A POST-DIGITAL BOOK ARTS PROGRAM // Bill Hanscom

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.


Comments

  • 04 Mar 2019 6:54 AM | Gary Frost
    Bill, Thanks for such a graceful and provocative post. I also enjoyed your course structures. Yes, there is much to b done in the post/proto book media. I see a particular art beyond art in the use of the produced book. Another interest is in book behavior taking on a life of its own.

    Thanks for your interventions!
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    • 04 Mar 2019 7:30 AM | Bill Hanscom
      Hi Gary, Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated.
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  • 13 Mar 2019 5:37 PM | Richard Minsky
    I'll second Gary's comment and love your syllabi.

    In response to your query, " I am very much interested to hear how it is being approached in the classroom through exercises and projects...." you made me think about a comparison of my pre- and post-digital book art classes.
    School of Visual Arts Fall 1979 course outline for Artists Publish Art:
    https://minsky.com/sva.htm

    SUNY Purchase Fall 2010 syllabus for Experimental Bookmaking
    Syllabus-Minsky_Experimental_Bookmaking-Purchase_Fall_2010.pdf

    Purchase Library page about the course, where you can download a pdf of the catalog of the class exhibition, curated by the class following their study of three methods of critique. Each student designed their own spread. They also did a physical book and POD.
    https://purlibrary.wordpress.com/tag/exhibit/
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    • 14 Mar 2019 5:58 AM | Bill Hanscom
      Richard,

      Thanks for your comments and for sharing your course materials.

      The SVA course outline is wonderful. Do you know if others were teaching similar courses around that time?

      The SUNY Purchase course sounds great. I think that the Flickr gallery is broken now (perhaps as a result of their recent change in ownership), but the catalog gives a nice picture of the work that the students put into it.

      Was there supposed to be a link to the SUNY syllabus? I would very much like to take a look at it.

      Best,
      Bill
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      • 14 Mar 2019 8:15 AM | Richard Minsky
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        • 14 Mar 2019 9:03 AM | Richard Minsky
          Re the SVA outline, I don't know if others were teaching similar courses around that time. It combined several segments that I had been teaching at the Center for Book Arts 1974-78. Sorry that I don't have the next page of this outline, for the second half of that semester--maybe it will turn up in the archive some day. We delved into copyright law and fair use, which was important for the students to understand, both for their own protection and so they didn't violate others' rights. The Copyright Act of 1976 had just gone into effect in 1978. The students each did a project, which occupied most of their time the second half of the course.
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          • 14 Mar 2019 10:58 AM | Bill Hanscom
            Thanks, Richard!
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