BOOK REVIEW: UNSHELFMARKED: RECONCEIVING THE ARTISTS' BOOK // Levi Sherman

01 Jun 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Michael Hampton’s 2015 book, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book, is as revolutionary as it is useful. Unshelfmarked is a manifesto, a defense of the artists’ book as digestible and democratic, and one that traces that lineage far beyond the alternative impulses of the 1960s.

Between compelling introductory and concluding writings is a collection of what could be entries in the catalogue for a fantasy exhibition, curated to explode the contextual pigeonhole where conversations about artists’ books have been jammed for decades. As the title implies, this expansive bibliography dispenses with the typical organizational trappings of the library and leaves it to alphabetical order (and the will of the reader) to draw connections between its fifty entries, which span thirteen centuries. Hampton also includes an “exposé” in the midst of these entries, which follows a number of conceptual threads in a loosely chronological fashion so as to challenge the conventional history of artists’ books without proposing an equally rigid alternative. This new history demonstrates that the artists’ book was latent within cultural production for centuries, not a strange new form wholly reliant on reference to, and distinction from, literature and bibliography.

Having swept the historical rug out from under our feet, it is perhaps no surprise that Unshelfmarked has a complicated relationship with the past. While discussing Vorticism, Hampton references “the artists’ book form, which is according Johanna Drucker an ultra 20th century phenomenon (like oil, information and atonal music), yet one whose paroxysmal phase has now levelled out, normalised even.” Though somewhat dismissive, Hampton does not preclude the possibility that artists’ books could have these long roots, yet nevertheless epitomize the Twentieth Century. Hampton’s positive descriptions of the field at present are more clear: “the era distinguished by promiscuous signalling and play between disciplines . . . has explicitly metamorphosed wholesale into one that is now omnipresent, digitally hypermediated and wise to its own gimmicks; meaning the artists’ book has blithely surpassed its own definition route.”

In reconsidering the past, the future of artists’ books also changes. Hampton writes that “to speak of the artists’ book as if solely a quirky Cinderella-like branch of the six hundred year-old history of the book as codex, or even a late-capitalist symptom, would be to ignore the impact of the digital revolution upon it too, a seismic event that has coincided with its structural renewal and expansion, revealing a fluid, highly adaptable and above all democratic format in the process.” Unshelfmarked verges on teleology, positing artists’ books as the most evolved form of the book. Though the digital revolution facilitates this progress, it is not required; most of the artists’ books catalogued in Unshelfmarked have achieved this perfection of the book even without the democratic potential of digital media.

Since Unshelfmarked spurns conventional organization, Hampton makes his case through the force and enthusiasm with which he situates each entry in the expanded field of artists’ books. He does not waste words defending these assertions. Each book is allotted roughly one recto and verso, though they are by no means cookie cutter reviews. The reader might find description, contextualization, criticism or meta-critique. Hampton has a knack for distilling the salient aspects of a book, though perhaps always with a mind towards his larger argument.

Thus, these sensitive readings are at times pressed into the service of polemics beyond the confines of the bookshelf, including magnificent anti-capitalist criticism and playful, generative leaps between intellectual disciplines. In raising the stakes through these broader connections, Unshelfmarked does not seek to hijack the politics of any given work. Indeed, Hampton includes ample quotes from the artists themselves as well as other commentators. The overarching assertion is more that, to some degree, the meaning of each book is contingent upon the cultural-historical position of the book.

This is argued most clearly in the book’s appendix, “On Recent Tendencies in Bibliotecture: Memorials, Chutes and Shelving.” The appendix rounds up recent works which engage with book culture, and diagnoses a conundrum which haunts artists’ books today: a tension between institutional critique and a nostalgic defense of liberal humanism, two impulses for which books have been indispensable tools. Unshelfmarked is a welcome guide to this moment.

Hampton, Michael, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book (Axminster, UK: Uniformbooks, 2015)


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