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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 15 Sep 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    At the time of this posting, I am in the process of overseeing and mounting an exhibition opening September 30 in Philadelphia’s majestic and rather cavernous City Hall, for the Philadelphia Center for the Book, with essential contribution, of course, from the other board members of PCB [1]. This exhibition, displaying work by 56 members of PCB, is titled Variations on the Artist Book. The proposal sent to the office that administers Art in City Hall had an educational focus, that of defining the artist book for people who are familiar with books, but have no concept of an artist book. Personal experience lies behind that idea, one I believe shared by many who will read this post: when I identify myself to people as a book artist, they invariably have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. (The most common assumption they make is that I am an illustrator.) The exhibition space is a hall near the mayor’s office, so most of the audience will be people passing through for purposes other than looking at art. The pieces to be exhibited are the result of a call, resulting in 150 submissions, and what we are focusing on thus is dependent on what happened to come to us. The works are displayed in five large locked cases (72”h x 94”w x 30”d).  The text in the books can be pointed to, looked at, but rarely absorbed. And the issue of narrative or, more broadly, sequence as relates to image as well as text — central to my interest in the artist book — must, necessarily, be ignored.

    Nonetheless, the exhibition attempts to present the complex amalgam of image making, structure, text, and materials that go into an artist book. The idea was that each exhibition case would focus on a particular aspect of the artist book. That goal immediately offered problems. As a result of the submissions we received and in the service of exposing people to art that is centered in some way on the book, the exhibition that has emerged broadens the idea of the artist book. That said, I was struck by the extent to which the pieces reflected one of Johanna Drucker’s central dictums in defining such books, one that resonates with me: that there is a “dialogue” among the work’s “elements,” that the book is not a container but a medium. [2] 

    One complication, of course, is working out five different focuses, one for each case. I gave up the idea of their being neatly parallel. The pieces inevitably fit under more than one idea; some could go as well into any of the groupings. Short texts in each case will point to what the viewer is invited to focus on. Cases 4 and 5 will also have brief descriptions of the various processes mentioned (e.g., letterpress, linoleum cut, screen printing, etc.). 

    This is what I have come up with:

    Case 1: The focus is on bindings and kinds of structures, e.g., concertina, codex, pop-up, flag, flexagon, tunnel book, boxes. 

    Dee Collins  Sunset                                                             Madelyn Garrett  Sekhmet’s Casket

    Case 2: The focus is on sculptural pieces and/or structures that have metaphoric or symbolic connotations, e.g., a piano hinge to mimic a compact, a clock case as the container/cover, a structure that evokes nesting, cranes as origami pages (the last two referring to the books imaged below).

    Paulette Rosen  Nesting Boxes                                           Eriko Takahashi  Peace Crane (03.11.2011)

    Case 3: Here the focus is on text and image. The case includes wordless books, books in which the text exists primarily or totally as image, in which texts insists on being read as well as being seen, in which imagery is the context for the text, and so forth.

    Roberta Lavadour  Relative Memory IV                   Sara Moose-Torres  Changeling

    Case 4: The focus is on the process of making. This covers printmaking and other processes, including papermaking, eco printing (see the left image below), pulp painting, letterpress, drawing, non-silver photography. But it also includes process separate from specific media: the process of creating an altered book, or (see the right image below) a process that entails cutting lines from letters written by the artist’s mother, collaging them onto panels, then painting and binding them into a book that can be displayed in various ways. 

    Mary Elizabeth Nelson  Mirror Image                   Karen Viola  Just a Few Lines 

    Case 5. The focus here is on materials, the materials used in processes, e.g., linoleum, type, and plates, and also materials present in the final work, e.g. acrylic, graphite, handmade paper, found objects, plexiglass, stamps, organic material. Below, on the left, the pages are cheese; on the right, the embroidered thread that forms the text is the artist’s hair.

    Ben Denzer  20 Slices                                                                     Sun Young Kang  Hair (머리카락)

    I realize, with regret, that the text that introduces the viewer to the focus of each case will rarely be read. The visual is much more important and I am interested in seeing what visually emerges when the works are mounted. My hope is that the selection for each case will direct the viewer to the idea(s) behind it. Perhaps an exhibition which, rather than having a pre-determined focus, is based on an open call and mounted in an unfamiliar display space for an unfamiliar audience will actually result in some discoveries. 

    [1] Kara Petraglia (president), Amanda D’Amico, Karen Lightner, Alina Josan, and Marianne Dages.

    [2] See, among other places: Johanna Drucker, “Critical Issues / Exemplary Works,” The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist,” vol. 1, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 4.

  • 15 Aug 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Anyone who has spent time in a letterpress shop can attest to the introspective pull such a space can wield. The shop is a place where time easily blurs, where microcosmic tasks seam together into an intense but sustainable concentration. As with any meditative practice, there can of course be days of frustration, of extreme dissonance between the printer and the equipment, of never being able to shut off the mind’s chatter, of incessant bodily fumbles. But if it is one of those golden days of printing, enough goes right that you can fall into the dance of it—the act and art of creating a print quieting all else. 

    In the Harry Smith Print Shop at Naropa University, I regularly witness a pedagogical enactment of this dance. Naropa is a Buddhist-inspired school whose curriculum is rooted in incorporating contemplative practices and insights within classroom content. The goal is to provide students with a depth of wisdom and transpersonal growth in addition to an academic education. Contemplative credit hours are required for all students via classes on traditional Eastern arts, including meditation, yoga, contemplative poetics, qi gong, and ikebana. Having students already attuned to contemplative approaches helps heighten the experiential thoughtfulness that seems to naturally arise in print shop settings.

    Regardless of the students’ skill levels, it is fascinating to track the moment when a specific, calm focus overtakes the shop. The initial lack of confidence—usually manifested as asking questions before each movement they dare to make—eventually softens into something less anxious. It is not that the students suddenly know what they are doing. Rather, a hinge occurs where you can witness them yielding to the learning process. The voices in the room fall silent, replaced by the sounds of careful fingers placing type into a composing stick. Questions transform from preemptive and cautionary to retrospective. Even if still relatively novice printers, a sense of self-trust and self-confidence begins to take shape in the students. There is a palpable movement from words as they are spoken (floating, invisible, impossible to capture) to words as they exist concretely (physical things that can literally be grasped between their fingers). Even a noticeable shift in breath may happen. The bodies occupying this shared space fall into a rhythm of breathing not dissimilar to the pranayama limb of yoga. It is a breath of intention, of attention, and it quite often arrives inadvertently, organic but simultaneous among the students. Not that our shop becomes monastic per say; we are still proponents of the power that loud music and unabashed humor have in the realm of creation. But there is a quietude that manifests surprisingly, considering we are in a room filled with loud, heavy, mechanical objects.   

    Admittedly, there are some variables at work that create an atmosphere ripe for these kinds of reactions. As I previously mentioned, these are students already used to contemplative modalities and pedagogy in the classroom. Additionally, most of them are studying writing within the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, meaning there is a predisposition to considering and working with language in experimental or theoretical ways. However, I do not think any of what I’ve witnessed in my students is unique to Naropa. Many physical actions, including athletics, performing arts, and manual tasks, can be catalysts for enhanced or deepened mental concentration. I imagine printers from across history and cultures would identify with the phenomena I describe here—just using a different vocabulary for it.     

    Within the context of Naropa, I have long been a champion for letterpress classes counting toward contemplative credit requirements. I frequently joke that the shop is a place of embodied poetics within the Kerouac School, as on any given day there is a collection of writers building, shaping, holding language. There is also a deeper intellectual experience accessed by transcending through the (sometimes quite repetitive) physical actions of printing, and because of this, I consider the print shop to be one of the best editorial tools a writer can have. The focus, consideration, and sheer amount of time given to hand-setting a piece will do wonders for truly understanding potency and economy of language. Every punctuation choice must be intentional and important, a deliberate act of dropping the comma or em dash into the stick. When page layout becomes a somatic endeavor, as when locking up a forme in the press, the abstract notion of the page as a field for composition evolves into a tangible concept. The act of printing is a meditation on both the materiality and the meaning of content. It is an evolving practice of sitting in these spaces alongside the words being conjured. 

    I sometimes wonder what it would look like to bring attention to the contemplative nature of letterpress to the forefront. If we printers approached our art as a consciously meditative act, how would that affect the ideas of what letterpress printing communicates to the world? Would our relationship to our materials and equipment shift in any way? Or would it be a case of retroactive language, of a vernacular at last available to what and who we’ve always been—heads down, eyes sharp, carefully feeding a sheet of paper toward the possibilities contained within its blankness?

    Jade Lascelles (she/her/hers) is a poet, editor, and letterpress printer who harbors dreams of someday being a rock n’ roll drummer. Her work has been featured in numerous journals and the anthologies Precipice: Writing at the Edge and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. In addition to an editorial career, she manages the Harry Smith Print Shop at Naropa University.

  • 01 Aug 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    In part 1 of this series I wrote about the idea of the book artist having the same freedom to edit and rearrange as the writer. Now I am also thinking about the freedom of drawing—the freedom to not get it right the first time, but to erase, refine, rephrase, layer, to work the whole composition at once and gradually bring it together. To choose to leave incidental marks and/or marks of erasure as part of the whole. To have incidental marks in the first place.


    On incidental marks: my particular vision for the emergent book is tied to my approach to printing—lots of layers, manipulation of surfaces, flexible/brush matrices, and variable editions. But that is not necessarily the only way to approach the emergent book, and I don’t want to limit the idea to my aesthetic interests. From cartoonist Chris Ware’s Monograph:

     “…I’d abandoned the traditional ‘script first, draw later’ method months earlier in favor of a completely improvisatory approach inspired by the drawings as I put them down on the page, so I had no idea what the story was about or how it would end until I was about three-quarters of the way through. In the end, the strip wrote itself and I simply let it happen. Later, I realized that the pictures were as much a part of my thinking as were my thoughts, the only difference being that I’d set them down in ink and could look at them as I thought about it, but it was up to me to pay attention and let them tell me where they wanted to go. I take this same approach to cartooning with every page I draw and write to this day.” 

    I bring up Ware in particular because his work is known for being extremely detailed and meticulous. He of course has the advantage of working in a medium that is drawn first and reproduced later. Still, I can imagine an artist trying to tackle the emergent book and working in the frame of “clean” design and printing. The crucial thing is the synthesis of the time of generation with the time of production. “Paying attention” and “letting the work tell you where it wants to go”—this is common advice in creative activity. Do artists that make books get to do that?


    While reading Ware’s Monograph I also picked up and re-read the beginning of his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I was surprised in the re-reading by how surreal and disjointed the first chapters of the story are. It makes sense though—the story was first published in serial form, in the then-newspaper Newcity in Chicago. Ware did not have the story planned before he started. He figured it out as he went along. (He also began working with the Jimmy Corrigan character when he was in graduate school, in pieces separate from what ran in Newcity.) The same kind of gradual finding can be observed in other serial forms, such as narrative television. Serial form? Longer books, working in signatures, volumes, etc.—all strategies embedded in the history and form of the book.


    To further enlarge what has been a very personal vision/desire: why does the emergent book need to be printed? Isn’t a one-of-a-kind (not-editioned) book a type of emergent book? The not-editioned, and/or the lo-fi small edition (pochoir, tracing, transfer, etc.) is a vastly under-explored form in the academic/professional book arts world. Are we so afraid of scrapbooking? It seems that the idea(l) of “democratic” artwork should also be applied to access to equipment and studio space. An artist absolutely can make serious book-based work at their kitchen table. Why do so many of us—myself included—endlessly rehearse and repeat the frames in which we’ve been taught? And which processes, and which artists, do those frames exclude?


    The emergent book is also about a desire for scale—scale as it relates to time, and time as it relates to multiple readings, each with their own pace and structure. Scale as it relates to the heft or lightness of the book in the reader’s hands. Scale as it relates to the reader’s absorption during reading. Scale as duration. Scale as reading. Reading as being-in-time. Reading as being-in-material.


    To return to Nancy Spero, one of the initial models for these posts—in her work you can see the potential scale of the book mapped onto a wall, or onto the space of a room. You can see the value and function of repetition and/or motif within a time structure. You can see readers entering and leaving the book at different points, how they slow down, speed up, how they return and retrace. That kind of reading, the reading that is multiple in form and time, is also a model for writing/printing/making.


    Now that these notes are crystallized and this post is written, the real test(s) will happen in the studio and in readers’ hands.


    I often have doubts.

    [1] Chris Ware, Monograph, (New York: Rizzoli, 2017), 31.

    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.

  • 15 Jul 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    I believe that it is critical for artists to continually interrogate and develop the conventions and assumptions of their medium or field, and/or how art exists in the world as a whole. This includes the conventions of the art/objects themselves, but also the conventions of how we approach our activity in the studio. So while these posts about the “emergent book” deal with technical specifics of how books get made, at the same time they also talk about the frames, conventions, and assumptions around what happens in the studio, how processes are structured, how tools are used, etc. For me, the dis-location/articulation of conventions comes through working with the material.


    The emergent book is not the same thing as the collaborative/assemblage book, though it does have similarities. By assemblage books I mean the type of book that is put together from many different sources and/or artists, and that may involve elements of chance in its composition—Dieter Roth’s various books made of found newspapers, etc. are one example. In assemblage books there is something really exciting about the variety and differences articulated from page to page. But those books also usually fail to cohere in a meaningful way. Ideally the emergent book would balance the thrill of chance with thoughtful editing and revision, the kind of re-ordering that sutures a film or novel together as a time-based experience for the reader/viewer. Not strictly narrative, but a unit of coherent and felt time. 


    Something to read, something that makes reading visible. Dis-location/articulation.


    The binding of these “emergent books” immediately presents a technical problem. How to deal with imposition and sequence? How can you add or delete pages? A drum-leaf binding, which uses a single, joined spread as its base unit, seems like an obvious choice. It would be simple to remove or rearrange spreads as necessary. But I probably won’t use it, because I want the recto/verso and the density of a multi-signature book. I am also intrigued by the constraint of having to work ahead and behind at the same time. So for my hypothetical book: short signatures, 2 – 3 folios each, either a coptic stitch or a sewn-boards binding. Flexibility and constraint. I will probably need to figure out a workable way to split and join pages into new folios, and it has to be a process that is both efficient and that achieves a durable result. The thought of having to do something like that across an entire edition makes me want to abandon this whole idea. But that is normal.


    The technical: the imposition of pages in most bindings seems to demand that the artist plans ahead, and thus it makes perfect sense to resolve the book in a mock-up form that includes the binding and imposition, and then to go about making the book. The conclusion that then becomes the frame: production separated from generation. Traditional printmaking has a similar frame—you proof until you get the print where you want it, then execute to make a perfect edition. The larger frame of both is a warning: DO NOT FAIL. 


    I often go back to the essay “Artists’ Books: Production, Production, Production,” by Emily McVarish [1] because it provides a detailed narrative of how a book emerges: not an idea that seems complete and is then executed, but as a series of steps developing from a braid of process, past work, new attentions, and practice, practice, practice. The essay describes the making of the book Flicker,and what McVarish details is in many ways an ideal that I aspire to: the text is thoughtfully composed, emerging from a committed practice of writing, and the same can be said for the visual and physical book. All of the components inform each other through a series of connected loops. But the process is definitely not this “emergent book”—McVarish is still planning and then executing. So if what she describes is an ideal, yet I still (partially) reject it, then I have to keep interrogating myself: what is the desire to attempt this unplanned book? A weird laziness about mock-ups? About craft? A legitimate push into the unknown? A desire to fail? I think—I tell myself in this moment—that it is a desire to be in time in a different way, to pull that time of production into the time of generation, and in that process let go of control.


    But also to exert a different kind of control, later. Or to always be in that noise state of no control/control.


    [1] Emily McVarish, “Artists’ Books: Production, Production, Production,” Mimeo Mimeo 2 (Autumn 2008): 2 – 11.

    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.

  • 01 Jul 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)


    These posts are a meditation on process—in fragments, chunks—accumulating the way that ideas do in the studio. Disjointed, awkward, inarticulate, sprawling and retracing. I think that I have to have an idea at least three times before it sticks. I have probably written some of these things before. I am hoping that this is useful as an articulation of the frames in which ideas develop, ranging from practical/structural concerns about process and form, to conjecture about ideas and how they happen. Again and again I return to the question: what am I—what are we—actually doing in the studio?


    I am basing the form of these posts on the work of Nancy Spero. The Siglio Press version of her 125’ drawing/scroll, Torture of Women, helped me to realize that Spero’s multi-panel, text-image wall pieces can be seen as books. Beyond that, they provide a possible model of freedom for the artist that makes books—the freedom to edit, rearrange, erase, repeat, remove whole sections, etc. The freedom to not commit until the piece is finished. This is also the freedom of the writer, of the filmmaker. So here I am, writing in chunks, arranging and rearranging. Decomposing and recomposing. Dreaming about books that do the same. The central question: is there a way to make an artist’s book, one that I am actually printing, that stays open and flexible, that is in flux until it’s finished? And maybe longer? And does that provide something better/different than a book that is composed the same way, but is made with a single original and then reproduced later?


    I can’t be quite sure when it began, but for maybe 6 years now I’ve been consciously approaching printing in way that is open-ended. That is, I am not executing a design that I’ve already finished (which is how I was taught, and how I approached printing for the first 13 or so years), but setting up a series of possibilities with only a vaguely defined end goal. Just a vision, perhaps. And the challenge is to get to that vision, while the process fights, complicates, alters, improves, and/or ruins it. This generally includes lots of press runs, a willingness to test the limits of legibility, and a willingness to fail and start over. And failures do happen, though my solution is usually just to keep printing.


    I can’t resist the pun of the idea that a book that is first designed, then dutifully executed, is meant for the library-as-graveyard, for the reader-as-solemn-mourner. We should be building/producing/creating/synthesizing/elaborating/constructing/birthing/growing/vomiting/singing/etc. our books, not executing them.


    I often have doubts.


    I am calling the book that isn’t finished until it’s finished “the emergent book.”


    The emergent book would not be resolved in a mock-up. The emergent book would be written and printed simultaneously. The emergent book would show its edits, its seams. The emergent book would arrive at the moment of assembly, or at the moment of reading. The emergent book would be editioned, but that edition would most likely be highly variable. The making of the emergent book would be closer to writing, or shooting and editing a film. The emergent book would risk failure all the way to the end. The emergent book would avert failure by not stopping—more press runs, more pages, more layers, a new sequence, pages split and glued together, painted out or stripped away and reprinted, reprinted, reprinted.


    I often have doubts.


    As of this posting, seven other sections of this text were drafted but were removed—possibly to be used later, possibly to be deleted. The sections that are included were not written in the sequence that they appear. This is obviously pretty normal for writing. Which is exactly the freedom that I want.


    In a conversation with Amos Kennedy in January of 2019, when we were talking about this approach to bookmaking, he told me that what I am talking about is essentially the way that Walter Hamady makes his “Gabberjab” series. Hamady writes and prints them signature by signature, building them slowly, always willing to “go back” and add or change things. There must be other artists that work this way. Karen Kunc? Amos certainly approaches his prints this way, and the zine that he recently made at The Press at Colorado College was highly improvisational. Ken Campbell? Henrik Drescher and Wu Wing Yee? Others? I am sure that I am late to the party, and I am curious to hear from more people about how they approach these things.

    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.

  • 15 Jun 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When my advanced nonfiction workshop read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, my students said they didn’t know they “could do that.” What my students meant was that over the course of their academic creative writing careers, they had mostly seen and discussed books that used narrative or thematic threads as their centers, and they thought this was the way to write. But with Citizen,they encountered something new: a book that defied categorization of “essay” or “memoir,” but also a book that showed it was aware it was a book, with deliberate choices about how it would appear and how a reader would interact with it: bright, glossy paper, blank space, color of text, and different typefaces. 

    I suggested that perhaps our formal education—dictated sometimes, by what our teachers assign to us—prioritize the wrong questions about books. What might happen if instead of asking “what is an essay collection”—a question that prioritizes craft—we asked, “what can be an essay collection,” or more appropriately, “what can be a book?” So much of our experiences in academe imply that books look a certain way, and for creative writers, this implication is doubly stunting. Not only is our writing challenged and critiqued, but the book as a creative object in all of its assembly is almost never talked about, and therefore, a whole realm of meaning-making falls by the wayside.

    What if, my class discussed, we conceptualized books that required reader interaction with the book, not just reception of narrative, or braids, or lyric, but also conversation between text and image or text and shape, color, or formatting? What if we decenter our idea of what a book “is” and instead create books that mirror our process, our minds, and reflect design and content choices that embody the whole of who we are as authors—not just leaning on narrative or language or syntax, but thinking of the book as an object that in every way was our project? I brought in books whose presentations required us to rethink what a book could do. We looked at Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and Davis Schneiderman’s [SIC] (1). One of my students asked if she might borrow Piper Daniels’ Ladies Lazarus, and another asked to borrow Rankine’s Don’t Let Me be Lonely

    In my students’ final projects—query packets which included book descriptions and chapter/essay summaries for the collections they wanted to write—I discovered most of my students had eschewed brainstorming book that looked “normal” (2). Instead, they were conceptualizing projects that challenged their educational histories and the books being published by the big five. 

    They wanted to author books that acknowledged the acts of creation, production, and reception as equal to, and sometimes more important than, narrative, unifying theme, or execution of craft. One student reproduced and embedded tweets, text messages, and Instagram photos in order to challenge modes of narrative construction, both textually and visually. Another student imagined a digital book that included hyperlinks to playlists the reader would access, turning the experience of reading into one influenced by mood, sound, and subtext created by song lyrics. Another student’s satirical take on the internet age included an essay based on a meme, which he copied and pasted into his query packet, slyly working through eight principles of art, turning what looked like a humorous one-off (the meme) into a deeply conscious critique of how we value digital images. 

    My students’ prioritization of the book-making process seemed liberating, inspiring, and sometimes disheartening. What had they spent all this time learning about writing for if they had never had the space to think about all the ways writing could find a shape? I take this as a critique of our creative writing programs, but if I’m heartened by anything, it’s that many of my students plan to pursue their projects, to put them out into the world, and I hope by doing so they can be part of a collective seeking to make creative writing more than just about the writing. 

    (1) The full list of texts we looked at also includes:

    Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar series as well as Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword

    Shane Jones’ Lightboxes and Crystal Eaters

    Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade 

    B. J. Hollars’ Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction 

    N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain

    Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index

    Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

    Matthew McIntosh’s The Mystery.doc

    (2) This became the term by which my class distinguished between essay collections that looked more traditional in form and content and those that engaged less common structures, forms, and presentations.

    Gwendolyn Edward’s prose and poetry have appeared in Assay, Crab Orchard Review, Fourth River, Booth, and other journals. She retains a MA from the University of North Texas, an MFA from Bennington College, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri, where she is a teaching fellow.

  • 01 Jun 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I want to talk about teaching one of my favorite chapters of a novel: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. One challenge students face in an introductory literature course is learning how to talk about form. Teaching “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (GRRP) helps students with that challenge.

    The formal features of the novel are often invisible to students when they enter their first literature course. On the first day, ‘novel’ might as well be a fancier word for ‘book.’ The invisibility of the novel’s form is probably a result of the novel’s peculiar ability to incorporate other forms and genres within itself. For Bakhtin, this ability defines the novel. As my colleague Steven Watts says, “a novel can contain a poem; a poem cannot contain a novel.” The absorptive ability of the novel is also why I like teaching GRRP, because it incorporates a writing genre students know, but believe to be unliterary: the slide presentation.

    Encountering a 76-slide PowerPoint in the middle of a novel can be disorienting. Each time I have taught GRRP, whether I teach it as a short story or with the whole novel, my students reported that it is one of the most challenging pieces they read – at least it was before we analyzed it. They are generally not used to employing visual literacy when reading a novel, but the form of GRRP demands they read word and image in conjunction. When my class reads GRRP, I always ask them, “what do the slides in this chapter allow for Egan to do?” I have found that this particular framing of form, as structural features that allow (or disallow) the content to do something, is a useful first step in getting students to consider form. 

    I am not the only person that sees pedagogical potential in GRRP’s form. Kathleen A. Reilly convincingly argues that the chapter’s discussion of disability hinges on its structure. Lincoln, who is neurodivergent and loves pauses in rock songs, serves as GRRP's heart even though Allison is its narrator For Reilly, GRRP’s structure “positions readers to experience this text through an unfamiliar mode, requiring the use of different tools to make meaning.” Reilly also points out that the structure allows Allison to capture rather than merely describe silence. My favorite slide is the one in which Allison captures the pauses by writing “They sound like this:” followed by a white bounded box. In my master’s thesis on novels with embedded photographs, I placed Goon Squad alongside Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun as novels whose formal features allow them to incorporate silence even though silence lies beyond the usual limits of a text-based art form.

    But the real reason I find teaching GRRP so useful is because the chapter exists in several versions that each alter the reading experience. In her article, Reilly is writing about the online slide show, complete in the garish colors that a twelve year old might employ. Most students, however, read the chapter in a paperback novel which, because the economics of mass-printing paperbacks, renders the slides in grayscale. The difference in color affects how students might understand Allison; the grayscale, appearing more professional, obscures Allison’s tweeness making her seem older than she is. The version I preferred to teach was the slide presentation hosted on Egan’s website, complete not only with color but with auto-playing snippets of the pauses. The inclusion of the actual pauses signals that Allison believes them to be significant enough that they need to be included in her slide-journal, which deepens the sibling relationship. That version is now, unfortunately, beyond my reach. There is also a youtube video posted by Knopf Doubleday that preserves the color and sound, but removes the reader’s ability to click through or jump to a slide by entering its number. Each of these four versions presents the contents of GRRP as fully as their forms allow, but each produces a different reading experience that can affect our understanding of Allison. That is why if I only get one class period to try to teach form, I teach “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.

    Amidei, Drew. Seeing Constructed Realities: Images and Law in the Contemporary American Novel. 2017. University of Missouri-Columbia, Master’s Thesis.

    Bakhtin, Mikhail M., “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981. Pp 3-40.

    Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Anchor Books, 2010.

    Reilly, Kathleen A. “Reading the Silence in Jennifer Egan’s ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses.’” English Journal, vol. 106, no. 6, July 2017, pp. 79–80. EBSCOhost,

    Drew Amidei is a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Columbia where he received his Master's Degree. Drew studies contemporary literature and the Capitalocene. He has previously presented at Midwestern Modern Language Association and American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association.

  • 15 May 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cathleen Miller and Marieke Van Der Steenhoven discuss the artist’s book from the perspective of academic special collections librarians who are responsible for artist’s book acquisition and access at their institutions. 

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: I’d love to talk a bit about issues of access and artists’ books. Lately, I’ve been thinking about access in terms of acquisition, description, preservation, and interpretation. I’ve been tethering collection development, limitations of cataloging systems, and issues around closed stacks, reading room, and teaching to these concepts to try to better understand where we are as stewards of artists’ book collections… and where we want to go.  

    Cathleen Miller: I feel like we’re in this strange moment where so many of us are talking about opening up our collections, dismantling barriers to access, and making our collections more welcoming, and yet, we’re still constrained by centuries of ideas about, and practice of, library and archives staff acting as gatekeepers. It is intimidating for so many people to walk through our doors, so when they get here, I do my best to create an atmosphere of exploration with as many open doors as possible. I try to explain our often-barrier-creating descriptive tools and try to make the experience of using our collections one of joy and discovery. 

    Bowdoin students at a special collections pop-up event that included unfolding Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip 

    MV: All of Bowdoin’s artists’ books are represented in the library’s catalog – a shared database with Colby and Bates College. Browsing the catalog can be tricky and is strictly text-based, and depending on when a book was catalogued (and by whom) you can find broad variances in subject headings and key words (is it an artist book? artists books? artist’s book?). In some ways you need to know what you’re looking for – especially since the stacks (where we store the books) are closed to the public. So most often, I serve as an intermediary offering recommendations to patrons (students, faculty, staff, public). 

    CM: As librarians and curators, of course we impact the experience—certainly, in teaching, I am choosing what books to show because I have an idea about what the students are supposed to be looking at, but I could be completely wrong about what they need. And every class is different; every visitor to the archives is in search of something unique. I try to be a gate opener so that people can have the experience they are seeking out, but I am always the mediator of some part of the experience, which I guess we can’t really get around when we’re not providing open-stacks access.

    A glimpse into the closed stacks at Bowdoin College Library’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives 

    MV: Another way we mediate experiences with artists’ books is through collection development and acquisition. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the early days of Bowdoin’s collection (1990s) we had a somewhat encyclopedic approach to collecting (like museums did in 19th century and general libraries did in 20th century) and for several years we’ve been transitioning towards a much more strategic collection policy. It’s interesting to see how the parameters of strategic collecting are reflecting the college’s priorities, to include artist’s book acquisition based on issues of diversity and inclusion, changing curriculum (emphasis on interdisciplinary, digital scholarship, etc.), and pedagogy. 

    Bowdoin College student printmakers examining book forms at a special collection pop-up Zine Fest

    CM: Building our artists’ books collection has been so enjoyable. At first, I was buying from mostly artists we already had represented, but as I began to see the potential for using artists’ books as teaching tools that shaped the ways that I looked for books. Knowing that many of our students are going to become health professionals or scientists, I look for books that have some relevance to them. I am always on the lookout for books that represent health and illness experience, environmental themes, marine life—anything that bridges the gap between the arts and sciences. I like experiments with form, as well as really traditional forms for their value in teaching what a book can be.

    MV: Yes, I totally agree!
    CM: Also, my goodness, it is fun to spend someone else’s money! Of course, I am accountable to my collection development policy, colleagues, and institution, but within those constraints, it’s an incredible thing to be able to buy the first book someone has sold to a collection, or to support the career of a hard-working artist. This is the part that brings a lot of joy to me as a curator—knowing that when I build our collection, I am supporting a community of artists who have nurtured the culture of book-making in Maine. My budget is small, but each year, I buy a few pieces to add to my teaching palette and the collection becomes richer and more representative.

    Cathleen Miller serves as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.  She holds an MLS from Drexel University and an MA in English with a concentration in Poetry from Temple University.  Cathleen’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies.

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven is the Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian at Bowdoin College. Marieke holds a BA in Art History from Smith College and an MA in American and New England Studies with concentration in Public Culture and History from the University of Southern Maine. 

  • 01 May 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Cathleen Miller and Marieke Van Der Steenhoven discuss the artist’s book from the perspective of academic special collections librarians who teach with artists' books. As a potentially transformative site of encounter, Miller and Van Der Steenhoven share their experiences and articulate the pedagogical power specific to artists' books.

    Students from the University of Southern Maine engage with artists' books from the Maine Women Writers Collection 

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven: What was your first experience with artists' books? What was that encounter like? How does that inform how you interact with them now? 

    Cathleen Miller: The first time I encountered an artist’s book was in a graduate poetry seminar. My professor took our class to the library’s special collections to look at some of their fine print books, zines, and artists' books. This was probably my first visit to an archive and it was formative as I developed my own work, and later, my career path. I remember the feeling of handling these new (to me) objects. I felt a sense of excitement, possibility, and maybe a bubbling up of joy because finally, I could see a way in which my art-making and my poetry-writing could come together. When I went back to school, I had chosen writing over art. I believed that I could only do one thing—that I had to choose between the things that made me feel most alive. That class—the two hours I spent enchanted in the archives—changed my course as a writer, and arguably changed my whole life course. I try to think of that impact when I bring artists’ books into the classroom; I try to create the possibility of an opening up into some new understanding.

    MV: Similarly, I first encountered artists' books in an academic setting, in an undergraduate art history seminar. I had no idea what an artist’s book was, I had never been in a rare book room before, and I did not know what I was walking into. Week after week I returned to the rare book room to look and respond to books, thinking about form, content, and reader experience; by the end of the semester I had interacted with dozens of examples and experienced something transformative that continues to manifest in how I approach my work today. The contemplative, meditative directive wholly informed my interactions with all sorts of objects moving forward. And the framework for that class wholly influences how I teach with artists' books now.  There is power in the tangible, contemplative, and exploratory experience of artists' book, and I think we’d both agree in the reading room and classroom.  

    Romano Hänni's Typo Bilder Buch (2012) and students from Maine College of Art with Bowdoin's book arts collection

    CM:  How do you teach with artists' books? How does it differ then how you teach with other materials? If there is a distinction, then why does that distinction exist? 

    MV:  I work at a fairly small liberal arts institution and the instruction program I’ve developed emphasizes active learning for information, archival, and visual literacy. The emphasis on active learning places the student at the center of our instruction design, providing the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning to build transferable skills that directly promote students’ academic growth and development.  Artist’s books are incredible teaching tools for active learning: the form demands engagement and when well executed, a work forces students to confront what preconceived notions they have about the book: its form, the act/performance of reading, and the transmission of knowledge. Artists' books inherently encourage students (and all readers) to consider how form influences content and vice versa. When I design instruction sessions around artist’s books there may be a bit of introductory material, a few words about handling, and perhaps some guiding questions – but mostly it is giving students the space and time to engage with the work.

    Bowdoin College art history students engage with artists' books in Library's special collections classroom

    CM: Because the college where I work is not liberal arts, but has more of a focus on science and health care, artists' books are often the means for me to get students into the archives or get the books into their classrooms. The form of the artist’s book is inherently flexible, and the visual nature of the experience provides an opening to have conversations that might not otherwise happen in an environmental science or narrative medicine class.  When I bring artists' books into the classroom, I try to guide students in ways of looking at the books as objects since most of them are unfamiliar with this format. I attempt to give students context for the experience, relating it to the reason they are using objects in the classroom. I think the experience of using artists' books is different from interacting with other materials because students have less preconceived notions about what they are and what they mean. There is room for surprise and inspiration. The texts speak differently than, say, diaries or letters or novels. In my opinion, the form demands a different relationship.

    MV: I agree, as a pedagogical tool, artists' books open up dialogue. I work with classes across the humanities and social sciences and use artists' books for instruction in visual arts, history, languages, literature, and sociology classes. The form disrupts or resituates conceptions, perceived narratives, and more. Because of their time-basedness and the performative aspects of reading, artists' books also offer a place to acknowledge a sensory experience that is not always present in academic discourse.  

    Cathleen Miller serves as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.  She holds an MLS from Drexel University and an MA in English with a concentration in Poetry from Temple University. Cathleen’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies.

    Marieke Van Der Steenhoven is the Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian at Bowdoin College. Marieke holds a BA in Art History from Smith College and an MA in American and New England Studies with concentration in Public Culture and History from the University of Southern Maine. 

  • 15 Apr 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In my previous blog post,  I introduced an ongoing research project about gender and print production in artists' books. In this post, I’ll share the early results – some expected, some surprising, and some that call for additional research. (Before I dive in, let me begin with the caveat that my sample sizes are still very small and I will continue to work through many more data points for a longer analysis.)

    I began by questioning whether letterpress was indeed a women-dominated area of book art (in relative terms, since around 75% of book artists are women). Having looked at books from a university collection, a dealer, a journal and a self-reported survey, I can definitively say: yes – but in relative terms, not by a huge degree. 22% of artists’ books by women were letterpress printed compared to 19% by men. Letterpress accounted for 17% of books by non-binary artists (but a sample size of only two artists makes this data inconclusive).

    I also wanted to find out if offset printing was dominated by male artists. Again, yes. 11% of books by men were offset printed compared to only 6% by women. The discrepancy here is significantly larger than with letterpress – men were 74% more likely to print offset, whereas women were only 20% more likely to print letterpress than men.

    So, what results weren’t expected? It turns out letterpress is overrepresented in collaborations between men and women. Based off the individual numbers, letterpress should account for around 20% of mixed-gender collaborations. Instead, a whopping 62% of collaborative books are letterpress printed. This is even more remarkable given the physical constraints of a letterpress collaboration versus processes that more easily accommodate virtual collaboration online. So what does this mean? Though possible that letterpress is either better suited for executing collaborations, or somehow better at inspiring them, I think this shows that artists choose to collaborate as a means of accessing a press. Are these collaborations the artistic equivalent of helping your friends move because you own a pick-up truck?

    Access to offset printing seems to require a different strategy. Offset-printed books were much more likely to be published by an organization than those by other methods. It’s difficult to assess this factor clearly since publishers are also more likely to place books in collections and send them for review, but that only illustrates the importance of these organizations in the field. For example, 80% of the offset-printed “books reviewed” from [my current sample of] The Journal of Artists’ Books (JAB) were published by or at an organization. If the 74% disparity in adoption of offset reflects a disparity in access (as suggested by the preponderance of publishers), then this number is quite problematic. 

    The outsized influence of relatively few institutions (for publishing, collecting, reviewing, etc.) is an expected feature of such a young, small field. It requires a researcher to approach each question from multiple angles and look for causes and connections in unexpected places. Since I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface, and I hope to encourage others to look at the influence of social factors on the production and reception of artists’ books, I will close by examining some some of these methodological contingencies. 

    It is critical to understand the interrelation of technologies. I found that the University of Missouri’s collection represents letterpress much more than offset, which seems peculiar since letterpress is not a strength of the art department. However, hand paper-making is particularly strong at MU. By fulfilling their mandate to support the curriculum – in this case emphasizing books with handmade paper – MU special collections has built an impressive showcase of letterpress printing as well.

    A related point is the need to understand how organizations’ policies shape the visible tip of the artists’ book iceberg (previously a field, apologies for the mixed metaphor). Collections and dealers show only what is bought, not what is made. JAB focuses on editions, and Printed Matter, for example, requires a minimum edition size of 100. I couldn’t have done the research I’ve presented thus far without catalogues, but the results of the survey I created offer a much richer view of the discipline, including the visibility of non-binary gender, and the inspiring, dizzying numbers of books created (but probably not all sold) by some practitioners. It is clear that artist’s books demand examination from various perspectives all along the communications circuit. 

    I am still compiling data, so please do fill out my survey if you haven’t already. Thank you to everyone one who has.

    Levi Sherman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer in Columbia, Missouri.

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