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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 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.

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

    Noise is one tool that can generate multiple legibilities within an image or text. For example, this image fragment from the last post contains multiple legibilities:

    • It can be read as what it shows.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image of what it shows.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image taken from one context and placed into another.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image reprinted through another process.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image, taken from one context and repeated using collage.

    • It can be read as a printed, mass-produced image taken from one context, placed into another, and then placed into another.


    • There may be more legibilities not listed here.

    • Different points of reality vs. reproduction, and different contexts will have different legibilities.

    • Legibilities are dependent upon material.

    • Not all legibilities are available to every reader, all of the time. Which legibilities are available will vary with the reader’s contexts, and a single reader may find different legibilities at different points in time.

    • Each legibility is translucent, partially revealing and partially obscuring the others at any moment of reading.

    • A legibility is not the same thing as a meaning, but they are not mutually exclusive.

    • A legibility is an entrance and a path.

    Multiple legibilities within an artwork can generate multiple, intersecting readings, potentially even from the same reader. An aesthetics of interference, of noise, takes the multi-, the poly-, the many, and the potential as a value to be explored. In the above instance, noise and its multiple legibilities are also a function of collage. Collage of images/objects/texts transforms art into matter, into the world, and then mixes them back into the artwork.

    “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.” [1]

    In this “contemporary age of resistance” it is important to be clear about what “resistance” means, and here my own subject position becomes an issue. I, personally, am not interested in the spectacle of viciously inept leaders—I am interested in working against the structures that makes such “leadership” possible. These are also the structures that define our contemporary world: white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, mass incarceration, and environmental destruction. Oppression in its many forms. These are not new things. I have benefitted from these structures. The predominantly white organization that these blog posts are for has benefitted from these structures. Resistance cannot just be metaphorical—it has to involve real work. Art can do that by opening up questions of representation, structural signification, education, economics, etc. Can art affect political change? Only insofar as it can ground us in the world, show us the world, and show us ourselves.

    It would seem that collage, noise, and their related devices and techniques (montage, appropriation, the graphic marks of photo/mechanical reproduction, hiss, interference) are, at a structural level, antithetical to the idea of purity. Purity as a value is easily extrapolated to justify white supremacy. [2]

    I would agree with AD Jameson’s assertion (in the essay referred to in Part 1) that “art has no favorite way of being made, and there are no experimental devices. One can only experiment with devices.” I would extend that to say that there are no inherently ethical devices in art. Noise and collage can also be used to support white supremacy, and they certainly are and have been. In those uses, though, they tend to be used to obscure, cover, and falsify—to hide their seams and the legibility of those seams. White supremacy requires invisibility to function. It cannot show its seams. To extend Lori Emerson’s argument about the ideology of interfaces in her book Reading Writing Interfaces—above all, white supremacy must be user-friendly. [3]

    So we are seeking a collage, a noise, a work that allows us to show its seams, and the seams of the structures that bind us. To name those structures. Our resistance will not be seamless, but seam-full. A seamfulness to help us see.


    1. This is the passage that inspired this series of posts. It is from Emily Larned’s post on this same blog, “Aesthetics of Interference.”

    2. In addition to the linked article on color in classical sculpture, I would also recommend David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia for a far-ranging look at the conflation of whiteness, purity, and an “ideal” aesthetic. David Batchelor, Chromophobia, (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

    3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Emerson’s analysis of interfaces, ideology, media poetics, and media archaeology is very relevant to the field of Book Arts. I highly recommend her book.

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

    An artwork is never alone. Interference can come from the actual material, like in a half-toned image, or the hiss of a recording made on a scavenged x-ray. Interference can also come from the deliberate play or disruption of the reader/viewer’s expectations of a medium/genre, and/or the “bleeding-in” of other pieces, of the discourses surrounding and running through a given work.

    “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.”

    In my previous post I talked about the quote above, from another post on this blog by Emily Larned. I connected it to the work of Viktor Shklovsky, and a particular essay about Shklovsky. My reading of Emily’s text (and my future writing) was already woven through with, or emerging out of, other readings of other texts. Those outside texts—that interference, that noise, that heap, that murmur—can be used as, transformed into, a matrix.

    “[Bertolt] Brecht had always attacked the myth of the transparency of language that had governed the practice of theater since Aristotle; the self-reflective, anti-illusionistic montagelike devices that interrupted the flow of his plays aimed at aborting the identification of the spectator with any character and, as he phrased it, at producing an effect of ‘distanciation’ or ‘estrangement.’

    The first example Barthes commented on in his 1971-2 seminar was a text in which the German writer patiently analyzed the 1934 Christmas speeches of two Nazi leaders (Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess). What struck Barthes was Brecht’s extreme attention to the form of the Nazi texts, which he had followed word for word in order to elaborate his counterdiscourse. Brecht pinpointed the efficacy of these speeches in the seamless flow of their rhetoric: the smokescreen with which Goering and Hess masked their faulty logic and heap of lies was the mellifluous continuity of their language, which functioned like a robust, gooey adhesive.” [1]

    “In communication theory, noise is that which distorts the signal on its way from transmitter to recipient. There will always be an element of distortion, either externally or internally, coming from the medium itself. In music noise is often originally a malfunction in the instruments or electronics (a disturbance of the clear signal), which is then reversed into a positive effect. . . . When you reverse a disturbance into a part of the music itself, it is not smoothly integrated but infuses the music with a tension. There is still a play on the formerly negative relation between noise and signal when a noise is legitimated. This tension is an important part of the musical power of noise.” [2]

    “I identify these interfaces that obscure ever more from the user in the name of ‘invisibility’ and the ‘user-friendly’ with what’s fast becoming an ideology. I use ideology not merely in the sense of the adamant belief in making the computer more approachable but more in the sense that user-friendly is used quite deliberately to distort reality by convincing users that this very particular notion of a user-friendly device—one that depends on and then celebrates the device as entirely closed off both to the user and to any understanding of it via a glossy interface—is the only possible version of the user-friendly, one that claims to successfully bridge the gap between human and computer. In reality, the glossy surface of the interface further alienates the user from having access to the underlying workings of the device.” [3]

    The “aesthetics of interference” is an aesthetics of noise. Noise is the world—seething, stewing, clamoring, singing, generating—outside of the artwork. Noise is material, which is where the artwork becomes part of the world, and where the world pierces the artwork. Noise is the pixel, the half-tone, the smear, the seam, the suture, the footnote, the epigraph, the frayed edge of a sound. Noise is that which we did not expect from the artwork, in the artwork, driving the core tension of the artwork. Noise feeds our attention. Noise catalyzes our sight. Noise is necessary when power continually lies and obscures.

    “With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion.” [4]


    1. Yve Alain-Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, eds. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve Alain-Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 33.

    2. Torben Sangild, “The Aesthetics of Noise,” 2002. Available online at

    3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), xi.

    4. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6.

    Image: details of Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, acrylic on canvas.

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

    In her Book Art Theory blog post called “Aesthetics of Interference,” artist Emily Larned writes about sounds and images that display their medium, specifically recordings on vinyl, and half-toned or pixilated images. She starts to unpack how and why the “low quality” of the images/sounds becomes aestheticized (or fetishized). In that post she wrote the following (parenthetical) statement:

    “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.”

    With Emily’s permission, I’d like to make an attempt at that post (or posts).


    In the summers I teach an intro level book arts course called “Book Arts & Letterpress.” It ranges from the very small (close looking at individual typeforms) to the very large (what does it mean to publish handmade books in this contemporary world?). We start with an assignment adapted from Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type, where the students draw, to scale at 100 point size, an exact copy of several letters (a, t, A, a) of a typeface of their choosing. At the same time they read the first chapter of Lupton’s book, and an essay by A.D. Jameson about the work of the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. That essay talks about some of the most famous and important principles from Shklovsky’s work: the related concepts of “seeing” vs. “recognition,” and the device of “defamiliarization/enstrangement/making strange.”

    In Shklovsky’s formulation (as explained by Jameson) “recognition” is that routine, automatic, disengaged perception of the world that is our default state. We see enough to get by. “Seeing” is an active, engaged looking, where the world can suddenly become a strange, wondrous, and infinitely complex thing. My first lucid encounter with this engaged seeing came to me through intense observational drawing and painting exercises when I was a student. We were ordered to “look hard” and draw the same still-life set-up over several six-hour studio classes. That phrase seems nonsensical at first: seeing is effortless, so how can I “look hard”? Through practice it becomes the first and most critical piece of being an artist and human. That phrase sticks with me to this day. The typeform drawing assignment is my attempt to get at the same practice (look hard) within the context of type and books. One assignment is never enough, of course, and we come back to the concept again and again.

    The seed of the course’s expansion is also planted within that first reading. To quote Shklovsky directly:

    “And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives [sic], and at our fear of war.”

    Our automatic, disengaged perception, aided by the constant assault of spectacle-as-news/news-as-spectacle, is an insidious form of social control. Our “fear of war” is dulled and flattened. We draw inward. We forget about the humanity of those around us. It seems inevitable, natural. We are all, always and forever, susceptible and mostly complicit.

    Shklovsky offers art as one tool to use in the never-ending-reconstruction-of-our-humanity:

    “If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. . . . And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’”

    That first reading becomes a challenge and focal point for the entire course (and hopefully beyond). It starts to get at the question, that all-important, impossible question that every student artist has to answer in their own way (and that all of us “professionals” are always answering too): what does art do, and why is it important?


    Both Shklovsky quotes are from the chapter “Art as Device,” in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Normal, IL: Illinois State University, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 5–6.

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

    Recently, I was thinking about reading, not only as the powerful privilege and action, but the interfaces in which we engage with this action. In his essay, Social Book Building, Amos Paul Kennedy, Jr., discusses an imminent future where we are “read to.” Kennedy refers specifically to the internet superhighway, alludes to the now-realized prevalence of “smart” devices seamlessly integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives, and discusses the potential threat those technologies present to literacy among the general public.

    Literacy, for Kennedy, appears tied to the continued propagation and dissemination of physically tangible, textual objects — books or publications. His concerns for digital space, and its potential threat to society, lead me to reconsider Miller-Fusco’s Publish/Public and other related essays on the notion of “creating a public” through the action of publishing. These texts present a discussion negotiating the digital as an (invisible) public vs. the physical as a (visible) public: how they are created, what they represent, how they function in society, and how they can be or are effectively utilized given advancement in communication technologies.

    As a new independent publisher interested in publishing as a critical artistic practice, two main sets of questions emerged:

    1) How do we, can we, as publishers, conquer a/o harness the power of the “invisible” public? What problems exist within these new means that culture has so easily embraced?

    2) What is a “visible” public? How is this unique today when held up against the “invisible”? And how can we better harness this public with our publication methodologies?

    Moreover: What is it to publish for a digital (invisible) public? What does it mean to intentionally not publish for that public? Are there problems that exist in the invisible public that could be circumnavigated in the visible public? And who are these publics, really?

    The initial public generated by independent publishers working analogue is small. Access to that public often requires great effort (and resources) at an imprint’s outset. The physical labor of creating and penetrating the visible as physical public is daunting, and often success hinges on the integration of tools offered by the digital in order to also access the invisible. In contrast, the digital offers ease of accessibility (read: download anywhere) to a potentially larger public with seemingly less physical labor; a publication has the potential to swiftly reach a larger audience. This open ease of accessibility is at the heart of the invisible, but what are the caveats, the drawbacks to being out there in this invisible space, or potential risks?

    Is it a matter of surveillance? With the invisible comes complicit participation in contemporary means of gross data collection; every action is archived in a constantly refining digital algorithm. In the process is loss of anonymity as these very useful, effective, online platforms and interfaces get to know you, our invisible public, and us, as distributor. Such surveillance has been and remains under critical examination, constantly questioned, by a skeptical greater body public. So, while the digital platform presents as incredibly powerful and successful — esp. in terms of cultural urgency to disseminate — it also remains very visible and traceable despite its seemingly invisible means of operability. This is in direct opposition to my initial assertion of the digital as invisible. So we must reconsider “invisible” vs. “visible” when describing these modes of dissemination, for as terms, they possess contentious connotations.

    Instead, it is a matter of volume — loudness vs. silence.

    The digital as invisible is loud — very loud and very effective as it is very visible and accessible; facts that are both a blessing and a potential curse. 

    Given the state of our contemporary political climate, we could entertain a "doomsday" scenario (history being cyclical — why else are so many rereading 1984?): What role can/does an analogue means of publishing and distribution play in an age of gross data collection and surveillance? History, would answer resoundingly: “as the underground,” “the alternative,” a silent revolution

    While analogue publishing is loud in its own right primarily by way of its visible physicality, it is also comparatively much more silent. There is a time associated with its production that is inseparable from its action but in this time remains its potential power. This echoes personal tensions I have balancing urgency of content, time required for production, and a need for timely distribution.

    This analogous mode of publishing is presented here as “silent distribution,” or a “silent platform of dissemination”— a tool wherein the information being disseminated is produced having never found or interacted with the WWW, a computer, or any other digital media (provided that the publisher has access to the proper obsolete technologies). Viable? Perhaps, but also radical despite it being historically old-hat. It is, in many ways, a return to independent publishing’s genesis. 

    This analogue mode of publishing and distribution could be — given our access to more effective, far-reaching, and efficient means — a powerful and radical consideration in this age of digital surveillance. What seems to be missing however, in order for it to be a truly successful endeavor or method of production as I have somewhat outlined here, is the ability to distribute the content wildly and widely without the assistance of previously noted contemporary digital media platforms.

    The (analogue) has fallen out of mainstream fashion, and with it, postal distribution (think of the disappearance and significance of print journals and magazines, the costs associated with mail-order distribution, the threat to defund the USPS, etc.). But the postal service remains a potential ally, providing a sympathetic means of distribution, a silent distribution. It is a pre-existing, underutilized, not quite obsolete, but not in vogue infrastructure. 

    The challenge then is how do we, or could we, disseminate timely critical content, and do so quickly in this vein? How do you revive an analogous distribution network? Is it worth investigating? Is it madness, delusional, or simply paranoid to think of this analogous action of silent distribution as a viable activity and action?

    I do not know, but certainly believe it is worth further consideration in our modern age.

    Kennedy, Amos Paul, Jr., “Social Book Building,” Talking the Boundless Book: Art, Language, and Book Arts, ed. Charles Alexander (Minnesota: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1995), 49-50.

    Miller, John and Maria Fusco, “Publish/Public,” Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing, ed. Maria Fusco and Ian Hunt (London: Book Works, 2004), 149-154.

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

    Michael Hampton’s 2015 book, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book, is as revolutionary as it is useful. Unshelfmarked is a manifesto, a defense of the artists’ book as digestible and democratic, and one that traces that lineage far beyond the alternative impulses of the 1960s.

    Between compelling introductory and concluding writings is a collection of what could be entries in the catalogue for a fantasy exhibition, curated to explode the contextual pigeonhole where conversations about artists’ books have been jammed for decades. As the title implies, this expansive bibliography dispenses with the typical organizational trappings of the library and leaves it to alphabetical order (and the will of the reader) to draw connections between its fifty entries, which span thirteen centuries. Hampton also includes an “exposé” in the midst of these entries, which follows a number of conceptual threads in a loosely chronological fashion so as to challenge the conventional history of artists’ books without proposing an equally rigid alternative. This new history demonstrates that the artists’ book was latent within cultural production for centuries, not a strange new form wholly reliant on reference to, and distinction from, literature and bibliography.

    Having swept the historical rug out from under our feet, it is perhaps no surprise that Unshelfmarked has a complicated relationship with the past. While discussing Vorticism, Hampton references “the artists’ book form, which is according Johanna Drucker an ultra 20th century phenomenon (like oil, information and atonal music), yet one whose paroxysmal phase has now levelled out, normalised even.” Though somewhat dismissive, Hampton does not preclude the possibility that artists’ books could have these long roots, yet nevertheless epitomize the Twentieth Century. Hampton’s positive descriptions of the field at present are more clear: “the era distinguished by promiscuous signalling and play between disciplines . . . has explicitly metamorphosed wholesale into one that is now omnipresent, digitally hypermediated and wise to its own gimmicks; meaning the artists’ book has blithely surpassed its own definition route.”

    In reconsidering the past, the future of artists’ books also changes. Hampton writes that “to speak of the artists’ book as if solely a quirky Cinderella-like branch of the six hundred year-old history of the book as codex, or even a late-capitalist symptom, would be to ignore the impact of the digital revolution upon it too, a seismic event that has coincided with its structural renewal and expansion, revealing a fluid, highly adaptable and above all democratic format in the process.” Unshelfmarked verges on teleology, positing artists’ books as the most evolved form of the book. Though the digital revolution facilitates this progress, it is not required; most of the artists’ books catalogued in Unshelfmarked have achieved this perfection of the book even without the democratic potential of digital media.

    Since Unshelfmarked spurns conventional organization, Hampton makes his case through the force and enthusiasm with which he situates each entry in the expanded field of artists’ books. He does not waste words defending these assertions. Each book is allotted roughly one recto and verso, though they are by no means cookie cutter reviews. The reader might find description, contextualization, criticism or meta-critique. Hampton has a knack for distilling the salient aspects of a book, though perhaps always with a mind towards his larger argument.

    Thus, these sensitive readings are at times pressed into the service of polemics beyond the confines of the bookshelf, including magnificent anti-capitalist criticism and playful, generative leaps between intellectual disciplines. In raising the stakes through these broader connections, Unshelfmarked does not seek to hijack the politics of any given work. Indeed, Hampton includes ample quotes from the artists themselves as well as other commentators. The overarching assertion is more that, to some degree, the meaning of each book is contingent upon the cultural-historical position of the book.

    This is argued most clearly in the book’s appendix, “On Recent Tendencies in Bibliotecture: Memorials, Chutes and Shelving.” The appendix rounds up recent works which engage with book culture, and diagnoses a conundrum which haunts artists’ books today: a tension between institutional critique and a nostalgic defense of liberal humanism, two impulses for which books have been indispensable tools. Unshelfmarked is a welcome guide to this moment.

    Hampton, Michael, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book (Axminster, UK: Uniformbooks, 2015)

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

    Last summer, for the first time in years, I published a large edition of handmade hardcover books.

    Through the struggle of making each book the best I could, I became acutely aware that each editioned book was in fact unique. One-of-a-kind. A hand-printed book, a hand-bound one: each sheet cut by hand, sent through the Risograph and the Vandercook multiple times, folded by hand, hand collated; text blocks glued by hand, trimmed by hand; boards cut by hand; covers wrapped by hand; spine pieces cut by hand, foil-stamped by hand. So many opportunities for difference.

    This process, this practice, is of repetition: a study. One hundred opportunities to get it right, this time, finally: but never. Always a different book. At first I was acutely, achingly aware of my failures. In early summer, I lay awake at night, poring over them. But then, gradually, I began to realize that these imperfections were embedded in the process of a part-time publisher producing an edition by hand by herself: as designer, typesetter, printer, self-taught binder, publisher: so many opportunities, I began to think, not for error but for difference, for learning, for engagement of the hand and the mind.

    In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi writes that the “art of imperfection” is a natural result of the craft process. He wrote that the completely precise “carries no overtones” — “everything is apparent from the start.” But, like any other handcraft, making books by hand is a process with many steps: “there is always a little something unaccounted for.” “Slight irregularities come by chance, and not by any deliberation.”

    Of course Ruskin cited printing as the first industrial process: printing was not a handcraft but an industrial one, with “copies” instead of one-offs, one right after another. Books produced by master printers and binders also are testaments to the attainment of apparent perfection — whether they also feel the same as I, all too aware of the inconsistencies, I do not know. Perhaps they do, too. Or perhaps those most practiced and committed to their craft take the stance of David Pye in The Nature and Art of Workmanship: the craftsmanship of risk. In each moment, an opportunity to ruin all the work that came before. But with this mindset, how do you think of the finished piece? Is it the inevitable culmination of the process? Is it a struggle for unobtainable perfection? Is it both these things at the same time?

    Each process has developed its own relationship to the idea of perfection, as each maker must. While traditional letterpress printers cultivate and revere consistency and strive to pull each print exactly the same, in Riso printing the opposite is embraced. Risograph printers proclaim that prints will have wheel track marks, registration will be imperfect, the ink will never truly dry and will always smudge: and these are all to be embraced as defining characteristics of the medium. So you could say it is embedded in the processes that made them that no two of my 100 books, with Riso as well as letterpress printed pages, will be exactly alike.

    What I came to realize, for me, in making the books one after another over the course of a very hot summer: absolute uniformity was not my goal. It could not be. It was a miserable goal, chasing after an impossible future instead of being in the present moment, each moment, allowing the hands to coax the materials into a book, the mind both here and freed by the hands to ponder other possibilities. It was this strange double-mind I maintained while editioning: making the book the best I could, one at a time, one right after another, adapting steps, changing tactics, trying new strategies: but simultaneously letting go of the slight variations that were inevitable. My goal had to be the immersion in process, in each step, of letting the hands learn and remember, creating their own knowledge separate from the mind: living the freedom and richness. “All that there is, is the Eternal Now” Yanagi wrote. That is what making books by hand is for me.

    This is not to say that I did not have certain standards of workmanship: a threshold of acceptability. I combed over all of the prints to select the best ones for the book. I ripped the spine off some covers, remade them. I threw out spine pieces cut off square, or poorly foil stamped. I took care in making each book, this book, and this one, and this one, the best that I could, in the moment. And after the moment, I stopped fixating on the gap between my best and perfection.

    So far, number 14 is still my favorite. I clipped the corner of the cover paper too close to the back-cover’s board, the miter exposing some bookboard beneath. I cut a tiny triangle off the clipped-off corner and pasted it down on the board to conceal my mistake. But during steps where other copies commonly gave me trouble, this book slipped by with grace. It is the copy I am keeping for myself.

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

    Often you’ll hear folks saying they prefer LPs to CDs (please don’t even ask such people about MP3s). It isn’t that the LP has greater fidelity to the original recording. It doesn’t. Instead, these listeners prefer an aesthetic of interference. They like the sonic limitations inherent to the process of recording for vinyl, and perhaps they also appreciate the homey crackles of the surface noise.

    Apparently many of us like this aesthetic of interference — emphasizing the medium of the message — in our images, too. The halftone image was developed for printing to replicate continuous tones. Now, a plethora of online tutorials offer instruction on how to create halftones for digital images created and circulated exclusively electronically. (Not to mention: Instagram’s filters which replicate film prints.) The aesthetic of interference is ubiquitous.

    What does the halftone image signify today? Historically, gritty half-tone images typically meant mass media images, the cheap printing on cheap paper of a newspaper or comic book. “Halftone” meant news or pop culture: a public, printed image. Now, the most widely circulated news images are digitally born, and digitally circulated. Many may never be printed.

    So in 2017:

    Is a halftone image a nostalgic image?

    Is a halftone image a historical mass media image?

    Or: is a halftone image just an aestheticized image?

    In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote that a widely disseminated (read: mechanically printed) copy of an artwork diminished the aura of the original. But now in the digital age: print has its own aura.

    Of course digital images have their own particular composition, which creates their own medium-native artifacts: pixels. Early bitmapped image were quickly aestheticized. The Digital Primitives (April Greiman, Emigre Fonts, etc.) eagerly exploited the look of the new technology. Now, thirty-something years later, the aesthetic of early computing and video games (think Super Mario Brothers Lego landscapes) is replicated using digital tools capable of creating images with much greater detail (i.e., higher fidelity). Bitmapped images and typefaces also embody an aesthetic of interference. (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.)

    But what has yet to be aestheticized is the more run-of-the-mill pixelated image: for example, what you get when you print out a 72 dpi image. These images still look bad to us. How long until they are aestheticized? Until the specificity of this format is appreciated for its own unique characteristics? Similarly with the MP3: will its lossy compression be appreciated in the future in a way we just can’t fathom today? History suggests: yes.

    Will it be when once high-res images replace low-res ones that we will appreciate the visible structure of digital images? Or: will it only be when a different medium (virtual reality?) replaces digital photographs that we will find appealing those images that reveal their illusion of simulated reality? (As Marshall McLuhan wrote: when a technology becomes obsolete, it becomes an art form.) Is this appreciation even about an “aesthetic of interference” at all, or is it actually a Baudrillard-like revelation of the undergirding of all visual culture, society at large, seeing how the sausage is made? The reminder that our reality is constructed, representations, simulations?

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

    As a teacher of the book arts, I have repeatedly observed students responding excitedly to making paper, printing letterpress, and binding books by hand. Contemporary college students seem to consistently respond enthusiastically to the haptic experiences they have in library-based learning laboratories as part of class visits, semester-long courses, and student employment. I did wonder, however, about why the students got excited, so I conducted a pilot study to investigate why students liked engaging with the book hands-on in the context of a liberal arts college.

    The primary research questions I developed is:

    • How do undergraduate college students characterize their experience with hands-on book-related inquiry?

    In addition to my primary research question, I wanted to explore these additional questions:

    • In the twenty-first century, what about the book engages these students?

    • Why does book history, presented to them in highly interactive, in-person formats, engage and excite students?

    • How do students relate their experiences in these book-oriented environments to other aspects of their educational experience?

    •How can knowing more about these phenomena inform the institutional context in which collections, facilities, and expertise combine in order to steward cultural heritage resources for future generations?

    I based my pilot study at Wellesley College, which has an active interdisciplinary Book Studies program that incorporates the book arts (including hand papermaking, letterpress printing, and bookbinding), conservation, special collections and archives. With my research questions in mind, I did participant observation in the Book Arts Lab, the Conservation Facility, and Archives and Special Collections. I used the themes I discovered through observation to generate interview questions. I conducted and transcribed interviews with current and former students and select library colleagues. I then developed a series of codes that helped me to identify themes in the transcriptions. I coded my transcriptions and analyzed the results.

    Preliminary findings indicated that students were engaged with the book as an object, the opportunity to do hands-on work, the social aspects of their learning experiences, the library-based context of the work, and the career opportunities associated with the book. In addition, students were intrigued by the various ways in which space and time were reflected in books themselves.

    I hope to be able to repeat this study on a larger scale and I welcome feedback from others. Why do you think the students you teach get excited about hands-on book-related activity?

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