Recent Blog Posts

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.

  • 01 Mar 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    “The poetry of erasure is taking place all around us. Underneath the pavement, behind newspaper headlines, on paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls… continuously peeling away and papering over itself. Its very surface is a living thing in flux between the dueling processes of decay and renewal…This world demands of its denizens a constant and vigilant revision of form.” Travis MacDonald

    Erasure crosses and mixes disciplines; emerges from impulses ranging from conceptual systematic experimentation to political inquiry to a destructive act to a conversation between an original work and its ‘renewal.’ Created by painters, prose writers, poets, book artists, and those artists who defy disciplinary labels, erasure can harmonize with an original or create a dissonance. As with any artistic genre or endeavor there are both successful works that resonate and burrow deep, and those that flounder, never penetrating the surface. Scraping or painting or cutting, a palimpsest is formed for the reader to decipher, to search through layers for meaning.

    In the last decade, erasure as a poetic form has rapidly gained momentum. The intersection with an aspect of the book arts—the object (or not object) and materials that make up that object—manifests in a consideration of material and form taking on greater significance. It gets more interesting in light of the wide range of production methods being employed as well as conceptual motives: one-of-kind, serials, digitally produced, originals reproduced and reconfigured before erasure, born and raised digitally, to name a few. Poetic and visual considerations are found in erasures by artists as distinct as Robert Rauschenberg, Amelia Bird, Jen Bervin, and Tom Phillips.

    Criticism that addresses this form from the varied perspectives of painting, writing and the book arts offers a rich means for assessing the work both historically and in this contemporary moment. Travis MacDonald in A Brief History of Erasure Poets provides a context that places erasures in a lineage including Oulipo, Language Poetry, book artists and current practice. He uses specific artists to elucidate varied approaches to the relationship the ‘eraser’ creates with the original work.

    On Erasure by Mary Ruefle, provides a personal perspective on the rigor involved and how erasure can be approached. She creates both one-of-a-kind and digitally reproduced editions. Andrew David King interviews six contemporary poets: Srikanth Reddy, Matthea Harvey, Janet Holmes, M. NourbeSe Philip, David Dodd Lee, and Travis MacDonald, “questioning practical and theoretical concerns surrounding erasure as a technique.”

    Poets Genevieve Kaplan and Mary Hickman both situate erasure poetry within a book art framework, contrasting the perspective MacDonald takes in allying it primarily with conceptual poetry of the 1960s. “While poetic appropriated books may not always be artists' books per se, it is helpful to use the contemporary artists' book as a lens to better understand these new texts,” Genevieve Kaplan writes. She digs into contrasting methods that address the physical form and means of erasing in the work of Jen Bervin, Mary Ruefle, and Erica Baum.

    Mary Hickman also uses Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle’s works to situate the work within the context of book art. “I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect.”

    Two last bits to offer up from a broader perspective encompassing painting and photographic manipulations are The Eloquence of Absence and Brian Dillon’s The Revelation of Erasure. The two essays consider erasure from perspectives such as censorship and deceit and include photography, painting, and text-based works.

    When we take a step sideways, address materials, ideas, critical approaches and theories that intersect our own activities and practices, but are often positioned in a sister discipline, it opens our thinking, poses new questions, asks us to move outside our own discipline in considering the book and why it is compelling to us as an artistic form. It can illuminate where we close our minds to other modes of thinking about the book, and what it means and represents when we move away from our own canon to consider it with our heads cocked to another side.


  • 15 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    Two recent book art theory blog posts use the phrase “the artists’ book.” This may be awkward, but it has precedence. Stephan Klima in his Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature notes, “A most confusing aspect of the debate is the spelling of the term artists books. Its first appearance, in 1973, omitted the apostrophe. Thereafter, it appeared with the apostrophe, and sometimes without. Typographical error may explain certain cases; but there are unexplained mysteries” (10). Johanna Drucker speaks variously of “an artists’ book,” “artists’ books,” and “artists book.”

    The history of the possessive apostrophe is somewhat murky. It is “a grammatical anomaly, a vestigial case marker . . . in a noun system [modern English] that has otherwise dispensed with cases,” writes Elizabeth S. Sklar. Its origins clearly go back to the case sensitive Old English, but there isn’t full agreement on its history and well into the 18th century most grammarians ignored the genitive plural, even claiming there was no such thing (177-80).

    In the instance of the artist’ book, I wonder if the apostrophe inconsistency stems from confusion inherent in the concept of the artist’s book itself. That the artist is the originator, the owner, if you will, of his or her artist’s book, is as significant as any other characteristic, if not more. Also, as Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” suggests, this is a new genre, unchartered territory with attendant lack of terminology.

    Ted Gachot, presently copyediting CBAA’s journal Openings, queried the use of the apostrophe in this context in an email to CBAA’s president Julie Chen. The real ambiguity, he explained, is whether the word “artist” refers to a person or persons responsible for the book, or simply describes a type of book. Here are excepts from his email:

    [T]he terms “artists’ books” and “artist’s book” create grammatical ambiguity because they are not formed in the way such terms are usually formed.

    A good example is “sailor suit.” The plural is “sailor suits.” “Sailor” in this case is an attributive (descriptive) noun. It remains the same no matter how many suits are being discussed.

    In “artists’ books” and “the artist’s book,” “artist” is still attributive (probably) but it is in the genitive case. When terms like this are formed in the genitive, the plural is normally formed the same way as with “sailor suit.” The plural of “farmers’ market” is “farmers’ markets.” “Artists’ books” is not the plural of “artist’s book.” They (when used in this sense) are . . . two ways of saying the same thing, of describing a type of book.

    But “artist” can also refer to an artist, and “artist’s book” to a book made by that artist. One can talk about a particular artist’s book (her book) or that artist’s books (her books), or if two artists have collaborated on a single book, the artists’ book (their book). If they’ve made more than one, they are the artists’ books (their books). “Book” or “books” in these kinds of clauses serves the same function as, and could be replaced with, “artist book” or “artist books.” You could even say an artist’s artists’ books (though it would be better not to).

    Unfortunately, neither “artists’ books” nor “artist’s book” has the internal logic that “farmers’ market” has. It seems a little funny to say “an artists’ book” if discussing one person’s book. It also seems a bit odd to say “an artist’s book” if the project is collaborative. That’s because the reader does not know whether to read the terms as referring to the artist or the book. [R]eplacing these terms with one formed with an attributive noun, like “sailor suit,” would clear up all these complications. There . . .[would be] none of the haziness that gets in with “artists’ books” and “artist’s books,” where it’s unclear whether they are descriptive or possessive or how to form the plural.

    Resistance to this may simply be the result of the field’s newness, of not being around long enough — certainly not as long as sailor suits, dog food, pig pens, and cat whiskers.


    Note: Works cited are easily found with the exception of the following, which can be accessed in JSTOR: Elizabeth S. Sklar, “The Possessive Apostrophe: the Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark,” College English (38.2) 1976.


  • 01 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    As an American artist, I never considered what France’s Lang Law, or other fixed book price agreements (FBPAs), might mean for artists’ books. While the US adheres to its mythical free market, many countries fix book prices by law or agreement. In an interview for JAB37, Leszek Brogowski states, “In one of my definitions of the artist’s book, there’s the specific question of de-territorializing the practice of art in book culture which remains . . . a protected domain, with the fixed price of a book (a radical anti-free market policy) . . . that stands in contrast to art in its traditional forms.”

    FBPAs have many interesting implications for artists’ books, but I will focus on two. The first is a matter of context: the meaning of any artists’ book is affected by its location (and that of its creator and reader) within a free market or a fixed market. Brogowski argues, “We must fight for the definition of a book, to make it understood that a book doesn’t simply boil down to a form. It’s much more than a form: it’s a usage and culture.” Not only can a book acquire new meanings in different contexts, these various meanings impact the formal and conceptual concerns of artists in countries with and without FBPAs, resulting in divergent artists’ book outputs.

    The second implication of FBPAs has less to do with a book’s meaning, but much to say about its categorization. FBPAs increase diversity among books and booksellers by preventing big distributors from discounting best-sellers to undercut more challenging or specialized books. Increased diversity would seem an obvious aid to artists’ books, yet only artists’ books competing within the book market (rather than the art market) stand to benefit. This distinction bolsters the argument that these artists’ books are truly books, since they are valued and produced according to the book market, whether fixed or free.

    Contrast this to limited edition works with the formal characteristics of a book, yet belong to the art market. Circulating outside the book market, the influence such rarified works can exert on the publishing world is limited. Artists and distributors who engage the book market directly can challenge and steer the broader definition of literacy and the book. Separating works impacted by the book market from those beyond its reach, FBPAs make an interesting (though reductive) thought experiment, a litmus test of book-ness.

    My intention is not to lump artists’ book into two camps, but to help clarify the meaning of what Brogowski calls “making art according to the customs of book culture.” He asks: “why should a work of art be materially unique when it can be multiple, like a literary work? . . . Why should the originality of a plastic work be judged against its non-reproducibility, while a literary work is judged by its intellectual and artistic values?” FBPAs should remind book artists that they can participate in and shape a cultural arena that many governments deem too important to be left to the free market.

    Further Reading

    Blache, Catherine. "Why Fixed Book Price Is Essential for Real Competition." International Publishers Association. International Publishers Association, 19 March 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.

    Brogowski, Leszek. Interview by Hubert Renard. “What the Artist's Book Makes Us Rethink About Esthetic Theory.” Journal of Artists' Books. JAB37 2015: 9-14. Print.

    Nakayama, Moè. "For What It's Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets." Publishing Trendsetter. Market Partners International and Publishing Trends, May 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.


  • 15 Jan 2016 12:00 AM | Bridget Elmer (Administrator)

    As book artists, we understand that books are more than just vessels for information. We read the books’ form, materials, texture, structure, interactivity, as well as written and visual information in search for concept, and not all communication is verbal. I am interested in ways of reading—contemplative reading of our sensory experience, our bodies, and our landscape—those things subtle and direct to achieve a better understanding of our surroundings. Books have the potential to directly communicate information, yet everything around us can be read, though it may take more time, patience, and contemplation. I want to bring attention to the quiet voices or even to the voiceless.


    By Alex Borgen, Photo by Kellen Walker

    How do we read paper? I want to bring attention to reading paper, as one might read a landscape or body, as we read artist books. Paper is not just a substrate—how do we demonstrate paper’s potential to tell stories, reveal concepts, and perform on a level of interactivity? How do we observe, read, and translate those landscapes with a much quieter, subtle voice? Answering these two questions is pivotal in my conceptual work as it relates to our experiences.


    By Alex Borgen, Photo by Penelope Hearne


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

    Artists’ books are a slippery, interdisciplinary medium. Attempted definitions seem to fall into two general categories: genealogies and zones of intersection. The latter acknowledges how artists’ books can be understood by applying analytical tools from myriad disciplines including film, design, poetry, and so on. Though this may leave some purists, determined to define precisely what is and is not an artists’ book, dissatisfied, these related fields provide the theoretical and critical framework for artists’ books as a mature discipline. In turn, artists’ books today are capable of lending an analytical lens to other areas of study and practice.

    I wish to advocate for the idea of artists’ books as a way of thinking: Book Thinking. This is an easy leap for me, as someone who studied graphic design at a time when Design Thinking was already a pervasive cultural buzzword. Another design analogy is Katherine McCoy's influential essay, “Typography as Discourse,” which, following Foucault, understands discourse as a “[way] of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations....” What can we gain from artists’ books as discourse, from considering formal qualities like structure and sequence within social contexts like literacy and book culture?

    I believe acknowledging Book Thinking would avoid two frequent and unproductive conversations within the artists’ book field. On one hand, purists rejecting a work: “But it’s not an artists’ book.” On the other hand, enthusiasts adopting everything: “Cave paintings are artists’ books” and “Facebook is an artists’ book.” The purists and enthusiasts make such claims until the definition of an artists’ book is either squashed or stretched to the point of meaninglessness. By acknowledging Book Thinking, enthusiasts can bring the analytical power of artists’ books to new frontiers without watering down the field, and purists can engage related works without knee-jerk defensiveness.

    The biggest benefits of Book Thinking lie beyond our own discipline. Philosopher Gary Tedman argues that Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts is an artists’ book (though I would amend that it be understood through Book Thinking). Tedman cites Margaret Fay, who asserted that understanding the visual and structural eccentricities of Marx’s original hand-bound manuscript leads to a fundamentally different interpretation of Marx’s critiques of Adam Smith and G.W.F. Hegel. The manuscript embodies and clarifies the challenging concepts of immanent critique and dialectical thinking. In JAB38 , Anne Roystone similarly applies Book Thinking to Derrida's Glas in her intriguing essay, “The Fibrous Text.” Like Tedman, Roystone helps readers access a difficult and unusual text. Such insights are no small feat for Book Thinking. Imagine if those of us with expertise in artists’ books pursued such studies more frequently.

    Having borrowed from so many influences, the artists’ books field is ready to give back. By embracing Book Thinking, we can move beyond unproductive self-definition and collaborate with other scholars and practitioners, whether to study cave painting or social media. In today's climate of budget cuts and lip service interdisciplinarity, it can hardly hurt to demonstrate what we have to offer.


    Works Cited

    Fay, Margaret. “The Influence of Adam Smith on Marx's Theory of Alienation” Science & Society: An Independent Journal of Marxism, Vol. XLVII, number 2, Summer 1983.

    Tedman, Gary. “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts as a Work of Art; A Hypertextual Reinterpretation” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 16, issue 4, Routledge, 2004.

    Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.


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

    Two literary books I read in 2015 that were both formally and lyrically inspiring yet challenging to my own status quo were Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Citizen blurs poetry and criticism and includes images. As a window into what it might feel like to be black and American today, its many assorted panes are variously clear, murky, refracting, cracked, and broken. Similarly, The Argonauts is both life writing and criticism about the author becoming a mother while her partner, an artist who technically identifies as neither female nor male, gets breast removal surgery and begins taking testosterone.

    Two equally inspiring book artworks by emerging artists connect to Citizen and The Argonauts: Dark Archives (2015) by Andre Bradley and How to Transition on $0.63 a Day (2013) by Lee Krist. Both are autobiographical with the artists’ personal stories revealed in fragments. Dark Archives exists as a gray folder that holds different sized booklets and printed photographs from yearbooks, family albums, and photographs made by Bradley. With exquisite combinations of images and texts that span from his childhood to today, Bradley enables deep empathy for what it means to grow up and be a young black man in this country. Krist’s bookwork is an epistolary of unbound ephemera and postcards written from the author in Portland, Oregon who sends messages and updates on his transition from female to male to his perhaps disapproving mother back in New York City. Housed in a metal 8mm film case, the postcards with their dislocated, bygone imagery and letterpress printed messages on the reverse, feel current and yet like a farewell to a supposedly simpler time of home movies and family vacations.

    It was my great privilege to hear Bradley read from Dark Archives at the Image Text Ithaca (ITI) Symposium in July 2015. Rankine, also at ITI, read #2 from her Situations series of video essays in collaboration with John Lucas. The video imagery of Situation 2 is of people asleep on airplanes while the text is loosely about the “raw material” of the body. I connect Rankine and Lucas’ piece to Robert Gober’s divisive “Hanging Man/Sleeping Man” wallpaper work where a lynched black body is disturbingly patterned with a white body asleep in bed. Hearing both readings may have been the cultural highlight of the year for me because their words and images felt like what it feels like to be alive right now.

    It was also my privilege to be a juror with Susan Lowdermilk of the upcoming CBAA Members’ Exhibition at the Nashville conference, Telling the Story, January 7-9, 2016. Krist’s How to Transition on $.63 a Day was one of what seemed like just a few books submitted where the author/artists’ voice was authentically his or hers; in fact a good many of the submissions appeared to incorporate secondary source texts as materials. That being said, I observed the artists who used secondary sources might have done so out of a desire to empathize with victims of what was often a tragic transgression of humanity in some form or another. Yet they were still secondary works of witness. And while all the jurying was blind, it also seemed to me that even fewer than those who were creating work out of an authentic, personal experience were those books by people of color or LGBTQ artists.

    Earlier this year Rankine, along with her co-editors Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap also published The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. This compendium basically addresses the question of whether or not a white or straight author has a “right of access” through his or her imagination to give voice to a person of color or who is LGBTQ. An example might be The Book of Dolores by author William T. Vollman, a kind of mass-produced book artwork from drawings, photographs, and writings produced while he cross-dressed as research for a transgender sexworker protagonist in his next novel, what an actual cross-dressing reviewer called “Mansplaining Cross-dressing.” Or as Nelson quips at one point in The Argonauts about a white, heterosexual artist male (such as myself), “Do you have to own everything?”

    Finally, the question is how do we get more pluralistic ownership in the field of books-as-art? Does CBAA need official equal opportunity programs for publishing, residencies, and exhibitions?


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

    It’s the year-end when critics compile best of lists that take stock of the passage of time while reflecting upon genuine artistry where one found it. Photobooks have this down pat, see photo-eye’s blog, for one example. We need these pointers and filters now more than ever. I don’t think year-end lists of book artworks exist. If you know of any, please comment or post your own for 2015.

    While reading the reports on the events in Paris two weeks ago, I wondered where are the critics connected to book artworks who will provide me a list of titles to help me feel better right this moment? Childishly, I think I wanted something like this scene in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. What I sought was a way to empathize while simultaneously justifying my life’s orientation. Otherwise, why am I thinking about books all the time when awful stuff like this is going on in Beirut, Paris, Syria, etc.? Alas, I didn’t know of such a community so I visited my own shelves and took some solace in Josely Carvalho’s book version of Diary of Images: There is Still Time to Mourn and Anders Nielsen’s The End. What is your list of book artworks that offer some solace for grief?

    “So what is it about the list,” asks Michael Hampton in his recently published Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book? “In short, the list is often the first line of organizational defense in the battle with the incomprehensibility and furor of daily life in 2015; an unbeatable memory device.” Hampton’s own list book is a welcome approach that expands critical inquiry by using the notion of family resemblance for things with “genuine authorship” as book artworks. This is how Hampton can include The Lindisfarne Gospels circa 700CE, a mobile app of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, and a video of Guy Begbie turning circles while holding an ornately perforated book that emits orange smoke as rumba music romps in the background. 

    Hampton’s list book recalled for me other great list book resources like The Book on Books on Artists Books organized by Arnaud Desjardin and The Perverse Library by Craig Dworkin. Tell us about other list books you know about.

    Hampton also points to the great and thankless work Sarah Bodman does consistently editing and disseminating the Book Arts Newsletter (BAN)Two hundred years from now, what are historians going to gain from more: BAN’s intense lists, which are the real time-capsule of the activities of the whole field, or any one person’s idea of a canon or history of current activity?

    Another great new title, The Dynamic Library: Organizing Knowledge at the Sitterwerk—Precedents and Possibilities, published in English this fall by Soberscove Press, also has a list maker, Daniel Rohner, at its core. Rohner compiled a remarkable but curious library of about 25,000 volumes on art, architecture, design, and photography that is now the majority of the Sitterwerk Kunstibibliothek. When the library was made public it was classified such that every volume has a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag so users can document their research via a table that senses what rests upon it. Images, and even a magazine printout, can quickly be made of this fluid analog research, all captured via digital tools. It’s thrilling to know more about this pioneering, interdisciplinary work making a collection accessible and unique to each user, individually. How do you document your research in book art collections? Or tell us how you have your private library organized. By genre? Concepts? Autobiographically?


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

    Johanna Drucker in her text The Century of Artists’ Books states that the development of the artist’s book as an idea, form and field did not exist before the 20th century and in its current form developed only since 1945 as a field of artistic practice. Drucker defines the artist’s book as,

    … a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work and […] a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues. (p. 2)

    Drucker argues that there is a concept of ‘bookness’ — a shared conventional form (two covers and a spine) and “the idea that through thematic unity a book may establish its identity” (p. 327). For example, the way in which sequence is expressed gives each book its distinctive identity: A flipbook is an example of sequence meant to move very quickly and meaning is expressed through the speed in which the pages are ‘flipped’. The materials used to create the book such as paper, board and binding, notes Drucker, can “work against or in favor of sequence design” (p. 259). Books with flaps, envelopes, pop ups and moveable objects built as architecture within the binding encourage readers to engage slowly with the narrative. Graphic novels with small frames encourage a faster pace at filmic speed.

    With the embodied performance bound in the making of artists’ books, we inscribe our identities into our books. The practices of autoethnography are supported by a long history in performance through storytelling, giving testimony, witnessing, going ‘in-between’, staging encounters, and creating disturbances. Stacy Holman Jones describes autoethnography as “performance that asks how our personal accounts count” (p. 764). Tami Spry suggests that key to the praxis of performative autoethnography is “the ontological tension between its epistemological potential and its aesthetic imperative” (p. 508): the expression of a sense of being through the knowledge developed within the artefact.

    Susan Stewart writes about the attraction to the Victorian miniature book by both makers and consumers and notes that,

    The social space of the miniature book might be seen as the social space, in miniature, of all books: the book as talisman to the body and emblem of the self; the book as microcosm and macrocosm; the book as commodity and knowledge, fact and fiction. (p. 41) 

    She describes the ties between the souvenir, the past, the present and nostalgia where the souvenir makes memory material. The souvenir, then, has a dual role: to make the past authentic and discredit the present because the nostalgia bound within the souvenir, and for which it is a referent, challenges the banalities of the everyday. I suggest that the artist’s book utilises performative sequence to tell a story through autoethnographic visual and linguistic narrative.


    Drucker, Johanna (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books, New York: Granary Books.

    Holman Jones, Stacy (2005) “Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political” in Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Third Edition, London: Sage Publications, pp.763-791.

    Meskimmon, Marsha (2003) Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics, London: Routledge.

    Spry, Tami (2011)”Performative Autoethnography: Critical Embodiments and Possibilities” in Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Fourth Edition, London: Sage Publications, pp.497-511.

    Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Random Access Reading

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

    Linear Reading

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

    Haptic Reading

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

    Reading without Reading

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

    Data Made Physical

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

    Artists Comment on the Virtual World

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

SaveSave
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software