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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 Oct 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Unless you meditate you probably haven’t spent much quiet time just being with yourself, lately. But if you have, then you’ll know that quiet isn’t an absence but reveals the presence of the sounds you’re not listening for. If you’re like me, you don’t often hear the hum of household machines while cicadas chirp outside and the cat licks its fur because whatever media you absorb—New York Times and Washington Post apps refreshed every fifteen minutes— in order to try to keep up with what’s happening—or entertainment you subsequently take in—Spotify, Netflix, HBOGO, YouTube—in order to dam the overflow of bad news—whatever you choose to engage with is also incorporating your life within this larger, noisy entity we call Media and Entertainment (ME). When incorporated, the self gets blotted out and loses its identity in order for it to be en masse, as one, with the all.

    This incorporation into the public is of course one way we get to the point of thinking of groups of people in monolithic terms. For example, ME has determined African American protest is loud and wild, crazy and passionate to the extreme. Take Colin Kaepernick, the now out of work NFL quarterback who peacefully, silently protested the treatment of African Americans by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem. Trump and now Pence call names, taunt, threaten, and stage antics making this quiet, simple protest seem a radical, threatening gesture when Kaepernick and those who have since followed his lead make a simple sign that they will not be incorporated, they will not have their selves be uncritically absorbed in the wash of patriotism performed for the sake of making us silent.

    I’ve been thinking about Kaepernick, quietness, and selfhood a lot because I recently had the good fortune of hearing Dr. Michelle S. Hite lecture at The College at Brockport, SUNY. Hite’s talk was on the denial of African American quietness, interiority, and dreaming. She cited Kevin Quashie’s Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture that uses, amongst other examples, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s fist-raising protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as evidence of the racist denial of black selfhood. As Quashie rightly notes, in the iconic image of the athletes on the podium, both Smith and Carlos have their heads bowed and eyes closed, a sign of quietude and interiority, a selfhood, that the public, that ME deny the existence of in African Americans. Photographs are far from facts and definitely mute but it is impossible to avoid what this oft-repeated image says about the interior minds of Smith and Carlos: that they are theirs and theirs alone. We don’t know what they were thinking but they are creating a quiet place in a loud and broad public to be with themselves.

    A stunning space to reflect on quietness, interiority, and self against the odds of its development is the photo artist’s book Come to Selfhood by Joshua Rashaad McFadden. For this remarkable book, McFadden made formal portraits of African American men including himself, paired them across the gutter with a vernacular image of their fathers, and between the two images, printed on soft, lightweight laid paper, answers to survey questions written in the hand of those photographed. When you see the stillness and strength of each man, see the brightness of their eyes, see the differences in their posture and features, see the likenesses with their fathers, you empathetically feel these men, individually. You question how people could ever be seen monolithically in terms of race or gender. But then you read the personal responses to the survey questions like “What are some common perceptions of men of color in America? Then, explain how these perceptions had and impact on you?” where one man, Keith Goins, responds:

    “—we’re violent

    —we’re ignorant

    —we’re criminals

    —we’re loud

    —we’re aggressive…

    These perceptions impact me everyday as a black male because of my skin as opposed to my character. I am constantly judged due to the media’s perception.”

    And if you’re a white, regular ME ingesting man like me who is reading McFadden’s book, you might have a flash of observation that Goins’s father in the vernacular photo shows him to be particularly young. As opposed to it being a photo Goins selected because it represents his father to him personally, your instant interpretation of the image is that Goins’ father died young. He was probably shot and killed, you might think.

    McFadden’s quiet book reveals what is present. I got caught, my own racism and gender biases exposed. But as Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones has stated, getting caught is a good thing. “Exposure is a step toward freedom.” We need more books like Come to Selfhood. We need to support more artists like McFadden. You need to see and hear what is present in the quiet of this critically important book.

    Tate Shaw is an artist and writer living in Rochester, NY. He is the Director of Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) and directs the College at Brockport, SUNY MFA in Visual Studies at VSW. Cuneiform Press published a collection of Shaw’s essays on artists' books, Blurred Library, earlier in 2017.

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

    This third post finds me stepping on shaky ground. While the other posts have a clear and defined point, a telos (in its Greek sense, a post towards which we confidently stride), consider this post a tentative exploration or a furtive, still-developing movement. An outlier, an out-post, venturing into the foreign territory of outer space.

    I mean that last quite literally. Almost two decades ago now, Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök undertook the creation of a poem that would be, after much careful encoding and countless funding dollars, transferred directly into a bacterium, meant to outlast the human race and survive the vacuum of outer space. As of this writing the project isn’t quite complete—one wonders if it will, in fact, ever be complete, not due to any specific scientific constraint (admittedly the current hangup) but due to its consistently evolving nature.

    After all, the Xenotext takes the shape of a complex transmedial multiplicity. Poem written, enciphered, translated into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, and implanted into the E. coli bacterium: this is the Xenotext. E. coli’s reading and response to the poem, a poem that then becomes what Bök calls an “archive”: this is the Xenotext. The future poem, not E. coli but a specific bacterium meant to outlast the reader, incomplete & possibly impossible: this is the Xenotext.

    On the human scale, at exhibitions there is a colorful polymer model of Protein 13. More graspable for us, here, there is also a print book (The Xenotext: Book 1), published in 2015 by Coach House. Somewhat surprisingly, it sidesteps the scientific-creative discussion in favor of anthropocene-motivated poems, recognizable poems with line breaks and figurative language and epic, elegiac tones. And, as an object, the book is beautiful, with a full-color section in the middle, and other sections akin to concrete poems mimicking molecules:

    Nucleotides, “Cytosine”

    Bök’s work has always expressed a delicate awareness of the book as form (see the transparent pages in Crystallography). Yet I can’t help thinking that the book is a successful book but not a successful work of book art. Instead, I am drawn again and again to the Xenotext bacterium, which uncannily wants to fulfil the maxim that artists’ books manifest a self-reflexivity about their form. What is more self-reflexive than a poem created of itself? And yet unmistakably we lose what is, for us humans, the exact definition of a book—that which we can read.

    The Xenotext obsesses me as a bookmaker and thinker because it goes beyond the conventional book—a goal artists’ books tend to embrace—to the extent that it loses sight of the book altogether. (And yet there is that print text, too, a stake on Earth.) Is this the logical conclusion of arguing for a radical, ever-expanding view of materiality? The Xenotext takes the idea of transmedial work such as Abra, which I touched on last week, or perhaps the work of digital author J.R. Carpenter, or—even closer to the macrolevel writing under discussion here—book artist Jen Bervin (the Silk Poems), and blows it up from trans-medial to trans-mondial.

    Not a book—but, still, writing. At the same time the Xenotext takes me to task for desiring new & strange poetries; it commands my awe. It reminds me that perhaps the thing I love most about artists’ books can be rephrased not in terms of self-reflexivity, but in terms that suggest an odd aliveness. What I love most, it seems, is material that speaks. Even if we cannot always hear it.

    Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective.

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

    At the Center for Book and Paper in Chicago, an initiative devoted to creating “expanded artists’ books” presents transmedial works that bridge what we would consider a traditional artist’s book—the concrete, physical, haptic art object—and the digital, like an iPad/iPhone application (Abra by Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin with Ian Hatcher). In these projects, old and new media deliberately link arms to declare their shared investments, investments I think of as key to artists’ books in any guise: material and formal considerations embedded into materiality and form; reading as a vibrant and immersive experience; writing that develops in tandem with its medium, shaping and being shaped by it.

    For digital and new media scholars, reading this kind of writing begins with N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of “media-specific analysis.” In her now-classic essay “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep,” Hayles argues that we must read the materiality of texts, hypertexts both digital and print, as well as their semantic content. She characterizes materiality as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies”—such medial self-awareness, she acknowledges, hardly limited to digital examples (72). Many of these examples, in fact, reference “reverse remediation” in digital hypertexts, moments where the digital mimics the analog: the appearance of dog-eared pages in print codices transferred to a screen; the illusion of something like Scotch tape at the edges of ersatz photographs; the moments which, as Emily Larned wrote in an earlier post for this blog, often create an “aesthetics of interference,” where such interference is constructed for the comfort or delight of the reader. This is not a new reaction, of course: we could cast much further back to recall the moment where moveable type, as blackletter, mimicked the script to which readers had been accustomed.

    Digital and new media scholars, both Hayles and those who follow, are far from allergic to more traditional artist book examples (see Hayles’s Writing Machines, which references Tom Phillips’s classic A Humument, or Manuel Portela’s Scripting Reading Motions: The Codex and The Computer as Self-Reflexive Machines, which has a chapter on Johanna Drucker’s letterpress work). Yet those with an interest in artists’ books often overlook the digital. At the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Portugal this summer, I heard about projects ranging from Taiwanese artist Hsia Yu’s book of digital remix poetry printed on Mylar, Pink Noise; to Rote Bete, a book made entirely on the copier by Portuguese artist César Figueiredo; to Eugenio Tisselli’s “Degenerative,” a web-based project which was corrupted bit-by-bit every time it was visited.

    Page from Rote Bete

    Yu’s book might easily be assimilated into the genre of artists’ books, perhaps Figueiredo’s work as well. What about Tisselli? Does it change our view to know the degenerative process was captured at various stages of decay before fading away completely, again suggesting, to an artist’s book reader, strange parallels with flux that might have intrigued Tom Phillips?

    Day 1 and Day 44 of “Degenerative”

    The truth is, of course, that both print and code are equally deep (or equally flat—take your pick). After all, both digital and analog are material. As Matt Kirschenbaum argues in his fantastic 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, it’s a convenient illusion that the digital is “hopelessly ephemeral...infinitely fungible or self-identical, and that it is fluid or infinitely malleable” (50). Instead, Kirschenbaum reminds us, “Every contact leaves a trace” (ibid). Why should we not extend our consideration from artists’ books to the digital, then, especially given their shared concerns about media specificity, self-reflectiveness, and reading?

    In its digital guise, Abra, which I mentioned at the beginning, encourages the user to create new poems through casting “spells” on the screen, which can shift and mutate words, graft the user’s words into the evolving poem, erase words from the lexicon, all in a shimmering set of rainbow hues. There is a paperback version, as well, that does not attempt to replicate the app but instead extends its concerns to another form. And linking the two is a letterpress-printed, small-edition handmade codex. At the back of this book there is a space left for an iPad, inviting the user to make the connection.

    Abra, from the Center for Book and Paper Arts’s website

    Works Cited

    Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep.” Poetics Today 25, no. 1 (2004). pp 67-90. doi: 10.1215/03335372-25-1-67.

    Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007.

    Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective. 

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

    Unlike many of the authors who have blogged here before, my primary work is in English literature—well, according to the language on my degree, at least. More specifically, I work at the intersection of theory or philosophy and artists’ books. Along these lines, my dissertation considered a small but critically significant section of arguments that enact their arguments through their material form: the Encyclopedia Da Costa of Georges Bataille, Marcel Duchamp, and others; Jacques Derrida’s two-columned Glas; Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book, which meanders in and out of legibility; Mark C. Taylor’s wildly colorful and typographically innovative Hiding and its accompanying forward-thinking 1998 digital literature work The Réal: Las Vegas, NV; and Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics and Susan Howe’s Tom Tit Tot, two artists’ books commonly recognized as such that nevertheless extend the threads set out by material arguments. Taken together, these works blur notions of how the argument genre operates.

    Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that often a description of my work is met with a furrowed brow from other English scholars. But how is it English? Well, it is, and it isn’t: true, it moves against a conventional sense of English as a field of set and stable genres; nevertheless, it emphasizes careful consideration of the stakes of a text and reflects back onto how we read. Insisting on fluidity, this kind of work argues for the necessary incorporation of other elements, gathered from critical theory, from media studies and communication theory, from what Jonathan Rose, in a speech for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, calls “book studies.” What I term in the dissertation material arguments, or theoretical artists’ books, are critical of the usual jobs of criticism, relentlessly seeking to provoke the reader rather than engage them in counterargument or as adversary. (“You can’t wrestle with a man who won’t wrestle back,” as Jack Miles characterizes Taylor in the introduction.)

    Moreover, the readerly provocations of theoretical artists’ books are located firmly in the material forms of the work, expressed through typography and design and media: for example, the blurred letterforms that visually replicate deafness in The Telephone Book; the juxtaposition of text and image in the Encyclopedia Da Costa that conveys absurdity and comedy; or the translucent paper that allows photos in Hiding to “bleed” through the text on the other side of the page during a discussion of skin. It becomes impossible to separate form from content, material from argument—theoretical artists’ books are irreducible to a bottom-line argument, requiring a multisensory, haptic experience.

    Theoretical artists’ books is a strong term, and subject to pushback of its own. But it is always worth reconsidering the assumed delineations of the artists’ books genre, which readily accepts fiction, poetry, and essay. Why not argument? In 1981, in the New York Times, Geoffrey Hartmann makes a case for expanding the scope of argumentative texts to include a “literature of criticism.” Theory or criticism, Hartmann argues, has as much a claim to hybridization of genres as literature does: “[I]f there is no reason to deny the critical essay a dignity and even a creative touch of its own, then criticism, too, will have to be read closely. It should not be fobbed off as a secondary activity, as a handmaiden to more ‘creative’ modes of thinking like poems or novels.” Theoretical artists’ books reference their own bookishness; their material provocations are essential, not ornamental; they interrupt and recreate reading.

    Questioning the boundaries of genre, we begin to also note that any field is always already subject to rifts and fractures and outgrowths. Artists’ books are hardly an exception, and these shifting contexts are beneficial: they allow for multiple perspectives. Stochastic Poetics will be familiar to many readers of this blog, but what about the work of poet Susan Howe? Like Stochastic Poetics, Howe’s Tom Tit Tot is highly citational, poses challenges to reading, and incorporates self-reflexivity about its production into its (handmade, letterpress-printed) presentation. Nor is it an anomaly in Howe’s oeuvre, which famously incorporates marginalia and collage, emphasizing the materiality of text. (In interviews, Howe has acknowledged her origins as a creator of what she considers visual art, textworks, before turning to poetry.)

    Johanna Drucker, Stochastic Poetics

    Susan Howe. Tom Tit Tot

    At the University of Buffalo, both Stochastic and Tom can be accessed in the rare books room. But they come from different areas, I am told: Stochastic is classified as an art object, and Tom is an artist’s book. Pressing for further information, I am met with a shrug and an acknowledgement. It’s likely, the librarian notes, they will be reclassified soon.

    Works Cited

    Hartmann, Geoffrey. “How Creative Should Literary Criticism Be?” New York Times, 5 April 1981, Accessed 3 April 2017.

    Miles, Jack. “How To Read This Book: A Note to the Reader from a Concerned Friend.” Introduction to Hiding, by Mark C. Taylor, U of Chicago P, 1997.

    Rose, Jonathan. “From Book History to Book Studies.” American Printing History Association, Accessed 3 April 2017.

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

    What does seamfulness look like, and how does it function? How does it read? How can it encourage the reader to “look hard?” How does that attention place them back into the world?

    It seems best to try to answer these questions by writing about a specific artwork. Divya Victor’s 2014 book, Natural Subjects, [1] is an excellent case study for this particular context: it is a book (poetry, but it deploys text and image), it is conceptually and formally sophisticated but still accessible (in other words, it’s really good), and it deals with identity, speech, language, migration, and immigration. I’m not interested in trying to parse whether Natural Subjects is or is not an artists’ book. The category is not important. What is important is that it is an approach to writing (rigorous in craft and concept, shaped as a whole, conscious of the materiality of the text, the shape of the page, and the form of the book) that those of us engaged in the book arts can look to as a model.

    Natural Subjects is a book about power, about the languages and documents that power constructs, and about how that language and power affects real people in their real lives. The abstraction of text can be used to define, limit, and trap the actual body:

    Or it can be used to dissect and examine an indeterminate body—perhaps an animal, perhaps a human treated as an animal, perhaps a human treated as only a body or a problem:

    The activity of writing naturally hides its seams. The writer can easily insert text from another source, and the reader only recognizes it as such if that text is given its appropriate markings—quotation marks, separation as a block quote, a footnote, italics, etc. The writing in Natural Subjects uses these conventions in certain instances, but they are not applied consistently and “properly.” Even when the conventions of marking quoted text are not used, the seams in Natural Subjects remain legible—they become legible in the reading. The legibility of the seams leads to other legibilities: of the source texts, of the experience of encountering those texts in lived situations, of the structures that generate and control such texts, and/or of the mythologies that permeate the interpretations of such texts. One such moment occurs on page 24:

    Is this a checklist? Is this an oath? Who is “I,” and why is “I” separated from the expected flow of speech? The seams, those moments of disruption and collage do two related things for the reader: first, they defamiliarize the “official” language of the U.S. government and reveal (though it is always in plain sight) its function as an instrument of control. Second, they place the reader in the position of being subject to, the subject of, the text and the functions of power/control that it exerts. That list is followed, after two blank pages, with a more extreme moment of collage/disruption:

    The blank pages are a seam. The shift in size is a seam. The all caps is a seam. The use of italics is a seam. The cutting off of the word “happiness” is a seam. The repetition of the last line is a seam. There are more seams on that page than “straight” content, and the reading is the reader tracing those seams.

    Natural Subjects is an extended act of “looking hard” at various texts, systems, and experiences that continue to actively shape (or distort?) the world. Natural Subjects gives us a picture, but also the frame, and shows the seams where the two parts connect.

    “As I write this, I can’t help but think that ‘aesthetic of interference’ also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance… perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.”

    Tracing the seams leads the reader to an awareness of structure. The book arts are about structure. This means book structures in the literal sense, as well as in the spatial, temporal, metaphorical, and conceptual sense. Books are a series of overlapping, intersecting, and interconnected spaces that the reader moves within and through. Books mirror our experience of time and the world. Books actively shape our experience of time and the world. That reflection/shaping of our experience of time is one of the most important ways that artists’ books can bring our attention to the world, and allow us to “look hard,” be present in it, be present with others, reground, and regroup. An “aesthetics of interference” must also be an aesthetics of attention to the world and to others, and by extension of those relationships—an aesthetics of compassion.


    1. Divya Victor, Natural Subjects (New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2014). The first image is part of page 29. The second image is part of page 92. The third image is part of page 24. Images four and five are pages 24 – 27. All images are scans made/assembled by Aaron Cohick.

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

    Noise is one tool that can generate multiple legibilities within an image or text. For example, this image fragment from the last post contains multiple legibilities:

    • It can be read as what it shows.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image of what it shows.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image taken from one context and placed into another.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image reprinted through another process.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image, taken from one context and repeated using collage.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image taken from one context, placed into another, and then placed into another.


    • There may be more legibilities not listed here.

    • Different points of reality vs. reproduction, and different contexts will have different legibilities.

    • Legibilities are dependent upon material.

    • Not all legibilities are available to every reader, all of the time. Which legibilities are available will vary with the reader’s contexts, and a single reader may find different legibilities at different points in time.

    • Each legibility is translucent, partially revealing and partially obscuring the others at any moment of reading.

    • A legibility is not the same thing as a meaning, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    • A legibility is an entrance and a path.

    Multiple legibilities within an artwork can generate multiple, intersecting readings, potentially even from the same reader. An aesthetics of interference, of noise, takes the multi-, the poly-, the many, and the potential as a value to be explored. In the above instance, noise and its multiple legibilities are also a function of collage. Collage of images/objects/texts transforms art into matter, into the world, and then mixes them back into the artwork.

    “As I write this, I can’t help but think that ‘aesthetic of interference’ also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance… perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.” [1]

    In this “contemporary age of resistance” it is important to be clear about what “resistance” means, and here my own subject position becomes an issue. I, personally, am not interested in the spectacle of viciously inept leaders—I am interested in working against the structures that makes such “leadership” possible. These are also the structures that define our contemporary world: white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, mass incarceration, and environmental destruction. Oppression in its many forms. These are not new things. I have benefitted from these structures. The predominantly white organization that these blog posts are for has benefitted from these structures. Resistance cannot just be metaphorical—it has to involve real work. Art can do that by opening up questions of representation, structural signification, education, economics, etc. Can art affect political change? Only insofar as it can ground us in the world, show us the world, and show us ourselves.

    It would seem that collage, noise, and their related devices and techniques (montage, appropriation, the graphic marks of photo/mechanical reproduction, hiss, interference) are, at a structural level, antithetical to the idea of purity. Purity as a value is easily extrapolated to justify white supremacy. [2]

    I would agree with AD Jameson’s assertion (in the essay referred to in Part 1) that “art has no favorite way of being made, and there are no experimental devices. One can only experiment with devices.” I would extend that to say that there are no inherently ethical devices in art. Noise and collage can also be used to support white supremacy, and they certainly are and have been. In those uses, though, they tend to be used to obscure, cover, and falsify—to hide their seams and the legibility of those seams. White supremacy requires invisibility to function. It cannot show its seams. To extend Lori Emerson’s argument about the ideology of interfaces in her book Reading Writing Interfaces—above all, white supremacy must be user-friendly. [3]

    So we are seeking a collage, a noise, a work that allows us to show its seams, and the seams of the structures that bind us. To name those structures. Our resistance will not be seamless, but seam-full. A seamfulness to help us see.


    1. This is the passage that inspired this series of posts. It is from Emily Larned’s post on this same blog, “Aesthetics of Interference.”

    2. In addition to the linked article on color in classical sculpture, I would also recommend David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia for a far-ranging look at the conflation of whiteness, purity, and an “ideal” aesthetic. David Batchelor, Chromophobia, (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

    3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Emerson’s analysis of interfaces, ideology, media poetics, and media archaeology is very relevant to the field of Book Arts. I highly recommend her book.

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

    An artwork is never alone. Interference can come from the actual material, like in a half-toned image, or the hiss of a recording made on a scavenged x-ray. Interference can also come from the deliberate play or disruption of the reader/viewer’s expectations of a medium/genre, and/or the “bleeding-in” of other pieces, of the discourses surrounding and running through a given work.

    “As I write this, I can’t help but think that ‘aesthetic of interference’ also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance . . . perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.”

    In my previous post I talked about the quote above, from another post on this blog by Emily Larned. I connected it to the work of Viktor Shklovsky, and a particular essay about Shklovsky. My reading of Emily’s text (and my future writing) was already woven through with, or emerging out of, other readings of other texts. Those outside texts—that interference, that noise, that heap, that murmur—can be used as, transformed into, a matrix.

    “[Bertolt] Brecht had always attacked the myth of the transparency of language that had governed the practice of theater since Aristotle; the self-reflective, anti-illusionistic montagelike devices that interrupted the flow of his plays aimed at aborting the identification of the spectator with any character and, as he phrased it, at producing an effect of ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement.’

    The first example Barthes commented on in his 1971-2 seminar was a text in which the German writer patiently analyzed the 1934 Christmas speeches of two Nazi leaders (Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess). What struck Barthes was Brecht’s extreme attention to the form of the Nazi texts, which he had followed word for word in order to elaborate his counterdiscourse. Brecht pinpointed the efficacy of these speeches in the seamless flow of their rhetoric: the smokescreen with which Goering and Hess masked their faulty logic and heap of lies was the mellifluous continuity of their language, which functioned like a robust, gooey adhesive.” [1]

    “In communication theory, noise is that which distorts the signal on its way from transmitter to recipient. There will always be an element of distortion, either externally or internally, coming from the medium itself. In music noise is often originally a malfunction in the instruments or electronics (a disturbance of the clear signal), which is then reversed into a positive effect. . . . When you reverse a disturbance into a part of the music itself, it is not smoothly integrated but infuses the music with a tension. There is still a play on the formerly negative relation between noise and signal when a noise is legitimated. This tension is an important part of the musical power of noise.” [2]

    “I identify these interfaces that obscure ever more from the user in the name of ‘invisibility’ and the ‘user-friendly’ with what’s fast becoming an ideology. I use ideology not merely in the sense of the adamant belief in making the computer more approachable but more in the sense that user-friendly is used quite deliberately to distort reality by convincing users that this very particular notion of a user-friendly device—one that depends on and then celebrates the device as entirely closed off both to the user and to any understanding of it via a glossy interface—is the only possible version of the user-friendly, one that claims to successfully bridge the gap between human and computer. In reality, the glossy surface of the interface further alienates the user from having access to the underlying workings of the device.” [3]

    The “aesthetics of interference” is an aesthetics of noise. Noise is the world—seething, stewing, clamoring, singing, generating—outside of the artwork. Noise is material, which is where the artwork becomes part of the world, and where the world pierces the artwork. Noise is the pixel, the half-tone, the smear, the seam, the suture, the footnote, the epigraph, the frayed edge of a sound. Noise is that which we did not expect from the artwork, in the artwork, driving the core tension of the artwork. Noise feeds our attention. Noise catalyzes our sight. Noise is necessary when power continually lies and obscures.

    “With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion.” [4]


    1. Yve Alain-Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, eds. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve Alain-Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 33.

    2. Torben Sangild, “The Aesthetics of Noise,” 2002. Available online at

    3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), xi.

    4. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6.

    Image: details of Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, acrylic on canvas.

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

    In her Book Art Theory blog post called “Aesthetics of Interference,” artist Emily Larned writes about sounds and images that display their medium, specifically recordings on vinyl, and half-toned or pixilated images. She starts to unpack how and why the “low quality” of the images/sounds becomes aestheticized (or fetishized). In that post she wrote the following (parenthetical) statement:

    “As I write this, I can’t help but think that 'aesthetic of interference' also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance . . . perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.”

    With Emily’s permission, I’d like to make an attempt at that post (or posts).


    In the summers I teach an intro level book arts course called “Book Arts & Letterpress.” It ranges from the very small (close looking at individual typeforms) to the very large (what does it mean to publish handmade books in this contemporary world?). We start with an assignment adapted from Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, where the students draw, to scale at 100 point size, an exact copy of several letters (a, t, A, a) of a typeface of their choosing. At the same time they read the first chapter of Lupton’s book, and an essay by A.D. Jameson about the work of the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. That essay talks about some of the most famous and important principles from Shklovsky’s work: the related concepts of “seeing” vs. “recognition,” and the device of “defamiliarization/enstrangement/making strange.”

    In Shklovsky’s formulation (as explained by Jameson) “recognition” is that routine, automatic, disengaged perception of the world that is our default state. We see enough to get by. “Seeing” is an active, engaged looking, where the world can suddenly become a strange, wondrous, and infinitely complex thing. My first lucid encounter with this engaged seeing came to me through intense observational drawing and painting exercises when I was a student. We were ordered to “look hard” and draw the same still-life set-up over several six-hour studio classes. That phrase seems nonsensical at first: seeing is effortless, so how can I “look hard”? Through practice it becomes the first and most critical piece of being an artist and human. That phrase sticks with me to this day. The typeform drawing assignment is my attempt to get at the same practice (look hard) within the context of type and books. One assignment is never enough, of course, and we come back to the concept again and again.

    The seed of the course’s expansion is also planted within that first reading. To quote Shklovsky directly:

    “And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives [sic], and at our fear of war.”

    Our automatic, disengaged perception, aided by the constant assault of spectacle-as-news/news-as-spectacle, is an insidious form of social control. Our “fear of war” is dulled and flattened. We draw inward. We forget about the humanity of those around us. It seems inevitable, natural. We are all, always and forever, susceptible and mostly complicit.

    Shklovsky offers art as one tool to use in the never-ending-reconstruction-of-our-humanity:

    “If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. . . . And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’”

    That first reading becomes a challenge and focal point for the entire course (and hopefully beyond). It starts to get at the question, that all-important, impossible question that every student artist has to answer in their own way (and that all of us “professionals” are always answering too): what does art do, and why is it important?


    Both Shklovsky quotes are from the chapter “Art as Device,” in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Normal, IL: Illinois State University, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 5–6.

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

    Recently, I was thinking about reading, not only as the powerful privilege and action, but the interfaces in which we engage with this action. In his essay, Social Book Building, Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., discusses an imminent future where we are “read to.” Kennedy refers specifically to the internet superhighway, alludes to the now-realized prevalence of “smart” devices seamlessly integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives, and discusses the potential threat those technologies present to literacy among the general public.

    Literacy, for Kennedy, appears tied to the continued propagation and dissemination of physically tangible, textual objects — books or publications. His concerns for digital space, and its potential threat to society, lead me to reconsider Miller-Fusco’s Publish/Public and other related essays on the notion of “creating a public” through the action of publishing. These texts present a discussion negotiating the digital as an (invisible) public vs. the physical as a (visible) public: how they are created, what they represent, how they function in society, and how they can be or are effectively utilized given advancement in communication technologies.

    As a new independent publisher interested in publishing as a critical artistic practice, two main sets of questions emerged:

    1) How do we, can we, as publishers, conquer a/o harness the power of the “invisible” public? What problems exist within these new means that culture has so easily embraced?

    2) What is a “visible” public? How is this unique today when held up against the “invisible”? And how can we better harness this public with our publication methodologies?

    Moreover: What is it to publish for a digital (invisible) public? What does it mean to intentionally not publish for that public? Are there problems that exist in the invisible public that could be circumnavigated in the visible public? And who are these publics, really?

    The initial public generated by independent publishers working analogue is small. Access to that public often requires great effort (and resources) at an imprint’s outset. The physical labor of creating and penetrating the visible as physical public is daunting, and often success hinges on the integration of tools offered by the digital in order to also access the invisible. In contrast, the digital offers ease of accessibility (read: download anywhere) to a potentially larger public with seemingly less physical labor; a publication has the potential to swiftly reach a larger audience. This open ease of accessibility is at the heart of the invisible, but what are the caveats, the drawbacks to being out there in this invisible space, or potential risks?

    Is it a matter of surveillance? With the invisible comes complicit participation in contemporary means of gross data collection; every action is archived in a constantly refining digital algorithm. In the process is loss of anonymity as these very useful, effective, online platforms and interfaces get to know you, our invisible public, and us, as distributor. Such surveillance has been and remains under critical examination, constantly questioned, by a skeptical greater body public. So, while the digital platform presents as incredibly powerful and successful — esp. in terms of cultural urgency to disseminate — it also remains very visible and traceable despite its seemingly invisible means of operability. This is in direct opposition to my initial assertion of the digital as invisible. So we must reconsider “invisible” vs. “visible” when describing these modes of dissemination, for as terms, they possess contentious connotations.

    Instead, it is a matter of volume — loudness vs. silence.

    The digital as invisible is loud — very loud and very effective as it is very visible and accessible; facts that are both a blessing and a potential curse. 

    Given the state of our contemporary political climate, we could entertain a "doomsday" scenario (history being cyclical — why else are so many rereading 1984?): What role can/does an analogue means of publishing and distribution play in an age of gross data collection and surveillance? History, would answer resoundingly: “as the underground,” “the alternative,” a silent revolution

    While analogue publishing is loud in its own right primarily by way of its visible physicality, it is also comparatively much more silent. There is a time associated with its production that is inseparable from its action but in this time remains its potential power. This echoes personal tensions I have balancing urgency of content, time required for production, and a need for timely distribution.

    This analogous mode of publishing is presented here as “silent distribution,” or a “silent platform of dissemination”— a tool wherein the information being disseminated is produced having never found or interacted with the WWW, a computer, or any other digital media (provided that the publisher has access to the proper obsolete technologies). Viable? Perhaps, but also radical despite it being historically old-hat. It is, in many ways, a return to independent publishing’s genesis. 

    This analogue mode of publishing and distribution could be — given our access to more effective, far-reaching, and efficient means — a powerful and radical consideration in this age of digital surveillance. What seems to be missing however, in order for it to be a truly successful endeavor or method of production as I have somewhat outlined here, is the ability to distribute the content wildly and widely without the assistance of previously noted contemporary digital media platforms.

    The (analogue) has fallen out of mainstream fashion, and with it, postal distribution (think of the disappearance and significance of print journals and magazines, the costs associated with mail-order distribution, the threat to defund the USPS, etc.). But the postal service remains a potential ally, providing a sympathetic means of distribution, a silent distribution. It is a pre-existing, underutilized, not quite obsolete, but not in vogue infrastructure. 

    The challenge then is how do we, or could we, disseminate timely critical content, and do so quickly in this vein? How do you revive an analogous distribution network? Is it worth investigating? Is it madness, delusional, or simply paranoid to think of this analogous action of silent distribution as a viable activity and action?

    I do not know, but certainly believe it is worth further consideration in our modern age.

    Kennedy, Amos Paul, Jr., “Social Book Building,” Talking the Boundless Book: Art, Language, and Book Arts, ed. Charles Alexander (Minnesota: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1995), 49-50.

    Miller, John and Maria Fusco, “Publish/Public,” Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing, ed. Maria Fusco and Ian Hunt (London: Book Works, 2004), 149-154.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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