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15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM • Susan Viguers

Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

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

  • 01 Jun 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In 1912, after surviving the sinking of the Titanic, Gertrude Jean Hippach was quoted as saying, “Yes, it was terrible, but it still seems like a dream to me.” 

    For artists, who traffic in dreams and the collective imagination, disaster rarely comes as a surprise, simply because suffering is ever present, even if occurring in some otherplace or othertime. This is not to say that this is a comfortable or even conscious process, especially when the othertime is the future. In my own work I have often had the experience of being drawn to subject matter that I couldn’t explain, which later emerged in the world. My project Titanic, for example, an altered edition of the Wall Street Journal, which explored the relationship between disaster and denial, was completed in 2004, just three years before the collapse of the sub-prime market, another ship considered “too big to sink.” 

    Often the role of artists is to “see” what others refuse to. In Eric Drooker’s 1992 novel-in-pictures Flood, the artist envisioned—through graphic black and white images—a Manhattan of the future sunk by deluge-like rains. The power of Drooker’s work lay not in his ability to predict rising sea levels—that work had already been done—but to depict it in a way that IPCC reports couldn’t.

    Flood, Eric Drooker, image courtesy of the artist

    For many artists, seeing means looking to the past and wielding knowledge / information as a weapon. In Sharon Gilbert’s Nuclear Atlas, the pages are dizzying, a visual pile-up of facts, figures, and news clippings relating to nuclear disasters. On one spread, Gilbert makes use of a map of the United States to chart accidents that occurred or could occur across the country. The resulting assemblage is overwhelming, too much to take in, a terrifying cartography of danger. It is telling to note that Gilbert’s book was published in 1982, just four years before the meltdown at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. 

    Nuclear Atlas, Sharon Gilbert, image courtesy of Women’s Studio Workshop

    Using a similar strategy toward more conceptual ends, Miranda Maher funnels rage into data, listing every war and armed conflict that she could find “After Reasonable Research.”  The text describing these events is printed in type that—by necessity, owing to the super-abundance of information—is miniscule, barely legible. A series of floral elements is surprinted over the text, drawing the reader’s attention away. The artist’s research recedes, appears to be yet another pattern, and perhaps it is: the dark backdrop of violence that we all live with.

    After Reasonable Research, Miranda Maher, image courtesy of the artist

    Frances Jetter’s Cry Uncle is a protest of a different sort. The disaster she was responding to—the tortures at Abu Ghraib—was already a national sensation, the photographs circulated by the media understood to be horrific, pornographic in their sadism. Jetter’s hand-engraved images are equally painful to look at, but they approach the event from the opposite direction, through the inner life of the tortured. Her accompanying text is spare, almost prayer-like in the face of such unspeakable acts. By bearing witness and reaffirming the humanity of her subjects, Jetter plays the role of magician, restoring order to a broken world.


    Cry Uncle, Frances Jetter, images courtesty of the artist

    For many of us in this era of cyberdivide, disaster is only real when we are the ones in danger. Several times during the COVID crisis, I have heard references to “the last time there was a pandemic this terrible”—only to learn that the allusion was to 1918, not the AIDS pandemic. (I can’t help wondering how things might have been different if AIDS had been met with the kind of action and resources that COVID-19 has.) 

    Within marginalized communities, which are often abandoned during crises, artists take on unusual roles, becoming activists, educators, spokespeople, leaders. In 1996, Eric Rhein began his project Leaves, a communal tribute to friends and lovers who lost their lives due to the AIDS virus. To quote Rhein: “One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen was gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers that they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes.” The project, which has grown to encompass over 300 “portraits,” is both monumental and heartbreakingly intimate. By honoring the dead and celebrating the beauty of their lives, Rhein took on the role of healer, helping his community—and the world—grow whole again. 

    Life Altering Spencer (Spencer Cox), Eric Rhein, courtesy of the artist

    Maureen Cummins has produced over 40 limited edition artist books on topics as diverse as slave narratives, the Salem witch trials, turn of the century gay love letters, and patient records from McLean Hospital, the oldest mental hospital in the United States. The artist currently lives in upstate New York.

  • 15 May 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    An interdisciplinary mindset is arguably necessary in the art world today. As either a cause or a consequence of this, an increasing number of programs in academia are encouraging cross-pollination, particularly within the arts, but also across adjacent fields of study. Even when programs are less interdisciplinary, a greater number of students seem to be finding value in expanding their abilities by taking more diverse electives on their own. The job market has had a dramatic impact on this shift as well, as more jobs in all career paths are requiring employees to perform a wider variety of tasks.

    I find this migration toward an interdisciplinary mindset extremely exciting for book art in particular because books are such perfect conduits for other mediums. By expanding the assumptions of how an artist book is produced and what an artist book is, we can make room for processes and materials to become additional avenues of meaning within the works.

    While there are many examples of this being done with all mediums, I have a particular interest in cases where paper becomes a conceptual support for the artist book. Paper feels a little taken for granted in artist books. While it is a consideration when producing a project, the reasons for choosing a paper type are almost always based around the printing or binding structure of the book. This is a valid and excellent way of deciding what paper to use, but I find myself more excited when I see artist books that pass a paper version of the Bechdel test: the paper brings its own value to the book other than being a carrier for the printing.

    William Kentridge. Sheets of Evidence, 2009.

    One of the more universally recognized ways paper is used to enhance the experience of artist books is by incorporating papermaking techniques in the image making process. Dieu Donné is a non-profit that focuses on creating fine art works using hand papermaking techniques. Over their 40+ years, they have produced many incredible artist book editions that bridge the worlds of papermaking and book art. William Kentridge’s work titled Sheets of Evidence looks like a blank book until the viewer flips the page and the light reveals the watermarked drawings hidden within the sheets. In this way, the papermaking process itself has acted as the conceptual lens to view the artwork through.

    Sue Carrie Drummond. A Darning Stitch, 2017.

    Women’s Studio Workshop is another notable source for beautiful works intersecting papermaking and book art. The best example that comes to mind being Sue Carrie Drummond’s book A Darning Stitch. In this book, the use of the blow-out technique allows the viewer’s sense of touch to inform the way they are thinking about the work conceptually. The abaca begins to feel like skin, especially where it is only revealed surrounded by cotton.

    Robbin Ami Silverberg. Haiku de Nuit, 2015. Image by Dorka Hubner.

    Robbin Ami Silverberg’s book titled Haiku de Nuit is one of my favorite examples of handmade paper heightening one’s experience through paper alone. The book includes a poem by Carole Naggar about her mother; while the poem sets the stage for the work, the paper itself gives incredible weight to the piece—the inclusion of hair within some pages and the removal of fibers from others creates the feeling of absence mirroring the poem.

    Kyle Holland. Hunted, 2018.

    Paper fibers can provide such a unique quality to all senses when interacting with artist books, giving even more support to the case for heightened consideration. Kyle Holland’s work often has hidden layers of meaning within the materials and processes used and his artist book Hunted is no exception. The cotton blow-outs are couched onto abaca paper and as the viewer turns the pages, the sound of the abaca becomes the rustling of leaves in the forest.

    Cynthia Nourse Thompson. Grievous Injuries, 2010.

    Added meaning can come through in the materiality of the works as well. The paper in Cynthia Nourse Thompson’s girdle book titled Grievous Injuries is made from unblessed purificators and corporals. While the importance of the fiber is not obvious from just looking at the artist book, the piece is still imbued with the history and significance of the material while acting as a kind of Easter egg for the viewers that spend the time reading about how the book was made.

    Beth Sheehan is an artist living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work investigates memory and perception to explore her lack of episodic memory. Sheehan’s work has been exhibited internationally and is held in 37 public collections. She has worked as a professional printer and bookbinder and currently workshops around the country.

  • 01 May 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Memes are often fun, funny and lighthearted, but they can also be insightful critiques of their subjects. They’ve become omnipresent, particularly in our digital lives and are affecting much of our society, even changing socio-linguistics and communication IRL. Meme-culture is so influential, it is being exploited in marketing campaigns for many major corporations.

    As memes permeated mainstream culture, the expansion of niche memes followed immediately. Rule 34 has a brother and it is: if it exists, there’s a meme about it. While book-art-focused memes are fairly new, general art memes have been around for a while, exemplified by the use of classical art history works as the basis for some of the earliest meme formats.

    This Last Supper parody is one of the earliest examples.

    The meme format that I feel paved the way for art memes AND for memes as art criticism is another early one known as Art School Owl.

    The image on the left  is the original Art School Owl, created by Kendra in 2011 while the image on the right is a slightly later reiteration of the meme format.

    Art School Owl gained popularity because of its relatability as well as a way to jokingly critique major topics in the art world, including the lack of non-toxic materials or even what should be considered art.

    Since the late 2000s, social media meme accounts have grown exponentially but the book art world has been slower to pick up on the trend. In 2016 @greasylithomemes started the first* Instagram account solely focused on printmaking memes with occasional posts about book art, papermaking, and general art topics. The account has since grown in popularity among the print community with the current number of followers being at 3,876—no small feat for such a niche interest.


    This is one of the post popular  recent posts from @greasylithomemes.

    Even with the blessing of @greasylithomemes supplying us with such excellent print-meme content, they were the only account focusing on the disciplines of printmaking, papermaking, and book art until last year. In February of 2019 @bookbitchmemes popped up as the first* book art-focused Instagram meme account followed closely by a flood of printmaking-, papermaking-, and/or book art-focused meme accounts including, @pvahands in April, @silk.memes.dude in May, @smallcupwilson in June, @mediumrelief in July, @fineartstudent in August, and @shit_print_posting in February of this year.


    The image on the left is an original post from @bookbitchmemes exemplifying the feeling of being an insider that comes with understanding niche memes. The image on the right is an example of a post by @pvahands that offers insider information to the reader while poking fun at the specificity of the knowledge.

    Memes are an expression of people’s feelings toward topics and this influx of print/paper/book meme accounts mirrors the resurgent interest in those mediums within the art world and academia. They can also act as a window into the print/paper/book community, thereby expanding its audience. Being mostly short text or image formats, memes are easy to consume and often easy to relate to which in turn encourages the reader to feel like an insider, building loyalty to the community. 

    Reposting another creator’s post that relates to your own audience can be a great way to build relationships and encourage cross-pollination of viewers. Here @metalsmithmemes has reposted and credited @bookbitchmemes for their post.

    Additionally, there is an expectation that reposting and cross-posting will occur with memes because of their role in online culture. While this can be seen as a negative thing when credit is not given, it becomes a tool to foster relationships and build a more diverse network when done conscientiously.

    On the left, @bookbitchmemes addresses the potential challenges that artistic disciplines face when having to transition to distance learning. On the right, @pvahands draws attention to the elitist nature of bookbinders and book artists when it comes to materials while also reminding us how few bookbinding tutorials are available that use professional materials and tools.

    By presenting criticism of a flawed system in the format of succinct, funny text and images, memes can be an avenue to open discussions about ways to improve that system. They also provide insight into widely-held opinions of the larger book/print community. If a new bookbinder sees a popular post that expresses disgust regarding perfect binding, for example, they are likely to choose a different book structure for their next project.

    This sweet spot of humor and critique is a powerful tool but there’s a thin line—because of the nature of memes, they can also dismiss any nuanced discussions and act as justification for gate-keeping. Additionally, social media platforms do not encourage respectful debates and the character limits of comment sections make it almost impossible to present a well-rounded viewpoint. 


    On the left is a post from @fineartstudent of a meme that was anonymously submitted to them. The post received a lot of attention and was reposted with credit by @bookbitchmemes. While the comment section in the original post was fairly tame, the image on the right is a screenshot from the comments section of the repost where much more heated conversations occurred.

    On the whole, I think memes are fantastic, funny tools for encouraging a sense of community while occasionally providing light critique, but I also wonder how we can use them to expand and deepen conversations to better our communities?

    *Because there is no organized archive or database for this kind of digital information, the assertion that these accounts were the first of their kind is based on my own research.

    Beth Sheehan is an artist living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work investigates memory and perception to explore her lack of episodic memory. Sheehan’s work has been exhibited internationally and is held in 37 public collections. She has worked as a professional printer and bookbinder and currently workshops around the country.

  • 15 Apr 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Dennis J Bernstein and Warren Lehrer have had successful collaborations in the past, best known, at least among book artists, for their extraordinary artist book French Fries, which looks and projects itself as public theatrical performance. Most recently, they are the creators of Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, which similarly sits at an intersection of forms—poetry, visual text, and performance—but in this case performance is private. 

    The poems—informal, elliptical, moving, often having a quirky, humorous undertone—were written by Bernstein, many appearing in various publications; Lehrer, responding to the forms beneath the poems, turned them into what is typically called concrete poetry. His visualizations involve performance as much as visual composition. That in part comes from one’s sense of hearing the voice of the speaker, his intonations, the aural equivalent of punctuation or no punctuation, the rise and fall of cadences. But it is also the result of the reader’s being thrust into a time-based experience (private rather than public), more aware than usual of the act of reading. We are as conscious of that as we were when we first learned how to read. Perhaps that in itself adds to our sense of discovery and pleasure when we finish any one of the poems from this collection. But the very act of conscious reading enacts what is essential to each poem’s emotional and metaphoric center. In, for example, the first poem, “Dyslexia,” letters appear above and below lines, repeated, irregularly placed, in a way that forces the reader to slow down and, like a dog with the proverbial bone, to worry a word.

    Lehrer at times includes minimal images—lines, boxes, black spaces, shapes, patterns—which function as part of the graphic vocabulary, but text is the primary image in these poems. There is no grid controlling placement. Lines and words and letters can appear anywhere, in any direction, in any shape. Poems can end in periods, in dashes, or in nothing at all, undercutting the ending itself. And the spaces among and between the elements of the text similarly play meaningful havoc with the page. 

    The visualizations are a tour de force, but, more important, they enact the poems themselves, revealing their poignance and complex humanity. The subjects cover much of a life, beginning with childhood and ending with death, in particular, that of the writer’s mother and father. They also include poems about other lives, people the writer has connected with—including, but not limited to, people in prison, the front lines of war, poverty, street violence. 

    At least in the last century, poetry, in particular free verse, has closer ties to the visual arts than other forms of literature in that space and the arrangement of lines can be as important as the words themselves. Poetry also has closer ties to the oral, to music, than other literature in its musicality, in the importance of rhythm, and the way sound molds meaning. Connected to both is a reading process as a private performance. That makes Bernstein and Lehrer’s Five Oceans in a Teaspoon a rather remarkable introduction to poetry itself.


    I sent the above piece to Warren Lehrer, who suggested that I add a link to an animation of one of the poems. I admitted I had been resistant to looking at the animation and asked him how he would compare the experience of reading/seeing the page and screen versions. 

    Warren Lehrer's response:

    I too am interested in that comparison and space between reading a poem on the page and watching the video, and how the two experiences speak to and inform the other. Normally you’d think that reading on the page is a more active experience, and watching a video or film is more passive. But in making the animations I was interested in splitting the difference between active reading and watching a performance. 

    For instance, the printed poem Avowel (p. 34) presents itself at first as a puzzle or like a math equation of some kind. It requires “conscious reading” (as you put it) on the part of the reader—to piece together what the words are and think about the meaning and double meaning(s). On the one hand the poem is about the small minority of vowels (in the English language) calling the shots over the consonants. It’s also about the domination of a more powerful group over a population with less power. I believe the animation requires the same kind of active participation/decoding by the reader. The animation also allows me to extend and evoke the metaphor of the vowels in the poem being increasingly pronounced and isolated from the consonants which hang and swing from the vowels as if from ropes or at least like puppets on strings (which, in the U.S. context, could conjure images of the Jim Crow South, or in a global context—any minority segregated and subjugated by a majority). Original soundtracks (composed by Andrew Griffin) also contribute to the experience, as does the possibility of an engaged reader going back and forth between page and screen.

    “Avowel,” one of ten animated poems from Five Oceans in a Teaspoon.

    Susan Viguers is a book artist, whose books are in numerous public collections. She was Director of the University of the Arts’ MFA Book Arts/Printmaking program for nine years. She has a Ph.D. in English and has published scholarship extensively. Her most recent award was a Rockefeller Bellagio Arts Residency.

  • 01 Apr 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    This is indeed a strange time. 

    It seems befitting of our collective isolation to use this blog platform to assist one another with teaching, with art making, and with our (possible) boredom. 

    Due to the importance of practicing social distancing right now, many of us have been tasked with suddenly transitioning our studio-based book arts classes into online classes. As a result, there have been a plethora of tips and strategies shared over various platforms to help maintain creative making in the absence of equipment and materials. CBAA has created an editable document so that we may come together at this virtual table and share ideas, insight, and encouraging stories.

    Introducing this document is CBAA President, Bridget Elmer: “Regarding the creation of a  CBAA forum for support and shared resources during this time of uncertainty, I invite you to contribute to and share this Resources for Book Arts Educators Google Doc.”

    Maybe this is the internet at its best. Please contribute anything you think may be helpful. I suspect the document will be a good space for official links, and that this blog post could be a nice space to share ideas and stories. Also, if people are posting their book art making on any social media platforms, that could be a great bit of inspiration for the rest of us. 

    I hope everyone is safe and healthy.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director of Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

  • 15 Mar 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    As a follow-up to my previous blogpost featuring detailed descriptions of Selected Durations, Flashpoint, vvvvv, and Rain/fall, I want to spend a little more time analyzing the responses from my class “experiment.” Folded into these descriptions and definitions are a few select terms and/or ideas that seem to transcend book art epochs, audience expertise, and materials. To show some of these connections between my (mostly) novice students and book art theory and criticism, I pulled key passages from the following three texts which students read for class: Ellen Brown’s “Beyond Words: Artist’s Books”; Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books”; and Dick Higgins’ “A Preface”, and placed them next to some particularly poignant statements made by my students. The result is three sets of bubbling conversations between the two parties.

    These Venn diagrams riff off of Dick Higgins’ Intermedia Chart in the way that they visually represent intersections between categories within the [book]art world. The three categories include, books that re-present time, control time (all books?), use time as a subject (Carrión); books that make tangible an intangible subject, or stress the reading/viewing experience (Higgins); and books that are playful in the way they use imagery, structure, or text, or in the way that they encourage the viewer to engage in play (Brown). Within each of the three categories there are intersections between the existing theoretical quotations and the student statements, but the student statements often overlap as well, and all of the bubbles seem to rotate around the phrase “object lends itself to connection.” Of course, none of these statements is mutually exclusive of the other statements and some of the abstract language (by all parties involved) is due to the structure of the dynamic described in each statement: there is the book object and there is the book object’s subject/content and there is a reader/viewer that is trying to make connections between the subject/content and the book object in order to connect themselves to the overall project. I have included a simple Venn diagram to show these intersections.

    I would be interested to hear if anyone sees another (4th) primary aspect within the book art trifecta. What about object and presentation space (gallery, special collections library, classroom, kitchen table at home)? And beyond the individual components (dual, in the case of subject/content and reader/viewer), how can we start to discuss the other levels of interactions, say, between subject, object, and reader/viewer in the way that they affect one another? Perhaps these abstract questions will be better addressed by using concrete book examples that exemplify the diverse interactions that artist books can create.

    As a side note, while I like teaching these essays to an introductory class, I am aware of how dated they are and am actively looking for alternatives.

    Work Cited

    Brown, Ellen. “Beyond Words: Artist’s Books.” Modernism Magazine. Volume 11, Number 3, Fall 2008.

    Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books.” Artist’ Books: A critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, pp 31-44.

    Higgins, Dick. “A Preface.” Artist’ Books: A critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, pp 11-15.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director at Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

  • 01 Mar 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    For the next two blog posts, I’d like to explore how, in the book arts world, we develop definitions of what is and what is not considered an artist book. This first post sets up an experiment (we are talking pseudo-science here) I conducted in my Spring 2020 Introduction to Book Arts class (ART 214), which is part of the Book and Publication Arts Program at Black Rock Press. During this experiment, I presented students with a selection of four artist books on the first day of class (and for many of the students, for the first time ever). I ask the students to record their observations of the objects in detail, share those findings to the class in the form of an informal discussion, and then return to their groups to articulate a “definition” of what an artist book is. The four books in question, Selected Durations, Flashpoint, vvvvv, and Rain/fall, are all described as artist books by the artists and publishers, but each of these has a very different approach to the form.

    Students were given ample time to investigate their assigned objects and record their observations according to the following prompts: Describe what the object looks like sitting on the table: colors, materials, structure, etc. Describe what the object feels like in your hands. Describe the object’s content—what is its subject? Describe the way the object moves (or doesn’t) & is moved by the reader/viewer. What is the relationship between the object’s subject matter & the concept? Why does this book object exist? I gathered the notes from each group of students and laid it out as a table [1] in order to better digest the text.

    I am sure that many book arts classes start in this way, and so I am not claiming ingenuity for the approach, but I want to use this information as a way to accomplish a couple of things. First of all, I am genuinely curious to hear my students’ observations and eventual definitions of the book objects because this exercise helps me establish the language that I use to talk about book arts, especially in the beginning of the semester. In ART 214, I often teach non-art majors, the majority of which are freshman or sophomores, and so a good number of my students haven’t even taken a college art class yet. So, the definitions they create become the launch pad for the essays we read, the research they conduct, and the artist books they make. Also, they often have fresh ways of describing these objects from a (mostly) non-art perspective. I find merit in the descriptions of the forms that blossom out of the democratic multiple. I am fascinated by the balance between what is accessible and not accessible to both the trained and the untrained eye (à la making art in academia).

    The second post in this set will start from the definitions established by my Intro students and work into a larger consideration of the difficulties in creating a definition of artist books, as documented by Ellen Brown, Dick Higgins, and Ulises S. Carrión, Amaranth Borsuk.

    [**I should disclose that I am connected to each of these publications as either the artist, or through print and binding production, but I was careful not to lead the students in any direction beyond answering the occasional question about process.]

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer from Montana. She is the Director at Black Rock Press where she teaches book arts in the Book and Publication Arts Program. Her artist books have been exhibited and collected nationally.

  • 15 Feb 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    The trouble with breaching the threshold lies in a need to understand the “fixedness” of a term. This is further complicated by the necessity to understand multiple terms which lie within that primary term and, consequently, their fixedness as well, so as to unearth a “flexibility.”

    Terms have been established to point us to some sort of (maybe) universally understood “meaning,” or a mutually agreed upon set of qualities that compose the term’s use in an effort to better communicate a set of ideas, etc. based on a shared knowledge of what those terms mean [1]. From this fixed point, or specificity, comes the potential for flexibility and more so, interpretive flexibility. Interpretive flexibility allows us, in either art or theoretical discourse, to stretch and flex certain qualities into a nuanced and multi-faceted space of inquiry. Interpretive flexibility, therefore, is born out of (usually) a practical understanding of the classificatory implications embedded in the language utilized to frame them.

    “Publication” is just one term which points to many terms representing a diverse range of objects [2] and activities [3]. All of which we may have yet to grasp with a totality or thoroughness to match our understanding of the holy trinity that has been the descriptive foundation of Book Arts: book, paper, and print. An example that might help clarify this proposition within one branch of Book Arts practicum is letterpress printing.

    Within a studio course for letterpress we emphasize using specified terminology when identifying parts of the press, the tools used for the process of printing, type, the layout of a job case, etc. In the process of printing, it is stressed (here: in traditional practice) that one must “master the process of printing” before making such “experimental” leaps that often lead (or have lead to) “products” or “finished works” heralded for their affective qualities, or “artistic expression.” An intimate and shared understanding of the materially, socially, and culturally complex (yet practical) foundation that defines “letterpress” [4] aids our ability to interpret nuances of “expression” (possible intent), leading to possible interpretations (or constructs) of “meaning” unique to theorists or critics in different fields of specialization. This further demonstrates the potential of specificity internally (within one field for “artistic expression”) to externally (in other fields that take interest in one or many of the original term’s functions, or course of operation). Thinking of primary, secondary, and tertiary fixedness in totality is better framed now as a fixed assemblage [5]. 

    A field’s ability to render their evaluations relevant remains tied to the fixed assemblage of meaning embedded in the object of interest, which includes but is not limited to such complex qualities as: materiality, methods of production, final form(at) or type, and its pattern of movement (circulation or distribution). The latter of which is both effected and affected by its initial overall assemblage (the shape or format wherein its meaning is not necessarily contained, but held in some capacity).

    It is only when the term, as fixed assemblage, is thoroughly understood that we can exercise interpretive flexibility.

    My concern with the present patterns of integrating both new media form(at)s and alternative (or digital) production methods into Book Arts curriculum lies in a negligence in tending to the foundation of these new forms and their place in the larger schema of the fixed assemblage of “publication.” E.g. when considering online publication, we rarely (in curriculum) acknowledge it as a surveilled and privileged space of access that is perhaps no more (if not less) environmentally friendly than a sewn paper pamphlet. 

    Integration seems to only consider similarities rather than differences. This points to a pattern of isolation, inclination towards homogeneity, and a non-reciprocating relationship to the broader fields of fine arts practicum and liberal arts scholarship. These form(at)s can be located here but must be seen as also distinctively not here.

    The materiality of publications vary wildly despite the fact that a .PDF or website or online journal are part of the same technological and communicative lineage as the book. The electronic format remains qualitatively and quantitatively distinct. The materiality embedded in these various published formats is awash with different social, cultural, political, and theoretical concerns and contexts. This begins with the nuances implicit in their fixedness which extends to varying levels or manifestations of flexibility only afforded by the fixed assemblage.

    Without saying much more, I would like to narrow this to published documents (where the future of my investigation lies), and make the following statements: 

          A book is a document and can be published, thereby a type of publication.

          A document need not be a book to be published, but “document” accounts for multiple types of publication.

          Various types of published documents are produced in unique ways, utilizing different materials and processes, thereby moving, or circulating, by different means, making both their physical manifestation and distribution patterns differ wildly.

          As aesthetic forms, they further complicate these patterns which also impact their overall affective capacity.

          No(thing) is the same.

    [It should be noted that I support interpretive flexibility; the merits of poetics to shed light on otherwise darkened spaces of a wor(l)d [6] accounts for some of the most significant theoretical and critical arguments I’ve seen (whether or not we read them that way is dependent on who you talk to). However, the terms utilized ultimately provide clarity and commonality that must go both ways.]

    A case for the fixed assemblage, (or specificity?) may seem an isolating phenomenon, a sort of “caging in” that goes against an aesthetic, and thereby artistic, line of critical inquiry. But, it is in fact, a rich place to explore. Why do we resist what is in many ways a democratic modality?

    Please consider the following visual exercise:

    Example 1: Document in “Common Culture” - Academic Paper

    Fig. 1. DOI = Digital Object Identifier; document accessed via library search database. Blanchette, J.-F. (2011). A material history of bits.  J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci., 62(6), 1042–1057.

    Fig. 2.  (digital document) PDF = Portable Document Format; downloaded from online journal and opened on desktop.

    Fig. 3. (paper document) printed PDF 

    Fig. 4. (PDF as paper document) converting PDF as paper document back to PDF as digital document using Scanner Pro.

    Fig. 5. (PDF_02; digital document)

    Example 2: Document in “Artistic Culture” – Artist Publication

    Fig. 6. (web-based digital document) Located in Google Drive as Google Document

    Fig. 7. (web-based digital publication) published Google document. H.R. Buechler and Vida Sačić, notes for a conversation on: “Like Some Female Hamlet” (New York: Oxblood Publishing, 2017)

    Fig. 8. (conversion of web-based digital document to PDF-for-print)

    Fig. 9. (digital document, PDF-for-print)

    Fig. 10. (publication as paper document) H.R. Buechler and Vida Sačić, notes for  a conversation on: “Like Some Female Hamlet” (New York: Oxblood Publishing, 2018) 

    Fig. 11. (publication as paper document) Buechler and Sačić, notes for a conversation (2018)


    [1] This is akin to the idea of “concreteness,” “structural integrity,” or “specificity” – as discussed in Part 1 and 2, and which exist within particular frames and establish their framework.

    [2] noun., formats

    [3] verb., function of n. and the cultural and social implications of n. as v.

    [4] This aligns with one aspect of documents in Michael Buckland’s Document Theory: An Introduction (Zadar, 2013). Following the phenomenological aspect, is cultural codes. Cultural codes state, “All forms of communicative expression depend on some shared understandings, which can be thought of as language in a broad sense.” At this point, I have not mentioned the document as an object of interest. However, that is ultimately what I am concerned with. 

    [5] Of course, Delueze and Guattari’s theory of assemblage notably argues against fixedness or stability, and therefore seems in direct opposition to the term with which it is partnered here. Yet, it is in fact, apt. When dissected, we would find the fixed assemblage is not definitively fixed at all, but an oscillating entity. See: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)

    [6] Credit for this poetic adaptation of the word for emphasizing two readings should be given to Johanna Drucker,  History of the/my Wor(l)d (1995)

    H.R. Buechler is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and founder of OXBLOOD publishing. Her work is broadly concerned with historic and contemporary communication technology, classification, and the valorization of aesthetic objects.

  • 01 Feb 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    A year ago exactly, I began writing this, call it, “article” for the College Book Art Association’s Book Art Theory Blog. It was written in two parts, for two posts, and in both cases exceeded the maximum word count and posed multiple problems with regard to its “publishing”—containing embedded images, superscripts, footnotes, and specialized formatting to aid in linguistic emphasis [1]. While I might encourage you to circle back and review Part 1 and Part 2 before moving forward with me here, I will also admit that is not entirely necessary. It is my intent to continue that (this) work, but in such a way that it is ultimately unsuitable for publication in this particular format—a blog. 

    However, by openly acknowledging a blog is not the appropriate (form)at for a particular type of written work meant for publication [2] is a point which lies at the heart of my article’s argument: specific forms provide specific spaces where various ontological parts (content) are processed (contextualized) and subsequently activated into a state of movement afforded by the specific qualities of the space itself. These forms are unique, their space suited to the material they contain, and their trajectory is in part predetermined by how their material (content) is intended to be mobilized. Thereby the success (or suitable fit) of a given format may be measured first, by its ability to hold its content stable, and second, by the overall range of its mobility once launched into action. These forms are both determinate and indeterminate; they have been born out of the changing needs of their content, and their content is also now constructed to suit them. As a result, both the form and the content build their path, which further allows for a multiplicity of contextualization. Yet still, they must suit one another. 

    Or: This format does not provide a suitable space to further process the previous content (in common colloquial: unpack), and consequently, the content cannot be successfully mobilized via this format’s predetermined trajectory.   

    While the above is meant to support the two parts previously written, it is written is such a way so as to position it outside of artistic discourse. Instead, through my use of particular terminology, it may find itself better placed in a conversation regarding the relationship between contemporary communication media and knowledge distribution. Yet, can it not also be applied to the arts? Or more abpt: book arts? 

    By locating specific terms within the second paragraph, we can easily pull this into another realm of discourse, through the modifican, or adaption of these terms by locating some qualities of flexible semantic nuance. To do this, we first must acknowledge the terms we pull as fixed. This is the term’s foundation, a primary quality which consists of a mutually agreed upon understanding of what “x” means; the qualities (or signifiers) embedded in that term which remain constant across dialogic fields. 

    Then we identify the term’s flexibility; a secondary quality.This may better be identified, now, as a sort of “keyword” [3]. These are qualities of the term that do not carry across fields, but instead are distinguishable marks that locate it in one field or the other. This flexibility is often the very quality that the arts capitalize on. 

    As scholars we all utilize the above process (usually subconsciously) in order to make academic, theoretical, or critical arguments. 

    But the purpose of the above exercise is to make conscious the subconscious function inherent in a term’s fixedness; to entertain specificity, here, in developing a critical dialogue around publication as an artistic object and activity. 

    Further, not just entertain, but acknowledge it as crucial and real. We have nary been able to develop new theoretical inquiries in the field of book arts, let alone wholly and successfully identify and integrate theory from many (and expanding) sympathetic fields in order to both bolster previous discourse, and participate in (or move forward with) new discourse. To pass that threshold of potentiality into what is actually multiple already articulated and actualized presents [4]. 

    [maximum word count reached—end of Part 3—to be continued in Part 4]

    [1] These problems continue here, but after writing the previous posts, this post was written with adaptations integrated. 

    [2] Here: publication (n.): to make public, or generally known, online, and not for public sale

    [3] See: Raymond Williams, Keywords : a Vocabulary of Culture and Society. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). This takes into account the way words, as keywords, are used in discourse, and how their meaning (and use) changes (or adapts) to the present social and cultural climate.

    [4] This phrasing is in direct reference to the first post’s use of interpretive poetic flexibility.

    H.R. Buechler is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and founder of OXBLOOD publishing. Her work is broadly concerned with historic and contemporary communication technology, classification, and the valorization of aesthetic objects.

  • 15 Jan 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    On a cool November Sunday in the Printmaking & Letterpress Studio at Penland School of Craft, a handful of artists gathered around Bryce McCloud, founder and proprietor of Isle of Printing (Nashville, TN), to begin a class he titled, Analog Social Media. Discussions continued late into the evening about the history of communication technologies, the value of materials and community, and the distinction between studio art practice and social art practice. Bryce had proposed the course as a case study for teaching artists the core elements involved in a social art practice. He envisioned a communication station to encourage listening and talking to one another during a historic week and asked us to move forward from that idea. The students embraced and also questioned the base idea, but after a Monday morning planning session a station for human-powered, analog communication was underway.

    The communication station consisted of spaces and materials to facilitate conversations, recording, and broadcasting. Once completed, the records of the conversations would be elevated (or released).

    Conversations—two talk and listen spaces were outfitted with materials and placed in open area to welcome participants. Chairs were placed at the small tables for individuals who agreed to respectfully talk and listen or listen and talk to one another. 

    Communication Station, Talk/Listen side

    Recording—following the conversations, individuals were asked to write what they heard on a printed postcard and confirm with their conversation partner that the recorded text was an accurate record of their statement(s). 

    Student broadcasting text message at the Communication Station

    Broadcasting—an American flag symbol was painted on cardboard which covered one side of the station’s eight by four foot movable magnetic board. The remaining side could be covered, letter by letter/sort by sort, with short, Twitter-length statements using magnetic strips adhered to alphabet letters and punctuation marks (printed using wood type). The “case” of sorts sat on a small table in front of the board and our staff would “broadcast” the incoming text.

    Message attached to balloons, ready for release

    Elevations—the postcards were collected and the texts reviewed by those running the station and shared in a cycle of “broadcasting” on the station’s board. The postcard was then attached to a helium-filled balloon, gathered near the station locations, and released over the hills of North Carolina in an effort to elevate the conversations.

    Communication Station, Flag side

    Members of our team wore white relief-printed “communication station” t-shirts—the first project of the class—as a means of identifying ourselves and creating a clear sense of our purpose. Our team members discussed our respective personalities and determined who would be most adept at the various roles of soliciting participants, conversating with an individual at the talk/listen tables as needed, broadcasting the texts, coordinating supplies, and observing and responding to needs during the sessions. 

    Following the Voting Tuesday results, we set up the station at the Penland student center during lunch and through dinner  at Penland and a local bar in Spruce Pine, North Carolina Wednesday evening.

    On Thursday morning, our team of artists contemplated the emotional responses shared by those in the Penland and Spruce Pine communities. We saw a need for additional tools to help individuals talk and listen to one another, particularly given the polarizing election results. One common concern which we heard (and ourselves expressed) was how to get through upcoming holiday events with our families. Our team set to work on creating a dinner guide to inspire civil discourse. We had some 30 hours to design, print, and assemble our guide which we wanted to share with each of the 150 members of the Penland community.  Illustrations of progressive meal courses from various culinary traditions were drawn by the expert sign maker, wordsmithing was done to clarify intentions for the guide, and a folded packet designed. The packets were printed by hand on Risograph and letterpress machines and the packets were folded and formed to the card collection.

    Civil Dis-course: A Holiday Took Kit

    On Friday our team distributed the meal guide, titled Civil Dis-course, to nearly all of the Penland community members and encouraged them to take a copy for a friend, if helpful. In addition to the many hugs and words of gratitude received, I felt as if our work had given individuals a pathway for moving beyond the profound fears and immense frustrations they were experiencing. The onsite station and printed guides were creative, playful ways to support the challenging act of having meaningful dialogue with others, particularly when individual views are divided further by politics or when there has been an ongoing disagreement. The products of the class were handsome tools for healing and progress made valuable when used to nurture conversations.

    Civil Dis-course; A Holiday Tool Kit, contents

    Bringing members of a community together to talk about and listen to their collective thoughts on an important happening takes a great deal of patience, humility, resolve, and creativity—much like any art process. Sharing the 2016 election with others staying at Penland gave me a powerful sense that Art—creative works that you can hold in your hand—can, and does, heal. 

    Amanda Nelsen is an artist and educator working in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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