15 Nov 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

For several years I taught a graduate Book Art seminar at Mills College that met several times a semester. These classes grew out of a full-semester grad seminar, The Material Book, that I taught for many years. Students in that class asked that the work of the material book seminar be extended beyond one semester (the first semester of their two-year MFA in Book Art studies) in order to continue to discuss the issues that came up in their first fall of study. [You can read a bit more background in my Book Art Theory blog post “[Im]material specifics: Zooming through the pandemic,” March 1, 2021.]

The main seminar focused on the theoretical, conceptual and historical study of the book as a material object. The three semesters of follow-up seminars continued those studies, but the nature of the projects for these seminars shifted from completed projects to rough outlines of ideas. These proof of concept projects generally were set as response to reading we were doing in the seminar, although other prompts (artist talks, a video, an article in the newspaper) could also apply. 

Usually the prompts were simple:

Read: Magali Rabasa, “Radical Politics and Organic Books in Latin America [1].

Project: Make an organic book that takes into account the principles around the ways print books create community and a space for radical politics.

Occasionally they were more detailed:

Read: Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy and Book from the Ground [2].

Xu Bing describes his iconic work, Book from the Sky, as ‘a paradox full of contradictions’ [p. 176]. He adds further contrasts: solemn yet absurd, external appearance vs. internal “essence.” Referring to the texts as characters denies the function of his pictorial forms; calling the work a book fails to recognize that it doesn’t qualify as one. There is an emergence of hyper-realism and abstraction, another point of possible tension.

Using at least one of these areas of contrast as a point of departure, make a book that signals one of more of these sets of contradictions. Feel free to challenge Xu Bing’s ideas about his own work if you would like. And of course you can also work with his “doubts and sense of alarm about existing forms of writing.”

The books that the prompts called for were meant to be not finished pieces, but drafts. I was always mindful of how much work the students were undertaking in the studios, and usually there was at least one student who was preparing for their thesis exhibition. What the students brought to the classes were rough to very rough mockups, with enough detail (perhaps one page spread filled in if the book were meant to be in page spreads) that we could grasp what they were trying to do and make comments on the concept. 

Of course sometimes the results were not at all what I expected. One of the prompts was based on Kurt Johannessen’s Shine [3]. Johannessen is a Norwegian artist whose work is highly conceptual and often interacts with the nature of light. I consider Shine one of his most intriguing books. In it are fourteen photographic portraits printed in a glossy white ink on a white background so that the pages appear empty at first glance. You read the portraits by changing the way the light hits the pages.  The portraits are not identified, but they appear to be possibly friends or family members. What I see are portraits that are almost ethereal, as if I were somehow glimpsing into their disembodied selves. What the students saw were fourteen white portraits of fourteen white people. It was impossible for them to separate the lack of diversity in the portraits from the conceptual backbone of the book, which led to some scintillating discussion.

Time after time, the students came up with striking concepts that were eminently workable as fully realized books. Since there was no time for them to realize these works, the projects became placeholders for future investigation. Many students expressed excitement in the idea that they would have at least one conceptual framework to develop into a finished work once they graduated. The projects became a bridge into the future, a material presence that offered life, and art, after grad school, with some initial critique already thrown in.

[1] In The Book Club of California Quarterly, vol. LXXXV, no. 4, Fall 2020.

[2] In Marshall Weber, ed., Freedom of the Presses: Artists’ books in the twenty-first century. Booklyn, 2018.

[3] Kurt Johannessen, Shine. Zeth Forlag, 2006.

Kathleen Walkup is Professor Emerita at Mills College. Her research interests focus on the history of women and printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. In 2022 her exhibition, Possibilities: When artists’ books were young, will open at San Francisco Center for the Book. She is a founding director of the College Book Art Association.

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