01 Dec 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Having just returned from a book fair, a friend told me he slightly altered the design of one of his editions to accommodate a multitude of similar requests from collectors (both individual and institutional) for a more readily storable object. In this particular case, the design change did not greatly impact the reading of the piece and made it easier to store and access, rendering it more marketable. Additionally, the artist controlled the alteration in design and implemented it himself. At the 2017 CBAA Annual Meeting in Tallahassee, the Florida State University Strozier Library Special Collections facilitated a discussion about the potential discord between preservation desires and artists’ intentions. My friend’s design change reignited my thinking about the tensions between preservation, access, and artist intention. As both a book artist and a special collections librarian, I often struggle to define the “right” way to handle and provide access to artists’ books.

Most artists’ books require the user alter or change the book, whether intentional or not. In the collection I currently work with, we have two extreme examples on two ends of the spectrum. The first, a completely white trade editioned book, has greyed on the fore-edge due to repeated handling (yes, even with washed hands). The greying of the pages is not, as far as I can tell, part of the conceptual aim of the piece. The second, a piece composed of thin laser engraved sheets of wood which, according to the artist, are meant to disintegrate with time and use.

In order to provide as much access as possible to fragile or changeable artists’ books, I’ve heard suggestions of videos or photos to document moments of change. I can’t help but think, though, by documenting the change rather than allowing people to experience it first-hand, we’re missing the point of the whole endeavor. The act of reading is performative, active, and engaging. The act of observing someone reading is less active and more voyeuristic. Access to the laser engraved book mentioned above is similar to a video because it is generally restricted to classes where the book can be handled by a single person and be shown to multiple people at one time - we’re not avoiding disintegration, we’re slowing it as much as we can. When one person handles a book and many observe, only one person is able to access the full experience and the others are left to imagine what the full experience would be like.

Another approach to providing access to artists’ books is buying multiples. This practice can be reasonable with trade editioned books. With the above white book changing color, one begins to ask oneself if the book is merely dirty, or intentionally meant to discolor over time. Meanings and perceptions begin to shift based on information relayed through the physical changing of the book. Would an additional pristine copy, unable to be be touched, next to the discolored book provide better insight or does it highlight a change not meant to be highlighted? Additionally, if the book is supposed to change over time and use, does the juxtaposition of a clean version and a used version lead the user to imagine rather than experience the book just as videos and photos can do.

As a book artist creating work, I always have an imagined audience in mind, but, perhaps near sightedly, I’m not thinking about the potential spaces my work may land in the future and how those spaces may change the way the work is understood. It feels natural to compartmentalize my artist self from my librarian self when creating work in my studio or when handling work in a public space, though it is impossible to keep either completely at bay. To refer to the laser engraved book again, my artist self says let as many people handle it as it takes to make the whole thing fall apart. My librarian self wants people to handle the book and let it fall apart...but gently...and slowly...and actually, maybe not at all.

I’m curious, how does future collection and use affect the creation and production of work? Would a change in design for future collection and use degrade the work (and if so, where is the line)? Are some artists’ books, by their nature, at odds with ideas of collecting?

Andrea Kohashi is a book artist and librarian residing in Richmond, Virginia. She is the Teaching and Learning Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Special Collections and Archives. Kohashi received her MFA in Book Arts and MA in Library and Information Science from the University of Iowa.


  • 05 Dec 2017 2:35 PM | Susan Viguers
    Among several comments by Andrea that connected with me, this is the easiest to respond to—not that I have an answer: “Are some artists’ books, by their nature, at odds with ideas of collecting?” That made me realize that I’d given only superficial attention to the philosophy of or guidelines for various collections. I would think that would be both essential for a collection and possibly (over the years) a moving target. What is the difference between a collection and an archive? What is the purpose of each?
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  • 18 Jan 2018 12:55 PM | Katharine D.
    I wonder how the book arts community might be able to draw insight from other disciplines that must confront (and anticipate) wear and tear, outdoor sculptures, installation work, for example. If the work is created as a book object, is there not an assumption the work will be handled (repeatedly)? Like the other artistic mediums above, my thought it is a calculated risk on the behalf of the artist. We've seen throughout history how books age, despite meticulous care, and I wonder if that, for us, is simply an inherent circumstance of the discipline.
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    • 23 Jan 2018 8:04 PM | Anneka Baird
      I wonder if you might go even further to say that the aging of books is not only an inherent circumstance but an inherent quality. When I look at 700 year old books I don't assume that they were made to look precisely as they appear to me, but the use and wear and repair have their own appeal. The question may be slightly different with an artist's book, especially if the artistic intention is for it to be pristine. However, I think that an argument can be made here very much like the "intentional fallacy" of certain schools of literary criticism: once made, the book becomes its own entity which may or may not reflect the true intentions of the artist. And that intention doesn't matter, because it is a thing in itself and begins to acquire its own individual narrative of use and wear beyond its original content. I would argue that this layer of narrative, because inherent to the book, enriches and complicates any work produced in book form.
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