Repetition in Book Arts: Kink or Catharsis // Beth Sheehan

01 Oct 2021 3:42 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

To me, repetition is indivisible from book arts. So often, bookbinders are creating multiples of the same book object through editions or within a series. Even in cases where we decide to create a single book, bookmaking still incorporates so much repetition – poking holes for sewing, gluing page after page, making fold after fold.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is punished for his hubris and the punishment befitting him was an eternity of repetition. He was doomed to roll a boulder almost all the way up a hill, just for it to inevitably roll back to the bottom causing him to repeat the process over and over, forever.

This myth begs the question, is repetition a punishment? And if so, are book artists gluttons for punishment? My answer to this question changes based on where in the bookmaking process I am.


Image of Beth in a moment of frustration with a book project; a cheeky nod to Ai WeiWei’s Study of Perspective.

Enjoying the punishment of art making, sacrificing for your artistic practice, and becoming the cliché of the “tortured artist” seems right along the lines of what someone would expect from a maker whose preferred medium is something as labor-intensive as the production of artist books. In fact, the myth of the Tortured Artist is so prevalent for all types of creatives that there have even been scientific studies conducted to research connections between creativity and mood disorders or mental illness. It is far easier to not make art than it is to make art, so deciding to create is a choice that requires a lot of buy-in from the artist. 

Artist book edition by Beth Sheehan titled Beloved.

Punishment is much easier to endure with the right motivation, though. Unlike Sisyphus’ boulder rolling, bookmaking is not futile. All the potential struggle and punishment that book artists put themselves through results in something of value – the artist book. This positive outcome then changes the narrative of the effort required. Instead of seeming useless, the work put into producing an edition of artist books becomes a devotion. 

The value of the end product may provide enough motivation to cause an artist to shift from a state of statis to creation, but it still doesn’t condone repetition. The cost-value does not grow proportionate to the number of books produced, so where is the justification for the added punishment of creating more of the same book?


Beth’s stack of boxes in progress at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

Maybe repetition that results in a positive outcome becomes mediation. There have been several scientific studies about the benefits of repetition, including one in 2015 that looked at the act of repeating mantras and the effects that this has on one’s emotions and cognition. The results of that study state, “We demonstrate that the repetitive speech was sufficient to induce a widespread reduction in [blood oxygenated level-dependent] signal compared to resting baseline.” Repeating the mantra had a physiological effect on the participants, calming them down. I wonder if a study about the effects of physical repetition through bookbinding would find a similar result.

I have heard countless book artists express the feeling that the production side of making their work becomes meditative. There is something so nice about doing tasks that keep our hands busy, but allow our minds to wander. Getting into the rhythm of editioning can be a moment of respite and catharsis in and of itself, ending in the added satisfaction of creating something.


Edition of books, freshly cased-in by Beth at Small Editions, Brooklyn.

In lieu of all my speculating, I should instead pose the question to the book arts community. What value do you find in the repetition of book arts?

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 Harland and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

Comments

  • 03 Oct 2021 2:06 PM | Levi Sherman
    I find myself using “meditative” more or less euphemistically depending on the project. For me, the saving grace of production work is that it’s primarily visual and haptic, which lets me listen to music or podcasts.
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    • 05 Oct 2021 6:09 AM | Beth Sheehan
      Yeah! I love that aspect of production work too. I rarely find the time to listen to podcasts or audio books in my general life, so I make lists of the ones I want to listen to and whenever I'm in the production stage, I find I breeze through them. It's so satisfying to feel like you're accomplishing two things at once.
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