01 Apr 2024 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In February of this year, I was in Chicago for the annual College Art Association (CAA) conference. It was, as usual, a fantastic opportunity to take the pulse of art historic trends, and it was also a chance to raise awareness about CBAA as I co-chaired a session with Levi Sherman on artist books. As I attended the various sessions that were of interest to me, I was struck by how often I encountered theories and practices that are relevant to book art and book art theory.

In one session, an infamous book from México El libro negro del terror nazi en Europa: Testimonio de escritores y artistas de 16 naciones (published in Mexico City in 1943 under the auspices of the exile press El Libro Libre) was analyzed as a document that proves that information was escaping from Europe about the horrors of Nazi concentration camps to at least México, if not all of Latin America at a very early date, perhaps even before the U.S. knew of such atrocities. It emphasized to me the fact that books are and contain testimonies of assembled knowledge.

In another session about community engagement with art and art history outside the lecture hall, artists and art historians both discussed how to use art object production in association with collections from regional museums and diverse art aficionados. This panel’s presenters discussed how teaching about diverse art objects from diverse communities enhanced student experiences in primary and secondary educational institutions. They also spoke to the importance and presented examples of taking art to the community. At one of these institutions, art history students and art students worked with people from a center for the blind and visually impaired, through interviews and descriptions, to create art that both permitted non-visual appreciation and opened up students’ understanding of diverse communities’ wants and needs. We could use some more outreach like this.

There were also other sessions where theories relevant to the artist book and from the history of artist books were presented.

The shallowest mention was in a session about how to get published. In that session one audience member asked the editors present if their particular publishers published artist books. My ears naturally perked up. I took the opportunity after the session to ask the person who asked that question what it was that they had meant by publishing an artist book. They had meant a monograph of some sort on a particular artist’s work, which is what I had suspected. However, to my surprise they had not heard about our field of activity, nor had they thought that an artist book could have any other meaning. I explained the difference in the time that I had with them, hoping to not appear to be as much of an artist book kook as I really am. The point of this interaction is that wide-spread knowledge of our field is not something that we can take for granted. To this point, one person who attended our panel had never heard of artist books nor CBAA until this conference. We are all ambassadors and educators for our field.

One very interesting question that came up for artists and art historians involved how each discipline navigates its connection to advancing technology and AI in particular. AI represents a new connection between art and technology, and as such raises manifold questions and implications that are too broad to be discussed here. What I will ask instead is what kinds of artist books can be made using AI? How will artist books in all their varieties engage with similar technologies? While I do not believe that AI will replace humans or artist books and their makers, I do think that people who can use AI will redefine what we think of as possible in the creation of artist books.

The most direct and profound reference to artist books was in a session co-sponsored by the Association for Latin American Art (ALAA) and the Institute of Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA). In this session the keynote speaker, Dr. Esther Gabara, from Duke University, presented research from her 2022 book titled Non-literary Fiction: Art of the Americas under Neoliberalism, in which she explicitly applied to art in Latin America the theories developed by Mexican book artist and theorist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989). She argued that those theories contributed to a new way to interpret Latin American conceptual and theoretical art. However, what she missed is Carrión’s connections to the larger world of artist book creation (though I am hoping she points that out later in her book, which I have yet to finish).

Through my attendance at CAA, I became further aware of two very important but conflicting perspectives. Artist books and book art have a great deal to contribute to the theoretical understanding of art and its long and manifold connections to technology, but it also labors in relative obscurity. What kind of solutions to these problems do you see?


Peter Tanner teaches Spanish Language and Literature at Utah State University and is Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

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