15 Sep 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Now is the time of the network—whether digital, social, or global trade. Increasingly we’re aware of how individual artifacts are a product of, and function in, highly complex and interconnected systems. These contextual systems—rather than the artifacts themselves—seem increasingly worthy of our attention. 

I suggest that at this cultural moment, rather than discussing the book as a work of art, we turn our focus to publishing as an artistic practice, analyzing the contextual systems of processes and networks, rather than a sole resulting object.

This is not a new idea. It’s been 30 years since Simon Cutts organized The Artist Publisher: A Survey exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery (London), and his collected snippets of writing on the subject were published by Granary Press as Some Forms of Availability: Critical Passages on the Book and Publication in 2007. (This delightful book was favorably reviewed by Brad Freeman in JAB 23 [spring 2008], and I too highly recommend it.) In various passages throughout, Cutts suggests that the emphasis on the “artist’s book” has eclipsed that of artists’ publishing, the more interesting of the two. Publishing, Cutts writes, is a much more thorough activity, as it offers a way of life.

Certainly artists have been publishing for centuries. William Blake; the Pre-Raphaelites and The Germ; the Arts & Crafts periodicals The Hobby Horse and The Studio in addition to the books of William Morris; the Vienna Secession and Ver Sacrum, the many publications of Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, and the Situationists; little magazines; Fluxus; the books of Conceptualism; zines; digital books: artists’ publishing has always been more varied than simply the artist’s book. Many modern and contemporary art movements focused on ephemera and the periodical rather than the book. I think of Sarah Bodman’s diagram, depicting “Artists’ Publishing” as the umbrella term, with “artists’ books” on a tree branch underneath. 

But when we’re parsing “artist’s book” vs. “artists’ periodicals,” we’re still focusing on artifacts. What about critically considering all of the surrounding processes and practices of publishing as artistic practice? 

There’s a brand-new book that examines the tremendous popularity of artist publishing in the 21st century, edited by Annette Gilbert and published by the always timely Sternberg Press (Berlin-New York). (Whenever I become interested in a subject, I find that Sternberg has recently published a book on it.) Publishing as Artistic Practice (2016) collects contributions by different contemporary artist-publishers. In the introduction, Gilbert summarizes some recent research in this area of publishing as artistic practice, including Delphine Bedel, Antoine Lefebvre, Bernhard Cella, Eva Weinmayer, Nick Thurston, Hannes Bajohar, and Alessandro Ludovico, among others. (Already the introduction provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.)

The first chapter, by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, discusses the 1960-1970 historical precedents of Simon Cutts / Coracle Press, Dick Higgins / Something Else Press, Dieter Rot, Ed Ruscha, etc., but Gilbert’s introduction situates the recent resurgence of publishing as part of the larger “practice turn” of contemporary art in the past decade. Publishing as artistic practice is a “complex field of practices marked by countless patterns, interdependencies, and nested hierarchies” (12). Gilbert reminds us that “publishing still remains untheorized,” (9) whether in studies of the book (in which we would locate the book arts as well as artists’ books), or in the study of literature. She cites Michael Bhaskar as someone who has offered some insights on the subject, stating that publishers are “not just producers of books but filters for content and constructors of amplificatory frames” (11). 

Certainly, considering publishing as the artistic activity at hand—rather than the making of books-as-objects—offers a stronger connection to social engagement, a recent theme of this blog. Social engagement is not essential to the production of the book as an art object; many book artists do not consider it. But: social engagement is integral to publishing. Publishing, the making of a public, is necessarily social.

As Craig Mod suggests, “we need to start thinking differently about what books are and how they are produced. […] we need to reconsider the whole approach to the process of making a book into the thing it is: the creation, the consumption, and everything that happens around and in between” (12).

Often, the interdisciplinary nature of the book is heralded as essential to its understanding. Whether one considers oneself “an artist who makes books” or “a practitioner of the book arts,” is not that identity just one component of the larger framework of publishing? 

How essential to one’s book arts / artist’s book / artistic publishing practice are the inter-related processes of










graphic design?




determining edition size?

sourcing materials?

making materials?

identifying vendors?







determining an audience?




appearances at fairs, bookshops, zine shops, etc?


curatorial concerns?

building relationships?


determining impact?

sequentiality: how each book informs the next?

Aren’t all of these areas worthy of attention/consideration as part of the praxis surrounding the “art of the book?” Wouldn’t the work of the field be exponentially enriched if each of these aspects were as carefully considered as the paper, binding, or printing?


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