LIVING WITH ART, PART 4 //Aaron Cohick

15 Sep 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I first encountered Phil Zimmerman’s maxim, “Production NOT Reproduction” in the article “I [heart] DIY CMYK (an homage),” by Pattie Belle Hastings in JAB #25, the offset printing issue, published in the spring of 2009. (Note: I [heart] that whole issue.) Those words made perfect sense to me as an artist working in print media, and they remain a guiding principle—but these days I am wondering if I’ve interpreted the production/reproduction dichotomy too narrowly. Once again, the field of comics can be a useful guide.

In some sense the comics world has already adopted artists’ books. The 2017 edition of the anthology Best American Comics, edited by Ben Katchor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), includes a piece called Willem de Kooning: Geniuses are nothing if not complicated in their methods, by Deb Sokolow. The book is “a work of fiction about artist Willem de Kooning, inspired by various anecdotes relayed in the 2004 biography de Kooning: An American Master” and is “self-published” in a “unique edition of three, one artist’s proof.” The images are tongue-in-cheek diagrams to help elucidate certain parts of the text. There are no panels. The drawings and text are done with a variety of drawing materials (graphite, paint, collage, etc.) Looking at Sokolow’s website, her work in books seems to be a fundamental part of her larger drawing-based practice. 

Looking at contemporary comics—with their high-quality images, paper, and bindings, with their reasonable prices, with their publishers and distribution networks—maybe the longed-for, dreamt of, lamented, and mourned infrastructure for the “democratic multiple” already exists? Maybe we don’t need to convince the museums and gallery world that artists’ books are valid—maybe we need to convince the literary/comic/publishing world that they are.

But let’s face it—we definitely should not, and aren’t going to, wait around for mainstream publishers. There are some other strategies that book artists can deploy, borrowed from those working in comics and other DIY fields.

The serial form, which is traditional for comics, offers really intriguing possibilities for artists’ books. It’s perfectly logical to think of a single book as a complete, unified whole, and that is how most artists’ books are constructed. But what if that need for completion or unity is removed, and the work is allowed to expand, simultaneous with the time of its production, with no pre-determined end? As book artists we are familiar with the concept of construction through sequence: letters to words to sentences to text to pages to book. What if we don’t stop at book? [Note: I had to stop myself from writing a whole post-within-a-post on the serial form—it opens up so many possibilities.]

Seriality leads to other strategies—one of those being subscriptions, which is a tried and true economic model for artist/publishers. Of course now subscriptions are more easily managed through web platforms like Patreon or Drip, or even by creating a monthly automatic payment button with Paypal.

Many comic artists fund publications of their work through crowdsourcing (Indiegogo, Kickstarter). Some book artists have as well, as well as some book arts people making traditional art books, like the Letterform Archive’s W.A. Dwiggins and Jennifer Morla books, or the Bruce Licher book by P22/Richard Kegler. Many of these crowdsourcing campaigns are actually just pre-sales through an accessible and established platform, so all of that publicity work translates directly into readers.

Publication through small presses or literary journals is an option as well. I recently bought the 2018 “Spring Collection” from the small press 2d Cloud, and got four books and four zines/chapbooks for $65. One of the books, Nocturne, by Tara Booth, is a hardcover, full-color reproduction of a book made from hand-painted pages. It is 64 pages, 5.8” x 8”, with a cover price of $14.95. Some of the books published by 2d Cloud would fit right in among a selection of artists’ books. Also:  Best American Comics has an open submission policy.

Production or reproduction? Original or facsimile? Institutions or readers? Why this “or?” What about a studio practice that embraces an “and?” As in: limited edition, handmade books and facsimiles of those books funded through Kickstarter and drawings and a robust writing practice that moves between the graphic and traditional text—or some other possible combination. I don’t want to suggest that building a studio practice and making a living is as easy as signing up for Patreon. Growing an audience of readers is a long, incremental process. There are ways to make the work that we want to make, and to get that work into people’s homes and hands.

Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

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