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

    I was inspired to write about the difference between being a book arts student and a book artist after reading some of the previous blog posts. Having graduated with my MFA in Book Arts from the University of Alabama this past summer, I have little time under my belt not being a student in Book Arts. Also, I am very fortunate that my current job as a Book Designer includes an education benefit that afforded me the opportunity to take a Binding class/workshop this past Fall semester. So technically, I have continued to work and learn, refine and practice, right up the present. But has it ended? No. I have a bag full of books to put together, a book project to print and bind, and a myriad of ideas. It feels far from over. I think, to be honest, it has just begun.

    I recently said to a group of new MFA Book Arts students that I didn’t really see myself as a book artist until I was knee-deep in my Thesis/Creative Project and I did something during binding that in the recent past I would have labored and worried about. Now I just did it. It happened easily. It was, now, natural to me. I remember thinking almost out loud that now I am a book artist. Becoming a book artist isn’t easy. Continuing to be a book artist certainly will be harder. Success even harder still. And of course, there will be classes, workshops, and techniques to learn and master; however, if you truly are a book artist, you can describe yourself as one. Perhaps you never make another book after completing your degree. You will still be a book artist. You may not be a good one, a great one, or even a practicing one, but you are still a book artist.


    You may become something else. Anyone, of any advanced age, at least over the age of 2 or so, has been a lot of things. Identity is not formed of cement. It is fluid. For instance, I have been a son and a brother. I have been a student, a retail clerk, a hairdresser (well, a student in cosmetology school). I have been a Classics major and an art historian. I have been an adjunct, an artist, a graphic designer, a Book Arts student, and now a book designer and a book artist. I am all of these things. I also know that all of these versions of myself inform the current version of myself. So often, I have found, we debate and argue over whether what we make is book art; however, maybe we should spend a little more time talking about ourselves as book artists. I echo the call for us to talk about ourselves and talk about how we make/survive the transition past student into life outside. Like Plato’s freed prisoner, there are challenges.

    And the challenges are not inconsequential. I have to begin to think of how I am going to do my work. I have to think outside of the glamorous, yes glamorous, world of the studios that, as it were, I have grown up in. I am looking at different ways to incorporate content into books, and finding ways to make books that are nearly as successful as those that I have made before. I have to make books in the way that I can make them now, not mourn for the loss of the studio space, lack of storage, or the lack of a board shear or access to printing presses. And I have to work toward creating that ideal space as it is allowed and afforded. Moreover, I have to maintain my community of fellow book artists that are now scattered, but always close at hand.

    David Nees is an adjunct, book artist, and book designer. He is currently working at the University of Alabama Press, working as a printer and binder, 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:

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

    As the end of the calendar year quickly approaches, I have been participating in some self-reflection: It has been approximately two and a half years since I completed my thesis project for my MFA in Book Arts. I have not, during that time, completed any unfinished editions or endeavored on new book art projects. I have, on the other hand, created 4’ by 6’ screen prints, taken on some job printing, and constructed a couple of sculptural costumes out of milkshake straws, fabric, and foil. Recently, knee deep in straws and silver lamé, I began to question if I could still consider myself a book artist, why (or if) I was avoiding creating book art, and if it was important to continue to self-identify as a book artist or as an artist who works in book form.

Even considering the many ways “book art” can be defined, I can still say with certainty I have not made any book art in the past few years. In my day job as a librarian, I work with a collection of over 4,000 book art objects. Daily, I witness the breadth and range of contemporary book art and it’s hard not to compare my own identity, practice, and production to those whose work surrounds me. My book artist identity questioning has led me in multiple directions and I’ve consequently had conversations with many peers about the obstacles and opportunities faced in building a book artist identity. I present the questions below as common threads pulled from hours of discussion and introspection - they are expansive and meant to provoke. I imagine many book artists have considered these questions, and I’m eager to hear the opinions and thoughts of the CBAA (and beyond) community.

    Are tools, equipment, and technical processes integral to the conceptual basis for your work? What happens when the tools and equipment you consider integral to your work are no longer readily available?

    How have you sought and found community for book arts in your current life? Additionally, how do you seek feedback and critique on in-progress work and ideas?

    How is the field of book art perceived by artists in other fields and institutions? Have you seen this perception shift over time?

    How does gender identity affect your experience of the field and yourself as a book artist?

    If you spent time in a formal program studying book art, what, if any, were the ways you prepared for life as a book artist after graduation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 16 Nov 2017 7:23 PM | Deleted user

    In my most recent post, I argue that we have a responsibility, as artists and educators in the field of book art, to ensure access to the work that we believe is critically important. I recognize that it can be challenging to make this kind of space, particularly in an academic context. Institutions move slowly, politics are embedded but opaque, and resources are (usually) scarce. Add to this the fact that the field of book art encompasses a constantly evolving continuum of creative activity, which is not easily defined or conveyed, nor predictably valued at any given institution. Advocating for the work while facing these difficulties can be a daunting task.

    As I previously acknowledged, partnerships and collaboration are essential, but a critical question remains–where and how do we locate our allies? With this post, I offer up several possibilities, based on the outreach events that I previously profiled, as well as my recent experiences with a collaborative project, Freedom of the Presses,  a multi-site exhibition focused on the creative and democratic processes of 21st century independent artist's publishing, which is currently in full swing at my institutional home.

    Academic libraries are, of course, natural partners. In all three of the collaborative interventions that serve as case studies for this post, the academic library plays a central, if not primary role in project development and implementation. At UCLA, the Activating the Archive project was made possible by the Center for Primary Research and Training, created by the UCLA Library “to integrate special collections materials more fully into the teaching and research mission of the university.” At Swarthmore, the libraries partnered with the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, which focuses on “Engaged Scholarship,” to enact their Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project. At Ringling, the Brizdle-Schoenberg Special Collections Center participated in the co-curation , exhibition design, and installation of the Freedom of the Presses exhibition. In addition, the Alfred R. Goldstein Library served as the primary site for an associated book fair.

    Campus galleries can also serve as ideal sites for collaborative interventions. Exhibitions organized in partnership with galleries provide space–literally–for critically important work in our field. These collaborative shows can also greatly expand outreach efforts. In the case of Freedom of the Presses, the Ringling College Galleries were able to directly reach ten times the number of potential visitors to the exhibition and associated programming than the Letterpress and Book Arts Center could engage on its own.

    Non-academic organizational partners are also essential allies. They bring critical focus, alternative strategies, creative solutions, swift action, and meaningful engagement to our efforts to activate artists’ books. In the case of Swarthmore’s Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project, the Philadelphia-based Nationalities Service Center plays a central role. With their mission to “prepare and empower immigrants and refugees in the Philadelphia region to transcend challenging circumstances,” the Nationalities Service Center facilitates meaningful, client-centered experiences for the Iraqi and Syrian refugees involved in the project, empowering both the organizers and participants to engage artists’ books as sites for activism. The Freedom of the Presses project at Ringling would not have been possible without Booklyn, Inc. The entire project was collaboratively developed with Booklyn's Collection Development Curator, Marshall Weber, from concept, to curation, to installation and programming, in an effort to stay true to the work–all of the artists and organizations featured in the exhibition approach artist’s publishing as a socially engaged practice. In addition to this integral collaboration with Booklyn, several other non-academic partners participated in the programming for the show, including EXILE Books, I Wish To Say, Bluebird Books Bus, NOMAD Art Bus, and SEA Change, a regional group of artists and curators dedicated to building awareness and support for socially engaged art practices. These organizations deepened understanding, engaged directly with the public, and provided a variety of accessible entry points to the exhibition.

    As I continue to forge ahead with the goal to make space for critically important artists’ publications, I hope to locate additional allies within and beyond my community and current institution. For instance, where are our allies within self-organized student groups and among faculty on campus? How can I support the meaningful programming and outreach that is already taking place within and beyond our campus through departments such as student volunteerism and service learning, international student affairs, and student health services? Who are the non-academic partners I have yet to engage?

    I invite our membership to consider questions such as these, and to share successful collaborations, emerging strategies, and possible sites for intervention in the comments section below.

    Bridget Elmer is an artist living in Saint Petersburg, Florida. She is the co-operator of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA) and founding member of Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. Bridget works as the Coordinator of the Letterpress and Book Arts Center at Ringling College of Art and Design and serves on the CBAA Board as Chair of the Publications Committee. She received an MFA and MLIS from the University of Alabama and her work is collected internationally.

  • 01 Nov 2017 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    In his most recent post, Tate Shaw urgently concludes, “We need more books like Come to Selfhood. We need to support more artists like McFadden. You need to see and hear what is present in the quiet of this critically important work.”

    Reading Shaw’s post, I am drawn back into one of the critical questions, originally posed by Susan Viguers, which I published in a previous post:

    “To what extent does the intended audience have access to the work (more particularly, to the intended experience of it)?”

    A new question simultaneously emerges:

    What is my responsibility, as an artist and educator in this field, to ensure access to the work that I consider to be critically important?

    After viewing Dr. Omi Sun Joni L. Jones’ "6 Rules for Allies," as referenced by Shaw, yet another question comes to the fore:

    What “alternative academic strategies” can I pursue in an effort to advocate for this critically important work?

    I am beginning to realize that it is not enough to simply make the work, appreciate the work, or even write about the work. We need to make space for the work–literally. We need to locate and activate the critically important artists’ books that sit on the shelves of our homes, our studios, our classrooms, and our libraries. We need to advocate for the creation, acquisition, and activation of artists’ publications that should be on those shelves, but are instead significantly absent. We have to locate the allies within and beyond our communities and institutions, do the hard work that collaboration necessitates, and dream up alternative, radical strategies for providing access to what we all “need to hear and see.” We have to “step up.”

    As an example of how we can take such steps, I offer up an archive outreach event recently facilitated by the Center for Primary Research and Training at UCLA Library Special Collections, Activating the Archive, which “aimed to create a space for creative engagement with the collections” and highlighted “materials focusing on social justice initiatives, activist groups, and human rights.” The event was a part of a series organized in response to the 2016 U.S. election, which recognized “the vast number of groups on campus being directly targeted by the new administration” and opened up the archive as a “creative outlet to make their voices heard.” The program drew students and staff from a variety of departments on campus and invited them to make buttons and zines using materials from the collection.

    Poster featuring buttons from UCLA Library Special Collections that were recreated during the event.

    An additional, visionary example can be found in the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project at Swarthmore College, which recently received a Pew Center Grant “to create and exhibit artists’ books that amplify personal narratives of displacement, immigration, and sanctuary.” Marshall Weber, Curator at Booklyn, Inc., brought to my attention this exemplary project, which is a collaboration between Swarthmore College Libraries, the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, and the immigrant and refugee service organization, Nationalities Service Center. The project invites Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Philadelphia to explore Swarthmore’s library collections and create artists’ books via multi-day workshops facilitated by book artists. The project will culminate with an exhibition and documentary catalogue, the publication of which I eagerly anticipate.

    Projects such as these serve as a beacon, modeling the alternative possibilities that can be activated in our field when allies organize, share resources, advocate, and step up.

    Bridget Elmer is an artist living in Saint Petersburg, Florida. She is the co-operator of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA) and founding member of Print St. Pete Community Letterpress. Bridget works as the Coordinator of the Letterpress and Book Arts Center at Ringling College of Art and Design and serves on the CBAA Board as Chair of the Publications Committee. She received an MFA and MLIS from the University of Alabama and her work is collected internationally.

  • 15 Oct 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Unless you meditate you probably haven’t spent much quiet time just being with yourself, lately. But if you have, then you’ll know that quiet isn’t an absence but reveals the presence of the sounds you’re not listening for. If you’re like me, you don’t often hear the hum of household machines while cicadas chirp outside and the cat licks its fur because whatever media you absorb—New York Times and Washington Post apps refreshed every fifteen minutes— in order to try to keep up with what’s happening—or entertainment you subsequently take in—Spotify, Netflix, HBOGO, YouTube—in order to dam the overflow of bad news—whatever you choose to engage with is also incorporating your life within this larger, noisy entity we call Media and Entertainment (ME). When incorporated, the self gets blotted out and loses its identity in order for it to be en masse, as one, with the all.

    This incorporation into the public is of course one way we get to the point of thinking of groups of people in monolithic terms. For example, ME has determined African American protest is loud and wild, crazy and passionate to the extreme. Take Colin Kaepernick, the now out of work NFL quarterback who peacefully, silently protested the treatment of African Americans by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem. Trump and now Pence call names, taunt, threaten, and stage antics making this quiet, simple protest seem a radical, threatening gesture when Kaepernick and those who have since followed his lead make a simple sign that they will not be incorporated, they will not have their selves be uncritically absorbed in the wash of patriotism performed for the sake of making us silent.

    I’ve been thinking about Kaepernick, quietness, and selfhood a lot because I recently had the good fortune of hearing Dr. Michelle S. Hite lecture at The College at Brockport, SUNY. Hite’s talk was on the denial of African American quietness, interiority, and dreaming. She cited Kevin Quashie’s Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture that uses, amongst other examples, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s fist-raising protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as evidence of the racist denial of black selfhood. As Quashie rightly notes, in the iconic image of the athletes on the podium, both Smith and Carlos have their heads bowed and eyes closed, a sign of quietude and interiority, a selfhood, that the public, that ME deny the existence of in African Americans. Photographs are far from facts and definitely mute but it is impossible to avoid what this oft-repeated image says about the interior minds of Smith and Carlos: that they are theirs and theirs alone. We don’t know what they were thinking but they are creating a quiet place in a loud and broad public to be with themselves.

    A stunning space to reflect on quietness, interiority, and self against the odds of its development is the photo artist’s book Come to Selfhood by Joshua Rashaad McFadden. For this remarkable book, McFadden made formal portraits of African American men including himself, paired them across the gutter with a vernacular image of their fathers, and between the two images, printed on soft, lightweight laid paper, answers to survey questions written in the hand of those photographed. When you see the stillness and strength of each man, see the brightness of their eyes, see the differences in their posture and features, see the likenesses with their fathers, you empathetically feel these men, individually. You question how people could ever be seen monolithically in terms of race or gender. But then you read the personal responses to the survey questions like “What are some common perceptions of men of color in America? Then, explain how these perceptions had and impact on you?” where one man, Keith Goins, responds:

    “—we’re violent

    —we’re ignorant

    —we’re criminals

    —we’re loud

    —we’re aggressive…

    These perceptions impact me everyday as a black male because of my skin as opposed to my character. I am constantly judged due to the media’s perception.”

    And if you’re a white, regular ME ingesting man like me who is reading McFadden’s book, you might have a flash of observation that Goins’s father in the vernacular photo shows him to be particularly young. As opposed to it being a photo Goins selected because it represents his father to him personally, your instant interpretation of the image is that Goins’ father died young. He was probably shot and killed, you might think.

    McFadden’s quiet book reveals what is present. I got caught, my own racism and gender biases exposed. But as Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones has stated, getting caught is a good thing. “Exposure is a step toward freedom.” We need more books like Come to Selfhood. We need to support more artists like McFadden. You need to see and hear what is present in the quiet of this critically important book.

    Tate Shaw is an artist and writer living in Rochester, NY. He is the Director of Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) and directs the College at Brockport, SUNY MFA in Visual Studies at VSW. Cuneiform Press published a collection of Shaw’s essays on artists' books, Blurred Library, earlier in 2017.

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

    This third post finds me stepping on shaky ground. While the other posts have a clear and defined point, a telos (in its Greek sense, a post towards which we confidently stride), consider this post a tentative exploration or a furtive, still-developing movement. An outlier, an out-post, venturing into the foreign territory of outer space.

    I mean that last quite literally. Almost two decades ago now, Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök undertook the creation of a poem that would be, after much careful encoding and countless funding dollars, transferred directly into a bacterium, meant to outlast the human race and survive the vacuum of outer space. As of this writing the project isn’t quite complete—one wonders if it will, in fact, ever be complete, not due to any specific scientific constraint (admittedly the current hangup) but due to its consistently evolving nature.

    After all, the Xenotext takes the shape of a complex transmedial multiplicity. Poem written, enciphered, translated into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, and implanted into the E. coli bacterium: this is the Xenotext. E. coli’s reading and response to the poem, a poem that then becomes what Bök calls an “archive”: this is the Xenotext. The future poem, not E. coli but a specific bacterium meant to outlast the reader, incomplete & possibly impossible: this is the Xenotext.

    On the human scale, at exhibitions there is a colorful polymer model of Protein 13. More graspable for us, here, there is also a print book (The Xenotext: Book 1), published in 2015 by Coach House. Somewhat surprisingly, it sidesteps the scientific-creative discussion in favor of anthropocene-motivated poems, recognizable poems with line breaks and figurative language and epic, elegiac tones. And, as an object, the book is beautiful, with a full-color section in the middle, and other sections akin to concrete poems mimicking molecules:

    Nucleotides, “Cytosine”

    Bök’s work has always expressed a delicate awareness of the book as form (see the transparent pages in Crystallography). Yet I can’t help thinking that the book is a successful book but not a successful work of book art. Instead, I am drawn again and again to the Xenotext bacterium, which uncannily wants to fulfil the maxim that artists’ books manifest a self-reflexivity about their form. What is more self-reflexive than a poem created of itself? And yet unmistakably we lose what is, for us humans, the exact definition of a book—that which we can read.

    The Xenotext obsesses me as a bookmaker and thinker because it goes beyond the conventional book—a goal artists’ books tend to embrace—to the extent that it loses sight of the book altogether. (And yet there is that print text, too, a stake on Earth.) Is this the logical conclusion of arguing for a radical, ever-expanding view of materiality? The Xenotext takes the idea of transmedial work such as Abra, which I touched on last week, or perhaps the work of digital author J.R. Carpenter, or—even closer to the macrolevel writing under discussion here—book artist Jen Bervin (the Silk Poems), and blows it up from trans-medial to trans-mondial.

    Not a book—but, still, writing. At the same time the Xenotext takes me to task for desiring new & strange poetries; it commands my awe. It reminds me that perhaps the thing I love most about artists’ books can be rephrased not in terms of self-reflexivity, but in terms that suggest an odd aliveness. What I love most, it seems, is material that speaks. Even if we cannot always hear it.

    Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective.

  • 15 Sep 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    At the Center for Book and Paper in Chicago, an initiative devoted to creating “expanded artists’ books” presents transmedial works that bridge what we would consider a traditional artist’s book—the concrete, physical, haptic art object—and the digital, like an iPad/iPhone application (Abra by Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin with Ian Hatcher). In these projects, old and new media deliberately link arms to declare their shared investments, investments I think of as key to artists’ books in any guise: material and formal considerations embedded into materiality and form; reading as a vibrant and immersive experience; writing that develops in tandem with its medium, shaping and being shaped by it.

    For digital and new media scholars, reading this kind of writing begins with N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of “media-specific analysis.” In her now-classic essay “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep,” Hayles argues that we must read the materiality of texts, hypertexts both digital and print, as well as their semantic content. She characterizes materiality as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies”—such medial self-awareness, she acknowledges, hardly limited to digital examples (72). Many of these examples, in fact, reference “reverse remediation” in digital hypertexts, moments where the digital mimics the analog: the appearance of dog-eared pages in print codices transferred to a screen; the illusion of something like Scotch tape at the edges of ersatz photographs; the moments which, as Emily Larned wrote in an earlier post for this blog, often create an “aesthetics of interference,” where such interference is constructed for the comfort or delight of the reader. This is not a new reaction, of course: we could cast much further back to recall the moment where moveable type, as blackletter, mimicked the script to which readers had been accustomed.

    Digital and new media scholars, both Hayles and those who follow, are far from allergic to more traditional artist book examples (see Hayles’s Writing Machines, which references Tom Phillips’s classic A Humument, or Manuel Portela’s Scripting Reading Motions: The Codex and The Computer as Self-Reflexive Machines, which has a chapter on Johanna Drucker’s letterpress work). Yet those with an interest in artists’ books often overlook the digital. At the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Portugal this summer, I heard about projects ranging from Taiwanese artist Hsia Yu’s book of digital remix poetry printed on Mylar, Pink Noise; to Rote Bete, a book made entirely on the copier by Portuguese artist César Figueiredo; to Eugenio Tisselli’s “Degenerative,” a web-based project which was corrupted bit-by-bit every time it was visited.

    Page from Rote Bete

    Yu’s book might easily be assimilated into the genre of artists’ books, perhaps Figueiredo’s work as well. What about Tisselli? Does it change our view to know the degenerative process was captured at various stages of decay before fading away completely, again suggesting, to an artist’s book reader, strange parallels with flux that might have intrigued Tom Phillips?

    Day 1 and Day 44 of “Degenerative”

    The truth is, of course, that both print and code are equally deep (or equally flat—take your pick). After all, both digital and analog are material. As Matt Kirschenbaum argues in his fantastic 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, it’s a convenient illusion that the digital is “hopelessly ephemeral...infinitely fungible or self-identical, and that it is fluid or infinitely malleable” (50). Instead, Kirschenbaum reminds us, “Every contact leaves a trace” (ibid). Why should we not extend our consideration from artists’ books to the digital, then, especially given their shared concerns about media specificity, self-reflectiveness, and reading?

    In its digital guise, Abra, which I mentioned at the beginning, encourages the user to create new poems through casting “spells” on the screen, which can shift and mutate words, graft the user’s words into the evolving poem, erase words from the lexicon, all in a shimmering set of rainbow hues. There is a paperback version, as well, that does not attempt to replicate the app but instead extends its concerns to another form. And linking the two is a letterpress-printed, small-edition handmade codex. At the back of this book there is a space left for an iPad, inviting the user to make the connection.

    Abra, from the Center for Book and Paper Arts’s website

    Works Cited

    Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep.” Poetics Today 25, no. 1 (2004). pp 67-90. doi: 10.1215/03335372-25-1-67.

    Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007.

    Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective. 

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

    Unlike many of the authors who have blogged here before, my primary work is in English literature—well, according to the language on my degree, at least. More specifically, I work at the intersection of theory or philosophy and artists’ books. Along these lines, my dissertation considered a small but critically significant section of arguments that enact their arguments through their material form: the Encyclopedia Da Costa of Georges Bataille, Marcel Duchamp, and others; Jacques Derrida’s two-columned Glas; Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book, which meanders in and out of legibility; Mark C. Taylor’s wildly colorful and typographically innovative Hiding and its accompanying forward-thinking 1998 digital literature work The Réal: Las Vegas, NV; and Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics and Susan Howe’s Tom Tit Tot, two artists’ books commonly recognized as such that nevertheless extend the threads set out by material arguments. Taken together, these works blur notions of how the argument genre operates.

    Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that often a description of my work is met with a furrowed brow from other English scholars. But how is it English? Well, it is, and it isn’t: true, it moves against a conventional sense of English as a field of set and stable genres; nevertheless, it emphasizes careful consideration of the stakes of a text and reflects back onto how we read. Insisting on fluidity, this kind of work argues for the necessary incorporation of other elements, gathered from critical theory, from media studies and communication theory, from what Jonathan Rose, in a speech for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, calls “book studies.” What I term in the dissertation material arguments, or theoretical artists’ books, are critical of the usual jobs of criticism, relentlessly seeking to provoke the reader rather than engage them in counterargument or as adversary. (“You can’t wrestle with a man who won’t wrestle back,” as Jack Miles characterizes Taylor in the introduction.)

    Moreover, the readerly provocations of theoretical artists’ books are located firmly in the material forms of the work, expressed through typography and design and media: for example, the blurred letterforms that visually replicate deafness in The Telephone Book; the juxtaposition of text and image in the Encyclopedia Da Costa that conveys absurdity and comedy; or the translucent paper that allows photos in Hiding to “bleed” through the text on the other side of the page during a discussion of skin. It becomes impossible to separate form from content, material from argument—theoretical artists’ books are irreducible to a bottom-line argument, requiring a multisensory, haptic experience.

    Theoretical artists’ books is a strong term, and subject to pushback of its own. But it is always worth reconsidering the assumed delineations of the artists’ books genre, which readily accepts fiction, poetry, and essay. Why not argument? In 1981, in the New York Times, Geoffrey Hartmann makes a case for expanding the scope of argumentative texts to include a “literature of criticism.” Theory or criticism, Hartmann argues, has as much a claim to hybridization of genres as literature does: “[I]f there is no reason to deny the critical essay a dignity and even a creative touch of its own, then criticism, too, will have to be read closely. It should not be fobbed off as a secondary activity, as a handmaiden to more ‘creative’ modes of thinking like poems or novels.” Theoretical artists’ books reference their own bookishness; their material provocations are essential, not ornamental; they interrupt and recreate reading.

    Questioning the boundaries of genre, we begin to also note that any field is always already subject to rifts and fractures and outgrowths. Artists’ books are hardly an exception, and these shifting contexts are beneficial: they allow for multiple perspectives. Stochastic Poetics will be familiar to many readers of this blog, but what about the work of poet Susan Howe? Like Stochastic Poetics, Howe’s Tom Tit Tot is highly citational, poses challenges to reading, and incorporates self-reflexivity about its production into its (handmade, letterpress-printed) presentation. Nor is it an anomaly in Howe’s oeuvre, which famously incorporates marginalia and collage, emphasizing the materiality of text. (In interviews, Howe has acknowledged her origins as a creator of what she considers visual art, textworks, before turning to poetry.)

    Johanna Drucker, Stochastic Poetics

    Susan Howe. Tom Tit Tot

    At the University of Buffalo, both Stochastic and Tom can be accessed in the rare books room. But they come from different areas, I am told: Stochastic is classified as an art object, and Tom is an artist’s book. Pressing for further information, I am met with a shrug and an acknowledgement. It’s likely, the librarian notes, they will be reclassified soon.

    Works Cited

    Hartmann, Geoffrey. “How Creative Should Literary Criticism Be?” New York Times, 5 April 1981, Accessed 3 April 2017.

    Miles, Jack. “How To Read This Book: A Note to the Reader from a Concerned Friend.” Introduction to Hiding, by Mark C. Taylor, U of Chicago P, 1997.

    Rose, Jonathan. “From Book History to Book Studies.” American Printing History Association, Accessed 3 April 2017.

  • 15 Aug 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    What does seamfulness look like, and how does it function? How does it read? How can it encourage the reader to “look hard?” How does that attention place them back into the world?

    It seems best to try to answer these questions by writing about a specific artwork. Divya Victor’s 2014 book, Natural Subjects, [1] is an excellent case study for this particular context: it is a book (poetry, but it deploys text and image), it is conceptually and formally sophisticated but still accessible (in other words, it’s really good), and it deals with identity, speech, language, migration, and immigration. I’m not interested in trying to parse whether Natural Subjects is or is not an artists’ book. The category is not important. What is important is that it is an approach to writing (rigorous in craft and concept, shaped as a whole, conscious of the materiality of the text, the shape of the page, and the form of the book) that those of us engaged in the book arts can look to as a model.

    Natural Subjects is a book about power, about the languages and documents that power constructs, and about how that language and power affects real people in their real lives. The abstraction of text can be used to define, limit, and trap the actual body:

    Or it can be used to dissect and examine an indeterminate body—perhaps an animal, perhaps a human treated as an animal, perhaps a human treated as only a body or a problem:

    The activity of writing naturally hides its seams. The writer can easily insert text from another source, and the reader only recognizes it as such if that text is given its appropriate markings—quotation marks, separation as a block quote, a footnote, italics, etc. The writing in Natural Subjects uses these conventions in certain instances, but they are not applied consistently and “properly.” Even when the conventions of marking quoted text are not used, the seams in Natural Subjects remain legible—they become legible in the reading. The legibility of the seams leads to other legibilities: of the source texts, of the experience of encountering those texts in lived situations, of the structures that generate and control such texts, and/or of the mythologies that permeate the interpretations of such texts. One such moment occurs on page 24:

    Is this a checklist? Is this an oath? Who is “I,” and why is “I” separated from the expected flow of speech? The seams, those moments of disruption and collage do two related things for the reader: first, they defamiliarize the “official” language of the U.S. government and reveal (though it is always in plain sight) its function as an instrument of control. Second, they place the reader in the position of being subject to, the subject of, the text and the functions of power/control that it exerts. That list is followed, after two blank pages, with a more extreme moment of collage/disruption:

    The blank pages are a seam. The shift in size is a seam. The all caps is a seam. The use of italics is a seam. The cutting off of the word “happiness” is a seam. The repetition of the last line is a seam. There are more seams on that page than “straight” content, and the reading is the reader tracing those seams.

    Natural Subjects is an extended act of “looking hard” at various texts, systems, and experiences that continue to actively shape (or distort?) the world. Natural Subjects gives us a picture, but also the frame, and shows the seams where the two parts connect.

    “As I write this, I can’t help but think that ‘aesthetic of interference’ also has metaphorical resonance in our contemporary age of resistance… perhaps that’s a whole other blog post.”

    Tracing the seams leads the reader to an awareness of structure. The book arts are about structure. This means book structures in the literal sense, as well as in the spatial, temporal, metaphorical, and conceptual sense. Books are a series of overlapping, intersecting, and interconnected spaces that the reader moves within and through. Books mirror our experience of time and the world. Books actively shape our experience of time and the world. That reflection/shaping of our experience of time is one of the most important ways that artists’ books can bring our attention to the world, and allow us to “look hard,” be present in it, be present with others, reground, and regroup. An “aesthetics of interference” must also be an aesthetics of attention to the world and to others, and by extension of those relationships—an aesthetics of compassion.


    1. Divya Victor, Natural Subjects (New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2014). The first image is part of page 29. The second image is part of page 92. The third image is part of page 24. Images four and five are pages 24 – 27. All images are scans made/assembled by Aaron Cohick.

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