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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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  • 31 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    In my continuing efforts to engage students and faculty with the research and expository writing possibilities of artists’ books, I had a recent teaching experience of matchless opportunity for inculcation. To put it another way, if success can be judged by students not checking their phones, a reluctance to leave when class was finished, and an urgent text message to a visiting parent to get right over to the library, we scored.

    A faculty member in the Anthropology department had contacted me about whether Special Collections had any books
    that offer “a critique of media saturation, or perhaps examine the notion of archiving culture?” (Haven’t books been archiving culture from the beginning?)

    Off the top of my head, I could think of a few books that directly address digital culture as the central theme (Peter Malutski’s  
    Lucy in the Sky, Emily Larned’s Search Results, and Emily McVarish’s The Square) but I had to probe deeper to understand the context for his course. He explained: “As a larger theme, the reimagining of the book as something more than a simple document would be a good jumping-off point.” Aha! Sounds suspiciously like an artist’s book….

    Teaching newcomers about artists’ books is a lot like teaching a foreign language. One has to start with the basic principles and then build on them to recognize nuance, texture, and meaning. The biggest challenge is to slow the students down so they don’t just flip randomly through the pages, often the collateral damage of screen reading. I find that if I present groups of books with related study questions, it forces them to read more closely. So I enlisted my best student assistant, Meredith, who, along with a prodigious memory for artists and press names, is a proto-curator, and a critical and emotional reader. Better still, she knows well the world of her fellow Wellesley students, who grew up reading and interacting with a screen.  We put our heads together and came up with an approach that would ask students to analyze how they read differently with the books in front of them and how they would absorb the content if delivered digitally instead of physically. Yes, to the initiated, the answer is obvious, but to first-year students who have never seen artists’ books, it is an entry point and a hook for critical thinking. My Mini-Me curator was great. She stood in front of the class after I gave my lofty academic introduction to artists’ books, and summed it up with a two word exhortation: “ASK WHY!”

    They did, and it worked beautifully. The comments I heard were insightful and original. It worked so well in fact, that they will be coming back for a second class with artists’ books in the spring semester. Nothing like real hard copy books to give meaning to a course on the virtual.

    Following are the thematic groupings of books we selected and the study questions for each. For a complete list of artists and titles, please contact me at rrogers@wellesley.edu.

    Random Access Reading

    Does it need to be linear to be understood? How does the book mimic digital access? Does the physical form aid your interpretation of the content?

    Linear Reading

    Could any of these be read as digital texts? What elements would or would not transfer well?

    Haptic Reading

    What is obvious to you about these? How do you read them? Could they be mimicked on a screen?

    Reading without Reading

    How are these books? Could these have the same effect digitally?

    Data Made Physical

    The data presented in these books is available online.  How does the artist change the reading experience?

    Artists Comment on the Virtual World

    What point is the artist/author making? Do you relate?


  • 14 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    Ulises Carrión wrote, “Among languages, literary language . . . is not the best fitted to the nature of books,” in the late 70s. He was manifesting about ‘old books’ (books that didn’t consider their own materiality) and ‘new books’ (an early iteration of what Jerome McGann among others would call the page as a spatial field). Around the same time, the critic Lucy Lippard wrote that one of her favorite aspects of artists’ books was that she could skim them; she didn’t differentiate between various iterations of artists’ books such as photobooks and the self-inflicted wounds of one-off journals. All of them, evidently, could be treated as flip books.

    Lippard’s quantitative methodology seems to have struck a chord with curators of book art exhibitions; since the 1980s many curators have tended to stuff their exhibitions with examples, as if to convince viewers that we should love artists’ books simply because there are so darn many of them. Given that, for many of us, our first encounter with artists’ books and book art is in these exhibitions, the packed cases, often filled with one-of-each book structures which of course defy reading in that setting, leave an implicit suggestion that the textual content of these books is not the point. That in turn seems to promote a form of bookmaking that treats text as afterthought, or something to pour into a structure.

    Why, then, given the challenges, bother to read—really read—artists’ books at all? We read because, when text is woven into the conceptual fabric of the book, the whole can become far greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t that the idea of artists’ books? Books that understand their own operation, their iconicity, their materials and their content as an interwoven whole will bring on an experience for the reader that quick perusal and even appreciation of an interesting structure will not do. But we need to practice what Betsy Davids calls adventurous reading; I often borrow the analogy of close reading from literary studies to suggest an approach to artists’ books that will yield their complexity with time, study and curiosity.

    Can this all go wrong? Of course. Take the recent phenomenon, Jonathan Safron Foer’s, Tree of Codes, an adaptation of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. Foer excised major amounts of text from a translation of Schulz’s work; laser cutter technology allowed New Directions to publish the results in a relatively inexpensive trade edition. While the resultant text that Foer created considers Schulz’s words in a sympathetic way, the book can’t really be read without a paper intervention underneath each page, which defeats the original intention of the book. I’m guessing that Foer never actually tried making this book; he marked off the text he wanted to save and sent it off to be dealt with by the publisher. Artists engaged with the materiality of their books would not have made this mistake.

    T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, that most traditional of makers, demanded no less of his books than we should demand of artists’ books, and lamented what happened when his Books Beautiful did not stand up to scrutiny: “. . .each contributory craft may usurp the functions of the rest and of the whole and growing beautiful beyond all bounds ruin for its own the common cause.” The best artists’ books reveal their contents in the whole. It is our job to take the time to see what they are offering.

  • 30 Sep 2015 9:00 PM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    Much of the critical literature on artists’ books focuses on the materiality of the text and frequently, at least by implication, on there being little necessity to absorb the text fully. In discussing Johanna Drucker’s From A to Z in “Embodying Bookness: Reading as a Material Act,” Manuel Portela asserts that “the reader” never “entirely leave[s] the surface of the page.” This is an important potential of artists’ books and characterizes many of the most prominent in the past few decades. Over and over again, I have heard it said about various artists’ books, sometimes by the artist him or herself, that one doesn’t need to read all the text—which leads to my query: is there a problematic relation of text “packaged for its semantic content” (to use a phrase from Thomas Vogler’s “When a Book is Not a Book”) and the book as art?

    William Blake, the patron saint of the artist’s book—master of poetry, artmaking, design, and printing—offers a complex example of the possible problem of text in an artist’s book. I first encountered Blake’s poetry many years ago as text printed readably in the old kind of book, as container. In No Longer Innocent, Betty Bright speaks of “the wall of words that don’t invite reading” as characterizing at least some of his works. Have or do people ever access his poetry in his artist’s books? At present his books are readily available in facsimile form. Blake was not generally appreciated as a poet for at least several decades after his death and until after the 1862 publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, in which many of his poems were typeset. Was his reputation as a poet dependent on taking his poetry out of his books? For me the role of the text in his books is visual only and as such evokes a context for the book’s images and design. It is to be looked at rather than looked through.

    There are, of course, artists’ books that meld image and text in ways that keep text as semantic experience in the forefront and many remarkable fine press books in which the text as semantic meaning and visual form coexist in a way that intrinsically informs the other. But at least for those books for which tactility and handcraft are important for content (and hence are expensive), the audience is miniscule in number. And books with considerable text to be read are generally even less accessible  — harder to display — in a gallery than the primarily visual artist’s book. That may or may not have anything to do with the frequent reluctance on the part of viewers to actually read an artist’s book, indeed the disbelief that one needs to, and the frequent overlooking, even acceptance of, the weak writing in many artists’ books. “I generally don’t like artists’ books,” an unusual visitor at a book fair said to me recently, “because I don’t like the writing.”

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