WHAT IS CRITICAL NOW? // Bridget Elmer

01 Sep 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

While contemplating this question, I discovered a timely reflection by journalist and critic Megan Voeller in the August 25-31, 2016 issue of Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, our local independent weekly.

I learned that you haven’t really seen something until you have written about it, and that such deep looking is a practice of empathy. (17)

The article’s title, “Goodbye. Hello. A few words on the way out of town,” which references her unfortunate (for us) departure from this region, also struck a chord.

Over ten years have passed since Johanna Drucker suggested “three basic questions that can be used to assess any artist’s book” in her oft-referenced and much-debated article, "Critical Issues / Exemplary Works," in The Bonefolder 1, no. 2 (Spring 2005).

  • What was the project set by the artist?
  • How did the work transform, develop, or present that project?
  • How does this project work as a book? (4)

Drucker immediately asserts a fourth, “even more fundamental question” that should be asked first.

  • Who is the initiator of this project? (5)

In our evolving list of critical questions for evaluating book art, which has been generated over the past two weeks by readers of this blog, I see contemporary echoes of these concerns, which clearly remain fundamental despite the passage of over a decade. Similarly, we see the re-emergence of a critical concern with “the haptic,” most recently in Tim Mosely’s article, “The Haptic and the Emerging Critical Discourse on Artists Books” in the Journal of Artists’ Books, no. 39 (Spring 2016). Interestingly, this concern was first raised by Gary Frost, in response to Drucker, with his article “Reading by Hand: The haptic evaluation of artists’ books,” in The Bonefolder, 2, no. 1 (Fall 2005). Goodbye. Hello.

Instead of presenting a compiled list of our questions, as I originally intended to do with this post, I would like to focus on just a few of these critical concerns and offer several more, which have recently emerged (or re-emerged) with immediacy.

Let us first consider Elizabeth Kealy-Morris’s questions.

  • Why this book, in this way, to communicate this now? Why did this story need to be told this way? With all the storytelling methods available, why was the handmade artist's book the chosen visual and material form of representation?

These questions invite us to consider both the specificity of the artist’s book as a form, and the potential for expansion within and beyond it. In terms of critical questions, I believe that we have specificity covered. As for expansion, in his 2015 book, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artist’s book (London: Uniform Books, 2015), Michael Hampton presents us with fifty works, “showcasing the artists’ book not as a by-product of the book per se, but both its antecedent and post-digital flowering… the manifold traits and studio processes inherent to the artists’ book bursting from their stitched sheath, cheerfully pollinating the whole gamut of reading impedimenta and spaces” (17). I agree with Tate Shaw in his review of Hampton’s book for Afterimage 43, no. 5 (March 2016) that “the spirit of wanting the artist's book to be in communication with disciplines other than itself… provides a rush of vitality” (29). In that spirit, I’d like to add the following critical question to our list, integrating Hampton’s concerns, and honoring the echo of Dick Higgins that I hear in his words.

  • Does the work engage the transdisciplinary nature of the book and its potential as an area of intermedia?

I continue to hear the echo of Higgins in Booklyn’s recent and urgent call for us “to incorporate social engagement into art and bookmaking” (“Print Media and Social Practice”). Booklyn asserts, “In the 21st Century, where taking an activist stance involves preventing the possible destruction of the entire planet’s ecosystem, discussing the use of art and bookmaking as a tool for human and ecological rights and actions becomes urgent and unavoidable.” I agree that a contemporary integration of book art and social practice is imperative and I offer their words, in the form of a question, to add to our evolving list.

  • Does the work provide an intellectual and aesthetic experience that will inspire the reader to profoundly engage with the subject matter and perhaps catalyze action?

Because I agree with Voeller and Shaw that empathy is an essential practice and often a pre-cursor to profound engagement, I offer the following mash-up of their thoughts regarding empathy as a follow-up question.

  • Does the work invite deep looking and/or reading–a practice of empathy that reveals another way of thinking?

And finally, I would like to conclude with Susan Viguers's question regarding access.

  • To what extent does the intended audience have access to the work (more particularly, to the intended experience of it)?

As Mary Tasillo, co-founder of Book Bombs, so adeptly observed in 2011, when I initially asked her to consider the evaluative questions posed by Temporary Services, “As book artists, [these] evaluative questions must not only be applied to the book work itself, but to the context of the work, the models of distribution. We cannot separate work and context and at the same time answer the proposed questions honestly.”

I consider these questions, addressing transdisciplinarity, social engagement, empathy, and access, to be critical, contemporary, and complementary to the fundamental and time-tested concerns of authorship, intention, content/form, sequence, pacing, reveal, craft, and the haptic. I hope that our list will continue to evolve, and I look forward to answering all of these questions, honestly, together.

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