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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.

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  • 14 Dec 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    Two literary books I read in 2015 that were both formally and lyrically inspiring yet challenging to my own status quo were Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Citizen blurs poetry and criticism and includes images. As a window into what it might feel like to be black and American today, its many assorted panes are variously clear, murky, refracting, cracked, and broken. Similarly, The Argonauts is both life writing and criticism about the author becoming a mother while her partner, an artist who technically identifies as neither female nor male, gets breast removal surgery and begins taking testosterone.

    Two equally inspiring book artworks by emerging artists connect to Citizen and The Argonauts: Dark Archives (2015) by Andre Bradley and How to Transition on $0.63 a Day (2013) by Lee Krist. Both are autobiographical with the artists’ personal stories revealed in fragments. Dark Archives exists as a gray folder that holds different sized booklets and printed photographs from yearbooks, family albums, and photographs made by Bradley. With exquisite combinations of images and texts that span from his childhood to today, Bradley enables deep empathy for what it means to grow up and be a young black man in this country. Krist’s bookwork is an epistolary of unbound ephemera and postcards written from the author in Portland, Oregon who sends messages and updates on his transition from female to male to his perhaps disapproving mother back in New York City. Housed in a metal 8mm film case, the postcards with their dislocated, bygone imagery and letterpress printed messages on the reverse, feel current and yet like a farewell to a supposedly simpler time of home movies and family vacations.

    It was my great privilege to hear Bradley read from Dark Archives at the Image Text Ithaca (ITI) Symposium in July 2015. Rankine, also at ITI, read #2 from her Situations series of video essays in collaboration with John Lucas. The video imagery of Situation 2 is of people asleep on airplanes while the text is loosely about the “raw material” of the body. I connect Rankine and Lucas’ piece to Robert Gober’s divisive “Hanging Man/Sleeping Man” wallpaper work where a lynched black body is disturbingly patterned with a white body asleep in bed. Hearing both readings may have been the cultural highlight of the year for me because their words and images felt like what it feels like to be alive right now.

    It was also my privilege to be a juror with Susan Lowdermilk of the upcoming CBAA Members’ Exhibition at the Nashville conference, Telling the Story, January 7-9, 2016. Krist’s How to Transition on $.63 a Day was one of what seemed like just a few books submitted where the author/artists’ voice was authentically his or hers; in fact a good many of the submissions appeared to incorporate secondary source texts as materials. That being said, I observed the artists who used secondary sources might have done so out of a desire to empathize with victims of what was often a tragic transgression of humanity in some form or another. Yet they were still secondary works of witness. And while all the jurying was blind, it also seemed to me that even fewer than those who were creating work out of an authentic, personal experience were those books by people of color or LGBTQ artists.

    Earlier this year Rankine, along with her co-editors Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap also published The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. This compendium basically addresses the question of whether or not a white or straight author has a “right of access” through his or her imagination to give voice to a person of color or who is LGBTQ. An example might be The Book of Dolores by author William T. Vollman, a kind of mass-produced book artwork from drawings, photographs, and writings produced while he cross-dressed as research for a transgender sexworker protagonist in his next novel, what an actual cross-dressing reviewer called “Mansplaining Cross-dressing.” Or as Nelson quips at one point in The Argonauts about a white, heterosexual artist male (such as myself), “Do you have to own everything?”

    Finally, the question is how do we get more pluralistic ownership in the field of books-as-art? Does CBAA need official equal opportunity programs for publishing, residencies, and exhibitions?

  • 30 Nov 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    It’s the year-end when critics compile best of lists that take stock of the passage of time while reflecting upon genuine artistry where one found it. Photobooks have this down pat, see photo-eye’s blog, for one example. We need these pointers and filters now more than ever. I don’t think year-end lists of book artworks exist. If you know of any, please comment or post your own for 2015.

    While reading the reports on the events in Paris two weeks ago, I wondered where are the critics connected to book artworks who will provide me a list of titles to help me feel better right this moment? Childishly, I think I wanted something like this scene in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. What I sought was a way to empathize while simultaneously justifying my life’s orientation. Otherwise, why am I thinking about books all the time when awful stuff like this is going on in Beirut, Paris, Syria, etc.? Alas, I didn’t know of such a community so I visited my own shelves and took some solace in Josely Carvalho’s book version of Diary of Images: There is Still Time to Mourn and Anders Nielsen’s The End. What is your list of book artworks that offer some solace for grief?

    “So what is it about the list,” asks Michael Hampton in his recently published Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book? “In short, the list is often the first line of organizational defense in the battle with the incomprehensibility and furor of daily life in 2015; an unbeatable memory device.” Hampton’s own list book is a welcome approach that expands critical inquiry by using the notion of family resemblance for things with “genuine authorship” as book artworks. This is how Hampton can include The Lindisfarne Gospels circa 700CE, a mobile app of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, and a video of Guy Begbie turning circles while holding an ornately perforated book that emits orange smoke as rumba music romps in the background. 

    Hampton’s list book recalled for me other great list book resources like The Book on Books on Artists Books organized by Arnaud Desjardin and The Perverse Library by Craig Dworkin. Tell us about other list books you know about.

    Hampton also points to the great and thankless work Sarah Bodman does consistently editing and disseminating the Book Arts Newsletter (BAN)Two hundred years from now, what are historians going to gain from more: BAN’s intense lists, which are the real time-capsule of the activities of the whole field, or any one person’s idea of a canon or history of current activity?

    Another great new title, The Dynamic Library: Organizing Knowledge at the Sitterwerk—Precedents and Possibilities, published in English this fall by Soberscove Press, also has a list maker, Daniel Rohner, at its core. Rohner compiled a remarkable but curious library of about 25,000 volumes on art, architecture, design, and photography that is now the majority of the Sitterwerk Kunstibibliothek. When the library was made public it was classified such that every volume has a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag so users can document their research via a table that senses what rests upon it. Images, and even a magazine printout, can quickly be made of this fluid analog research, all captured via digital tools. It’s thrilling to know more about this pioneering, interdisciplinary work making a collection accessible and unique to each user, individually. How do you document your research in book art collections? Or tell us how you have your private library organized. By genre? Concepts? Autobiographically?

  • 14 Nov 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    Johanna Drucker in her text The Century of Artists’ Books states that the development of the artist’s book as an idea, form and field did not exist before the 20th century and in its current form developed only since 1945 as a field of artistic practice. Drucker defines the artist’s book as,

    … a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work and […] a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues. (p. 2)

    Drucker argues that there is a concept of ‘bookness’ — a shared conventional form (two covers and a spine) and “the idea that through thematic unity a book may establish its identity” (p. 327). For example, the way in which sequence is expressed gives each book its distinctive identity: A flipbook is an example of sequence meant to move very quickly and meaning is expressed through the speed in which the pages are ‘flipped’. The materials used to create the book such as paper, board and binding, notes Drucker, can “work against or in favor of sequence design” (p. 259). Books with flaps, envelopes, pop ups and moveable objects built as architecture within the binding encourage readers to engage slowly with the narrative. Graphic novels with small frames encourage a faster pace at filmic speed.

    With the embodied performance bound in the making of artists’ books, we inscribe our identities into our books. The practices of autoethnography are supported by a long history in performance through storytelling, giving testimony, witnessing, going ‘in-between’, staging encounters, and creating disturbances. Stacy Holman Jones describes autoethnography as “performance that asks how our personal accounts count” (p. 764). Tami Spry suggests that key to the praxis of performative autoethnography is “the ontological tension between its epistemological potential and its aesthetic imperative” (p. 508): the expression of a sense of being through the knowledge developed within the artefact.

    Susan Stewart writes about the attraction to the Victorian miniature book by both makers and consumers and notes that,

    The social space of the miniature book might be seen as the social space, in miniature, of all books: the book as talisman to the body and emblem of the self; the book as microcosm and macrocosm; the book as commodity and knowledge, fact and fiction. (p. 41) 

    She describes the ties between the souvenir, the past, the present and nostalgia where the souvenir makes memory material. The souvenir, then, has a dual role: to make the past authentic and discredit the present because the nostalgia bound within the souvenir, and for which it is a referent, challenges the banalities of the everyday. I suggest that the artist’s book utilises performative sequence to tell a story through autoethnographic visual and linguistic narrative.

    Drucker, Johanna (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books, New York: Granary Books.

    Holman Jones, Stacy (2005) “Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political” in Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Third Edition, London: Sage Publications, pp.763-791.

    Meskimmon, Marsha (2003) Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics, London: Routledge.

    Spry, Tami (2011)”Performative Autoethnography: Critical Embodiments and Possibilities” in Denzin, N.K. & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Fourth Edition, London: Sage Publications, pp.497-511.

    Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

  • 31 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    In my continuing efforts to engage students and faculty with the research and expository writing possibilities of artists’ books, I had a recent teaching experience of matchless opportunity for inculcation. To put it another way, if success can be judged by students not checking their phones, a reluctance to leave when class was finished, and an urgent text message to a visiting parent to get right over to the library, we scored.

    A faculty member in the Anthropology department had contacted me about whether Special Collections had any books
    that offer “a critique of media saturation, or perhaps examine the notion of archiving culture?” (Haven’t books been archiving culture from the beginning?)

    Off the top of my head, I could think of a few books that directly address digital culture as the central theme (Peter Malutski’s  
    Lucy in the Sky, Emily Larned’s Search Results, and Emily McVarish’s The Square) but I had to probe deeper to understand the context for his course. He explained: “As a larger theme, the reimagining of the book as something more than a simple document would be a good jumping-off point.” Aha! Sounds suspiciously like an artist’s book….

    Teaching newcomers about artists’ books is a lot like teaching a foreign language. One has to start with the basic principles and then build on them to recognize nuance, texture, and meaning. The biggest challenge is to slow the students down so they don’t just flip randomly through the pages, often the collateral damage of screen reading. I find that if I present groups of books with related study questions, it forces them to read more closely. So I enlisted my best student assistant, Meredith, who, along with a prodigious memory for artists and press names, is a proto-curator, and a critical and emotional reader. Better still, she knows well the world of her fellow Wellesley students, who grew up reading and interacting with a screen.  We put our heads together and came up with an approach that would ask students to analyze how they read differently with the books in front of them and how they would absorb the content if delivered digitally instead of physically. Yes, to the initiated, the answer is obvious, but to first-year students who have never seen artists’ books, it is an entry point and a hook for critical thinking. My Mini-Me curator was great. She stood in front of the class after I gave my lofty academic introduction to artists’ books, and summed it up with a two word exhortation: “ASK WHY!”

    They did, and it worked beautifully. The comments I heard were insightful and original. It worked so well in fact, that they will be coming back for a second class with artists’ books in the spring semester. Nothing like real hard copy books to give meaning to a course on the virtual.

    Following are the thematic groupings of books we selected and the study questions for each. For a complete list of artists and titles, please contact me at

    Random Access Reading

    Does it need to be linear to be understood? How does the book mimic digital access? Does the physical form aid your interpretation of the content?

    Linear Reading

    Could any of these be read as digital texts? What elements would or would not transfer well?

    Haptic Reading

    What is obvious to you about these? How do you read them? Could they be mimicked on a screen?

    Reading without Reading

    How are these books? Could these have the same effect digitally?

    Data Made Physical

    The data presented in these books is available online.  How does the artist change the reading experience?

    Artists Comment on the Virtual World

    What point is the artist/author making? Do you relate?

  • 14 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    Ulises Carrión wrote, “Among languages, literary language . . . is not the best fitted to the nature of books,” in the late 70s. He was manifesting about ‘old books’ (books that didn’t consider their own materiality) and ‘new books’ (an early iteration of what Jerome McGann among others would call the page as a spatial field). Around the same time, the critic Lucy Lippard wrote that one of her favorite aspects of artists’ books was that she could skim them; she didn’t differentiate between various iterations of artists’ books such as photobooks and the self-inflicted wounds of one-off journals. All of them, evidently, could be treated as flip books.

    Lippard’s quantitative methodology seems to have struck a chord with curators of book art exhibitions; since the 1980s many curators have tended to stuff their exhibitions with examples, as if to convince viewers that we should love artists’ books simply because there are so darn many of them. Given that, for many of us, our first encounter with artists’ books and book art is in these exhibitions, the packed cases, often filled with one-of-each book structures which of course defy reading in that setting, leave an implicit suggestion that the textual content of these books is not the point. That in turn seems to promote a form of bookmaking that treats text as afterthought, or something to pour into a structure.

    Why, then, given the challenges, bother to read—really read—artists’ books at all? We read because, when text is woven into the conceptual fabric of the book, the whole can become far greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t that the idea of artists’ books? Books that understand their own operation, their iconicity, their materials and their content as an interwoven whole will bring on an experience for the reader that quick perusal and even appreciation of an interesting structure will not do. But we need to practice what Betsy Davids calls adventurous reading; I often borrow the analogy of close reading from literary studies to suggest an approach to artists’ books that will yield their complexity with time, study and curiosity.

    Can this all go wrong? Of course. Take the recent phenomenon, Jonathan Safron Foer’s, Tree of Codes, an adaptation of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. Foer excised major amounts of text from a translation of Schulz’s work; laser cutter technology allowed New Directions to publish the results in a relatively inexpensive trade edition. While the resultant text that Foer created considers Schulz’s words in a sympathetic way, the book can’t really be read without a paper intervention underneath each page, which defeats the original intention of the book. I’m guessing that Foer never actually tried making this book; he marked off the text he wanted to save and sent it off to be dealt with by the publisher. Artists engaged with the materiality of their books would not have made this mistake.

    T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, that most traditional of makers, demanded no less of his books than we should demand of artists’ books, and lamented what happened when his Books Beautiful did not stand up to scrutiny: “. . .each contributory craft may usurp the functions of the rest and of the whole and growing beautiful beyond all bounds ruin for its own the common cause.” The best artists’ books reveal their contents in the whole. It is our job to take the time to see what they are offering.

  • 30 Sep 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    Much of the critical literature on artists’ books focuses on the materiality of the text and frequently, at least by implication, on there being little necessity to absorb the text fully. In discussing Johanna Drucker’s From A to Z in “Embodying Bookness: Reading as a Material Act,” Manuel Portela asserts that “the reader” never “entirely leave[s] the surface of the page.” This is an important potential of artists’ books and characterizes many of the most prominent in the past few decades. Over and over again, I have heard it said about various artists’ books, sometimes by the artist him or herself, that one doesn’t need to read all the text—which leads to my query: is there a problematic relation of text “packaged for its semantic content” (to use a phrase from Thomas Vogler’s “When a Book is Not a Book”) and the book as art?

    William Blake, the patron saint of the artist’s book—master of poetry, artmaking, design, and printing—offers a complex example of the possible problem of text in an artist’s book. I first encountered Blake’s poetry many years ago as text printed readably in the old kind of book, as container. In No Longer Innocent, Betty Bright speaks of “the wall of words that don’t invite reading” as characterizing at least some of his works. Have or do people ever access his poetry in his artist’s books? At present his books are readily available in facsimile form. Blake was not generally appreciated as a poet for at least several decades after his death and until after the 1862 publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, in which many of his poems were typeset. Was his reputation as a poet dependent on taking his poetry out of his books? For me the role of the text in his books is visual only and as such evokes a context for the book’s images and design. It is to be looked at rather than looked through.

    There are, of course, artists’ books that meld image and text in ways that keep text as semantic experience in the forefront and many remarkable fine press books in which the text as semantic meaning and visual form coexist in a way that intrinsically informs the other. But at least for those books for which tactility and handcraft are important for content (and hence are expensive), the audience is miniscule in number. And books with considerable text to be read are generally even less accessible  — harder to display — in a gallery than the primarily visual artist’s book. That may or may not have anything to do with the frequent reluctance on the part of viewers to actually read an artist’s book, indeed the disbelief that one needs to, and the frequent overlooking, even acceptance of, the weak writing in many artists’ books. “I generally don’t like artists’ books,” an unusual visitor at a book fair said to me recently, “because I don’t like the writing.”

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