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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 Jun 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    During my first year as a Book Arts graduate student in 2013/14 I took a course called “The Book as Artifact” and wrote a paper about pop-up, community-focused book programs and ways books can thrive in public space. It was framed as a survey of programs like Little Free Library, Occupy Wall Street Library, The Neighborhood Story Project in New Orleans, etc. Recently uncovering this buried paper, I have been thinking about my tendency to romanticize the book as an object — or as living being(s) for that matter. Do we not form relationships with books? One curious thing about the paper is that I did not include any examples of public artists’ book collections or related programs though I was beginning to self-identify as a book artist. This is not to say such programs did not exist at the time, though I was unaware of those that did, but it seemed reasonable that most artists’ books live behind glass and/or locked doors within private and/or Special Collections. 

    Artists’ books should absolutely be protected, and I am so glad that major institutions collect them, make the books accessible to those who request to handle them, and financially support book artists. (I am now graciously employed by one of these institutions.) However, there’s the romantic in me who wants everyone to be able to stumble upon artists’ books unexpectedly, to revel in the tactile, emotional, and intellectual experiences within their potential. I suppose this explains my deep love for democratic multiples, zines and DIY book fairs in tandem with fine bookbinding and artistry.

    Five years after writing that paper, I find myself luckily working with a team of local artists, nonprofit experts, and librarians to help found an openly accessible artists’ book collection in New Orleans, Louisiana. I live in a complex city with a historically robust literary and visual arts community and strong grassroots organizations that work to improve education and advocacy for diverse communities. All these variables have been at work in the formation of ABC@PM, or the Artist Book Collection at Paper Machine, a new print studio and workshop space in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. 

    ABC was the brainchild of Yuka Petz, a book artist and educator who serves on the board of a local nonprofit arts organization that does amazing work supporting interdisciplinary artists bending towards social justice and community organizing. ABC’s growing collection of approximately 100 artists’ books was made possible through nonprofit sponsorship and generous donations of artists who love the idea of their work made accessible within a public teaching collection. 

    There are no glass cases at ABC@PM — the books are organized upon shelves on the second floor of the building, open to browsing by all who enter. We are taking great care to thoughtfully catalog the collection, and we trust that our patrons will treat it with respect. (Book cradles and hand wipes are readily available!) ABC@PM hosted its opening reception on May 19th. It is an all volunteer-run budding thing and won’t progress without challenges and occasional hiccups, I am sure, but I am so excited to watch it grow, educate and thrill community members who are unfamiliar with artists’ books.

     Assuming those reading this are book art professionals of some sort, I wonder how you would feel about having your own work in an open, public teaching collection? What concerns would you have? 

    Additionally, I would love to hear more about programs with similar operations. I wonder if many of the “Centers for the Book” around the U.S. have exposed, public book art libraries?  If so, how does the place you live in and its community shape the collection? 


    Sara White is a book artist based in New Orleans, LA. She works as a project assistant in Special Collections & Archives at Loyola University and is a cataloger and founding member of ABC@PM. Her artist’s book Riverine won the 2016 Holle Award for Book Arts. Sara earned an MFA at The University of Alabama in 2016. 

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

    “There is an inherent pleasure in making. We might call this joie de faire… to indicate that there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something exist that didn’t exist before, or using one’s on agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold and craft physical materials….” (Dissanayake, 1995)

    All photobooks require an active reader who is to make, break, and remake connections between images, text, design, and knowledge. What I am interested in here is how this is exaggerated and extended in a particular style of photobook that has become increasingly popular since the turn of the century. These books and their popularity as well as critical reception are able to tell us something about the broader popularity of photobooks in the post-digital. They demonstrate what we might call a “reader as maker” approach to photobooks.

    While there are a great many books that fall into this category, we will look at two high profile publications that each, in their own way, employ the reader-as-maker: Anouk Kruithof’s A Head with Wings and Christina de Middel’s Afronauts. They offer useful examples for their embodiment of key characteristics of the reader-as-maker and for their critical acclaim and public reception—these are not isolated and unpopular works.

    Kruithof’s A Head with Wings emphasizes the mechanical nature of reader-as-maker. Pages are filled with folded images and pieces of text to corporeally handle, open, outstretch, and refold. In this process the reader is connected not only to the conceptual production of the book but also its relationship to craft and physical production. We might say this is a mere expansion on the everyday act of turning the page but the folding and unfolding presented here is non-linear, sporadic, and revelatory in ways that the regular relationship between verso and recto cannot replicate. In speaking about a previous installation, Kruithof describes her approach as “analogue interactivity” (Moakley and Kruithof, 2012) alluding to the active participation of the viewer with the artwork. This term could well be similarly applied to A Head With Wings; it requires an active and analogue participation of those who engage with it.

    The Afronauts could act as a mascot or exemplar of the photobook in the period of my research (2000-15) due not only to the physicality of the object but also its position as figurehead of “independent” or self-publishing. The Afronauts embraces a craft aesthetic from its exterior beginnings—printing on recycled card stock and featuring a large rubber band to keep the book closed. It taps into the warmth of material spoken of by Jean Baudrillard (2005, 38) and the “honesty” articulated by Richard Sennett (2009, 136-7). It embraces its low-fi credentials. When we enter into the book we are presented with a process and production oriented perspective. The page is ever changing from a rustic paper stock to a lighter variety with slight sheen to translucent sheets of graph paper, typewriter stock, and newspaper cuttings. Even the binding presents itself to the reader and brings to the fore the act of production.

    These books satisfy one of our post-digital desires: to make and to connect with the physicality of creation. This might be received through the purchase of objects that bear their manufacturing provenance on their sleeve or it might be in allowing us to “make” a book. It might seem a stretch to speak so much of the handling of the book-as-object but it is only an extension to the mental amalgamation of images, spaces, and texts to create narratives and experiences. Both a tactic of engagement and a symptom of the post-digital context in which the photobook resides, it is as if the analogue interactivity of the photobook is seeking to justify the medium’s physical existence in the face of the utilitarianism, ubiquity, and convenience of digital (a sentiment echoed in the review of A Head With Wings in which it is noted that the book is “a great example of what electronic photobooks could never hope to achieve” (Colberg, 2011)).

    Strangely, aside from a reactive approach to post-digitality that some of these works exhibit, they also prosper amidst digital networks of makers and readers and furthermore are constructed in such a way that they share a number of similarities with the web. To elaborate: books like those seen above (Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood is another example) offer a cognitive experience closer to that of navigating web pages and their content than the linearity and formal structure of a photobook which “progresses” in the manner of a novel. Redheaded Peckerwood demands of the reader-as-maker a navigation across mediums (photography, text, object-photographs) which are brought together in the space of the photobook in the same manner as a web page is merely the space in which different elements (text, images, video, etc.) are similarly presented to us. It is the job of the reader to investigate (literally so in this example) and contextualize information in hyper textual fashion.

    Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Radical Thinkers 3. London ; New York: Verso, 2005.

    “Conscientious | Review: A Head With Wings by Anouk Kruithof.” Accessed April 16, 2018.

    Dissanayake, Ellen. “THE PLEASURE AND MEANING OF MAKING.” American Craft 55(2): 40-45. Accessed April 16, 2018.

    Moakley, Paul, and Anouk Kruithof. “Analog Interactivity and the Photography of Anouk Kruithof.” Time, 2012.

    Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

    Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.

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

    I have been thinking a great deal about taxonomies, histories and spectrums of the photobook for the last four years — an activity that is essential as part of my PhD investigation into “Connections, made and missed, digital and other, between the contemporary photobook and its reader.” This is in order to define a scope for the research and acts as the pivotal point of a proposal for a new framework of photobook theory. This interrogation of terms, characteristics and exemplars must have real applicability or ‘wield-ability’ for myself and others inside and outside academia.

    There are existing proposals for what constitutes a photobook (Sweetman, 187) (Badger and Parr, 7) (Borda, 55), and some thoughtful considerations of how, within these loose definitions, we can better delineate photobooks in reference to specific categories. Jorg Colberg’s “Taxonomy of the Photobook” (2018), Phillip Zimmermann’s “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” (2016) and Doug Spowart’s “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book” (2018) all present to us clear categories and characteristics (ways to assign photobooks) and all operate well in their respective fields and with respective parameters in mind. But I would suggest even combined they don’t quite reach a holistic view of the photobook (though clearly this is not their remit), and, importantly for my research, they locate categorisation and classification in formalist and structuralist approaches to the book.

    Colberg is primarily concerned with narrative structure — how the work progresses and the various elements it employs to tell a story. It is clear and it is surprisingly easy to assign my own works to this system not to mention that is captures a number of current trends in photobook production. Spowart’s spectrum eschews narrative structure for an emphasis on material structure and publishing choices. This is perhaps unsurprising given Spowart’s interest in the artists’ book’s influence on the photobook — he approaches the task of categorisation pragmatically with the book as art object, and book as mass produced object in mind. Zimmermann’s beautifully constructed “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” goes on to articulate the significance of intention and the issue of mis-representation (2016).

    Spowart’s interest in the pragmatics of publishing and Zimmermann’s hint at purpose are most interesting to me because building a workable framework for photobook critique is not an archival pursuit but one that seeks to question the photobook and ultimately increase its efficacy. Intention is what offered me a starting point for a new way of considering the photobook, and I began with the interactions of photograph and book. Presented below is my contribution thus far to the discourse. It is a proposal that asks us to think of the purpose of the photograph’s relationship with the book and posits that 4 distinct histories have contributed to the contemporary photobook.

    The Photographic album

a.k.a Family album, Special-interest album

    *Intended for consumption by its own maker and those personally connected

    *Its semi-private life doesn't warrant the same critique of experience and efficacy that the photobook will

    The Photographic book/photobook

    a.k.a Photography book, Book of photography, Photographically illustrated book

    *A book of photographs

    *The photographic book/photobook often appeals to those outside of what we think of  as a photographically inclined audience

    *Often the primary goal of the photography book is to ‘appeal’ and thus sell

    *The photographs have not commonly been made with the intention to be displayed in  a book

    The Artist’s book/photobook

    a.k.a Artist’s photographic book, Photographic artist’s book

    *The work contained in the artist's book/photobook generally falls into two categories

              Desire, the want of the author to express oneself (often abstract, unspecified)

              Curiosity, the personal (author’s) drive to see or explore something

    *Due to the above, the location and experience of the reader is often secondary consideration

    The Photo essay/photobook

    a.k.a Photoessay, Photographically illustrated book

    *The photo essay/photobook is concerned with the world in which its authors and readers are situated

    *These works are not solely personal musings (though they may have personal aspects)

    *The location and experience of the reader is often primary consideration.

    As intent is so key to this proposal it is worth returning to the intent for such a proposal in the first place — if we, as makers, readers and critics have a set of tools which allow for a critique of photobooks in relation to their purpose-lineages then we have tools to shape a more positive, less obsessive and increasingly de-centralised and democratised readership. As is evident, this proposal for a series of lineages for the photobook is in need for refinement and questioning — I hope that this space might be an opportunity for that to happen.


    Badger, Gerry, and Martin Parr. The Photobook: A History Volume I. Book, Whole. London: Phaidon, 2004.

    Border, Sylvia Grace. “The Artist’s Photographic Book: Towards a Definition” in Photography and the Artist’s Book. Edited by Theresa Wilkie, Jonathan Carson and Rosie Miller, 28-61. Book, Section. Edinburgh, UK Museums Etc, 2012.

    Colberg, Jörg. “Towards a Photobook Taxonomy.” Conscientious Photography Magazine. Accessed April 2, 2018.

    Spowart, Doug. “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book.” Wotwedid. Accessed April 14, 2018.

    Sweetman, Alex. “Photobookworks: The Critical Realist Tradition.” In Artists’ Books : A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, 187–207. Book, Section. Rochester, NY: The Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985.

    Zimmermann, Philip. “College Book Art Association - PHOTOBOOK TO PHOTO-BOOKWORK, A SPECTRUM” Accessed April 13, 2018.

    Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.

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

    Books are often created to accompany live performances and exhibitions - these often take the form of book art. How does context and knowledge of these performances affect the understanding of these pieces?

    A recent visit to the library by a group of sculpture students had me pull a few books meant to accompany or document performance pieces: Margot Lovejoy’s Labyrinth, Alison Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch, and Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea.* The three books represent three different approaches to the relationship between performance and books which shade the understanding of each piece as a stand-alone object.

    Lovejoy’s Labyrinth recreates an immersive experience. Lovejoy presents a series of spreads with flaps and gatefolds which slow the pace of reading. The book is composed entirely of collaged images, text only appearing on the title and table of contents pages. In the original live installation, Lovejoy had attendees wear masks and follow a rope through a labyrinth to arrive at multiple screens of projected images. Though the book is inspired by and a continuation of the installation by Lovejoy, Labyrinth is able to convey a complete message on its own. The understanding of the book is enhanced by knowledge of a previous event but it is not dependent on that knowledge.

    Margot Lovejoy’s Labyrinth

    Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch presents documentation of a series of events enacted under the umbrella of one piece — eating (and having others eat) a lunch of a cup of soup, a tunafish [sic] sandwich, and a glass of buttermilk. The spreads present receipts, textual documentation, and other correspondence and ephemera related to the enactment of ordering and eating the identical lunch. While knowledge of the performance is required to understand the book, the book itself provides the context for understanding the performance.

    Alison Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch

    Broodthaers, in A Voyage on the North Sea book, presents one-half of a whole piece. Originally created as a film and book duo, the book relies on two images (one painted, one a photograph) of ships, presumably in the North Sea. The book features a repetition of blown-up shots focusing on particular parts of the painting. I cannot present an overview of the film as the collection I work with only has the book. The film and book were meant to be experienced as one and it’s impossible to imagine what this experience or reading of the work would have been without the full piece. And yet, here the book exists, actively being presented without its other half. In this case, the meaning of the book is completely lost without the understanding of the performance.

    Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea

    As the students spent time with each piece and began asking questions, I started to doubt my decision to include the Broodthaers book in class. I began to question my responsibilities as a librarian and as an artist — is it irresponsible to share works in a way so far removed from the artists’ original intent, so out of context? Or, as artists do we accept that works continue as living documents beyond our control, themselves enacting a different performativity in reading and reception? Can works which were inspired by or rely on performance and events ever truly stand alone, or should that specific context always be provided?

    * All three books are discussed in Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists' Books but this was coincidental.


    Broodthaers, M. (1974). A Voyage on the North Sea. London: Petersburg Press.

    Doǧu, H. (1992). Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 11(3), 158-159. Retrieved from

    Drucker, J., & Granary Books. (1995). The century of artists' books. New York City: Granary Books.

    Knowles, A. (1971). Journal of the Identical Lunch. San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press.

    Lovejoy, M. (1991). Labyrinth : A montage book. United States]: M. Lovejoy.

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

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

    In June, 2016 I wrote a Book Art Theory blog post, WHY BOTHER WITH WIKIPEDIA?

    In January 2017 I started a Wikipedia Book Art entry to replace the current redirect to "Book Arts," which is only a disambiguation page that links to "Artist's Book" and a few other things. Please see what I wrote, which has had a few technical changes by others (View history) but no substantive additions by people knowledgeable about the field of Book Art. Since it doesn't appear on a search for "book art" I doubt anyone knows about it. 

    It's considered a "stub," and until it is fleshed out and is more complete, with better footnotes and references, it will not replace the redirect. If you type "book art" into the Wikipedia search field you will see what happens.  

    I am not fluent in Wikipedia editing, but was able to learn enough to get this started. It's just a beginning. Please help get the ball rolling. If you are a registered Wikipedia contributor, or know someone who is, please take a few minutes to add or change content, correct errors, and clarify references. Every bit will help. If you don't have a Wikipedia account you can create one here

    It could be a significant resource if done properly. Besides the many educational benefits such an entry would bring, there is the impact on funding Book Art programs and departments. When a Trustee or administrator who knows nothing about book art is cutting programs in a budget crunch, you want them to find a robust entry for your field--not that it doesn't exist except as a footnote to a disambiguation. 

     It is more than an embarrassment that there is no entry specific to the name and purpose of the College Book Art Association or Book Art Theory blog. Although the "artist's book" entry is reasonably well written and organized, it has a distinct point of view that does not represent the larger field of book art of which "artist's books" is a part. Many of our subfields already have entries and are linked from "artist's book" in its "See also" section. This will make our job of creating the Book Art listing easier. Note that this list includes a "List of book arts centers" even though "book arts" remains a disambiguation phrase without its own entry. 

    • Art diary
    • Altered book
    • List of book arts centers
    • Asemic writing
    • Bookbinding
    • Fine press
    • Illuminated manuscript
    • Letterpress printing
    • Miniature book
    • Something Else Press
    • Visual poetry
    • Zine

    Please help rectify this situation by going to the entry at;

    Richard Minsky is a book artist. In 1974 he founded the Center for Book Arts. The Richard Minsky Archive is at the Yale Arts Library. More at

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

    I am a small press comics publisher and current MFA student at Visual Studies Workshop, founded in 1969 by Nathan Lyons. Coming into the VSW MFA program with my background in comics, I started to look for connections between my medium of choice and overlapping concepts in artists’ books and photobooks. I looked to Lyons’ concept of sequence and quickly realized it presents a problem when it comes to comics—that the fundamental mechanics of comics, the so-called “sequential art,” often challenges or completely contradicts the ideas of Lyons, a master of photographic sequence in books.

    Lyons outlines his distinction between series and sequence in “Display as Discourse:” "Series generally are thematically related or connected, while sequences are based upon disjunctive relationship. The Latin root of each term forms another distinction—series, ‘to join;’ sequence, ‘to follow.’ . . . A sequence is structured by allowing one image to follow another by an order of succession or arrangement, which is not apparently thematic or systematic (6)." A series can be seen as “a system of order” (Drucker, 258), whereas sequence is created through juxtaposition.

    Different disciplines necessitate different approaches to sequence and a lack of consistent terms across these disciplines has made for thorny research and problematic discussions. Sequence is often used to describe any arrangement or order (and the dictionary backs this up) yet the understanding of sequence and its relation to seriality, as Lyons defines it, activates myriad possibilities for the creation and interpretation of visual books.

    Comics rely heavily upon the concept of closure, which is defined in terms of a co-presence (Beatty, 108): “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (McCloud, 63). Lyons suggested a similar idea when he quotes Laszlo Moholy-Nagy about photography: “the single picture loses its separate identity and becomes a part of the assembly; it becomes a structural element of the related whole” (Selected Essays, 199). Thus sequence is more than simply an image relationship: it is inherently structural and compositional, “a framework within which each element or page make a contribution and has a place” (Drucker, 258).

    With narrative comics, closure allows the reader to close fundamental gaps in time and space, connecting disparate moments and mentally constructing a continuous, unified reality. While this sort of image relationship would be defined as serial rather than sequential, it is of note that we read the space between images as transitional, transformational. In a serial relationship, the transition is often plain to see, but in a sequence, this invisible space becomes charged, made all the more elusive and alluring by the fact that what occurs therein is not readily apparent. This space may well have been what photographer Duane Michals was referring to when he said, “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.”

    Lyons’ idea of sequence is defined in terms of a “disjunctive” relationship, yet the problem of narrative arises time and again in subsequent discourse. Comics scholar Scott McCloud poses the question, “is it possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other” (Carrier, 51)? One school of thought seems to suggest a sort of inherent narrativity, wherein “direct narratives may be formed, or very layered associative ground may be established” (Lyons, Selected Essays, 195) regardless of the apparent unrelatedness of a grouping of images. Johanna Drucker cautions that “sequence and narrative are related, but not redundant, elements of books structures” (258). Meaning is “inscribed in the succession” (Carrier, 51) of images, but meaning and narrative are not to be confused.

    The tension between series and sequence, as well as the problem of narrative, is in a sense reconciled in the case of abstract comics, where the subversion of typical depictions of time and space seeks to transcend the serial relationships of narrative and awaken the possibilities of sequence. Andrei Molotiu, editor of Fantagraphics Books’ Abstract Comics anthology, links this to his concept of Sequential Dynamism, the “formal visual energy [that] propels the reader’s eye from panel to panel and from page to page” (89). It is rhythmic, kinetic, and generates sequentiality without the representation of diegetic time. Molotiu’s scholarship invites the reader to take a comics page in as one would an abstract painting: “If these works chronicle anything,” he poses, “it is nothing but the life of the graphic trace” (Tabulo, 31).

    “The single photograph, so apparently clear and emphatic . . . is in fact notoriously slippery when it comes to conveying meaning beyond mere depiction,” writes photobook historian Gerry Badger (16). Sequence is what welds the sentence of a single image to into a paragraph, a chapter, “a territory where rational description is relinquished, is held in tension” (Badger, 16). Represented time and space are loosened into an ethereal, associative realm where meaning bleeds and blurs in the space between images, brought to life by succession and juxtaposition. Sequence is at once a structural imperative and a compositional framework, a mechanic of movement and a catalyst for theme, or in the words of Moholy-Nagy, “a potent weapon or a tender poetry” (Lyons, Selected Essays, 199).


    Badger, Gerry. “It's All Fiction: Narrative and the Photobook” in Imprint: Visual Narratives in Books and Beyond. ed. Negative: Hans Edberg et al. University of Gothenburg, 2013.

    Beatty, Bart. “In Focus: Comics Studies, Fifty Years After Film Studies” in Cinema Journal, 50.3 (Spring 2011).

    Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. University Park, The Pennsylvania University Press, 2000.

    Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artist's Books. New York: Granary Books, 2004.

    Lyons, Nathan. “Display as Discourse” in Journal of Artists' Books, 27 (Spring 2010).

    ____________. Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews. ed. Jessica S. McDonald. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2012.

    McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993.

    Molotiu, Andrei. “Abstract Form: Sequential Dynamism and Iconostasis in Abstract Comics and Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man” in Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. ed. Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Tabulo, Kym. “Abstract Sequential Art” in Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics. 5.1 (2009).

    Steven Arenius is based in Rochester, New York, where he runs The Panoptic Press, a small press publisher of comics and limited-run print. He studied literature and art history at SUNY New Paltz and is currently pursuing an MFA at the Visual Studies Workshop.

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

    At the 2018 CBAA conference, I presented alongside AB Gorham, Woody Leslie, and Levi Sherman. Our panel, “Half the Field: Writing and the Artist’s Book,” addressed writing from historical, pedagogical, personal, and practical perspectives.

    We addressed how art world institutions like exhibitions, submissions, websites, and critique can better serve the writing produced in our field. Critique epitomizes many of the problematic dynamics and brings to the fore interesting theoretical implications of these tensions. Books that must be read by one person at a time pose obvious challenges to a typical critique format, especially if they contain written content. In contrast, writing students come to class having already read the piece or pieces that will be workshopped. I believe book art classes can adapt the workshop approach to critique, especially to develop artists’ writing practices. The difficulties posed by this translation reveal fascinating fault lines in the theoretical terrain – the inextricable integration of the artists’ book, the material presence of language, and so on.

    Writing has much to offer book arts education beyond critique, or more accurately, before critique. We must begin by questioning our prioritization of the visual. Not only will stronger writing create a stronger book, but writing can offer a reader a familiar access point into a piece. Certainly novels are more familiar than artists’ books to most viewers. People broadly have an understanding of how books work: of chapters, paragraphs, sentences. Sadly, that is not always the case for visual art. As an instructor, I work to improve my students’ visual literacy, but in the meantime, as a writer, I can demonstrate why an understanding of narrative technique improves artists’ books.

    Tension and conflict drive a book. Linguistic play can delight a reader, but a reader craves momentum. We will read until there is equilibrium, we will read until we find an answer. In a narrative piece, this is as simple as ensuring a character or narrator wants something as soon as they’re introduced. A conflict need not be violent or dramatic. People create their own internal conflicts simply through their desires. These conflicts and tension are amplified by obstacles.

    Without a traditional narrative, an artist no longer asks, what does the character want. The question is: what is preventing an equilibrium? The tension here may be the very relationship between the reader and the book. The book may be ergodic—resisting the reader—but such occurrences should be intentional and controlled. Unnecessary resistance becomes merely tedious. The tension propelling the book may also be in relationship between the visual and written components. Whether narrative or not, a book, as a time-based experience, requires propulsion. This may mean resisting the satisfaction of a perfectly resolved spread, since it is the quest for resolution that will drive the reader to turn the page.

    Considering narrative transformation will also help create, or workshop, an artist’s book. In a traditional narrative, a character goes through a transformation. If they do not, a larger point is made, which in itself is a transformation of an idea. These types of changes are satisfying to a reader. However, there are many types of transformation that both satisfy and provide revelations to a viewer. Depicting one perspective and then engaging with another is a change that provides a revelation to the reader. Breaking boundaries is another way to create this effect. In novels, the boundaries are metaphorical or situational: a castaway escapes an island, someone escapes a small town. In an artist’s book, these boundaries can be both written and physical, strengthening this element. Images and writing can bleed off the page, pages can be unfolded, they can be ripped. When done with intention and ordered for emphasis, these moves can satisfy the viewer.

    These literary lessons highlight the shared vocabulary of visual and written art. Consider overlapping terms like ‘tone,’ ‘organic,’ or even ‘depth’ with different meanings in each context. It’s easy to forget that flat characters or the weight of a line are metaphors. This can make critique and discussion confusing for some students, but this act of translation can also lead to important discoveries in the messy overlap of connotations and meanings.

    Carley Gomez is a PhD candidate in Fiction and a Gus T. Ridgel Fellow at the University of Missouri. She has an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her fiction has been published in Passages North and Euphony Journal.

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

    During the 2018 CBAA Conference in Philadelphia, I took part in a panel comprised of myself, Carley Gomez, Woody Leslie, and organized by contributor Levi Sherman. This panel explored, among many other things, how book art can benefit from adopting methods from the creative writing field and discussed ways to improve institutions and systems that unwittingly de-emphasize writing within book arts.

    As a tangent of my talk titled “Rebus Read Plainly,” I’d like to propose expanding the notion of writing, specifically in the context of incorporating text into artists’ books. Even more, how can we (educators) get students to produce text for or within artists’ books that doesn’t fall into the trappings of the often-clichéd language that tends to be a default for nascent writers?

    In the long stretching shadow of Mallarmé exists a collection of books that contain fragmented poems, poetic utterances, or short, quippy phrases—while these are wonderful books, this seems to be the default mode of writing within many artists’ books. Perhaps writing in this manner is due to the shared space comprised of text and imagery (not to mention a book’s structural concerns), or, maybe there is a subconscious impulse to keep the language brief or mainly visual in order to appeal to a more visually-oriented audience. Of course, there are many different categories of books, and books that slip in between those categories, so I want to avoid over-generalizing and explore some tendencies I see with “new” book artists. I know that book artists agonize over the text that they incorporate into their books, so this isn’t to imply otherwise. Rather, I’m curious about the textual trend I see with so many artists’ books containing what looks like and acts like poetic language = Poems.

    Writing should not be an afterthought within an artist’s book. Visual elements that work primarily in service of the text are referred to as illustrative, a word that denotes a level of dependency between text and image and, often, places the visual elements into a category of work that historically is defined by an intent other than artistic expression. What about text that works primarily in service of the visual elements of the book? Shouldn’t we call this text descriptive, stripping it of some of its independence as a written artistic form? In order to begin a discussion about the relationship between text and imagery in artists’ books, we have to be willing to prescribe levels of effectiveness not only with imagery and structure, but with the accompanying text. Don’t we already have enough to consider when making books and book objects? Sure, but what’s one more thing?

    The book arts workshop isn’t always a conducive environment for reading/viewing books which contain text that takes time to digest. How can we get students to respond to the text as they respond to the imagery, structure, and material choices? I suggest recommending to students (and ourselves) that alternative writing, including text messages, grocery lists, and step-by-step processes (to name a few) can provide ample fodder for exploring book forms, as well as creating dynamic reading/viewing experiences. Employing these familiar, certainly mundane forms of writing has the companion effect of providing a remedy for that pressure to write Poems into books. Perhaps incorporating text with familiar forms (the texts, lists, and processes that I suggest above) is one way to begin that training. Ultimately, regardless of form, how is the text working within the book space? Using these forms to shape text, we can still ask students to avoid illustrations and descriptive language with the aim of creating more conceptual books, and, just maybe, they’ll begin to see the possibilities for text that doesn’t have to be a Poem.

    AB Gorham is a book artist and writer, originally hailing from Montana. She holds MFAs in Book Arts and Poetry from The University of Alabama. She is the Manager of Black Rock Press and lives in Reno, Nevada with her husband, their daughter, and their three beasts.

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

    “I’m looking for books about mirages,” said one researcher.

    “I’m looking for a book with wooden covers that slam shut on the reader,” said another.

    These are examples of research requests I field on a daily basis in reference to the book arts collection I work with. I love these types of requests because they provide opportunity for me to seek and find new pieces of work that I wouldn’t necessarily come across otherwise. Additionally, these types of requests are relatively easy for me to search in the library catalog and database (or, even with online search engines) because often artists’ books are cataloged with terms focusing on content or structure. I’ve noticed the questions above exemplify two trends in the way people typically request materials in book arts collections: They either choose to focus on topical content or they choose to focus on physical structure. Considering the way books are more typically conceived of as textual information carriers, it’s not surprising that most researchers either use the tools of topic and genre or physical structure, but not both, to search.

    It is my greatest hope, and even assumption, that whichever tool is used to search, the book art piece delivered to the researcher illuminates some relationship between topic and structure. This relationship, though, is more intangible and decidedly more difficult to search for and connect researchers to. In general, the textual and paratextual elements of book art participate equally in the understanding of the whole. Book artists, I think, come to creating work with either an innate or learned sense of looking at the whole. Through exposure to other artists’ work and critical dialogue amongst practitioners, it’s hard to ignore the decisions made and elements present which come together to make a whole. I tend to make the assumption that researchers outside the field of book arts make the connection between the text, image, and physical composition naturally, but I’m not sure if this is the case, nor am I sure where the responsibility of understanding falls.

    Artists’ statements introducing specific books are tools that I have found invaluable as a librarian assisting people in finding book art. As an artist, I am guilty of pushing work off into the world without an accompanying statement. This is partially because I believe the work should be able to convey all meaning and understanding without the aid of a statement, but it’s also partially and frankly because I don’t enjoy writing statements. They, though, do provide the reader something to pull and push against and they often, sometimes in conjunction with a colophon, provide conceptual context in relationship to the physical means of making. In the most practical sense, they also provide readily available terms and phrases by which the item can be cataloged and consequently searched.

    Curiously, I didn’t start writing this post with the intention of shining a light on what an artist says about a work, but I’ve now convinced myself that they are integral to building understanding and research around the art we make. Within the field, I think artists’ statements are generally encouraged, but I’m curious how people perceive their use by future readers and how their perceived use shapes what is provided in a statement.

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

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

    “What is content?” Some might argue that content is simply the use of text and/or images to tell a story in a book. Perhaps. This past fall, I talked a lot about the idea of “structural content” in relationship to book making. The form of a book is the first place to see how we can give and possibly derive meaning beyond the story inside. The need is straightforward. A binding structure should protect the pages within, so that someone can read the story and then preserve it for others to read as well. The formula for such a book is quite simple. 1. Stick pages together. 2. Put a protective cover around pages. That is the way machines think about book making. Yet, when making a book by hand, we have so many things to consider. Choices have to be made. By making those choices, you begin to add meaning to the work, for me, that is content. Possibly at its most basic, but content nonetheless.

    Content can be quite ordinary. In the 17th Century, artists turned their brushes to the ordinary elements of daily life. Still life paintings, or Genre paintings, are credited with bringing the viewer’s eye to the meaning/beauty/spirituality of the everyday. Just by painting a subject, the artist made the subject meaningful. I think this reverberates through the art practice of the last 400 years. For me this allows one to see the beauty of the object as content in and of itself. It is meaningful to make a beautiful book. Its content is beauty, skill, process, and materials.

    Journals, diaries and sketchbooks, beautifully made books, can be quite meaningful before a pen ever fills their pages with the stories and dreams of their owners. Content as it is defined here is the result of all the choices, structural and material, visual and tactile, that have gone into the creation of the such a book. The exterior of a book might be written off as decoration; however, the cover surely is not merely decoration or protection—it reveals something about the artist who made it and to an extent the person who ultimately uses the book. The best analogy, for me, is from the musical Oklahoma! There is a boxed lunch auction in the story that has the ladies making picnic lunches and dressing the baskets in finery and bows. The men are to bid on the “anonymous” lunches and as a bonus the ladies are obliged to have lunch with the winning bidder. Of course, cheating goes on, intrigues fly, and there is a bit of drama. Laurie doesn’t fare too well and has to have lunch with Jud instead of Curly. But I digress. The moral of that story is that through all that finery, frills, and bows, the hand of the maker can distinctly shine through. And likewise, all the finery that might be used in the creation of a book is not simply pretty decoration, but meaningful choices that fill the blankest of books with content.

    David Nees is an adjunct, book artist, and book designer. He is currently working at the University of Alabama Press, and teaching at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, where he lives with his fiancé, and their dog Henley. A selection of his portfolio can be seen here:

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