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Book Art Theory

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

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

  • 15 Oct 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    After much discussion the CBAA Book Art Theory Blog Committee has modified the Mission Statement that appears at the top of this blog’s home page. Here is the original version:

    Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to current criticism and theory about the artist’s book and seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields.

    After her March 15 blog post “IT’S 2016,” Julie Leonard questioned the absence of "book art" in the statement. Susan Viguers, Committee Chair, polled the Committee to see if adding “and book art” after “artist’s book” was a matter that needed discussion.

    I observed that

    a. Susan’s February 15 post, “THE ARTIST BOOK AND THE SAILOR SUIT,” which addressed the term "artist's book," discussed dropping the 's from artist and adding the s to books (artist books) when the plural is indicated.

    b. "Artist books" is a subgenre (subfield?) of Book Art, along with "fine press," "sculptural bookworks," "bookbinding," etc. If not mentioning many, why single one out?

    c. Book Art Theory is a critical analysis of the features that distinguish an artifact as "Book Art" and its functioning in the world.

    This responds to Tate Shaw’s June 1 post, "WHAT DOES THEORY WANT?" We see it in Bridget Elmer’s August 1 post, “BOOK ART AND SOCIAL PRACTICE” and Emily Larned’s September 15 post “PUBLISHING AS (SOCIALLY ENGAGED) ARTISTIC PRACTICE.”

    Susan suggested we keep "artist book" in the blog's mission statement because "book art" is so general, so encompassing, that it doesn't give sufficient focus. She saw book art as a Venn diagram with the artist book having a central position. I noted that the term "artist book(s)" is undefined: some people (myself included) apply it exclusively to visual literature, some apply it to sculptural bookworks, altered books, or any book-like object made by an artist.

    The Committee tweaked the statement and voted to adopt the following version:

    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.

    Comments on this statement are encouraged. Click “Add comment” at the bottom of this post.

    If you would like to write a post addressing any of these notions, please email

    At the 2017 CBAA Annual Meeting in Tallahassee January 13-14 I will be moderating an audience participation session titled Book Art Theory Roundtable: A Live Extension of a Virtual Collaboration featuring Openings Editor Inge Bruggeman, Book Art Theory Blog Editor Susan Viguers and book art theorist Gary Frost.

  • 01 Oct 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    There’s a popular misconception about the relationship of artworks and texts. Every so often I am engaged in conversation with someone holding the view that language and its components, paragraphs, sentences, words, and letters, are entirely separate entities from pictures or sculptures. The argument runs something like this: “When I look at a picture I recognize its subjects (or elements, or spaces behind, in front, and between things), but in the real world I never see words as things.” The variation of this line of thought, accommodating sculpture, would offer me: “Sculptures resemble things in the world, but sculptures of words only add a third dimension to something I prefer to read (on the apparently two-dimensional plane of a page, say).” In each of these cases the premise is that what we do when we look at artworks in two-, three-, or four-dimensions is scan them for things we recognize, as if naming those things was the purpose for our looking in the first place.

    It’s worth reminding everyone that the history of art includes a long tradition of artworks incorporating language, including Pharaonic hieroglyphs, painted initials of illuminated manuscripts, sacred lettering in altarpieces, or inscriptions carved in stone. In Modern art history we encounter the scraps of newspaper in the earliest Cubist collages, the exploding letterforms in Futurist paintings, and the bits of signage in Pop. Of course, since the rise of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, we’re invited to view artworks whose medium is language itself.

The notion that artworks operate without language is itself a conceit of a modernist art theory that proposes the responsibility of all the arts is to aspire toward their essential and unique characteristics. Such proscriptions endorse a kind of categorizing as itself a condition for artistic quality, as if any art is in the world in order merely to clarify its difference from the cluttered overlapping experiences of daily life.

    Think about two kinds of looking that we reserve for esthetic experience: scanning and reading. The look we bestow on surfaces is a scanning gaze; the rest of what we do is reading, which surrounds us as page, screen, signage, and inscription. The experience of reading text on an art work requires only a momentary shift of consciousness from our scanning of its other affects. We can be equally absorbed in a visually compelling artwork or a really good book, but the duration of this interest is apt to be strikingly different, since the absorption of reading arises within the duration of pages, whose successive turnings are slices of time through text.

    Other sites of language, such as signage, invite varying degrees of consideration of the materiality within which we read a given sign’s necessary words. I say “necessary” here because signs are also warnings or alerts capable of effecting the direction of our movement through the day. “Coffee” in neon makes a statement about flavor; “RR XING” on painted metal calls attention to our general welfare. Still other artworks offer us words in books or booklike objects, adding the segmentation of pages to such work’s other material properties. The page is the basic module of reading, but it only rarely holds the entirety of a text. One page starts a narrative, another concludes it. In between, so many parcels of language, each interrupted by the bottom of the page.

    What every book as art, whether as object or as pages, has as common property is the attachment of both scanning and reading to memory. Our memory of reading is invoked by the presence of language, just as our recognition of forms is an operation of memory. What can be profound here is how the situation of the book, its interplay of forms and materials, can momentarily interrupt both our habits of recognition and of reading. The strangeness of something not already known is, in this context, opportunity to experience an essence that is within all the arts; of another’s mind at work, another’s passions made sharable.

  • 15 Sep 2016 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Now is the time of the network—whether digital, social, or global trade. Increasingly we’re aware of how individual artifacts are a product of, and function in, highly complex and interconnected systems. These contextual systems—rather than the artifacts themselves—seem increasingly worthy of our attention. 

    I suggest that at this cultural moment, rather than discussing the book as a work of art, we turn our focus to publishing as an artistic practice, analyzing the contextual systems of processes and networks, rather than a sole resulting object.

    This is not a new idea. It’s been 30 years since Simon Cutts organized The Artist Publisher: A Survey exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery (London), and his collected snippets of writing on the subject were published by Granary Press as Some Forms of Availability: Critical Passages on the Book and Publication in 2007. (This delightful book was favorably reviewed by Brad Freeman in JAB 23 [spring 2008], and I too highly recommend it.) In various passages throughout, Cutts suggests that the emphasis on the “artist’s book” has eclipsed that of artists’ publishing, the more interesting of the two. Publishing, Cutts writes, is a much more thorough activity, as it offers a way of life.

    Certainly artists have been publishing for centuries. William Blake; the Pre-Raphaelites and The Germ; the Arts & Crafts periodicals The Hobby Horse and The Studio in addition to the books of William Morris; the Vienna Secession and Ver Sacrum, the many publications of Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, and the Situationists; little magazines; Fluxus; the books of Conceptualism; zines; digital books: artists’ publishing has always been more varied than simply the artist’s book. Many modern and contemporary art movements focused on ephemera and the periodical rather than the book. I think of Sarah Bodman’s diagram, depicting “Artists’ Publishing” as the umbrella term, with “artists’ books” on a tree branch underneath. 

    But when we’re parsing “artist’s book” vs. “artists’ periodicals,” we’re still focusing on artifacts. What about critically considering all of the surrounding processes and practices of publishing as artistic practice? 

    There’s a brand-new book that examines the tremendous popularity of artist publishing in the 21st century, edited by Annette Gilbert and published by the always timely Sternberg Press (Berlin-New York). (Whenever I become interested in a subject, I find that Sternberg has recently published a book on it.) Publishing as Artistic Practice (2016) collects contributions by different contemporary artist-publishers. In the introduction, Gilbert summarizes some recent research in this area of publishing as artistic practice, including Delphine Bedel, Antoine Lefebvre, Bernhard Cella, Eva Weinmayer, Nick Thurston, Hannes Bajohar, and Alessandro Ludovico, among others. (Already the introduction provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.)

    The first chapter, by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, discusses the 1960-1970 historical precedents of Simon Cutts / Coracle Press, Dick Higgins / Something Else Press, Dieter Rot, Ed Ruscha, etc., but Gilbert’s introduction situates the recent resurgence of publishing as part of the larger “practice turn” of contemporary art in the past decade. Publishing as artistic practice is a “complex field of practices marked by countless patterns, interdependencies, and nested hierarchies” (12). Gilbert reminds us that “publishing still remains untheorized,” (9) whether in studies of the book (in which we would locate the book arts as well as artists’ books), or in the study of literature. She cites Michael Bhaskar as someone who has offered some insights on the subject, stating that publishers are “not just producers of books but filters for content and constructors of amplificatory frames” (11). 

    Certainly, considering publishing as the artistic activity at hand—rather than the making of books-as-objects—offers a stronger connection to social engagement, a recent theme of this blog. Social engagement is not essential to the production of the book as an art object; many book artists do not consider it. But: social engagement is integral to publishing. Publishing, the making of a public, is necessarily social.

    As Craig Mod suggests, “we need to start thinking differently about what books are and how they are produced. […] we need to reconsider the whole approach to the process of making a book into the thing it is: the creation, the consumption, and everything that happens around and in between” (12).

    Often, the interdisciplinary nature of the book is heralded as essential to its understanding. Whether one considers oneself “an artist who makes books” or “a practitioner of the book arts,” is not that identity just one component of the larger framework of publishing? 

    How essential to one’s book arts / artist’s book / artistic publishing practice are the inter-related processes of










    graphic design?




    determining edition size?

    sourcing materials?

    making materials?

    identifying vendors?







    determining an audience?




    appearances at fairs, bookshops, zine shops, etc?


    curatorial concerns?

    building relationships?


    determining impact?

    sequentiality: how each book informs the next?

    Aren’t all of these areas worthy of attention/consideration as part of the praxis surrounding the “art of the book?” Wouldn’t the work of the field be exponentially enriched if each of these aspects were as carefully considered as the paper, binding, or printing?

  • 01 Sep 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    While contemplating this question, I discovered a timely reflection by journalist and critic Megan Voeller in the August 25-31, 2016 issue of Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, our local independent weekly.

    I learned that you haven’t really seen something until you have written about it, and that such deep looking is a practice of empathy. (17)

    The article’s title, “Goodbye. Hello. A few words on the way out of town,” which references her unfortunate (for us) departure from this region, also struck a chord.

    Over ten years have passed since Johanna Drucker suggested “three basic questions that can be used to assess any artist’s book” in her oft-referenced and much-debated article, "Critical Issues / Exemplary Works," in The Bonefolder 1, no. 2 (Spring 2005).

    • What was the project set by the artist?
    • How did the work transform, develop, or present that project?
    • How does this project work as a book? (4)

    Drucker immediately asserts a fourth, “even more fundamental question” that should be asked first.

    • Who is the initiator of this project? (5)

    In our evolving list of critical questions for evaluating book art, which has been generated over the past two weeks by readers of this blog, I see contemporary echoes of these concerns, which clearly remain fundamental despite the passage of over a decade. Similarly, we see the re-emergence of a critical concern with “the haptic,” most recently in Tim Mosely’s article, “The Haptic and the Emerging Critical Discourse on Artists Books” in the Journal of Artists’ Books, no. 39 (Spring 2016). Interestingly, this concern was first raised by Gary Frost, in response to Drucker, with his article “Reading by Hand: The haptic evaluation of artists’ books,” in The Bonefolder, 2, no. 1 (Fall 2005). Goodbye. Hello.

    Instead of presenting a compiled list of our questions, as I originally intended to do with this post, I would like to focus on just a few of these critical concerns and offer several more, which have recently emerged (or re-emerged) with immediacy.

    Let us first consider Elizabeth Kealy-Morris’s questions.

    • Why this book, in this way, to communicate this now? Why did this story need to be told this way? With all the storytelling methods available, why was the handmade artist's book the chosen visual and material form of representation?

    These questions invite us to consider both the specificity of the artist’s book as a form, and the potential for expansion within and beyond it. In terms of critical questions, I believe that we have specificity covered. As for expansion, in his 2015 book, Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artist’s book (London: Uniform Books, 2015), Michael Hampton presents us with fifty works, “showcasing the artists’ book not as a by-product of the book per se, but both its antecedent and post-digital flowering… the manifold traits and studio processes inherent to the artists’ book bursting from their stitched sheath, cheerfully pollinating the whole gamut of reading impedimenta and spaces” (17). I agree with Tate Shaw in his review of Hampton’s book for Afterimage 43, no. 5 (March 2016) that “the spirit of wanting the artist's book to be in communication with disciplines other than itself… provides a rush of vitality” (29). In that spirit, I’d like to add the following critical question to our list, integrating Hampton’s concerns, and honoring the echo of Dick Higgins that I hear in his words.

    • Does the work engage the transdisciplinary nature of the book and its potential as an area of intermedia?

    I continue to hear the echo of Higgins in Booklyn’s recent and urgent call for us “to incorporate social engagement into art and bookmaking” (“Print Media and Social Practice”). Booklyn asserts, “In the 21st Century, where taking an activist stance involves preventing the possible destruction of the entire planet’s ecosystem, discussing the use of art and bookmaking as a tool for human and ecological rights and actions becomes urgent and unavoidable.” I agree that a contemporary integration of book art and social practice is imperative and I offer their words, in the form of a question, to add to our evolving list.

    • Does the work provide an intellectual and aesthetic experience that will inspire the reader to profoundly engage with the subject matter and perhaps catalyze action?

    Because I agree with Voeller and Shaw that empathy is an essential practice and often a pre-cursor to profound engagement, I offer the following mash-up of their thoughts regarding empathy as a follow-up question.

    • Does the work invite deep looking and/or reading–a practice of empathy that reveals another way of thinking?

    And finally, I would like to conclude with Susan Viguers's question regarding access.

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

    As Mary Tasillo, co-founder of Book Bombs, so adeptly observed in 2011, when I initially asked her to consider the evaluative questions posed by Temporary Services, “As book artists, [these] evaluative questions must not only be applied to the book work itself, but to the context of the work, the models of distribution. We cannot separate work and context and at the same time answer the proposed questions honestly.”

    I consider these questions, addressing transdisciplinarity, social engagement, empathy, and access, to be critical, contemporary, and complementary to the fundamental and time-tested concerns of authorship, intention, content/form, sequence, pacing, reveal, craft, and the haptic. I hope that our list will continue to evolve, and I look forward to answering all of these questions, honestly, together.

  • 15 Aug 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    In his post to the Book Art Theory blog on June 1st of this year, Tate Shaw asked us the question, "What does theory want?" I agree with Barb Tetenbaum's comment that this is a "chewy question," and I'd like to speak to Dean Dass's comment regarding the need for "close reading of key books," which Shaw proposes as one of several potential answers. Dass stresses the problem of choosing these key books, "Always a good idea! But wait, no one agrees on what those are…" I would assert that we do not need, nor should we want, to agree.

    At this point in our field, we are certainly not at a loss for book art that invites close reading. As Julie Leonard reminded us in her March 15th post, "It's 2016," and "the 'canon of artists' is here to be studied and mined." We also now have at our fingertips a variety of resources for the "critical terminology" and "descriptive vocabulary" that Johanna Drucker called for in 2005. Artists' Books Online and the Artists' Books Thesaurus are two such resources.

    I agree with Leonard that we need an "accounting" of these resources, and CBAA is well-positioned to be the host venue for such an effort. A variety of Resource Lists are already in place on our website, including chronologies of prominent works from which we can build. We also host a growing collection of Book Art Links, to which we could add online resources for critical terminology and descriptive vocabulary. This is all within our reach.

    With generations of book art to mine, and a shared vocabulary defined, I think it's time for us to chew on this: What are the critical questions that we should be asking?

    I am inspired by the constant dialogue around this issue within the field of socially engaged art, which, as I asserted with my last post, seems to be experiencing a parallel and intersecting evolution with ours. Returning to one of the projects that I believe successfully inhabits that intersection, I'd like to share a set of questions proposed by Temporary Services in the Art and Social Practices Workbook "to help in evaluating an artistic project that includes other people who are not the artists, or in some way relies on its meaning being generated from the production of social experience."

    • Does the work empower more people than just the authors of the work?
    • Does the work foster egalitarian relationships, access to resources, a shift in thinking, or surplus for a larger group of people?
    • Does the work abate competition, abusive power and class structures, or other barriers typically found in gallery or museum settings?
    • Does the work seek broader audiences than just those educated about and familiar with contemporary art?
    • Does the work trigger a collective imagination that can dream of other possible worlds while it understands the current one with eyes wide open?

    I admire this brief and brave list, and I return to it often as I continue to pursue my interest in the relationship between book art and social practice. For Temporary Services, these questions get to the heart of the matter and offer "an in-depth way of assessing art works" in their porous field. It seems to me that these questions avoid the pitfalls of asserting key works or continuing to debate terminology. They are straightforward and complex. They invite critique and spark meaningful debate. Most importantly, they are not presented as the questions to be asked, but some questions to be asked.

    I'd like to follow suit. Over the next two weeks, I will generate a list of some critical questions that I believe to be helpful in evaluating book art. I encourage other CBAA members and readers of this blog to do the same, and I invite them to share their questions by posting to the comments section below. For my next post on September 1st, I will present the compiled results of this exercise. My hope is that this list of questions will serve as a jumping off point for close readings of artists’ books, and that those close readings will inevitably generate additional critical questions–all of which I believe that theory most definitely wants.

  • 01 Aug 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    With this post, I would like to revisit a conversation that began over five years ago at the 2011 CBAA Conference in Bloomington, Indiana. At that conference, in a presentation entitled Relational Continuum: The Book as "Lasting Encounter," I departed from Nicolas Bourriaud's theory of Relational Aesthetics and asserted the critical importance of considering book art through a relational lens. At this moment, with the American presidential election looming and with potent evidence of collective discontent erupting across the globe, I find myself returning to that assertion.

    This time around, I'd like to free us from Bourriaud's oft-contested jargon. As Daniel Grant explains in his recent New York Times article, "defining social practice is no easy thing." For the sake of reigniting this conversation, I will ground us in the following definition, offered up by the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, in a blog post about their weekly Likewise Fridays events.

    "Art and Social Practice is an artistic approach that emphasizes collaboration, shared authorship, public participation, site-specificity, and interdisciplinarity. It is often presented in non-art locations, and has no media or formal boundaries."

    Since my original inquiry in 2011, I have been interested in how our field intersects with this artistic approach, as many of these emphases are so often relevant when considering the book as an art form. As such, I am driven to compile examples of book art that can also be considered as social practice.

    With the intention of building a bibliography to continue this inquiry, I will share a few projects that exemplify my understanding of book art as social practice. Beneath each project, I provide excerpts quoted directly from the artist(s) describing their work. The sources for these excerpts can be visited by clicking on the title links included for each project. I invite comments, including those that interrogate my choices and those that suggest additions to this growing list.

    Books by Sheryl Oring
    "Sheryl Oring examines critical social issues through projects that incorporate old and new media to tell stories, examine public opinion and foster open exchange. Using tools typically employed by journalists (the camera, the typewriter, the pen, the interview and the archive) she builds on experience in her former profession to create installations, performances, artist books and internet-based works."

    Book Bombs by Mary Tasillo and Michelle Wilson
    "BOOK BOMBS re-contextualizes public spaces, particularly park benches, empty lots, and abandoned buildings, drawing on the history of guerrilla art, graffiti traditions, and the artist multiple. Our site-based interventions highlight the social and environmental issues of a location, such as homelessness and endangered and invasive plants ecologies, through explorations of handmade paper, wheat pasted prints, and zines."

    Combat Paper
    "Transforming military uniforms into handmade paper since 2007. . . Through papermaking workshops, veterans use their uniforms worn in service to create works of art. The uniforms are cut up, beaten into a pulp and formed into sheets of paper. Participants use the transformative process of papermaking to reclaim their uniforms as art and express their experiences with the military."

    Publications by Temporary Services
    "Publishing has been a regular part of our practice since we began in 1998. We have provided a large number of our booklets, books, poster-booklets, newspapers and other publications for free during exhibitions, in public situations, and below as PDFs for you to download. In 2008 we took steps to make our publishing economically viable and to be able to provide greater support for artists, groups, and their work. To this end, we started Half Letter Press a publishing imprint and online store."

    Streetopia by various artists, published by Booklyn
    "Streetopia (the book) is an assemblage of works by twenty-four current and former San Francisco artists tentatively associated with the San Francisco Bay Area "Mission School" or "New Mission School" Art movements. It serves as a stand-alone extension of the Streetopia exhibition at the Luggage Store Gallery in SF in May and June of 2012."

    Unbound by Jessica Peterson
    "Unbound is a limited edition artists’ book which honors the veterans of Prince Edward County’s 1959 school lock out. All 100 copies of the book were letterpress-printed on handmade paper in a single month, produced collaboratively by community members in Farmville and faculty and students at Longwood University. The book was conceived and designed by artist Jessica Peterson and recounts the closing of the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, from 1959 to 1964. Unbound tells this story of these events with timelines, archival evidence, and collected narratives from the veterans of the closings. Gold stars flow through each page, one star for each person whose life was permanently altered by the school closings."

  • 15 Jul 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    Like a lot of people I’m struggling to find ways to process the shootings starting last month in Orlando through Dallas over the past weekend. Personally, I go to my bookshelves looking for signs of humanity to buoy me up in these times.

    Adrian Octavius Walker’s My Lens Our Ferguson is a simple photo-bookwork about the protests following the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. It is a brief but more intimate look at the protests and the events than mass media reported. One image in the middle of the book depicts a parade-like march at near twilight so the people are virtually backlit and made more stark in flat black shapes with animated shadows on the asphalt. One of the African Americans marching raises a sign that reads, “I am an American.”

    In the opening of Clarissa Sligh’s photo-bookwork Voyage(r): Tourist Map to Japan on the flight, still uncertain about her desire to travel to Japan, she writes, “As African American/I know nothing about it/Care even less.” Toward the end of the book in a section called The Supper she tells a story about a host who “could hardly wait to tell me how happy he was to have me as a guest in his house and that he had seen the movie Roots which he had thoroughly enjoyed and had found educational. Having grown up a Southern black girl, I smiled and told him graciously that I had seen Shogun and had experienced it in the same way. He laughed and said, ‘Of course that was totally fictionalized.’ ‘Then of course you must understand that Roots was created the same way,’ I replied. We all laughed together as it sank in that Hollywood had provided us with our understanding of each other’s history. But even still it couldn’t prevent Roots and Shogun sitting down to dinner with us.”

    The imagery in Voyage(r) is all printed duotone in a range from black, dark purple, indigos and a light blue. It includes Sligh’s travel journal writings, drawings, and found material montaged together with photographs made on the trip. Many are of subjects stereotypical of the Japanese tourist experience—temples, school children, architecture, and sites including a visually violent climax at Hiroshima, which Sligh didn’t want to see but her partner insisted since his was the WWII generation that dropped the bomb. In one spread she uses typographically wavy text overlapping a photo of water assembled together with brush drawings of a Japanese temple to point at a portrait of herself: “There I am with the camera around my neck. How much of what I shoot is to confirm what National Geographic taught me to see?” she asks.

    At the near end of Voyage(r) the statement “Stereotypes make it hard to see who you are” is typeset over a close up of Sligh’s closed eyes.

    The term stereotype comes from printing, a metal printing plate cast from a mold in another material like plaster or papier-mâché.

    It’s the ubiquity and repetition of what is made from a mold cast that creates the blindness.

  • 01 Jul 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    For this post I asked permission from Phil Zimmermann to publish a brief excerpt of his presentation at the 2016 Photo-Bookworks Symposium June 23-25 that I organized for Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY. The following excerpt includes the core of Zimmermann’s position and the graphic component here is a kind of visual essay unto itself. It should also be mentioned that Zimmermann’s creation of the graphic essay was inspired in part by the re-organization of his personal book collection into categories of photobook, photo-bookwork, artists’ book, etc.

    --Tate Shaw

    “The term artists’ books has been much bandied about in the photo community in recent years and is, I think, used perhaps a little too loosely. What makes a photo-based book an artists’ book? To step back a little, the term artists’ book, even outside the photobook world, is a term that is still contested, and there are many camps that argue about what characteristics determine what makes an artists’ book an artists’ book. I think that most practitioners would agree that an artists’ book is a book that is not merely a reproduction of images or texts that exist in another form, but a new time-based medium unto itself, with a unified conceptual content. The ‘book artist’ is the author and in control of the creation of the entire book. In almost all cases this would eliminate the use of a book designer or even possibly a pushy publisher who ‘knows what will sell.’

    Unless the designer is under the close supervision of the artist, the artist him or herself must have the overall creative vision with an artists’ book. Collaborations do exist, like Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage, and there, all contributors are given credit as the creators. This idea of what an artists’ book should be requires that the artist-photographer must educate themselves on book structure, history of visual books, methods of production, typography, and, on a more meta level: how to think and work in terms of a time based-medium, using sequence, rhythm, narrative arc and so on.

    So I went through my artists’ book collection and carefully pulled out any photobook that I thought was either by artists who self-identified as ‘photographer,’ or where I felt that photography was the primary subject and medium that was used. Many of these books were ones where the photos were not used in the standard ubiquitous monograph form that so many photographers love, nor were they coffee-table-type publications that galleries supported by subvention, and used as a form of publicity to raise the profile of their stable of artists. Those above-mentioned books were already segregated out and in my photography book section, they clearly did not belong in the artists’ book section. Of course there is nothing wrong with the photographic monograph book.   

    The question is: ‘What is it that you want to use the book for?;’ the photographer must ask themselves that. The monograph does the job of promoting single photographs or bodies of work, if that is what one needs and wants to do.

    But books are capable of much more.

    I have given out a chart which is a graphic expression of what I see as a linear continuum that follows the standard photographic book on one end, onward to the other end, where the photo-bookwork book is situated, the photo world’s version of the artists’ book.”

    --Philip Zimmermann, at the VSW Photo-Bookworks Symposium, June 24, Rochester, NY

  • 15 Jun 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    The first time I saw the Wikipedia “Artist’s book” entry was May 15, after reading this post by Philip Zimmermann to the “Book Arts Collective” Facebook group. Please read Phil’s statement.

    What does this have to do with Book Art Theory? Nomenclature, language, words, semiotics: syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics, are fundamental to any attempt at understanding. Cognition is influenced by political, social and economic factors. In Wikipedia there is no entry for “Book art.” It redirects to “Artist’s book.”

    Public perception of “Book art” is influenced by eliminating its name as a field. This has practical consequences, influencing funding sources, college administrations, the collector market, the development of critical theory, and more. It constrains the opportunity set. People who are not in the field of Book Art, or are just entering the field, are likely to query Wikipedia, and will find that the field does not exist.

    We are the College Book Art Association. Our field exists. CBAA can and should provide leadership on this. It’s time for an intervention.

    For at least four decades "Artist's book" has been a subfield of "Book art," not the other way around. It took very few people to commandeer the Wikipedia entry, as Phil pointed out. Click the View history tab to see. 

    There are ways to correct Wikipedia. I am beginning to learn, just signed up with an account, and have not yet made any contributions or edits. There are procedures for speedy renaming and a Categories for discussion page. The first step will be to create and populate a “Book Art” entry that defines what “Book art” is, and identifies the subfields, with descriptions, images, links, etc. These would include "fine press," "sculptural bookworks," “installations,” “performances”, “artist books,” “altered books,” “designer bookbindings”, etc. Your help in defining “Book art” and naming all the subfields is important. Many works of book art involve several subfields, such as a fine press book in a designer binding, an altered book that is a sculptural bookwork, or an installation performance. Please comment below.

    Similarly, Wikipedia has a problem with Book arts, now a disambiguation page. That also should be a category, separate from "Book art," with subfields of bookbinding, typography, papermaking, printing, calligraphy, illustration, etc. linked from it. Many writers incorrectly use "Book Arts" to identify the field of individual made objects, rather than reserving it for the craft disciplines used to produce them.

    I have self-identified as a “Book Artist” since the early 1970s. A search for "Book artist" in Wikipedia results in "Artist's book."

    This will not be instant. It will grow and evolve. Whether or not you have experience creating or editing Wikipedia entries, please participate. The input of book artists, book art curators, critics, dealers and collectors in essential. Should we try to organize a collaborative Wikipedia Intervention at the next annual meeting in Tallahassee? The theme of the meeting is “Conspire.”

  • 01 Jun 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    The title of this post is inspired from the title of W.J.T. Mitchell’s work, What do Pictures Want: the lives and loves of images, which upon first read might seem absurd since inanimate pictures can’t want anything. But it becomes more meaningful after reading Mitchell’s theory that speculates in part upon an analogy of images as being alive, living organisms, separate from the physical apparatus that binds an image to a picture in object form.

    Because this is the Book Art Theory blog of the College Book Art Association I’ll make a connection here from Mitchell’s theory to book art generally and the teaching of book art. For instance, personally, when I teach book art classes, I require students to make physical dummies at every stage of a book’s development in order for the book to get out of the students’ heads and so it can “talk back to them.” Of course I understand the book drafts aren’t alive yet the analogy is apt and I will often speak of my own work or that of others as being alive, not yet alive, or dead.

    There too is an analogy to be made between art theory and living organisms since theories are ideas, suppositions, beliefs, best guesses. The good ones expand the limits of what was believed to be the boundary of possibilities. Theories are tests of possibilities meant for other theorists to scrutinize, further test, and challenge. They have a habitat and relationship, ecologically, with other organisms. And like Mitchell’s notion—centuries of thought, really—that images live somehow separate, double lives from the object that consciously reveals them, art theory comes alive from and proceeds to exist independently of what made it.

    Take an example from critic Lucy Lippard, one of a handful of writers who have theorized, however limiting, about book art. Before her brief but key essay “The Artist’s Book Goes Public” published in Art in America in 1977 (later collected in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons), Lippard made a significant theory and contribution out of the conceptual art environment growing around her contemporaneously in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her theory was published as a kind of annotated reference book in 1972 called Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972. It revealed the boundaries of a conceptual practice that came into being (just not always materially) during the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, Vietnam, and counter culture “free-for-all,” as she described the period. Lippard, an active part of that environment, responded to artworks also existing in that habitat, aptly posited about art’s dematerialization at the time, and then went about collecting all the possible evidence of this work’s existence as pointers for further study and theorizing.

    Perhaps conceptual art of that period was so far flung and such a free-for-all it wanted a theory and needed the larger process-based moniker of dematerialization to fulfill its lack of cohesiveness as an all-out movement. Or Lippard and others wanted to draw all the disparate work together to make more sense of the works since they were, after all, challenging to the status quo and certainly audiences must have needed assistance understanding these pieces. Perhaps the artists didn’t understand what was happening yet, either; I’ve heard it said—a little condescendingly, if you ask me—that artists need help from theorists in understanding their work.

    The point, in the end, is theory wants, needs, lacks the art work and the art work wants, needs, lacks the theory. Ecological problems seem to present themselves when one or the other doesn’t reside in the same habitat. But then maybe the requirement of this balance isn’t accurate. Perhaps I incorrectly understand the relationships between these two organisms of theory and book art. And since this is supposed to be a place for discussion—maybe a comment or two, at least—I ask then, what does book art want? What is needed, lacking, left wanting for book art, currently? Close reading of key books? If not close reading then recognition of key historical circumstances? Narratives that connect contemporary activities in the field at large? To be more readily considered by non-artists from outside the field? To be more widely understood or appreciated?

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