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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.

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

    There is a door. The door is of worn wood, maybe oak, with a brass handle tarnished from years of turns and turnings and entries and exits. This door is much like many other doors which line a familiar hallway that so many have passed in, out, down, up, through—generally about. 

    Of note is the location of this handle on what is generally understood by the occupants to be an interior. 

    It is a doorway. 

    Of note is the relation of this handle on this door to handles on other doors facing this interior that has seen nothing but a continual growth of occupants, say luminous beings, of which are found amassing around one particular door. Or another door. 

    There, is another door. 

    There, is another doorway. A light creeps in from just below the sheet metal mounted upon its base, a metal lined with rubber stripping, which here, seems less tight, perhaps slightly ill-fitting. This light is glimmering, bouncing off another piece of material, call it a composite metal, situated on the floor just beneath the aforementioned strip said to be ill-affixed to the door above. 

    Strip parallel to strip, ill-fittings, light seeping—qualities of distinction. This secondary metal, the composite, the retrofit, defines (in some way) a here-ness or there-ness, as light crosses the gap—a threshold—between metals, between above and below, now and again, and this light juts wildly into a void of unknown expansiveness.

    There is a light crossing the threshold. 

    There are lights seeking to cross the threshold. 

    There are lights. Occupants. Beings— 

    Particles—scattered into this great unknown, that must be somewhat known for them to find themselves nestling in like lights in the sky waiting for a world to be shaped around them or to shape that world as they accumulate. Yet, part of them remain just on the other side, on the interior, perhaps penetrating more well traversed doorways, fully crossing their thresholds of brass, lead, and gold and resting in their well structured exteriors. 

    But still, for whatever reason, there is an increase in activity at this particular threshold, where we are, in the present-past, forever unable to self-actualize in an always unraveling conceptual future. We should think of this activity as an amassment of luminescence waiting to be heated, rather than water at a dam, as these two phenomena are not synonymous; they are qualitatively distinct.   

    So, my question is: what is keeping us from fully crossing this threshold? Is it a matter of articulation?


    It would seem only appropriate to continue to appropriate the use of interiors (their implicit exteriors) and doorways, passageways, openings, and expansiveness, or well-traversed and well-defined, and fracturing or fractured, and light as devices to begin to, well, open the floor on a subject that I find of acute concern: contemporary artists books [versus/and/or?] publications—what they are and perhaps what they are not, and where the blurring between them actually occurs. 

    Despite how ill-defined the book may be and consequently equally ill-defined the artists book may be [1], everyone who works with these “objects” (here: this can be as much a physical thing as it can be a conceptual framework) seem to have their own understanding for what it is and how to identify it. And, the writer is no exception. In this foray, exposé, meandering—me/wanderingit may just be better to agree (best we can) that within the realm of artistic activity (or matters of aesthetic production) sometimes we simply do not have the right word (rather, terms). Further, one could suggest that to produce from, within, and outside of the multitude of disciplinary fields that funnel in and out of the artist book honestly may not require any sort of unified concreteness at all. Since, if there is something to be seen as concrete, it will simply be challenged. 

    As stated, the writer is no exception to carrying a set of predefined notions. 

    The bulk of my current research activities over the past 3 years has been concerned with (the) publication, and not exclusively as a zone of artistic activity, but by its significance in the history of and current employment in communication media. At present, this work is positioned as a matter of classification [2]. While my artistic practice is crucial to understanding the affective elasticity of any particular concept, I want to acknowledge that this artistic-forward methodology has its limits. At a certain point, some concepts necessitate the restrictions and rigor of traditional scholarship. For the purpose of this series, I will be focusing on and utilizing the artistic (in this case, poetic) method in an effort to highlight its limits so that I may better argue for the unsung potentials of specificity.   

    So, let us return to the preceding poetic foray. At the same time, keep in mind the previous poetic forays it embodies. In doing so, we can begin to draw out some similarities:

    + an understanding of a space, as constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, imagined, etc. 

    + an understanding of a form, as mutually and non-mutually exclusive from a space, constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, imaged, etc. 

    + an understanding of parts, as that which construct and are deconstructed through restructuring, structuring, and imagining, etc. 

    + an understanding of process, whereby parts, form, and space gain relativity through physical and/or mental handling. 

    + an understanding of activity, as a quality of process(ing), but also that which manifests beyond an initial making (or handling), and may better account for the thing-constructed’s actual lifecycle and should be thoroughly considered when…we think of understanding the context where all qualities engage. 

    I would like to instead return to the supposition that “to produce from, within, and outside of the multitude of disciplinary fields that funnel in and out of the artist’s book may not require any sort of unified concreteness at all.” In this supposition we can highlight the word concreteness as a quality of a foundation. This allows us to first: see them as relatable to one another, and second: relating to the previous qualities of something constructed (form/space) of particular parts by way of specific process that involve a certain activity manifesting in a given environment (context). The tethering of these qualities is significant. The quality of their tethering is contingent on their context. 

    Context, as we know, is everything.



    [1] I encourage anyone to visit the entry for ‘book’ in the appropriate volume of the complete Oxford English Dictionary, and would also encourage one to look at ‘publish’ or ‘publication’ moving forward.

    [2] If you ask Google to define classification you’ll get: “the action or process of classifying something according to shared qualities or characteristics.” In my case, I am interested in terms as classification frameworks and the degrees of agency these frameworks afford the qualities they contain. 

    H.R. Buechler is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher, and founder of OXBLOOD publishing. Her work is broadly concerned with historic and contemporary communication technology, classification, and the valorization of aesthetic objects. 

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

    On page one, Michelle Ray’s book The Cave Protection Act of 2013  defines the cave as “[a]n empty space, void, receptacle, musty smelling and awaiting deposit of trash or carcass; hiding space for weapons, unsent love letters; glory hole; home to…animals obliged to live underground.” The book concerns the decades-burning underground anthracite coal mine fire in Centralia, PA.While a plethora of popular media have addressed the fire and relocation of most of the borough’s residents (including a This American Life podcast and a feature-length documentary), Ray’s work slips genre to engage the calamity and peculiarity of the Centralia fire via language, form, materiality, production method, and typography.

    The book’s simple structural design generates a surprisingly complex object. Four accordions of varying panel width are stacked then sewn through two opposing valleys, creating a layered V-shape in the center flanked by four pages on either side. Each page is successively wider than the next, which adds to the layered effect. The form speaks immediately to its subject; the reader peers into the curious formation of the folded depths as into a miniature cave. Holes in the pages lend additional perspective complexity and affect the movement of light and shadow through the textblock. 

    Printed on a neutral, machine-made paper, The Cave Protection Act bears some resemblance to a government document. The tiered pages allow for semicircular thumb tabs to indicate sections. Closed, it resembles a pile of papers atop an institutional desk. But the trappings of officialdom are gestures, rather than an overarching conceit—pointing to the role of governmental agencies—broadly with regards to land protection and more specifically to events in Centralia—from the beginnings of the fire in a mine-pit-turned-landfill to the declaration of eminent domain that relocated its residents.

    The layout supports two textual modes. The first part, in landscape format, presents the language of the titular “Act,” which might be described as poetic legalese. The Act is broken into numbered sections and lettered subsections. Pale green text in a larger point size floats on two pages, offering speluncean didacticisms: “The cave should pose a question, rather than an answer,” and, “There needs to be room in the cave for contemplation.”

    The second part, in portrait format, has a lyrical voice, loose poetic structure, and reduced ironic distance. The alternating orientation requires constant rotation of the book literally to consider the problem from multiple perspectives.The divisions between parts, however, are porous (like the textblock and the ground in Centralia); the intimate voice of part two seeps into the bureaucratic language of part one; for example, from section 2A, “No person shall be held liable for injuries. The older I get, the closer the acts of laughing and crying become.”

    Ray’s production methods also engage her concepts. Laser engraving leaves a trace via the removal of material, visually supporting the idea that “there is meaning and identity to be found in natural erasure” (sec. 1A). Laser cutting leaves a signature burn; in this case the laser is both an efficient tool and a reference to the fire burning underground.

    The imagery was created using 3D imaging software. Its technical acuity and fineness of detail resemble an architect’s plan. Laser-etched circles and lines radiate as abstract diagrams. Line drawings of identical houses interact—scattered and sparse, then crowded and overlapping. The forms are skeletal, non-specific representations, whose meaning changes based on their relationships to other house forms.

    Section 1C reads, “Identity starts with the home. A home will remind you of who you are, ground you in your you-ness. Place is her anchor. In the absence of a physical home, would-be dwellers begin to ask the real questions of their place.” This speaks to the impact of the underground fire on community in the literal quagmire of Centralia. Simply structured and thoughtfully designed and produced, The Cave Protection Act quietly “poses question[s], rather than…answer[s].” It doesn’t explain the origin or the science of the fire; the methods tried and money spent fighting it; nor does it retell the narrative of the political turmoil and conflict among and surrounding the community. It subtly alludes to Centralia and the strangeness of a particular environmental reality precipitated by human land use amid a broader exploration of home, community, absence, and presence.

    This blog post is adapted from a paper presented at the twelfth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. 

    Photos taken by the author in the Rare Book Department of Special Collections at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

    Emily Tipps is Program Manager and Assistant Librarian (Lecturer) at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, and the proprietor of High5 Press. 

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

    Where strictly textual books must always grapple with the challenges of conveying meaning through abstract signs, the multi-faceted artist’s book can employ the visual, tactile, and inter-mediated to engage its concepts. Artists’ books—through engagement with materials, structure, production, scale, action, text, texture, color, and image—are well positioned to participate in environmental narratives and dialogs. As (typically) sequential, book forms are ideal to render or interpret environmental change. Lin Charlston’s 2011 book Fragment by Fragment: Signs of the Peat Bog Disperse into the Wind navigates a particular instance of environmental destruction using unique visual-textual methods.

    Fragment was shown in an exhibition “in which six artists responded to a damaged peat bog in the Black Mountains of Wales.” The book acknowledges its materiality immediately: “Main book constituents: cellulose, lignin, lipids, dyes. Main peat constituents: cellulose, lignen, humic breakdown substances, lipids.” Here, Charlston effectively asserts that the book and bog are materially analogous. Notably, the book does not wait to deliver concept; this assertion appears in the front matter alongside the standard bibliographic information. 

    The bulk of Fragment is digitally printed in Peatbog, a font Charlston designed for the project.She describes the process in her artist’s statement: “I made hundreds of drawings of tiny fragments of peat. En masse, the drawings were transformed into a written language, obscure and unfathomable, reminiscent of Xu Bing's Book from the Sky.” Unlike Bing’s unreadable asemic marks, Charlston’s text is obscure but decipherable. Its legibility is challenging enough that the casual reader might give up. (It took me an hour to decipher a paragraph, so I was relieved to find the same text repeated throughout the book—the same landscape marked over time.)

    The book is bound as a pamphlet, opening into a 21” x 6” landscape format, upon which the erosion of the literal landscape of the peat bog is enacted. Two tissue end-leaves, in shades of green, overlay the first page of text. The tissue is fragile like the flora blanketing the peat bog.

    On the first spread, three lines of text in a clear roman typeface provide the ecological baseline of the peat bog narrative. These lines are printed in green and brown—representing the “coverlet of sphagnum moss, brown moss, grasses, and other specialized damp-loving flora” they describe. Below this are substrata of text, printed in black in the Peatbog font. This visual matter triples as language, micro-image (derived from drawings of peat fragments), and macro-image—an abstracted, representational cutaway of the bog.

    The second spread makes a radical visual shift: a photographic image of a landscape horizon and sky, printed in fiery orange and purple, bleeds off the edges of the page. The landscape appears charred and the atmosphere tumultuous. The saturated color, realism, and singularity of this image mark it as an important moment—the damaging fire referred to in the text, an event that precipitates a turn in narrative and ecological momentum.  

    Ten subsequent spreads depict the systematic erosion of the landscape, with “signs” migrating from the tail to the head and off the page. The strata gradually deteriorate, with the final page being nearly blank. Aesthetically, there is nothing bothersome about this dissolution; on the contrary, as an abstract image the progress is pleasing—the pages well balanced with a predictable, almost meditative pace. 

    The anxiety of the piece stems from the tension between the work’s aesthetic values and its environmental critique. The peat (the signs, the meaning) is a resource. The difficulty of decipherment implies that attentiveness, research, and patience are key components in negotiating the complex of cultural, economic, and scientific factors affecting this resource. The problem can only be understood through careful study; in the meantime, the resource—wherein lies the very potential for understanding—dwindles. 

    Though the outlook appears bleak, a reader might encounter the turning of the final page with optimism. Following a solid black end-leaf, two fringes of delicate green emerge. The tabs of the tissue paper blanketing the initial page of the book could be simply a structural necessity, but the meticulousness of the book’s design suggest something more: new growth on the scarred bog. Furthermore, the repetition of the title at the end of the text suggests the book may be read backwards, reversing the erosion.

    This blog post is adapted from a paper presented at the twelfth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. 

    Photos taken by the author in the Rare Book Department of Special Collections at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

    Emily Tipps is Program Manager and Assistant Librarian (Lecturer) at the Book Arts Program at the University of Utah, and the proprietor of High5 Press. 

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

    Nine more thoughts on sewing books, prompted by sewing nine more books:

    1. Each punched hole is an opportunity for engagement.

    2. Because of this openness to possibility, each hole is vulnerable. 

    3. But each module of the book must allow itself to be vulnerable in order to bind together. The alternative is that each component retains its integrity and its safety, but is rendered incapable of permanently bonding with other components.

    4. 6 holes per signature and cover, 2 covers, 6 folded signatures, 48 holes. 6 folded signatures yield 24 pages each,144 pages. Numerology. No wait, that’s math.

    5. I realize that really what I am doing is sewing centers together. 

    6. Sometimes tugging snugs up the thread just so, correcting a slack hand. Sometimes tugging tears the paper, or breaks the thread, or pulls the back cover up over the last signature. 

    7. A radical educator friend, Jamie Munkatchy, taught me this binding, 15 years ago, at an informal skillshare at Booklyn. We were all sitting around the table, in the evening, early summer.  She had just learned the binding herself, probably from Christopher Wilde, not very long before she taught me. Christopher had no doubt already taught it to at least 200 people, likely more. And someone — Walter Hamady, probably — had taught Christopher maybe a dozen years before that evening. And someone else at some point had taught Walter — who would this have been? do you know? —  and so on, and on and on, and onwards back. Linking. And onwards, linking, forwards: so far, I’ve taught this binding to perhaps 50, possibly 100 people. And if some of them have taught someone… the whole lineage starts looking like this chart of cat reproduction.

    8. The last thing I do in sewing is hide where I began.

    9. All collated copies sewn, now it is time for the guillotine. Each book is stiff with folded paper before it is trimmed. Once its edges have been chopped off, the book becomes soft and yielding, opening easily anywhere.

    Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993.  She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), and Associate Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut.

  • 01 Dec 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    In an earlier post, I wrote about the experience of binding a difficult edition. In my struggle, I was in a state of acute attention, but also worry and fuss. 

    Now the bookbinding task is quite different: 200 copies of a link stitch, 6 signature, 144 page, softcover binding. This is the second printing I have made of this book, which documents 40 years of Bloodroot, a feminist vegetarian restaurant and bookstore in Bridgeport, CT. Years before this, I’ve sewn six or seven hundred zines with this multi-signature binding. With some copy soon I will be binding this style for the thousandth time. Happily, there’s no worry or fuss. But there’s also much less attention.

    The task for today is paying attention. 

    In a recent post, India Johnson wrote: “intensive craft training can provide us with the ability to articulate the workings of embodied cognition. It allows us to assert, from the authority of our own experiences, that how things are made matters—that meaning does not exist separately from the means of production. This is especially relevant for book artists with a foot in [the] contemporary art world, who may need to contextualize their craft practice for an audience in that sphere.”

    As an artist, designer, printer, binder, and publisher “with a foot in [the] contemporary art world,” handwork is very important to me, a defining characteristic of my work. It is, in some way, always part of the subject: part of the content. But in this particular instance, handwork is also written into the very book I’m making. 

    In her essay “On Persistence and Feminism,” Selma Miriam, the founder of Bloodroot, writes:

    “For sustenance, for the sacred in today’s world, modern women may be able to find resources in traditional women’s work. These forms of labor use very simple technologies which require patience and a lifetime of study. In our industrialized world there are still a few places for a gatherer of wild herbs to go, and there are still basketmakers. Some women learn to be potters, some tend gardens and there has been a return to spinning and weaving. And women have always been knitters.” 

    And she also writes:

    “We want to lead our lives so that what we make of what we find on earth is magic. The way to find it is in the ritual of patiently doing, over and over, what is required of the work. Frequently a knitter is asked, “How long does it take to do that?” though that question never arises in regard to jogging, movie-going, or mall shopping.” 

    So here I am: patiently doing, over and over, what is required.

    I’m writing during an afternoon of sewing twelve copies: words tangled up in the making.


    I stitch in and out of the present. What’s for dinner. Next summer’s plans. As with meditation, I redirect focus: back to my hands, back to this book. Unlike David Pye’s “crafstmanship of risk,” the heightened attention which I feel whenever there’s glue, a non-adhesive sewn binding has an ease and a spaciousness to it. It’s portable; I bind in lots of places that aren’t the studio. In the passenger seat on a long drive, crosslegged in my living room; on a train; at my desk at work during office hours. Now at the dining room table with the laptop open, a cup of tea, the cat sleeping on the tea towel, the late afternoon sun angling in, the day after a holiday. Often when I’m sewing I keep a notebook at hand to jot down what is loosened in my mind by my hands. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks or podcasts or the radio; other times music. This afternoon I’m sitting with the work, typing into the laptop when a thought strikes me.


    In this binding, what comes before is foundational for what comes next. The sixth signature is the first to be sewn, and it is supported by a single long stitch through the back softcover. Each signature is hooked into the signature before it, moving from the back of the book forward to the front cover. One long thread, eight times the height of the book, unites it.

    The rhythm is inside, outside, inside, outside.

    But Inside is always creeping along the gutter. And Outside is a quick dip down, then back up and in.

    A finished book has many openings, but in this phase of its development I only visit the center of each signature. 

    Due to the uncut folded sheets, most openings remain inaccessible until they are chopped free by the guillotine.


    I think of:

    The hand at the heart of craft

    Craft as spiritual practice 

    Craft as socially engaged art 

    Craft as performance 

    And these ideas resonate within as I work.


    I am reminded of the enormous linked sewn bindings of Margot Ecke, where the book becomes an impossibly serpentine object. I imagine all 400 of the books from these two printings sewn together. I search for an image of Ecke’s book, fruitlessly, online. 

    I come back to my own sewing.


    A stitching together, a binding, a fastening, a linking: 

    “Old English bindan ‘to tie up with bonds’ (literally and figuratively), also ‘to make captive; to cover with dressings and bandages’ (class III strong verb; past tense band, past participle bunden), from Proto-Germanic bindanan (source also of Old Saxon bindan, Old Norse and Old Frisian binda, Old High German binten ‘to bind,’ German binden, Gothic bindan), from PIE root bhendh- ‘to bind.’ Of books, from c. 1400. Intransitive sense of ‘stick together, cohere’ is from 1670s.”


    This search also turns up that the root of the word “religion” is also to bind: from the Latin religare.


    Small problems:

    A knot, which is more often than not the thread doubling up onto itself, and tightening.

    The tail tangling up in the sewing thread, the past wanting to be carried into the future.

    An errant hole. 

    A broken strand.


    The hands have their haptic knowing, separate from sight. If a signature is too light (a missing folio), or the thread too tight (a snag), the hands realize this is so before the eyes.


    Haptic from the Greek haptikós: touching; but also to grasp, to perceive.


    Making visible progress: 

    one signature stacking on top of another; one sewn book stacked upon another.


    This binding is as much a part of making the book as any other part, but its context, so entangled with life, becomes invisible in the finished object.

    Somehow designing the book while also cooking soup was a more focused task. Perhaps because the eyes are trained always on the screen and the mind on the work. While there may be a secondary simultaneous background activity, the act of writing or designing requires a full intellectual attention that sewing does not.

    The binding is so much a part of other things (the cat is hungry, pacing now under my nose, tail lashing) in a way that the computer work (lit screen, focus) and the Riso printing (the Riso does most of the work, but I hover over it, watching expectantly, waiting for the inevitable) never is. Is it because I am not challenged enough to be wholly absorbed by sewing, so my attention wanders? While sewing, I rarely transcend into that state of flow (so aptly described by Csikszentmihalyi) that I experience in writing or designing or printing.

    I think of the words of Thomas A. Clark (Moschatel Press) as quoted by Simon Cutts: “Self-publishing can constitute not a vanity, but a freedom. . . the means can become creative. Everything can be exact but also light, since production is a way of life, an activity rather than an occasion.”

    I sense that people who handle copies of this book notice the care and attention embedded within, including the time accrued in the binding.

    But that doesn’t mean that they see the cat, the dining room table: production as a way of life. 

    That part, the lived experience of the making, becomes invisible in most anything we make. 

    Yet to us, the makers, it is essential.


    I think of Virgina Woolf, typesetting and binding as a respite from the fatiguing intellectual labor of writing. I think of the entire practice of bookmaking / publishing as an agricultural process: active periods of sustained attention, hard labor, focus, and vigor; the celebration of the harvest (that first completed copy that nearly vibrates with exhilaration). And then: the slower, relaxed, and rather fallow-feeling periods: distributing type, sewing the three-hundred-eighty-sixth copy in the edition, shipping orders: processes necessary to sustain the work, but with rare opportunities for flow. These are activities in a state less alive: that “cotton wool” feeling of non-being Woolf describes. I try to remind myself that all of these parts are integral to the process: you can’t eliminate them and have the rest. I relax into large edition binding, enjoy it. 


    The timed lights flick on; the tea transubstantiates to wine; the unsewn stack diminishes, the sewn stack grows.

    But there’s been too much googling, too much being reminded of what is not here in front of me.

    I have loads more to sew, and to notice. 

    I’ll try again, with Part III coming soon.

    Works Cited

    Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly.  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

    Cutts, Simon. Some Forms of Availability, 66.

    Miriam, Selma. “On Persistence and Feminism,” Our daily lives have to be a satisfaction in themselves,107-108.

    Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship, also discussed here.

    Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. First found here in a New York Times review of the book.

    Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993.  She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA), and Associate Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut.

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

    Note: This post is in direct response to the theme of Marianne Dages’ last entry on this blog, “We’re All Water.”


    There’s a rhythm to the blinking cursor, a nagging persistence, goading me to continue.

    Waves crash ashore, the tides ebb and flow with parallel reliability.


    I often turn to writers’ reflections about the writing process for language and insight into my own artistic processes. While many visual artists are able to articulate their motivations and engagements, I embrace the challenge to run a sort-of real time Find and Replace through these literary-focused pieces. Mentally shifting text  to images or words to  pictures allows the language to hold its greater definition(s): composition, draft(ing), edit(or), (pulling a) proof, (the mark-making of) mark-up, public(ation).

    This exercise is a component of my research on the fluidity between digital and analog modes of production and publishing, as a means to read, see, view, distribute, and handle this nebulous thing called book art. I approach that metaphor of fluidity rather straightforwardly in recent projects originating from digital video captures of paper in/around/through water and in exploring the concept of tidalectics and the work of its originator, poet Kamau Brathwaite. Likening the hierarchical history of landmasses to colonialism, tidalectics considers the interconnectedness of humanity through the viewpoint of oceanic understanding.

    To view the world through this Caribbean writer’s lens provides an incredible perspective shift away from a white/Eurocentric convention. A perspective shift is what engaging book art does for me - challenging a preconception in form, structure, or content about what a book is (or can be!) and how a publication does (or can!) function.

    Tidalectics co-opts the vocabularies of hydrology and oceanology; Brathwaite embraces the ocean tides as a means to provide rhythm for his poetic delivery. In an anecdote during a poetry reading, Brathwaite explains how his literary education in Barbados limited his ability to express himself. He likens the British military marching he witnessed at a parade to the narrow and unrelatable constraint of iambic pentameter. Whereas later in the same parade, he watched his aunts make their way down the route, far enough away from the military band to hear the drums beat, spinning in circles to their own rhythms. These “circles,” swirling as oceanic waters in tide pools, allow Brathwaite to create his own writing structures and systems outside of the Western canon. As opposed to the ability for a reader to follow the standard structure of poems written in iambic pentameter, Brathwaite’s must deliver the poems himself. The orations swell, undulating in volume, pacing, and melodic range.

    Screen captures made by the author from a YouTube channel, which was digitally transferred from a VHS recording evidenced by artifacts of tracking, creating visual waves across Brathwaite’s gesturing arms

    Excerpt from Dream Haiti series by Kamau Brathwaite as reproduced in the anthology, Tidalectics

    Visually, Brathwaite’s poems utilize an inventive approach to standard early word processing software which he dubbed “Sycorax video style.” Sycorax for the name he gave to his Macintosh computer, and video style as a reference to the way in which his writing input would appear, flowing as a scroll on the video computer screen display. Referring to the Brathwaite 1994 collection Dreamstories, Nicholas Laughlin explains the poems “[deploy] a variety of typefaces and styles, unconventional syntax and punctuation, and sometimes idiosyncratic spellings. ‘Sycorax video style’ cannot properly be quoted; it must be visually reproduced.”

    Of course, this notion that a work “must be visually reproduced” is familiar to visual artists, especially book artists, who struggle to accurately represent works via photographic and written documentation. Similarly, the aural experience that Brathwaite provides in his readings is an additional sensory element in which he controls how an audience experiences his work. I use Brathwaite as a case study of an artist, a poet, who demands certain parameters for his work to be understood and framed. How can the book be best represented for promotion? For publication? What if it was designed only to be a viewed on a screen? What if it is a tactile, printed, bound object alongside a digital component? What does it mean to view a physical book work on a screen? I think of the ways that I have accessed Kamau Brathwaite’s works to gain this appreciation: reproduction in print, written description, digital video, online images. These are the very ways book artists benefit from opportunities of a multimodal, fluid approach to digital publishing: sharing, distributing, and studying of book works.


    Hessler, Stefanie. Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science. London, England: TBA21-Academy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018.

    Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Track Change: A Literary History of Word Processing. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

    Laughlin, Nicholas. “Notes on Videolectics.” The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2007.

    Cultura América Latina y el Caribe. “Kamau Brathwaite.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 July 2015. Web. 7 November 2018. 

    Leah Mackin is a visual artist and educator, often working collaboratively on performative publishing projects. She is the current Victor Hammer Fellow at the Wells Book Arts Center and founder of the INTERNET ART BOOK FAIR.

  • 01 Nov 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I had a dream I was fishing for words. Feet in the water, I stood on the shore, cast a line, and pulled up words from the incoming waves. The words took the form of long, unbroken recitations sounded out into the wind. If I kept speaking, the word flow continued. If I stopped, the line went slack. This idea of words in, or as, water lingered with me, as a metaphor for the obscurity of language’s sources. 

    Artists’ books upend our expectations of narrative and structure. In my opinion, the most interesting artists’ books subvert their own traditions as well. Word Rain by Madeline Gins is one such work; a treatise on the germination and perception of text in the guise of contemporary fiction. Reading Word Rain is like reading a book that has become sentient and is looking at itself. With mathematical grace, Gins blurs the boundary between writer, reader, written, and read. Rain, vapors, and mists are referenced throughout the text to emphasize the fluidity of the book’s modalities and our relationship to its changing states.

    The book ends with two sentences, declaring these two concepts to be one and the same. 

    The body is composed of 98% water.

    This page contains every word in the book. 

    1. “It’s raining in the ocean.”

    Reading is a loss of borders, a loss of self. When the reader is reading, they are gazing into a mirroring pond, encircled by an enveloping mist. Two eyes move across the pond’s face, or words on a page, and gather the reflected light. The reader shifts their gaze, right to left, left to right, across the fluctuating words. Thoughts bubble to the surface as they do. The reader is captivated and continues to stare, unaware a soft rain has begun to fall, the mist is strengthening, and the reader’s body has become diffuse. The reader becomes a mirror in an empty room.

    This summer I read The Sea Around Us, a book published in 1951 in which Rachel Carson described a then new technology called sonar. Sonar works by emitting sound waves that reflect back when an object is encountered. In its early days, scientists were confounded by readings that seemed to indicate the presence of a “phantom bottom” that rose and fell. The false ocean bottom was in fact millions of swimming fish as yet undiscovered to the human eye. This “living cloud” had created the illusion of solidity where echoing the sonars call (Carson, 40-41). I picture the phantom fish as words yet to be formed, their scales glittering beneath the still reflecting pond.

    2.During the cleaving something becomes apparent and something remains blank.”

    As I write, I am reading. I stare into a computer screen; a reflective glass masking fathomless information below. Occasionally, I catch my reflection in its mutable skin but am otherwise detached and removed. I lose track of where I am and how the words got there, yet experience a heightened alertness as I reach for the next word and the next thought. It’s a paradoxical sensation of depth and reflection, tactility and disintegration. Gins employed the verb to cleave to describe the simultaneous feeling of joining and separating, referring to as it the “‘material’ of thought itself” (Helen Keller, 285).

    Setting type, I am particularly aware that letters begin and end as slivers of metal held in the hand. That they are gathered from their cases and strewn back in, again and again. It’s in the unseen moment of contact between ink, metal, and paper that these ligatures and lines transcend their physicality to become the vapor of thought. When I write, I use the same letters as you - ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ - yet our work is different, due to the moment of cleaving that binds letters into word bodies and releases them as incorporeal thoughts. I think of the cloud drawing moisture from the ocean, growing heavy, and falling as rain. I think of the rain becoming the ocean, becoming moisture and the cloud that draws it up again. I think of my body, made of 98% water, standing in the water and of our words and their cycles and their endless returns. 

    3: An Equation for Madeline Gins

    (artist’s book) -? = book

    book - words = blank book 

    (blank book) - (thread, glue, fabric, leather) = paper

    paper - water = cellulose

    cellulose - carbon = H₂0



    The sound of an exhale on a cold day. 


    in the steam

    of breath 

    on glass

    marks = letters = words = thoughts

    thoughts = words = letters = marks


    The title of this essay is quoted from Yoko Ono’s poem “Water Talk,” written in 1967 and the song “We’re All Water” by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, 1972.

    The cloud and “Dry Tongue” images are scanned and altered from Sverre Petterson, Introduction to Meteorology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1941).

    “It’s raining in the ocean” is quoted from the first page of Word Rain.

    “During the cleaving....” is quoted from page 13 of Helen Keller or Arakawa.

    Carson, Rachel L. The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
    Gins, Madeline. Helen Keller or Arakawa. New York: Burning Books, 1994.

    ____________ Word Rain. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969.

    Marianne Dages is an artist who writes and publishes books under the name Huldra Press. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA and has been thinking a lot about water. 

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

    Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books is one of the best surveys we have of the history of our field. Can a history of artists’ books be considered a rough history of book art? As a form, artists’ books seem to be what unites this ‘book art’ association—when I see an exhibition at a CBAA conference, I mostly expect to encounter artists’ books.

    But as Drucker writes in Century, a history of artists’ books is not to be confused with a history of the book. While “outstanding examples of book production” (21)  populate preceding centuries, artist bookwork is born in the twentieth. Before that, she does locate a few “genuine precedents for the conceptual practice of artists’ books” (21), including William Blake and William Morris.

    Both men are logical ancestors for today’s book art. But in the longer arc of art history, the legacies of these two 19th-century artists diverge. Blake is a seminal figure in the Romantic movement. Romantic ideas about avant-gardism and personal creative genius set a precedent for the emergence of modern art in the 1850s and ’60s. Morris, an avowed anti-modernist, set a century and a half of reactionary craft aesthetics in motion. In the twentieth century, craft and modern art would come to define themselves against each other  (Adamson, Thinking, 2)—art as being ‘more than’ just craft, and craft as being ‘more skilled’ than art. This aided craft in nurturing its critiques of modern culture, and art in maintaining an avant-garde edge.

    To analyze the artists’ books that come from that 20th-century vanguard, we have plenty of theory. A legacy like Morris’s is more problematic for contemporary book art—but it is not going away. Consider that this organization congregates not just around artists’ books, but around specific craft processes—hand printing, bookbinding and papermaking.

    In such trades, Morris did not invent skilled workmanship. But by tying it to ideas of heritage, authenticity, and memory—and situating it in opposition to industrial production—thinkers like Morris and John Ruskin invented craft. Glenn Adamson points out that “before the industrial revolution, and outside its sphere of influence, it was not possible to speak of craft as a separate field of endeavor” (Adamson, Invention, xiii).

    In his writing on the arts and crafts movement, Adamson does not discuss Morris’s press. This is probably because, as Drucker reminds us, “books were the least and latest aspect of Morris’s production” (27). Though he designed books only during the last six years of his life, Morris almost single-handedly invented fine press. Compared to the influence of Morris’s work on design history as a whole, the Kelmscott Press approach to book design, and production, exerted an outsized impact on hand bookmaking.

    Morris and Ruskin championed craft production as meaningful and autonomous labor because they adhered to the thought of Karl Marx. His thought is also alive and well in Drucker’s definition of artists’ book as those which “integrate the formal means of realization and production with thematic or aesthetic issues” (2). Drucker notes that one might criticize Morris’s romanticization of medieval labor—he writes as though the industrial revolution invented exploitative labor—“but that hardly seems useful” (27).

    Adamson, however, finds it to be quite illuminating. It is essential to remember that Ruskin and Morris did not really “revive” skilled manual production, which was alive and well in the industry of their time, as it is today (Invention, 212). They also ignored the fact that no amount of enjoyable, autonomous labor completely severs the craftsperson from larger economic systems—as any book artist who has ever needed healthcare or bought an industrially-made material for a project can confirm. (Has anyone used any book board lately?) What Ruskin and Morris did was to write a new script for craft, attaching anti-capitalist virtues to it, as well as a narrative of loss and revival.

    Curiously, we continue to tell this story of loss more than a century later. Although some crafts, such as hand printing and binding, have even gained a foothold in higher education, we still talk of “preserving” them. Adamson marvels, “It is truly amazing that every generation can tell itself ... that it is witnessing the disappearance of craft forever, and therefore has a unique responsibility to save it” (Invention, 183).

    But there are good reasons this story has had such enduring appeal for the last century and a half. It serves an important cultural purpose—that of processing the trauma of the industrial revolution, and the trauma of modernity itself. Adamson quotes historian Elizabeth Wilson’s remark that, “while an economic analysis may ultimately explain our society more objectively than any other, the use of the term ‘modernity’ makes possible the exploration of our subjective experience of it” (Invention, xxii). He also reminds us that “trauma” does not refer an initial wound, but the effect it causes as it ruptures through the body (Invention, 185). That rupture continues today as digitization fundamentally alters culture. Marx’s phrase, “all that is solid melts into air” (Invention, xxii), feels as apt in the face of the information revolution as it did during the industrial one. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing a revival of crafts in popular culture, such as the DIY movement and Etsy, in this digital dawn. We are trying to cope.

    As we enter a digital age, deep engagement with a craft will not provide one with an accurate picture of labor in the 21st century. As it blinded Morris to the profusion of skilled labor that surrounded him, propelling innovation and production in his time, it may blind us. But intensive craft training can provide us with the ability to articulate the workings of embodied cognition. It allows us to assert, from the authority of our own experiences, that how things are made matters—that meaning does not exist separately from the means of production. This is especially relevant for book artists with a foot in contemporary art world, who may need to contextualize their craft practice for an audience in that sphere. Today, fine artists have license to fabricate little of their own work, and even obscure the true means of its production.

    When it comes to book art theory, production is not my sole preoccupation. I come to artists’ books with concerns about the relationship of text and image. I come to them with concerns about multiples, sequencing, and social practice. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m drawn to CBAA because its membership rallies around artists’ books as a form. But CBAA is not only a ‘book art’ association—it is concerned with the production of artists’ books in colleges. In practice, this often takes the form of course offerings in crafts like printing, binding, and papermaking. We should own the fact that college book art education is craft-based. When we teach not only thinking through making, but critical thinking about making, we embody that term—in its best sense.

    Works Cited

    Adamson, Glenn and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

    Adamson, Glenn. The Invention of Craft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    ______________. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

    Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.

    India Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

  • 01 Oct 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Artists Who Make Books, edited by Andrew Roth, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, is a landmark survey of artists’ books by non-book artists. It takes only sixteen pages to run headlong into the problem that such artists may not actually know how to make books.

    In the book’s first interview, Tauba Auerbach is asked if she uses fabricators to make her books. She defends herself: “at certain stages, yes, but I tried to do everything I could in my studio (16).” Auerbach elaborates that although her studio manager “and all-around amazing assistant” (16) did a lot of the work in-house, eventually a fabricator had to be hired: “I had a very specific way I wanted the book to be bound . . . and I didn’t have the skills or equipment to do that” (16).

    So Auerbach hired Daniel Kelm as a fabricator. She describes him as “this extremely talented master bookbinder” (16). Though Auerbach refers to working with Kelm as “a great collaboration” (16), she doesn’t characterize the books made in her studio as a collaboration with her studio assistants. Auerbach is more transparent about hiring fabricators than some artists, but describing your assistant as “amazing” (16) is different than sharing authorship with her. The Auerbach interview concludes by characterizing bookmaking as a discipline that “exists beyond commercial activity . . . it really has to be a labor of love” (26).

    Perhaps because I began making books in an industrial bindery at age sixteen, I know that before making books is a labor of love, it is a labor. Auerbach’s comments foreground bookmaking as an artistic pursuit, and mute it as skilled labor. Yet the latter enables the former. No amount of “extensive conversations about paper grain, adhesives, and so forth” (16) with a master bookbinder actually replaces his tacit knowledge. An artist who outsources the fabrication of her bookwork—even with transparency and curiosity—assumes a clear division between thinking and making, concept and form. But as Michael Robbins writes, “the relationship of form and content is more like that of space and time than that of vessel and water” (4-5).

    I am not suggesting that employing fabricators denigrates the authenticity or validity of a bookwork off-the-bat. Rather, I argue that it factors into the work’s meaning. “One can outsource with greater or less intelligence,” as Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson point out in Art in the Making (21).

    Just as an artist like Auerbach knows the limits of her skills and equipment, many book artists do as well. A printer might employ a master binder like Kelm to bind her artist’s books. So what’s the difference between the books Kelm binds for a postdisciplinary artist, and those he binds for our imaginary printer? The printer has the chance to credit Kelm in her colophon.

    It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.

    The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. There is substantial difference between art-directing a bookwork, and actually making it. Not only is this because “making is a form of thinking,” inextricably linking “the specificities of creation and the conceptual premise” (Adamson and Bryan-Wilson, 19). It is also because “whenever artists depend on the hands of others to make their work, those hands become part of the meaning of the work, like it or not, as surely as the specific resistances of wood or stone or clay limit the possibility of the carving” (Adamson, 43). Several conventions in the field of book art—extensive instruction in technical bookmaking processes, the ubiquity of handwork, the colophon—suggest that these claims by craft theorist Glenn Adamson are broadly sanctioned by book artists.

    In essence, the difference between book artists and artists who make books is craft.

    A loaded term, to be sure. Conversations about craft all too easily devolve into stale arguments of definition—where do we draw a line between what is art and what is craft? But given a flowering of recently published craft theory, we have better tools than we’ve ever had to apply “critical theory when it comes to questions of manual skill” (Adamson, xviii). A basic familiarity with current scholarship in this area is essential for a community of 21st century makers tied to methods of skilled hand production—not artists who make books, but book artists.

    Works Cited

    Adamson, Glenn. The Invention of Craft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    Adamson, Glenn and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

    Robbins, Michael. Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

    Roth, Andrew, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, eds. Artists Who Make Books.London: Phaidon, 2017.

    India Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

  • 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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