—possibly to be used later, possibly to be deleted. The sections that are included were not written in the sequence that they appear. This is obviously pretty normal for writing. Which is exactly the freedom that I want.

    9.

    In a conversation with Amos Kennedy in January of 2019, when we were talking about this approach to bookmaking, he told me that what I am talking about is essentially the way that Walter Hamady makes his “Gabberjab” series. Hamady writes and prints them signature by signature, building them slowly, always willing to “go back” and add or change things. There must be other artists that work this way. Karen Kunc? Amos certainly approaches his prints this way, and the zine that he recently made at The Press at Colorado College was highly improvisational. Ken Campbell? Henrik Drescher and Wu Wing Yee? Others? I am sure that I am late to the party, and I am curious to hear from more people about how they approach these things.


    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.


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

    When my advanced nonfiction workshop read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, my students said they didn’t know they “could do that.” What my students meant was that over the course of their academic creative writing careers, they had mostly seen and discussed books that used narrative or thematic threads as their centers, and they thought this was the way to write. But with Citizen,they encountered something new: a book that defied categorization of “essay” or “memoir,” but also a book that showed it was aware it was a book, with deliberate choices about how it would appear and how a reader would interact with it: bright, glossy paper, blank space, color of text, and different typefaces. 

    I suggested that perhaps our formal education—dictated sometimes, by what our teachers assign to us—prioritize the wrong questions about books. What might happen if instead of asking “what is an essay collection”—a question that prioritizes craft—we asked, “what can be an essay collection,” or more appropriately, “what can be a book?” So much of our experiences in academe imply that books look a certain way, and for creative writers, this implication is doubly stunting. Not only is our writing challenged and critiqued, but the book as a creative object in all of its assembly is almost never talked about, and therefore, a whole realm of meaning-making falls by the wayside.

    What if, my class discussed, we conceptualized books that required reader interaction with the book, not just reception of narrative, or braids, or lyric, but also conversation between text and image or text and shape, color, or formatting? What if we decenter our idea of what a book “is” and instead create books that mirror our process, our minds, and reflect design and content choices that embody the whole of who we are as authors—not just leaning on narrative or language or syntax, but thinking of the book as an object that in every way was our project? I brought in books whose presentations required us to rethink what a book could do. We looked at Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and Davis Schneiderman’s [SIC] (1). One of my students asked if she might borrow Piper Daniels’ Ladies Lazarus, and another asked to borrow Rankine’s Don’t Let Me be Lonely

    In my students’ final projects—query packets which included book descriptions and chapter/essay summaries for the collections they wanted to write—I discovered most of my students had eschewed brainstorming book that looked “normal” (2). Instead, they were conceptualizing projects that challenged their educational histories and the books being published by the big five. 

    They wanted to author books that acknowledged the acts of creation, production, and reception as equal to, and sometimes more important than, narrative, unifying theme, or execution of craft. One student reproduced and embedded tweets, text messages, and Instagram photos in order to challenge modes of narrative construction, both textually and visually. Another student imagined a digital book that included hyperlinks to playlists the reader would access, turning the experience of reading into one influenced by mood, sound, and subtext created by song lyrics. Another student’s satirical take on the internet age included an essay based on a meme, which he copied and pasted into his query packet, slyly working through eight principles of art, turning what looked like a humorous one-off (the meme) into a deeply conscious critique of how we value digital images. 

    My students’ prioritization of the book-making process seemed liberating, inspiring, and sometimes disheartening. What had they spent all this time learning about writing for if they had never had the space to think about all the ways writing could find a shape? I take this as a critique of our creative writing programs, but if I’m heartened by anything, it’s that many of my students plan to pursue their projects, to put them out into the world, and I hope by doing so they can be part of a collective seeking to make creative writing more than just about the writing. 


    (1) The full list of texts we looked at also includes:

    Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar series as well as Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword

    Shane Jones’ Lightboxes and Crystal Eaters

    Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade 

    B. J. Hollars’ Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction 

    N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain

    Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index

    Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

    Matthew McIntosh’s The Mystery.doc

    (2) This became the term by which my class distinguished between essay collections that looked more traditional in form and content and those that engaged less common structures, forms, and presentations.


    Gwendolyn Edward’s prose and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Booth, and other journals. She retains a MA from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she is a teaching fellow.





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

    I want to talk about teaching one of my favorite chapters of a novel: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. One challenge students face in an introductory literature course is learning how to talk about form. Teaching “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (GRRP) helps students with that challenge.

    The formal features of the novel are often invisible to students when they enter their first literature course. On the first day, ‘novel’ might as well be a fancier word for ‘book.’ The invisibility of the novel’s form is probably a result of the novel’s peculiar ability to incorporate other forms and genres within itself. For Bakhtin, this ability defines the novel. As my colleague Steven Watts says, “a novel can contain a poem; a poem cannot contain a novel.” The absorptive ability of the novel is also why I like teaching GRRP, because it incorporates a writing genre students know, but believe to be unliterary: the slide presentation.

    Encountering a 76-slide PowerPoint in the middle of a novel can be disorienting. Each time I have taught GRRP, whether I teach it as a short story or with the whole novel, my students reported that it is one of the most challenging pieces they read – at least it was before we analyzed it. They are generally not used to employing visual literacy when reading a novel, but the form of GRRP demands they read word and image in conjunction. When my class reads GRRP, I always ask them, “what do the slides in this chapter allow for Egan to do?” I have found that this particular framing of form, as structural features that allow (or disallow) the content to do something, is a useful first step in getting students to consider form. 

    I am not the only person that sees pedagogical potential in GRRP’s form. Kathleen A. Reilly convincingly argues that the chapter’s discussion of disability hinges on its structure. Lincoln, who is neurodivergent and loves pauses in rock songs, serves as GRRP's heart even though Allison is its narrator For Reilly, GRRP’s structure “positions readers to experience this text through an unfamiliar mode, requiring the use of different tools to make meaning.” Reilly also points out that the structure allows Allison to capture rather than merely describe silence. My favorite slide is the one in which Allison captures the pauses by writing “They sound like this:” followed by a white bounded box. In my master’s thesis on novels with embedded photographs, I placed Goon Squad alongside Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun as novels whose formal features allow them to incorporate silence even though silence lies beyond the usual limits of a text-based art form.

    But the real reason I find teaching GRRP so useful is because the chapter exists in several versions that each alter the reading experience. In her article, Reilly is writing about the online slide show, complete in the garish colors that a twelve year old might employ. Most students, however, read the chapter in a paperback novel which, because the economics of mass-printing paperbacks, renders the slides in grayscale. The difference in color affects how students might understand Allison; the grayscale, appearing more professional, obscures Allison’s tweeness making her seem older than she is. The version I preferred to teach was the slide presentation hosted on Egan’s website, complete not only with color but with auto-playing snippets of the pauses. The inclusion of the actual pauses signals that Allison believes them to be significant enough that they need to be included in her slide-journal, which deepens the sibling relationship. That version is now, unfortunately, beyond my reach. There is also a youtube video posted by Knopf Doubleday that preserves the color and sound, but removes the reader’s ability to click through or jump to a slide by entering its number. Each of these four versions presents the contents of GRRP as fully as their forms allow, but each produces a different reading experience that can affect our understanding of Allison. That is why if I only get one class period to try to teach form, I teach “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.


    Amidei, Drew. Seeing Constructed Realities: Images and Law in the Contemporary American Novel. 2017. University of Missouri-Columbia, Master’s Thesis.

    Bakhtin, Mikhail M., “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981. Pp 3-40.

    Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Anchor Books, 2010.

    Reilly, Kathleen A. “Reading the Silence in Jennifer Egan’s ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses.’” English Journal, vol. 106, no. 6, July 2017, pp. 79–80. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017872702&site=eds-live&scope=site.


    Drew Amidei is a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Columbia where he received his Master's Degree. Drew studies contemporary literature and the Capitalocene. He has previously presented at Midwestern Modern Language Association and American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association.






  • 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.


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