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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.

  • 15 Feb 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Today is a fine day to talk etymology. You were expecting politics? Let’s go with something more rooted for now: the slip and slide of words across tongues and time. Take, for instance, the word “cloud.” Imagine you’re an Angle, Jute, or Saxon circa 1100 AD. Look up into the Old English sky, heavy-laden with rain. What do you see, etymologically speaking? A clud (mass of rock or dirt) but this one formed of evaporated water heaped on high. Later, in Middle English, skie became a lexical stunt double for “cloud.”


    Cloud Study, John Constable, 1830, Tate Britain

    The rhizomatic wriggliness of words illustrates our core nature as metaphoric beings. Everything reminds us of everything because—according to particle physicists and Object-oriented Ontologists—everything is everything. Consider a “book.” The term derives from Old English bōk, a document or charter; Dutch, boek; German Buch; and English beech, a wood on which runes were written. Contents may vary, but most consist at minimum of: paper, ink, thread. This means your average book might harbor traces of: forest (root systems, understory, wind in canopies, shade and shadow, snowfall, nightfall, and nurse logs); fields of cotton or flax (sunshine, seedpod, and, according to Emily D, at least one bee); and for ink, soot or bone (ribcage, femur, fire). Viewed in this light, books are compressed remediated habitats. Maybe that’s why I’m charmed by images of books reclaimed by insects or left in rain, the pages’ raw materials reshuffled in the natural order.

    Some artists embrace such vibrant dis/order, collaborating with rivers, silkworms, or other “actants,” to borrow a term from Object-oriented Ontology, in order to create new “assemblages.” For River Avon Book, Richard Long dipped each page into the river’s mud, as if allowing it self-representation. In 1990, he published a series called Papers of River Mud, with cotton paper handmade with sediment from the Umpqua River in Oregon, the Rhine, Nile, Mississippi, and Amazon, among others. In today’s political climate, with the EPA under fire and the world flirting with another extinction event, we could use more artwork that accommodates the fundamental creativity of dirt.


    River Avon Book, Richard Long, 1979

    We think of soil as inert, as “dumb as dirt,” yet as any garden-variety farmer knows, it teems with life. Geoscientists dub soil the “skin” of the earth, and like skin it’s a living membrane that can be damaged and even destroyed. To raise awareness of this essential biome, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of the Soil. The University of Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library marked the occasion with an exhibit of artist books. Among notable exhibitors were Mare Blocker, Catherine Michaelis, Alex Borgen, Clarissa Sligh, and Jenifer Wightman.

    Wightman’s project, Gowanus Canal, explores “the underbelly of NYC.” She collected mud from the canal, a Superfund site, and used “a 19th century microbiology technique to induce bacteria to synthesize pigment.” Exposed to light, the bacteria yielded “transforming colorfields from a variety of ecosystems,” which the artist documented using time-lapse photography. The resulting images evidence that “the underbelly…is alive and thriving, metabolizing wastes to make a beautiful livelihood."


    Gowanus Canal, Jenifer Wightman, 2012

    It’s encouraging to think that even in the most forsaken of places, a Superfund site, Earth refuses to play dead. All around us—under our feet, over our heads—small miracles are gathering mass and momentum, if only we’d slow down to notice. As Ilya and Emilia Kabakov point out, “It’s only when you are lying flat on the earth…that you begin to look at the sky.” Looking Up. Reading the Words, a project they made for Sculpture Projects Münster invites viewers to do exactly that. You encounter what looks at first like a transmission tower in a grassy field; then, from directly below, you see it is a love letter written in German addressed to anyone who pauses to look skyward. “My Dear One!” it begins. “When you are lying in the grass, with your head thrown back…there, up above, is the blue sky and clouds floating by—perhaps this is the very best thing you have ever done or seen in your life.” In other words, cloud/clod: everything is everything.


    Looking Up. Reading the Words, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, 1997

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

    I sat down recently with Christopher Michlig, a colleague at the University of Oregon who serves as Graduate Director and Core faculty. Christopher’s artwork spans media, but he has a special interest in outmoded print technologies such as letterpress and Risograph. He co-edited In the Good Name of the Company, a book about Colby Poster Printing Company in LA. We talked about a large-scale poster project he has underway.


    Chistopher Michlig


    RC: Can you describe the project?

    CM: I’m interested in interpreting one medium through another, in this case, a re-presentation of The Medium Is the Message as a series of 64 posters in wood type. The long essays aren’t included, just moments made typographically noticeable by Quentin Fiori’s design. I like re-presenting McLuhan’s ideas in a format that preceded his criticism. There’s a kind of time travel.

    RC: What happens in that disjunction?

    CM: When a page becomes a broadside, the anecdotal phrase takes on an event quality. It announces itself singularly, without context. As for the time travel, I like how it acknowledges the trajectory of printed media. The press that printed the posters, Tribune Showprint in Indiana, is the oldest operating letterpress company in the US.

    RC: What was it like working with them?

    CM: They refused to work with me for about three months. They thought the project was too big. I said it was fine if it took 6 or 7 months, which it did. The only thing I asked was that one person work on it so I’d have a contact. I had approached them previously about doing a type specimen book, but they absolutely couldn’t. Everything had been moved around; typefaces weren’t complete or identifiable. I used their interest in a specimen book as a hook. From one poster to the next we cycled through as much type as possible. Eventually the printer was working with typefaces she hadn’t used for as long as she’d worked there.

    RC: How much direction did you give?

    CM: I laid out basic formatting, but I wanted the printer to use her own methods and have creative latitude. Some posters were too long to set in one typeface, so she came up with exciting mixtures. I wasn’t there in person. We were playing telephone or she was texting me photographs of proofs. We fixed typos by text or email.

    RC: Why was it important to forfeit control?

    CM: To allow efficiencies and expertise to happen. That’s the magic of letterpress job printers. Setting type across a page, it makes sense to use a condensed or expanded letter in the same size to avoid wasting time with furniture. That economy results in a specific visual language I like. I wanted to open up opportunities for miscommunication to happen. That’s very much in the spirit of The Medium is the Message, how communication mutates or warps from one medium to the next.

    RC: So having someone set the type also introduced space for communication.

    CM: Tribune works this way for one-off posters, but a longer project revealed the potentials of the interaction. I like printing—the paper, ink, and experience—but the back and forth was essential. Tribune had no interest in the project’s artistic merit or in authorship. Their name is on every broadside so they acknowledge their creative labor within an economic structure. But for them it’s not a matter of whether they want to do a project, but if it’s possible. In this case, yes, the book can be re-typeset.

    RC: What was their reaction to the posters?

    CM: Matter of fact. They wrapped them as though they were circus posters and sent them to me. I wanted an interaction like that.

    RC: They focused on the medium, not the message. In this case, maybe the medium is the medium.

    CM: The medium conveys how they’re thinking. When a poster came back with five typefaces, then that told me something about how they’d responded. It said it was read; there was a tuning to the voice of the text.


         Chistopher Michlig

  • 15 Jan 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cangjie, c. 2650 BCE

    Legend has it that a man with four eyes who may or may not have lived in a mossy cave invented the Chinese writing system. Cangjie was record keeper for the Yellow Emperor, circa 2700 BCE, and times had become too complex to continue archiving with sequences of knots in rope. He needed a more robust mnemonic device. So Cangjie rolled up his sleeves and got busy: staring at clouds, following bird tracks, mulling over veins in turtles’ shells. By observing natural patterns, he realized how forms and experiences could be translated into pictographs. The invention of script was said to be so astounding that grain rained from the sky and ghosts cried in the night, lamenting the living’s forthcoming tell-alls. And the poor turtles—their shells were used as substrates for divination.

    Centuries after this new technology hit the streets, we’ve become blasé about the transubstantiation that occurs when spoken word morphs into mark. “Speech is unique among systems of animal communication,” writes Michael Studdert-Kennedy in The Handbook of Speech Perception, “in being amenable to transduction into an alternative percetuomotor modality.” Alphabetic writing, in particular, is a synesthetic experience: drawings of sounds that when seen (read) effervesce back into sound. This is no small feat. Studdert-Kennedy notes: “We can understand language through the artificial medium of print as quickly and efficiently as through the natural medium of speech.” Yet: “Alphabetic writing and reading have no independent biological base; they are, at least in origin, parasitic on spoken language.” This parasitism is at the core of culture. Think, for example, Renaissance. Or Saussure’s semiotics. Or closed-captioned Britcoms.

    Imagine a medieval scriptorium with monks hunched over lambskins copying words that many of them couldn’t read. The blush was not entirely off the rose of writing; it seemed a potency best kept chained to a lectern. Silent reading hadn’t been conceived yet, and there must have been some uneasiness about where the human voice went when it slipped into form as ink staining animal skin. In a 1322 manuscript about the preaching of Ramon Llull, strings of rubricated dialogue float free from their speaker, not unlike how novelist Jeanette Winterson imagines utterances thickening the skies in Sexing the Cherry. But unlike in Winterson’s scenario, the Breviculum Codex’s buoyant wordiness doesn’t need scrubbing from the parchment’s skies.


    Electorium Parvum seu Breviculum, 1322, Baden Memorial Library, Karlsruhe, Germany

    In 1947 R.K. Potter, Director of Transmission Research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, published a book called Visible Speech. During WWII the US military funded research into directly rendering speech legible, in part to root out voiceprints of spies. In 1945 Potter patented the sound spectrograph, which Bell Labs touted after the war as a visionary device. Potter boasted in Visible Speech, “If it comes into general use as a voice-written language for the deaf it could even start a trend toward modernized writing and printing.”

    Spectrogram of “Science Unravels Speech,” Bell Telephone Laboratories

    Alas, there was no Grain Rain (谷雨) and no ghosts howled in the night, but the spectrograph was instrumental in many discoveries, including that some birds can voice two sounds simultaneously, not unlike Tuvan throat singers. Four-eyed Cangjie may have invented a new way of seeing—one set of eyes for sight, the other for “hearing”—but the spectrograph allowed us to see the wild blip and blur of our “noise bursts” as they actually occur, with no neat mapping of phoneme onto grapheme.


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

    “Speed now, Book…A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire…” —from the publisher’s note distributed with The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493

    Books are threshold objects. Even with their backs turned on us, spines out, they seem to beckon. Like unearthed artifacts, their appearance is charged with incipience, their small heft suggesting pockets of space and time a reader might re/enter through the conduit of her body (eyes peering, hands grasping, the theater of the mind set into motion). Both as symbolic objects and as experiences, books possess the allure of the real and expansiveness of the immaterial, marking a dilation of presence in absence.

    The codex serves as metaphor for both embodiment and ensoulment. In her plaster casts of the negative space around shelved books, Rachel Whiteread evokes the ghost in the machine of the book, so to speak. In her room-sized Untitled (Paperbacks), we find hollows where the library’s volumes once were, the impress of fore-edges in the plaster like the postures of witnesses at Pompeii. Here the book represents a palpable break in the skin of the known. 


    Gaps (books 1), Loris Cecchini, 2005

    Loris Cecchini, in his Extruding Bodies series, also uses the book as a symbol for threshold states. Gaps (books 1), like Whiteread’s Untitled (Paperbacks), employs an all-white palette to lay bare what Cecchini calls “poetical distance”—a murky space of emergence into material being. Jumbled spines press against a skin of polyester, as if straining to tell their stories. There is a fragility yet stubborn insistence to this gesture, the bodies of the books limning a gap between the graspable and the ineffable. This urge to become, to emerge and persist, is one that all living things share; for us humans that urge extends to the persistence of memory, for which books are both medium and metaphor.


    Alchemist's Handbook, Alexis Arnold, 2013

    It could be argued a book only “becomes” in the mind, its contents crystalizing moment by moment in the imagination. But what if a book lies fallow, unread? Alexis Arnold addresses the transience and vulnerability of the physical book in her artwork. She collects discarded paperbacks, transforming them into colonies of borax crystals. She speaks of this almost as an intervention, an attempt to immortalize the body of the book by replacing inert text with living crystals. “The books,” she writes, “become artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia.”

    Books themselves may be time capsules of personal and cultural memory, intended to extend knowledge beyond one lifetime, but in the artwork discussed here, it’s the very bookness of the book that matters most, not its contents. The suggestion of its form is enough to provoke reverie or something bittersweet, a pang of loss. Even when closed, a book offers a kind of window, a glimpse beyond, as well as silent witness. Saskia Hamilton captures this threshold quality in her beautiful poem from 2014.

    Zwijgen
    I slept before a wall of books and they
    calmed everything in the room, even
    their contents, even me, woken
    by the cold and thrill, and still
    they said, like the Dutch verb for falling
    silent that English has no accommodation for
    in the attics and rafters of its intimacies.


  • 01 Dec 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The jumping off point for this post comes from two previous posts. The first from Richard Minsky’s comments to Susan Viguers’s “The Artist Book and the Sailor Suit,” in which he wrote that in the 1970s the term ”artists’ books” generally referred to inexpensive books produced offset, photocopy, etc., often labeled “democratic multiples,” also called “visual literature.” The second, from Tate Shaw’s “Seeking Pluralism in Books-As-Art,” in which he writes about the importance of creating work out of an authentic, personal experience as opposed to using secondary sources (even when these secondary sources are used out of a desire to empathize).

    For me, these two seemingly disparate thought lines come together around a questioning of the “precious” in artists' book activities. Specifically, I wonder if it is possible that the tendency towards the highly aesthetic in artists’ book production might interfere with or inhibit the creation of work based in authentic, personal experience?

    I am not interested in denouncing highly aesthetic artists’ books; rather, I am wondering about how we as artists’ book makers interact with our own materials, how the value we place on the materials of production might influence what we are willing to communicate through them. My teenage daughter has repeatedly implored me not to buy her beautifully bound blank books in which to write or draw in because their “specialness” puts her under pressure to create work of like quality, thus interrupting her natural creative expression. Might fine art materials, printing, binding, etc. be more appropriate for certain kinds of expression than others?

    I believe unequivocally that works incorporating secondary source texts are important and that they should continue to be used because they can reveal deeply important aspects of human experience. I also think that each of us has the opportunity to speak directly to our own personal experience and make work which is relevant and deeply moving, but that often it is not made for one reason or another. Certainly, it takes courage to create autobiographical work. And it requires respecting one’s own voice in a most personal way. Is there a specific time for autobiographic work in an artists’ creative arc (e.g., when one is “young”) which comes to an end (e.g., when one is “mature”)? Or is speaking out of authentic, personal experience less valued than more formal, “objective” (read: secondary sources) strategies?

    Bringing together the threads of these conceptual and formal questions, I look to the zine as a means with a low overhead in terms of preciousness. I believe in the form for its democratic potential (one only needs to use a xerox machine, cut, fold, and staple/sew), but also for the incredible potential to harness the creative power of the book (extended meaning through sequence, time, intimacy, interactivity, portability, etc.). It is almost like a book without the book. And the historical link with Fluxus and in general the European conceptual book work, not to mention the punk rock fanzine, is certainly to be embraced. Let us not be seduced by aesthetics (exclusively). Also, let this fall not into narrowly prescriptive identity politics, but instead open up possibilities for all. 


  • 15 Nov 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 2008, Denison University hosted the traveling exhibition Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, curated by Dr. Nada Shabout, a native of Iraq and Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas.  Isis Nusair, a colleague of mine at Denison at the time and a friend of Nada's had arranged for the exhibition and because of my interest in books invited me to speak as part of the related programming.  Having recently read Dard Hunter's Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, I was aware that what is now Bagdad had been the epicenter of paper-making in the 8th Century and was the home of the first paper mill (papermaking later spread to Damascus, Egypt, and Morocco and eventually to Europe, albeit 500 years later).  Needless to say, I was excited to be part of the programming and especially excited to see the work of the sixteen artists whose books made up the exhibition.

    Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The books were unbelievably contemporary in terms of their aesthetics and simultaneously were frequently intensely powerful in their radical content, commenting on the Iraq war and the subsequent fallout.  So many different formats were represented, from rough painted boards to sumptuous gold lettered paper. Not all of the books were as innovative as the ones I remember most. However, the quantity of work that was superlative was incredibly high and the quality far from the decorative Arabic arts that saturates much of Western consciousnesses.

    In speaking with Isis of my enthusiasm and awe for the work, she mentioned that she was a close acquaintance of Rafa al-Nasir, one of the more interesting artists represented in Dafatir, and she asked me if I would be interested in visiting him in Jordan and speaking with some of the other artists represented. I jumped at the occasion and the following summer I landed in the Middle East to visit Palestine and to meet with Iraqi artists, many of whom were living in Jordan.

    What I discovered was that a single individual (Dia al-Azzawi) had elicited many of these book works from the Iraqi artists he knew or had even mentored.  This raises the question for me, can curation be considered a form of authorship?  If one person prompts original creations from ten bookmakers addressing a political system, a moment in time, or an aspect of the book itself, mightn't that person not in a sense be their author?  I don't want to stretch things particularly thin, but certainly there is something going on here that goes beyond curation—rather, the curator brings the work out of the artists and into being.  Not to over-dramatize, but don't each of you who teach have examples of work that you consider to be robust and important from students that would never have made the work without your instigation and critical support?

    Where am I going here? During this trip, I visited Damascus for a week and it reminded me of Berkeley California in the 1960's with people selling books on the streets and kids serving tea in the parks (I also spoke to people who explained how everything was not as it seemed and that the price of dissent was prison). Now Damascus and much of Syria has been destroyed. The change came suddenly. I never would have expected that the places I walked and the people whose homes I visited then would be transformed only a couple of years later. And we have just invited a force for change into the white house that has as much potential to destroy as any we've elected into office in our history.

    In Bridget's September Post, What Is Critical Now?, she quotes Booklyn: “In the 21st Century, where taking an activist stance involves preventing the possible destruction of the entire planet’s ecosystem, discussing the use of art and bookmaking as a tool for human and ecological rights and actions becomes urgent and unavoidable.”

    Could we have possibly foreseen a Donald Trump Presidency from the optimism of Arab Spring 8 years ago?  Now more than perhaps ever before do Booklyn's words ring true.  So my question is, can we from our positions facilitate a national production of books, an outpouring that speaks to the political agency that we must take in this time?  Can we come together to co-create/curate a traveling exhibition of books and book initiatives with the guidance of the excellent criteria Bridget has posted which together speaks to this political moment and to the voices this regime does not represent?


  • 01 Nov 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    A salient characteristic of artists' books is the way in which the physical elements—binding, paper, type, image-are creatively united within a conceptual framework. This distinguishes artists' books from non-artists' books—either standard books, on the one hand, or the livre d'artiste on the other. Innovation within the area of artists' books can be physical (new material usages, new binding techniques, etc.) or conceptual (new ways of thinking about a book).  

    The more the emphasis on conceptual innovation, the looser the adherence must be to traditional forms: books have become sculptural, they have become mass produced, they have become unbound. They usually remain haptic, though, so performance, film, and musical composition are not commonly conceived of as conceptual extensions of the artists' book, but as distinct forms unto themselves.

    How vital is the haptic aspect of a book to the artists' book enterprise? Can the conceptual innovation extend out so far that a book might lose its form entirely and become an idea rather than an object? Or perhaps more pertinent, what role might digital technologies play in extending the boundaries of what we understand to be artists' books?  

    I am drawn to this question for a couple of reasons: 1) code can bring together text, images, and interactivity in a way that is more book-like than any other non-haptic medium. 2) with the rise of tablets and ebooks which function as containers resembling standard books, mightn't we as a community subvert this technology for artistic ends?

    In 2013 I gave a CBAA talk at Mill's College entitled, "What is a Digital Artists' Book, Anyway?" (subsequently published in JAB 32) in which I encouraged familiarity with the Electronic Literature Organization because such rich developments involving text, image, and interactivity are coming from this quarter. More recently, the 2016 CBAA members exhibit in Nashville, TN featured a work by Ian Hatcher and Amaranth Borsuk that was tablet-based and other CBAA members have been involved in hybrid projects as well, so I am not suggesting this as entirely new ground.  Rather, I am interested in widening the discussion. 

    I recognize that for many in the CBAA community, leaving behind the tactile quality of the book for a cold electronic device which so many of us associate with attention draining social media might be a hard sell. Luckily, I'm not a salesman though. Rather, I am interested in this nascent technology for its parallel with the development of the book as a communication device which we artists then adapted for our own ends: the artists' book. Clearly, a different set of tools is required to develop an app than creating an artists' book. However, just as an artists' book can be a powerful tool for creative expression and formal experimentation, so too can this new technology be. And many of the conceptual concerns that go into creating an artists' book are inherent to generating creative work in this new technology as well. As an interesting note relating to what is haptic, despite the virtual quality of web-based media (eg, intangible), touch screen devices, interactive screen-based media now have a strangely tactile quality—but are they haptic?

    As food for thought, I am posting three links that exemplify how artists' book-like this screen-based form lends itself towards. These web-based examples span from the late nineties to the early 2000's, since much of this type of work now is app-based due to the technology shift from desktop to mobile devices. The first project, oooxxxooo by Juliet Martin (1997)*, I specifically selected because it is low-tech (rather than having an intimidatingly slick interface), because of the way that the browser we are all familiar with has been approached creatively in a way very different from commerce/information-based web sites, and because of the innovative formal experimentation using text and native code-based imagery. The second piece, Peter Horvath's Life Is Like Water (2002), is not interactive as in Juliet Martin's piece, but rather is an innovative example of how the web-based form can be usurped for artistic purposes. Lastly, Alan Bigelow's This Is Not a Poem (2010) is a very successful conceptual work using text, image, sound, and interactivity.

    *Juliet's piece is no longer on her website; however, because it is purely HTML based, I have it on my website for teaching purposes.

    I welcome your thoughts, comments, insights….


  • 15 Oct 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    After much discussion the CBAA Book Art Theory Blog Committee has modified the Mission Statement that appears at the top of this blog’s home page. Here is the original version:

    Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to current criticism and theory about the artist’s book and seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields.

    After her March 15 blog post “IT’S 2016,” Julie Leonard questioned the absence of "book art" in the statement. Susan Viguers, Committee Chair, polled the Committee to see if adding “and book art” after “artist’s book” was a matter that needed discussion.

    I observed that

    a. Susan’s February 15 post, “THE ARTIST BOOK AND THE SAILOR SUIT,” which addressed the term "artist's book," discussed dropping the 's from artist and adding the s to books (artist books) when the plural is indicated.

    b. "Artist books" is a subgenre (subfield?) of Book Art, along with "fine press," "sculptural bookworks," "bookbinding," etc. If not mentioning many, why single one out?

    c. Book Art Theory is a critical analysis of the features that distinguish an artifact as "Book Art" and its functioning in the world.

    This responds to Tate Shaw’s June 1 post, "WHAT DOES THEORY WANT?" We see it in Bridget Elmer’s August 1 post, “BOOK ART AND SOCIAL PRACTICE” and Emily Larned’s September 15 post “PUBLISHING AS (SOCIALLY ENGAGED) ARTISTIC PRACTICE.”

    Susan suggested we keep "artist book" in the blog's mission statement because "book art" is so general, so encompassing, that it doesn't give sufficient focus. She saw book art as a Venn diagram with the artist book having a central position. I noted that the term "artist book(s)" is undefined: some people (myself included) apply it exclusively to visual literature, some apply it to sculptural bookworks, altered books, or any book-like object made by an artist.

    The Committee tweaked the statement and voted to adopt the following version:

    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.

    Comments on this statement are encouraged. Click “Add comment” at the bottom of this post.

    If you would like to write a post addressing any of these notions, please email blog@collegebookart.org.

    At the 2017 CBAA Annual Meeting in Tallahassee January 13-14 I will be moderating an audience participation session titled Book Art Theory Roundtable: A Live Extension of a Virtual Collaboration featuring Openings Editor Inge Bruggeman, Book Art Theory Blog Editor Susan Viguers and book art theorist Gary Frost.


  • 01 Oct 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    There’s a popular misconception about the relationship of artworks and texts. Every so often I am engaged in conversation with someone holding the view that language and its components, paragraphs, sentences, words, and letters, are entirely separate entities from pictures or sculptures. The argument runs something like this: “When I look at a picture I recognize its subjects (or elements, or spaces behind, in front, and between things), but in the real world I never see words as things.” The variation of this line of thought, accommodating sculpture, would offer me: “Sculptures resemble things in the world, but sculptures of words only add a third dimension to something I prefer to read (on the apparently two-dimensional plane of a page, say).” In each of these cases the premise is that what we do when we look at artworks in two-, three-, or four-dimensions is scan them for things we recognize, as if naming those things was the purpose for our looking in the first place.

    It’s worth reminding everyone that the history of art includes a long tradition of artworks incorporating language, including Pharaonic hieroglyphs, painted initials of illuminated manuscripts, sacred lettering in altarpieces, or inscriptions carved in stone. In Modern art history we encounter the scraps of newspaper in the earliest Cubist collages, the exploding letterforms in Futurist paintings, and the bits of signage in Pop. Of course, since the rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, we’re invited to view artworks whose medium is language itself.

    
The notion that artworks operate without language is itself a conceit of a modernist art theory that proposes the responsibility of all the arts is to aspire toward their essential and unique characteristics. Such proscriptions endorse a kind of categorizing as itself a condition for artistic quality, as if any art is in the world in order merely to clarify its difference from the cluttered overlapping experiences of daily life.

    Think about two kinds of looking that we reserve for esthetic experience: scanning and reading. The look we bestow on surfaces is a scanning gaze; the rest of what we do is reading, which surrounds us as page, screen, signage, and inscription. The experience of reading text on an art work requires only a momentary shift of consciousness from our scanning of its other affects. We can be equally absorbed in a visually compelling artwork or a really good book, but the duration of this interest is apt to be strikingly different, since the absorption of reading arises within the duration of pages, whose successive turnings are slices of time through text.

    Other sites of language, such as signage, invite varying degrees of consideration of the materiality within which we read a given sign’s necessary words. I say “necessary” here because signs are also warnings or alerts capable of effecting the direction of our movement through the day. “Coffee” in neon makes a statement about flavor; “RR XING” on painted metal calls attention to our general welfare. Still other artworks offer us words in books or booklike objects, adding the segmentation of pages to such work’s other material properties. The page is the basic module of reading, but it only rarely holds the entirety of a text. One page starts a narrative, another concludes it. In between, so many parcels of language, each interrupted by the bottom of the page.

    What every book as art, whether as object or as pages, has as common property is the attachment of both scanning and reading to memory. Our memory of reading is invoked by the presence of language, just as our recognition of forms is an operation of memory. What can be profound here is how the situation of the book, its interplay of forms and materials, can momentarily interrupt both our habits of recognition and of reading. The strangeness of something not already known is, in this context, opportunity to experience an essence that is within all the arts; of another’s mind at work, another’s passions made sharable.


  • 15 Sep 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Now is the time of the network—whether digital, social, or global trade. Increasingly we’re aware of how individual artifacts are a product of, and function in, highly complex and interconnected systems. These contextual systems—rather than the artifacts themselves—seem increasingly worthy of our attention. 

    I suggest that at this cultural moment, rather than discussing the book as a work of art, we turn our focus to publishing as an artistic practice, analyzing the contextual systems of processes and networks, rather than a sole resulting object.

    This is not a new idea. It’s been 30 years since Simon Cutts organized The Artist Publisher: A Survey exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery (London), and his collected snippets of writing on the subject were published by Granary Press as Some Forms of Availability: Critical Passages on the Book and Publication in 2007. (This delightful book was favorably reviewed by Brad Freeman in JAB 23 [spring 2008], and I too highly recommend it.) In various passages throughout, Cutts suggests that the emphasis on the “artist’s book” has eclipsed that of artists’ publishing, the more interesting of the two. Publishing, Cutts writes, is a much more thorough activity, as it offers a way of life.

    Certainly artists have been publishing for centuries. William Blake; the Pre-Raphaelites and The Germ; the Arts & Crafts periodicals The Hobby Horse and The Studio in addition to the books of William Morris; the Vienna Secession and Ver Sacrum, the many publications of Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, and the Situationists; little magazines; Fluxus; the books of Conceptualism; zines; digital books: artists’ publishing has always been more varied than simply the artist’s book. Many modern and contemporary art movements focused on ephemera and the periodical rather than the book. I think of Sarah Bodman’s diagram, depicting “Artists’ Publishing” as the umbrella term, with “artists’ books” on a tree branch underneath. 

    But when we’re parsing “artist’s book” vs. “artists’ periodicals,” we’re still focusing on artifacts. What about critically considering all of the surrounding processes and practices of publishing as artistic practice? 

    There’s a brand-new book that examines the tremendous popularity of artist publishing in the 21st century, edited by Annette Gilbert and published by the always timely Sternberg Press (Berlin-New York). (Whenever I become interested in a subject, I find that Sternberg has recently published a book on it.) Publishing as Artistic Practice (2016) collects contributions by different contemporary artist-publishers. In the introduction, Gilbert summarizes some recent research in this area of publishing as artistic practice, including Delphine Bedel, Antoine Lefebvre, Bernhard Cella, Eva Weinmayer, Nick Thurston, Hannes Bajohar, and Alessandro Ludovico, among others. (Already the introduction provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.)

    The first chapter, by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, discusses the 1960-1970 historical precedents of Simon Cutts / Coracle Press, Dick Higgins / Something Else Press, Dieter Rot, Ed Ruscha, etc., but Gilbert’s introduction situates the recent resurgence of publishing as part of the larger “practice turn” of contemporary art in the past decade. Publishing as artistic practice is a “complex field of practices marked by countless patterns, interdependencies, and nested hierarchies” (12). Gilbert reminds us that “publishing still remains untheorized,” (9) whether in studies of the book (in which we would locate the book arts as well as artists’ books), or in the study of literature. She cites Michael Bhaskar as someone who has offered some insights on the subject, stating that publishers are “not just producers of books but filters for content and constructors of amplificatory frames” (11). 

    Certainly, considering publishing as the artistic activity at hand—rather than the making of books-as-objects—offers a stronger connection to social engagement, a recent theme of this blog. Social engagement is not essential to the production of the book as an art object; many book artists do not consider it. But: social engagement is integral to publishing. Publishing, the making of a public, is necessarily social.

    As Craig Mod suggests, “we need to start thinking differently about what books are and how they are produced. […] we need to reconsider the whole approach to the process of making a book into the thing it is: the creation, the consumption, and everything that happens around and in between” (12).

    Often, the interdisciplinary nature of the book is heralded as essential to its understanding. Whether one considers oneself “an artist who makes books” or “a practitioner of the book arts,” is not that identity just one component of the larger framework of publishing? 

    How essential to one’s book arts / artist’s book / artistic publishing practice are the inter-related processes of

    selecting?

    research?

    writing?

    editing?

    typography?

    image-making?

    mark-making?

    composition?

    appropriation?

    graphic design?

    communication?

    correspondence?

    collaboration?

    determining edition size?

    sourcing materials?

    making materials?

    identifying vendors?

    printing? 

    binding?

    shipping?

    pricing?

    warehousing?

    marketing?

    determining an audience?

    promotion?

    distribution?

    circulation?

    appearances at fairs, bookshops, zine shops, etc?

    exhibition?

    curatorial concerns?

    building relationships?

    reception?

    determining impact?

    sequentiality: how each book informs the next?

    Aren’t all of these areas worthy of attention/consideration as part of the praxis surrounding the “art of the book?” Wouldn’t the work of the field be exponentially enriched if each of these aspects were as carefully considered as the paper, binding, or printing?


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