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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.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 01 Jul 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Wonder is underrated today, even dismissed, relegated to sensational headlines in glossy magazines or social media drama—in other words, treated as irrelevant or hyperbole. But wonder, defined as “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable,” can be a powerful strategy for an artist, and particularly for an artist wishing to entice and involve a viewer.

    In their 2001 book Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park trace the shifting status of the state of wonder through history. In the preface, the authors stake out their different perceptions of wonder: “One of us believes that wonders appeal because they contradict and destabilize; the other, because they round out the order of the world.”[1] It is in the meeting of those two responses—to disrupt and then reclaim—that wonder exerts its power, which can be especially useful to artists who make work about difficult truths.

    Wonder is on show in the exhibition Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment, which arose in response to a global call to action. Peter Koch and others called for artists to “raise a ruckus” in 2021, to educate and demand change around environmental threat and loss. Jeff Thomas, Executive Director of San Francisco Center for the Book, agreed to host the show and publish an illustrated catalogue with essays. Thanks to another prompt from Koch, San Francisco Public Library signed on as a second showing site. [2] I was invited to write two blog posts, as co-curator of Reclamation with Jeff Thomas, and as one of the show’s three jurors and catalog essayists (joined by Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress, and Ruth Rogers of Wellesley College). As jurors, in addition to prioritizing works of excellence and compelling content, we sought works that would reach across the chasm of anxiety and disbelief that many subconsciously employ to distance themselves from unsettling and threatening content.


    Wonder bridges that gap. For example, Judith Tentor’s accordion book, A Photograph of Feather Boa Kelp (above), draws attention from its deep blue cyanotype contact print. A cyanotype is activated when an object is laid atop photosensitive paper, allowing the action of light to create a negative silhouette when the object is removed. Feather Boa Kelp’s initial impact is in its scale of nearly fifteen feet, an accomplishment in the cyanotype medium. Equally striking is the work’s lacy patterning that ripples along the folded sheet as if the kelp (a subgroup of seaweed) is still afloat. Once a viewer advances into reading proximity, the text reveals that its openwork pattern is evidence of the feeding of a seaweed limpet, which has followed the kelp in its expanding range due to the warming ocean. Tentor’s specimen was found in the waters off San Diego, and the kelp’s range now reaches from Alaska to Mexico. As an artist’s book, Feather Boa Kelp carries evidence of climate change directly into a reader’s hands.


    A second work, Ten Meters of Mycelium by Lizzie Brewer (above), also draws a viewer’s gaze through the beauty of its ink and graphite drawings of mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus, depicted here in fine white filaments that gather and release across the sheet. The title also notes the scroll’s extraordinary length of ten meters (thirty-three feet), the majority of which remains hidden, furled within the scroll structure, viewable only in increments. Wondrous indeed, a viewer can imagine slowly exploring the sheer breadth of it, as the exquisite renderings come into view only to be tucked away again as the scroll is forwarded. Like a microscopic sample brought into focus, Brewer’s drawings of magnified mycelia represent billions of fungi, mycelia, and roots. This life-giving network produces and nurtures the soil’s biosphere across the earth’s surface—literally sustaining the ground under our feet.

    Through wonder, A Photograph of Feather Boa Kelp and Ten Meters of Mycelium transform our familiar but unnoticed forays into a heightened mindfulness of the urgency of climate change, while exploring a shoreline or simply walking on terra firma.

    [1] Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998) 11.

    [2] Reclamation: Artists’ Books on the Environment is on show at San Francisco Center for the Book from June 9 – September 26, and at San Francisco Public Library from June 19 – September 5. I also wish to thank Jennie Hinchcliff of San Francisco Center for the Book, and Joan Jasper of San Francisco Public Library, for their dedication throughout this project.


    Betty Bright is an independent writer, curator and historian who helped to start Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). In 2005 she published No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980, and continues to write and curate, including contributing to the forthcoming Materialia Lumina (Stanford University and The CODEX Foundation, 2021).

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

    Ancient examples of accordion-folded books have been found in many parts of Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, and Burma. In China the accordion (musical instrument) is called a shou feng qin, which literally means “hand-wind-instrument.” The name for the book structure is jingzhe zhuang: jingzhe means “neat-folded paper” and zhuang means “binding.” The earliest examples of jingzhe zhuang bindings are from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). There were two earlier systems in China for “binding” texts. Some texts were written on silk cloth, usually rolled up as scrolls. The Chinese word for this structure is shoujuan, which literally means “hand roll-up.” Texts were also written on wood, usually bamboo cut into thin vertical strips, laced or knotted together horizontally with cord, then either rolled like a scroll or folded back and forth in a stack. The folded variation of this binding style is known as jian du, and examples date back to the fifth century BCE. It was not until after the invention of paper, in the second century CE, that Chinese bookmakers adapted the jian du structure to make jingzhezhuang bindings. A miniature jingzhe zhuang (10 x 14 cm) was found at the Dunhuang archaeological site in Western China, and thus, made before 900 CE, it is the oldest-known miniature accordion book.

    In Japan, the accordion-folded book structure is called an orihon. The word combines the root words ori (fold) and hon(book). According to legend, it was during the Heian period (794–1185 CE) that a Buddhist monk squashed his sutra scroll and then folded it up, thus inventing the orihon binding. Japanese orihon books were made using paper: either a single long strip folded back and forth, or several smaller strips connected together before folding. Another variation of the orihon binding was called a sempuyo. In this binding, individual folded sheets are arranged with the folds all facing the same direction, and then each fore edge is adhered to the adjacent fore edge. The cover is adhered to the first and last pages of the text block, but it is not attached to the spine. Because of this, the sempuyo is often called a flutter book: if it is dropped or blown by the wind, the pages will flutter but remain attached to the covers. It is said that monks used such books medicinally, believing that the breeze created by moving the pages of the holy sutras could heal an injury.

    In pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America, the Aztec and Maya made books with folded structures. These books are commonly called códices. Mayan códices were written in hieroglyphic characters, called glyphs, on amate, a paper-like material made from the bark of a certain type of fig tree. There was a Mayan glyph for the word códicejuun, but it looks more like a hamburger than a book. Written pages were pasted together and then folded back and forth to create an accordion-folded book. The Spanish invaders destroyed most of the original códices, and though some original text blocks survived, there are no original bindings. Some scholars believe the text block was glued to wooden covers, others that the text block and covers were wrapped together with leather cords. 

    It is unknown when the first accordion book was made in Western Europe. The oldest extant example I could find was handwritten, in Cyrillic script, in 1330. This manuscript, known as Canones et carmina sacra quae…, is now in the Netherlands’ Leiden University Library. 

    While there were other examples of accordion-folded manuscripts, the binding structure was not used in the early printed books. Although there were over 30,000 distinct editions printed during the incunabula period (1450–1500 CE), no known incunabulum has an accordion structure.

    Other than the Canones et carmina, the earliest accordion books made in Western Europe that I have discovered were miniature books printed and bound to be sold as souvenirs. As far as I know, none of those books include a printed date of publication, but some have the publisher’s name (for example, the Recollections of . . . series printed in London by J. Newman & Co.) and others have a traceable provenance, so we know they were made in the early to mid-1800s.

    We may never know who made the first accordion book, or when it was made, but at least we do know when and who made the first real accordion book.  Accordioning to respected book arts historians:  in 2002 Peter and Donna Thomas cut the bellows of an accordion, allowing them fold back and forth, inserted paper panels printed with text and image into the folds, and made their first Real Accordion Book out of Peter’s old 12 bass piano accordion. That first real accordion book was followed by a series of others.

    Peter and Donna Thomas. A New History of the Accordion Book. 2016.

    The works are tied together by structure, text, and image. A collection of photographs rotates through the series – old favorites reappearing, new images being presented for the first time. The texts have, for the most part, been explorations into the history of the accordion and of the accordion book. We have tried to add new information to each subsequent book, and since a history of the accordion book has not been previously published, finding information has been hard. We hope that by sharing what we have learned in these blog posts, others will come forward with what they have discovered, and together, as a community, we can write a more complete history of the accordion book. 

    Peter and Donna Thomas are book artists who make editioned and one-of-a-kind books. They make the paper, print, illustrate, and bind their books, combining the precision of the fine press aesthetic with the creativity found in contemporary artists' books. Between 2009-2019 they traveled the USA as the Wandering Book Artists.

  • 01 Jun 2021 12:30 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 2000 I had the idea to make an accordion book. Not your regular accordion book, this one would be made from a real accordion, with the keyboards as covers, and the bellows would be cut along the vertical ends, so that when it was pulled open it would look like a real accordion book! I play the accordion and couldn’t pass up the opportunity presented by the visual pun, but the real purpose for making the book was to address a point of confusion among book artists: whether a folded paper book should be called an accordion book or a concertina book. From playing both musical instruments, I knew that an accordion is rectangular, and a concertina is hexagonal. I made my first real accordion book in tandem with a book made out of a concertina to physically explain why, unless a book is hexagonal in shape, the correct term is accordion book.

                                  Peter and Donna Thomas, The Real Accordion Book, 2001

                                 Peter and Donna Thomas, The Real Concertina Book, 2001                                                                                  

    Following is my short history of the accordion book, explaining how format came to be generally know called an accordion book.

    The word accordion was first used early in the nineteenth century to describe a small, portable, box-shaped musical instrument. It had a button keyboard on the right-hand side for playing melody notes, another button keyboard on the left-hand side for playing bass and chordal accompaniment, and folded paper bellows connecting the two keyboards together. Metal reeds, attached to the keyboards, were mounted inside the bellows. When buttons were pushed while the bellows were being expanded and contracted, air was forced past the metal reeds, causing them to vibrate and produce sound. The term accordion book borrows from the musical instrument. It describes any book having a folded, rather than sewn, text block, where the pages are pleated – folded back and forth in a manner similar to the bellows of an accordion, rather than being folded as a map – and are viewed by expanding the book like an accordion.

    The invention of the accordion was inspired by an ancient Chinese, mouth-blown musical instrument called the sheng. The sheng was first displayed in Western Europe in the late seventeenth century. It used free reeds in resonator pipes to create musical sounds, and this concept led to the invention of several different harmonica-like instruments. The success of those inventions encouraged organ-makers to try a new direction in their efforts to create low-cost pump organs for small-town churches; this, in turn, led to the creation of the accordion. Most historians credit Cyrill Demian, of Vienna, as the inventor of the first accordion. In 1829, he patented an instrument where the left hand operated a button keyboard and the right hand moved the bellows. He called his invention an Akkordion. The word is based on akkord, in this case referring to musical harmony, with the suffix –ion, being thought to derive from the word clarion, a sort of medieval trumpet.

    In some countries the accordion’s name is a variation on the word harmonica (for example, harmonika in Bosnia and harmonikka in Finland). In Italy it is called a fisarmonica, said to be derived from physharmonica, the name given by Anton Haeckl to his 1818 invention that combined harmonica and bellows to make an instrument resembling the modern hand-held harmonium. Other countries have unique names; for example, in Sweden it is called a dragspel, where drag means pull and spel means play. The accordion also has nicknames: in English it is sometimes called a squeezebox, and in Germany it is sometimes called a schifferklavier (sailor's piano). Sometimes the accordion is mistakenly called a concertina, or vice versa, but the words are not interchangeable. Though the concertina is also in the aerophone family, it is typically smaller, shaped as a hexagon rather than as a square or a rectangle, and its buttons are organized differently.

    Accordion books, like musical accordions, can also have different names. For example, German binders call accordion books Leporellos. In German dictionaries, Leporello is defined as “a fan of folded paper.” In the 1787 opera Don Giovanni, with music by Wolfgang Mozart and an Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Don Giovanni’s servant is named Leporello. In Act 1, Scene 2, Leporello sings what is now commonly known as the “catalogue aria.” In this scene, Leporello takes a book from his bag and pulls out a long folding strip of paper that lists all of Don Giovanni’s romantic conquests. (I find it interesting to speculate which came first; was the servant named after the book structure or vice versa?) The term concertina book, for me a misnomer, is used by some English speakers to describe an accordion book. Perhaps this originated in England, where the concertina was more popular than the accordion.

    While the history of the accordion began in the seventeenth century, the history of the accordion book is actually much older, and that will be the subject of the next post.

    Peter and Donna Thomas are book artists who make editioned and one-of-a-kind books. They make the paper, print, illustrate, and bind their books, combining the precision of the fine press aesthetic with the creativity found in contemporary artists' books. In 2021 The Legacy Press published Peter and Donna Thomas: Bibliography, 1974–2020.



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

    Most of our collective lives for the past year and a half have been filtered through pixels, but even before the major cultural pivot toward digital spaces that was made necessary by the pandemic, the digital age has been in full swing for a while now and artists have been finding it more important to consider the ways our tactile, dimensional, and time-based artist books are experienced virtually.

    Artist books often require the maker to plan the entire project before even purchasing materials to begin making. If I haven’t decided on the binding or printing processes, I won’t know how much paper I need, what size sheets to purchase, etc. So, in that initial planning stage, is it also necessary to take into consideration the way the book will be virtually experienced and allow those considerations to change our projects?

    It’s easy to see how websites and a social media presence are beneficial for artists, but an inevitable product is how the digital space can affect the art that is created. If algorithms boost bold, edgy, graphic images and your subtle, gentle, hard-to-photograph artist book doesn’t get high engagement, it may feel like a less successful project. Consciously or unconsciously, the artistic trends of today are coded by social media. Making an effort to embrace or ignore that influence is worth thinking about.

    Image courtesy of Beth Sheehan and Small Editions

    I believe that the idea or concept behind the artist book should dictate the materials, processes, and viewer’s experience of the book and in the same way, I think the intended experience should dictate the digital translation the project receives. If every artist book is documented as if it were a codex, the viewer is robbed and if every artist book is made so that it is easy to document, the viewer is robbed. Finding a balance that works for your art practice is important.

    Even if you have not considered the way your artist book will be experienced virtually at the start of your project, documenting the finished book to accurately reflect the work is incredibly important given how much of the global audience will not see the work in person. Artist books are usually 3-dimensional, intimate, and time-based but standard photographing can flatten the work. Along with the usual considerations such as proper lighting, a quality background, image size and quality, color correction, and documenting multiple angles, you may also want to consider the following. Taking photographs of the book being handled gives the viewer an idea of scale as well as demonstrating the way the viewer should interact with the book. Photographing each page from the same angle to create a gif or slideshow can be helpful for instances where videos are not possible. You may also want to consider creating multiple short video clips that serve various purposes such as an instructional video about displaying the book, a “product” video that showcases the features, a behind-the-scenes process video, and an experience video that acts as the viewer handling the book themselves.

    Image courtesy of the Quarantine Public Library

    Additionally, there is a lot to be said for creating artist books that will live exclusively in a digital space and quite a lot of artists are producing projects that fully consider their virtual existence. Not only does a digital experience of an artist book make it more accessible but considering the benefits of digital media can push the world of artist books so much further. The Quarantine Public Library has made it a priority to provide access to artist books, as well as providing an avenue to begin or build your art collection. They are a virtual library containing one-page artist books for patrons to print, fold, and read at home for free. Bringing artist books to those that may not get the chance to see them otherwise spreads creativity and boosts the book arts community.

    Image courtesy of the New Jersey Book Arts Symposium

    The digital era has changed book arts in more direct ways as well. Book artists have been integrating digital elements into physical artworks, creating virtual exhibitions such as the exhibition titled Tumultuous Absence (pictured above) during the NJ Book Arts Symposium and pushing the definition of “artist books” through digital technologies. The worlds of virtual reality and augmented reality are spreading through the art world as well. One of the most exciting examples is an app called Tropi created by the non-profit Interactive Initiative. The app uses augmented reality to bring South Florida artists’ works to life, allowing viewers to physically walk up to and around the artworks that they are seeing through their phone. Imagine walking through one of your artist books!

    Image courtesy of Interactive Initiative

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

  • 27 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


          Intentionally bad typography: this meme has been circulating for at least six years.

    "Authenticity" is one of the topics in my Critique Workshop. We see many works of book art that are made by people with a lack of training or experience, but with a lot to say. As educators we see lots of that. Some of the most powerful work I've seen was made by inner city teens in a series of Center for Book Arts (CBA) summer workshops titled Cultural Autobiography, conducted by Cheryl Shackleton Hawkins 1993-2000. 

    Work by Antonia Pocock for the exhibition Student Work and Cultural AutobiographyCenter for Book Arts, Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, 2000.

    Sometimes we see works that are done by highly skilled practitioners in a style that appears to be untrained. Is it simply fake outsider art, or does the intent of the creator play an important role in critical evaluation? Is it important that the viewer knows what the creator was trying to achieve? Does the medium in which it appears make a difference? Does it matter if the target audience is Artworld insiders or the general public? 

    This issue arose close to home last September, when CBA published "A New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism" as a full page ad in The Brooklyn Rail, as a web page, and as a PDF

    When I first saw it I sent an email to CBA asking if was done by a volunteer or a student, noting the inconsistent line spacing, justification, and other typographic issues. A reply came quickly: 

                "This design was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field. And from a contemporary design perspective it is right on point. The word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism."

    I was confused and mystified. What is the conceptual relationship of ugly typography that is hard to read to a manifesto advocating criticism of typography and design?  Was that the point? Was this meant to be criticized? Or to be seen by a specific audience? Was it a joke? I've read some artist book criticism, and written some, as well as conducting Critique Workshops for four decades. I needed to ask for advice from those who know more about typography, so I wrote to a few typographers, including the designers of the manifesto. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, was the first to respond:

                "Professionalism has its pitfalls as well as its benefits. You of all people will recall the distinguished economist Arthur Okun’s observation that 'anyone except an economist knows without asking why money shouldn’t buy some things.' I fear it’s also true, in the present climate, that anyone except a 'cutting-edge typographer' knows lazy and incompetent typography when they see it.

                "I was delighted to read that the CBA plans a new periodical, the Book Art Review. But its 'New Manifesto for Book Art Criticism' delivers a self-contradictory message because it’s incompetently composed.

                "Four of the fifteen paragraphs in the manifesto are set with the 'block justification' switch turned on. This forces the last line of a paragraph to fill out to full measure, at the cost of outlandish word spacing in all lines from first to last. This is what you see in the bottom paragraph of the first and second column, the top paragraph of the third column, and the final bulleted paragraph, farther along in the third column. First-week design students often make mistakes like this. Anyone who charges money for doing typography, or who undertakes to teach the craft, ought to laugh at such errors, or scowl, as their temperament permits. But to defend such an error is blatant self-incrimination.

               "The justification and word-spacing in the other eleven paragraphs of the manifesto is also pretty lousy, and this is because the typesetter failed to set the justification parameters to reasonable values. Tuning a justification engine is slightly more complicated than just turning a switch on or off, so I don’t expect typography students to learn it until the second week of instruction. If they don’t have it down by the third week, I will start dropping hints that they should consider a different profession.

               "Those are the two most obvious problems with the design and execution of the manifesto. It would also help if the authors could spell the name of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé – the only authority they quote. And it would help if the text were set using text figures (old-style figures) rather than lining figures. Lining figures belong in classified ads. They do not belong in books nor in any discussion of book arts, nor in a proposal for a book arts periodical.

              "Incompetence per se is not hard to repair, and institutions like the Center for Book Arts were created for just that purpose: to teach those who are willing to learn. Proud and defiant incompetence is something else again. Those who broadcast their ignorance and insist they have nothing to learn (like a certain American president I can think of) are a menace to their fellow citizens.

               "The claim that the design of this manifesto 'was created by knowledgeable, professional designers who are highly regarded in their field' and that 'the word spacing, hyphenation, and box outlines are all conceptually related to the content of the manifesto and the history of artist’s book criticism' is just pretentious nonsense. The setting is incompetent, and anyone whose eyes are not stitched shut can see that this is so."

    Next I heard from Ellen Lupton, Design Chair at MICA and Senior Curator, Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

                "Whether the effect successfully communicates its own confidence is a matter of opinion. This design is an example of what is sometimes called 'default modernism.' Just because the designers know what they are doing doesn't mean that readers necessarily get the joke."

    Wael Morcos, Partner at Morcos Key, wrote:

                "It’s part of a design movement self-dubbed “critical graphic design” using graphic design as methodology for research into other disciplines like politics, sociology, sustainability… Sometimes the formal interpretation is surprising and detached from the needs of a corporate client. Sometimes it’s just another affectation, an attitude, a trend. I personally don’t buy the argument that if it’s rigorous thought, it has to be unpleasant to look at or deliberately confusing."

    The final word came from the manifesto's designers, Jas Stefanski and Lauren Thorson of Studio—Set, who also designed the new CBA Website and this spiffy animated Instagram post for the Center's annual benefit, which takes place May 11. They clarified the objective:

                "In regards to your question, it was not intended to be a joke nor look like outsider typography. The typography emphasizes the immediacy inherent to newspapers, mass produced/circulated printed formats, etc."  

    After reading the replies to my query I had a better understanding of why I was confused, and an appreciation of how difficult it can be to communicate an idea typographically when readers come to the page with many different perspectives.

    Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.

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


    What would you write in a love letter to book art?

    As graduate students from the Mills College Book Art program, our curiosity led us to ask this final question to people within the book art ecosystem. Emails went to poets, book artists, letterpress printers, book designers, professors, collectors, theorists, gallerists, and librarians.

    “Dear Book Art,

    Thank you. I'm so happy to have found in you the language my body already knew how to speak. xo e.” e bond

    “You begin with surface. The cover is a place of curiosity. Whose handwriting is this? What is the logic of visual presentation as it relates to the words within. May we never lose our connections.” —Truong Tran

    “My artist’s book titled A Love Story (2018) is my love letter to the Book Arts field and creative process…. Related to making artist’s books with a social justice focus, A Love Story presents my process from conceiving an idea through completion and presenting. Between criss-crossing the country, I used the collage-making process to de-stress while maintaining focus on simultaneous book projects on various issues of race and racism. —Tia Blassingame

    “My love affair with the codex began well before I knew the word. Despite the codex being a millennium old, its possibilities are still not fully exploited.” —Kathy Walkup

    "You let me touch what I fail to see, and see ideas my brain cannot comprehend" Brooke Hardy

    “You've broken my heart so many times before but I keep coming back to you for reasons that were beyond me, until this very moment….Your conceptual beauty is far greater than mere aesthetics, but for some reason, you rely on these while you're in other people's hands too often. But you and I know these are only tricks…. I've seen you change lives while people leaf through your pages. Book arts, perhaps I'm jealous.... You are endless. I could research you to my dying days and still know only a thimble full of all you can contain. This is why I love you. No one can own you. You are wild, even when sitting on a shelf. You change from person to person, but maintain a form that I feel deeply at home with. Book Arts, I am only a printer, but I see what you truly are. You are humanity's answer to love. A record of our collective minds, bound for us all. Adaptable, selfless, and sometimes expensive.” —James Tucker

    “I could see myself writing a love letter to book art as a form as a lover loving the body of book. Each book is so different just like a body. I would appreciate the curves, textures, flaws, ink and format of book art. ” —Amber McCrary

    “I’m not going to comment on a love letter to Book Art. That feels too personal.” —Joel Benson

    “un libro es como un abrazo

    o una danza

    tomo una mano del libro

    y luego la otra

    y juntxs

    vamos” —Claudia Nuñez de Ibieta

    Yours truly,

    From the masked creatures who roam the halls of the Mills College Book Art buildings, presses, and rooms. Making pulp into paper, printing on the fibers, and binding into books.


    Juan Pablo Ayala, Mills Book Art ‘21. Joel Benson, Dependable Letterpress. Tia Blassingame, Scripps College Press and Primrose Press. e bond, Artist/Book Binder. Brooke Hardy, Book Artist. Amber McCrary, Abalone Mountain Press. Claudia Nuñez de Ibieta, translator, PHX Cartonera Collective member, F*%K IF I KNOW//BOOKS co-conspirator. Truong Tran, Poet and Artist. James Tucker, Aesthetic Union. Kathy Walkup, Director, Mills Book Art Program.

  • 01 Apr 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Do you think an artist’s book can exist solely in a digital space, or does it need a haptic component in order to be an artist’s book? What are the essential haptic qualities of a book you can’t live without?

    As graduate students from the Mills College Book Art program, our curiosity led us to ask these questions to people within the book art ecosystem. Emails went to poets, book artists, letterpress printers, book designers, professors, collectors, theorists, gallerists, and librarians.


    "My gut says no because I love the touch and feel of a book that has the evidence of the human hands in the making, in the turning of the page, all the things that make a book, that make us unique as human beings.” —Truong Tran

    “I think an artist's book can be created in a digital medium instead of a [three dimensional] one, so then to read that book is to engage with it in a digital realm. And a digital artist book can do things a physical codex cannot, they operate under different rules and limitations.… [But] taking away the haptic component of art... cuts one's physical experience of the book off at the knees and some meaning is lost in the digital translation.” —Brooke Hardy

    “I do believe an artist's book can inhabit only a digital realm. It all depends on the outcome the artist wants the user to have and if it's the most effective method to do so.“ —James Tucker

    “Haptic qualities I can't live without is flipping the pages of a good book and looking for all the highlights and reading them.… I think some books can solely exist in digital space like books that have limited texture or are simply print and paper. But books that have special formats like pop ups, wonderful texture or special binding, I think those would be hard to appreciate in a digital form.” —Amber McCrary

    “While I think it is possible for artist booklike forms to exist in a digital space, I do believe that with the loss of the full haptic experience, the tradeoff is a certain loss of attention. This is a difficulty not only in times of quarantine, but in in-person exhibitions where artist books are frequently shown in vitrines or cases.... The haptic experience of the book is the romance, to touch, to hold.... I believe the connection the viewer experiences with this vulnerability ... is part of what instills the sense of wonder in the viewer. Does work that necessitates a haptic experience still matter today? Hell yes. Is it difficult to exhibit? Also yes.” —Michelle Wilson

    “Touch, textural contrasts & the ability to play with scale are big qualities I would miss, but I feel like it would present a fun challenge to try to explore those things in a digital space.” —e bond

    “...[R]ules are made to be broken, so if I say no, then someone very smart will do something in the digital realm that would prove me wrong.… I am interested in hand skills and the way we interact with and manipulate materials that we learn to know intimately through practice and experience. The object then embodies that human experience.… For me, the most essential haptic quality of a book is the feel of the paper as you turn the page. The type of paper, the binding, whether the paper is folded or loose, the grain, what the printing and the ink has done to that paper, all affect the experience of turning the page.” —Joel Benson

    “I typically suggest that students view [book] documentation, particularly the videos, as alternative artist’s books or a different iteration of their book. To experiment ... can free the artist and give them a different understanding of [their] relationship to their work....

    "While I love the tactility and deep connection made possible with an artist’s book, books are more than that. Just as my experience of a book can be enriched and may be even enlivened by experiencing the audiobook version, I expect an artist’s book in the digital space could excite my sense.” —Tia Blassingame

    “...[Y]es, I believe an artist's book can exist solely in a digital space. Would I like it? That's another question.… I think more than haptic, an essential quality of an artist's book is the ability to unveil a unique, layered, and oftentimes embodied reading experience.” —Inge Bruggman

    “Let’s start with the proposition that not everything has to be a book.... You are free to call anything by any word or sound—language is not a fixed condition, but a continually evolving process of creating meaning using context to orient communication.... Haptics are often cited as a missing element in digital work, but I argue that since we experience all digital media through some kind of physical device, there are always haptics included in the experience of a digital work.... Screen life [...] is an impoverished sensorium, limited to just sound and low-ish rez [...] color space. Real life is so much richer.” —Clif Meador

    “Heft turns out to be central, along with page manipulation and the ability to scribble marginalia.… While I am not willing to say that a digital native artist’s book isn’t possible, I have yet to see any example that is at all persuasive.” —Kathy Walkup

    “a book is a book is a book is a book.” —Yo Cuomo


    Joel Benson, Dependable Letterpress. Tia Blassingame, Scripps College Press and Primrose Press. e bond, Artist/Book Binder. Inge Bruggeman, University of Nevada, Reno and INK-A! Press. Yo Cuomo, Book Designer. Brooke Hardy, Book Artist. Amber McCrary, Abalone Mountain Press. Clif Meador, Appalachian State University and Book Artist. Truong Tran, Poet and Artist. James Tucker, Aesthetic Union. Kathy Walkup, Director, Mills Book Art Program. Michelle Wilson, Rocinante Press.

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

    How has the pandemic changed the experience of the haptic in your book art practice?

    “In some way I view this whole Global Pandemic as a vessel for democracy. Accessibility and Plurality. When we see the letters POD we think Print On Demand, but now I just think Publish On Demand. So many people generate works and copies of the work that are to be left behind building cities of forgotten books. 

    PublishOD is a relevant space to be considered. A space not yet fully understood. How many trees? How many books? Are we supposed to reserve forests for future books? Print and publish what is necessary and what is going to be used?” – Juan Pablo Ayala

    “What does the haptic experience mean to a book artist? For a medium that is based in object/object interaction, quite possibly everything. With the only option to connect with people today being the internet, creating and experiencing the haptic proves to be a challenge. While challenging, it is not one that should not be ignored. Computers, the internet, and the digital world offer ample opportunity to explore how books can exist in a synthetic world. We should take this chance to explore this reality, and not have to wait for new technology to free the digital medium.”  – Joey Gage

    We are currently reading Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft. In his book, Adamson introduces examples of art/work to illustrate and provoke thought about the delineation and relationship between craft and art. Though he does not include book art as one of the disciplines, the discussion is applicable. During the pandemic, we share book models digitally on Zoom. This has forced us to translate the experience of our craft verbally. Ironically, the digital barrier has emphasized our understanding and awareness of materiality and skill. It has provided a different perspective as book artists. Craft and art join in the print studio and bindery, shared materials, smell of ink, conversation, music, and community. With the pandemic, this has been sharply curtailed, and given us time to appreciate what is on pause. – Joni B Bissell 

    Adamson, Glenn. Thinking Through Craft. 2007. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts; reprinted 2018.

    “Despite all the drawbacks in presenting and viewing a finished artist book virtually, there is something to be said for showing the beginning ideas of a book over a screen. Perhaps in removing the haptic it allows for concentration on the idea itself and not the misaligned paper or the tape holding the pages in place. Though the haptic seems to be a necessary part of the finished product, maybe in removing it for just a moment during the planning process, the idea is really allowed to flourish.” – Rebecca Josephson

    “What makes a book inherently a book? Is it the physicality of the object or the experience of the object through time and space? Is the physical interaction with the book inherent to the meaning of the book? What does the current lack of ability to have a physical interaction mean for the book as a work of art? What are books in a digital space? Does the digital platform become the medium of the book in the absence of a physical ability to handle or experience a book? 

    There aren’t concrete answers to these questions. Digitally interactive artists books do exist, but is it the same experience that a viewer has with a physical copy of that “same” book? The sudden lack of a haptic experience during the pandemic has forced us to question the convention of the book.” – Dina Pollack

    “Experiences are informed through our senses and the haptic experience has moved to the platforms of digital screens and videos. The engagement of a modified version, “digital experience” of the visual, limits the haptic experience. The pandemic has imposed restrictions on closeness, public engagements, and for lovers of the sensory experiences lack of touch limits our understanding of the haptic. There will always be challenges for those that seek to engage in the work that asks more of its viewers/ participants even without a pandemic. My hands will continue to create dreams and move ideas into the consciousness of physical form.” – Cinthia Marisol Lozano 

    Juan Pablo Ayala ‘21, Joni Bissell ‘21, Joey Gage ‘22, Becca Josephson ‘21, Cinthia Marisol Lozano ‘21, and Dina Pollack ‘21 are graduate Book Art Students at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Together, they are collaborating and moderating blog posts for CBAA for the months of March and April. 

  • 01 Mar 2021 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    “The most conceptual works are always caught up in the most material specifics.” [1] Craig Dworkin’s statement describes in a nutshell the dilemma of teaching book art over Zoom during the pandemic. I miss the informal encounters in the studios over whatever challenge the Vandercook is tossing at someone on any particular day. Demonstrating Dworkin’s haecceity of paper under a document camera is no substitute for the “material specifics” and haptic experience of actual book handling. 

    In my graduate seminar at Mills College, I set proof-of-concept projects for the students based on a variety of readings, including “The Logic of Substrate.” These small projects are meant to be drafts, quick studies pointing toward an idea. The students’ No Medium projects often result in their most provocative solutions, ones that can be refined and developed into full-fledged artworks. Turns out working conceptually in the realm of Duchamp’s inframince can be highly motivating.

    Nudisme: Still with Jean Marais from Jean Cocteau, Orphée, 1950.

    In our MFA in Book Art program, the graduate seminars act as the through line during the two years of student residency. Students take the core seminar, The Material Book, during their first semester, then follow that with three more seminars. During that first semester we meet in the Heller Room, the room in the library that houses Mills’ Special Collections. In that space there were only two books that students were not allowed to handle, the Mozart manuscript and the First Folio. Ironically, once both of those were removed from the collection, the pandemic set in and now, rather than have the entire collection accessible, students have not been able to handle anything at all. This has had a crushing impact on our focus on material studies. To help make up for this, I have been lending books from my own library for grad student study, as has my colleague Julie Chen. And through a generous donation, the students also received two books made by the artist Clarissa Sligh which they were able to thoroughly study and then include in their own libraries. 

    Matching students and books turns out to be a challenging experiment. What do you choose when you are grouping five books and handing them to one student, who will in turn be creating a proof-of-concept project based on their perceived linkages among the books? In my teaching I prefer to have the students find their own meaning in the books they are reading and studying. My role, as I see it, is to lay the groundwork for that exploration by deconstructing basic book operation, by asking questions and providing prompts, by guiding them to other works that share similar conceptual scaffolding and yes, by sometimes modelling interpretation. This is close reading, but with artists’ books rather than literature. To that end, I do intervene when I think that the student hasn’t pushed hard enough, and I also try to provide a strong foundation through some grounding in theoretical and historical underpinnings. This work is best done in person and with the luxury of being able to grab an example from the Heller Room shelves that helps to magnify whatever discussion has developed during the session. When, in my undergraduate class on Freedom of the Presses: Resistance and Rebellion in Print, we were suddenly locked out of the studios and library last March, I switched to having the students read and examine the digital surrogates for real artists’ books on the highly accessible Women’s Studio Workshop website. Using these surrogates, we added a discussion about what students were missing when they couldn’t handle the actual books.

    Of course it’s not only faculty who are struggling. Students, even when they continue to have studio access, as our graduate students have had, contend with critiques in which slides and videos have to substitute for handling of the work. The lack of informal studio encounters means that troubleshooting and questions become formalized, and oftentimes are simply absent. Over the next three blog posts, graduate students in the Mills College MFA in Book Art will explore the acts of navigation they and other artists have had to design and sometimes struggle with over the past year. I look forward to reading what they have to say.

    [1] Craig Dworkin. "The Logic of Substrate.” No Medium: MIT Press, 2013, p. 25.

    Kathleen Walkup holds the Lovelace Family Endowed Chair at Mills College, where she directs the Book Art Program and teaches typography and letterpress printing, artists’ bookmaking and a graduate seminar on the material book. Her research interests include the history of women in printing and conceptual practice in artists’ books. 

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

    Within literature, the challenge to linearity has fallen in and out of favor, though it generally manifests through either writing strategies, such as shuffling narrative pieces out of straightforward time, or through formal strategies that challenge the physical constraints of the traditional codex. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates is an example of the latter, in which the book cover is in fact a clamshell box that opens to reveal roughly 28 loose signatures that can be read in any order, with the exception of FIRST and LAST.  

    Linearity might suggest that truth can be revealed through a singular path. The hyperlink as defined by Ted Nelson [1], however, eschews linearity and in so doing posits that truth is instead positional. In his 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, Nelson observed that, “the structures of ideas are non sequential” and offered the hyperlink as a means by which a user can be presented with alternatives to conventional hierarchies.   

    Within 25 years of Tim Berners-Lee’s contribution of the world wide web in 1989, two in five adults on the planet have been initiated in Nelson’s hyperlinking. Much has been written about how the internet has changed everything from the way our brains function to the way we socialize to how we understand “Truth.” In thinking about artist books in this light, I would like to look in particular at how the photobook as a genre of artist book reveals its influence by the non-linear hyperlink. 

    Whereas photo books since the nineteen-twenties have largely been single monographs, over the last decade, there has been an increase in photobooks which present a number of volumes in different formats in a container of some kind – a clam shell, a cardboard box, a slip cover, etc. The material consideration of the book formats in these photoboxes places them within the larger artist book tradition. More importantly, these book formats also reflect the influence of our experience of the world through the lateral movement of the hyperlink as opposed to the linear movement of the traditional single codex. 

    A fine example of an artist photobox is Kazamu Obara’s Exposure (2016).  Exposure has as its focus Chernobyl and the box contains three formats – a soft cover, vertically formatted codex with text & images; a newsprint facsimile; and a horizontally oriented, hardcover photobook. Together, these formats provide three distinct perspectives: black & white found negatives with a reflective text; a historical reference; and a color view from inside a train and looking out as it transports workers to and fro from either side of Chernobyl. These 3 formats provide distinct perspectives that allow us to triangulate on the experience of this place: personal, historical, and documentary.

    An additional layer of photographic content is the inclusion of film negatives set between a number of pages and facsimile 4x6 color photos tucked into others. These elements push the material attention further into the artist book realm. A finishing touch unifying the work includes a couple medium format film labels. They not only create the cover imagery for both the outside box and the b&w paperback book inside, but also they actually wrap around the box and the book inside, creating a seal (like the film wrap) that must be broken to open. This breaking of the seal can be interpreted in myriad ways.

    Another notable photoboox is End. by Eamonn Doyle, Niaill Sweeney and David Donohoe. This 13x8in hard slip-cover, wrapped in translucent, neon yellow glycine contains a handful of variously formatted booklets with different thicknesses of paper, printing styles, number of pages, and fold-outs. The cumulative effect of End. is more associative and is distinct from Exposure in that it is heavily design oriented. There is a strong abstract sensibility throughout, with exceptional bursts of clearly composed, though somewhat surrealist, color photos from Dublin. While not as precise or poignant in its details, End. nevertheless uses the multiplicity of formats to interrupt a particular viewpoint, thereby challenging, poking fun with, and disorienting our vantage point as readers.

    To conclude, these photoboxes prove radical in terms of being broadly influenced by the hyperlink – represented by a diversity of perspectives that create a break from the modernist, single perspective, authoritative viewpoint. I leave as an open question whether this shift also reflects a change in the photographic community’s conception of “Truth” as it relates to the photographic medium.

    [1] Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, p. xxviii, ed. Ken Jordan, 2002, USA 

    Alexander Mouton has a background in film, literature, and photography. His artist books are self-published under the Unseen Press moniker, many of which are in collections internationally, including MoMA NYC and the Getty Research Institute, LA.  Currently, Alexander is Associate Professor, Chair, Dep’t Art, Art History & Design, Seattle University.

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