Bookmarking Book Art – ABCs

Remember the entry about the alphabet-book film series Mysteries of Vernacular? 

W is for "window". © Myriapod Productions, 2013

W is for “window”.
© Myriapod Productions, 2013

With his “Medieval Letter People“, the marvelously named Eric Kwakkel opens my eyes yet again to the materiality of the letter in books and book art – and prompts this renewed but brief hunt for abecedaries.

The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Fig. 1 – British Library, Add. MS 8887 (15th century) – Source

Kwakkel teaches at the University of Leiden, about ten miles from where I am writing. His online essays wear their learning lightly on the screen and bring the past to life, repeatedly connecting it with our not-so-different present thinking. Seeing the date of the letter G above made me wonder, how did we think about the ABCs during the overlap between illuminated scribal books and the printed book? Kwakkel’s entry on the model or pattern books from which scribes and illuminators would learn to form and decorate those introductory letters adds to my curiosity. Even as late as 1530, eighty years after the invention of movable type, these model books were still being created in parchment. For how long do technologies overlap and co-exist?

In 1529, Geoffroy Tory — “born typographic” —  published Champ fleury, more treatise than abecedary, to explain the design of type according to the Golden Mean. As his subtitle declares, Tory was not bending the human form to the letter but rather explaining The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face – finding the ideal shape of the letters in the human form and face.

Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.

Geoffroy Tory, Champ fleury; translated into English and annotated by George B. Ives. New York, Grolier, 1927.

The 1927 translation into English, magnificently designed by Bruce Rogers, one of the preeminent typographers of the twentieth century, can be found online in the University of Delaware’s ABC: An Alphabet Exhibition and even on CD from Octavo Editions, which also includes the original French and so brings the overlap from the born typographic to the born digital – at least in the medium if not the author.

As more recent evidence supporting Kwakkel’s assertion “things have not changed much since medieval times”, I offer up the New York Museum of Modern Arts’ 2012 exhibition “Artists’ Alphabets”, which celebrated book art abecedaries.

John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35" (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view) Literacy begins with the alphabet. From the early twentieth century to today, modern artists have used the familiar ABC book, or abecedary, as a point of departure for diverse themes. In this exhibition, each letter of the alphabet is represented by a publication, revealing the abecedary as a learning device enjoyed well beyond childhood. From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August - October 2012.

John Rieben. A Is the First Letter of the Alphabet. Printer: Screen Print Diversified. 1965-66. Lithograph, 50 x 35″ (127 x 88.9 cm). Gift of the designer (not on view). From the Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library. August – October 2012.

One entry in particular – Stop the Violence: Character Studies by photographer Francois Robert  – contributes to this medieval heritage of the flesh made into word: his letters are formed of human bones.

Tien-Min Liao, a New York-based designer whose work surely deserved a place MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, offers a far gentler and more gestural ABC for my last specimen. Early in 2012 before the MoMA exhibition, she created her alphabet in what she calls a “typographic experiment” to explore the relationships between upper-case letters and lower-case letters and record how they transform into one another.

Inking shapes onto her fingers, hands and arms, she manipulated or “gestured” them into the corresponding shape of an upper-case letter. Then, without removing or redrawing the inked-on shapes, she adjusted her gestures or the perspective on them to change the upper-case letter to a lower-case of the same letter.  As shown in her illustrations below, she even created an italic version of her “Handmade Type”.

Handmade Type: a typography experiment Tian-Min Liao, March 2012

Handmade Type: a typography experiment,Tien-Min Liao, March 2012

The videos she created to show the transformation of each letter are exceptional, delightful. The banner headline on her site runs forward and backward, turning the HANDMADE into handmade and vice versa.

Unlike my other specimens, though, Tien-Min Liao’s abecedary is available only online. Without my imagining it as a book as well – bound in linen, with a metal handclasp closure or in a solander box including ink, brush and a CD with instructions on handmaking my own alphabet and with a Digital Object Identifier to keep up with her work –  the technological overlap has now run backwards or full circle: the flesh become letter, the fleshly letter become digital.

 

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Bookmarking Book Art – Wilber Schilling

Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle, 1903. Allen Press, 1963. The copy shown is one of only 15 copies with an extra suite of 16 artist’s proofs, each titled, numbered 9/15 and signed by the artist in a separate portfolio.  Displayed online at Sophie Schneideman – Rare Books and Prints.

In his Books and Vines essays, Chris T. Adamson provides fresh, personal and insightful comments on fine book productions and their content such as Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” from the Lewis and Dorothy Allen Press in 1963, pictured above.  An oenophile, as the title of his series suggests, Adamson also occasionally offers tips on the best wines with which to decant and read these works.

James is a favorite author at Books On Books as is Herman Melville. Indulge the punning coincidence of Adamson’s introducing us to Wilber Schilling’s Indulgence Press and his edition of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street“.  Schilling’s edition of “Bartleby” – with Suzanne Moore’s original hand lettering of Bartleby’s classic statement “I would prefer not to” first appearing fully legible then becoming larger until it literally falls off the bottom of the final page – was an early career statement of an interest in more than fine press work but in book art as well.

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, 1853. Indulgence Press, 1995.

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street, 1853. Indulgence Press, 1995.

Consider Schilling’s Half-Life/Full-Life and its binding a variation on the accordion/flag structure of Hedi Kyle and Claire Van Vliet.  The complexity of the form marries well with that of the intertwining, interleaving text and photos along the timelines of the Doomsday Clock and global warming.

Half Life/Full Life Wilber Schilling, 2009 ISBN: 0-9742191-5-0 Cover

Half Life/Full Life
Wilber Schilling, 2009
ISBN: 0-9742191-5-0
Cover

Schilling’s photography in Half Life/Full Life speaks to the importance of that craft in his overall portfolio. His photos of aging, decayed and unbound books are haunting and remind me of the found art of M.L Van Nice.

Natural History Multi-layered gum bichromate print 30" x 22" on Rives BFK 2004 Copyright © Wilber H. Schilling

Natural History
Multi-layered gum bichromate print
30″ x 22″ on Rives BFK
2004
Copyright © Wilber H. Schilling

Schilling has collaborated with Thomas Rose (visual artist and professor at the University of Minnesota),   Michael Dennis Browne (poet and librettist), Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm) and Patricia Hampl (MacArthur Fellow poet and novelist). He has collaborated with Daniel E. Kelm (book artist, founder of the Garage Annex School for Book Arts and a collaborator with Suzanne Moore).

Given the influence of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell on works such as Arthur & Barbara (Arthur Danto and Barbara Westman) or Surplus Value Books: Catalog Number 13, you might say that Schilling has attempted to collaborate with them as well. The danger in that, of course, is highly derivative artwork. That early-career whiff of genius in commissioning the now famous calligrapher Suzanne Moore to hand letter “I would prefer not to” and spreading it in ever larger size across the pages might be what takes Schilling’s work beyond the derivative. His work is worth examining with that anticipation.

 

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Bookmarking Book Art – The Arion Press, Andrew Hoyem

Anthony Bourdain, the American chef and television personality, has a series called Raw Craft on YouTube in which The Balvenie Distillery funds his visits and interviews to celebrate craftsmen and craftswomen. The fifth in the series takes Bourdain

to meet with Andrew Hoyem, master typographer and printer of Arion Press. One of the last of its kind, Arion Press has only a handful of members on its staff, all fellow craftsmen dedicated to this age old process. Each works meticulously to create the books in multiple parts, from the typecasters, to the proofreaders, to the printers and the bookbinders. All of these hands build a work of art through a process that must be seen to be believed, and can only, truly, be described as magic.

To enjoy images of the Arion Press edition as well as The Folio Society edition of Moby Dick (with illustrations by Rockwell Kent), see Nick Long’s excellent piece in “Ephemeral Pursuits“, 2013.

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Bookmark – “Book Sleuthing” with Leah Price

Leah Price – Harvard professor and author – has more than a bit of fun in her online course called “Book SleuthingBook Sleuthing” in the EdX massive online open course (MOOC).

Price’s imagination overcomes the clunky Mirador tech and screen nav and comes wonderfully close to making the digital experience a haptic one.

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Bookmarking Book Art – Ida Gerhardt

In front of a canal-side bookstore in Delft is this invitation to sit, read and be. 

In front of a canal-side bookstore in Delft is this invitation to sit, read and be.

Ida Gerhardt (1905-1997, Dutch). A well-loved poet of the last century.

In English the title is somewhere between “inalienable” and “freehold”, and the poem begins

This will not be taken from us: reading

Breathlessly the page turning,

Far away, far from the everyday.

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Bookmark – Iain Pears, Arcadia. The Future of Narrative?

Arcadia, Iain Pears

Arcadia, Iain Pears

In “The Scholarly Kitchen“, Joseph Esposito writes: “I suspect that the multiple narratives of Pears’s fiction will someday find an analogue in expository writing that enables intersections of one theme or thread with another, which would provide, as it were, a new form of discovery.”

Perhaps that “analogue” is already here for the scholarly article in Elsevier’s “Article of the Future” and Wiley’s “Anywhere Article“. In scholarly expository writing, the intersections are often those of “conversations” among articles, for which the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) has performed and continues to perform an innovatory spark. Consider the activity and ten aims of the Linked Content Coalition.

All of this has been a long time coming. The DOI has its roots in the Handle System, whose roots weave back beyond the Web to the Internet Protocol (IP) itself. Esposito notes Iain Pears’s print antecedents in the experimental ’60s fiction of John Barth and the creator of Scheherazade, and he could have added the 1987 digital precursor Afternoon, A Story by Michael Joyce.

A long time coming, and to the kids in the backseat reading Pears’s Arcadia on their iPads, “No, we’re not there yet … keep reading!”

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Bookmarking Book Art – Michael Mandiberg

Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia, 2015 Exhibition "From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!" by the Denny Gallery, 261 Broome Street in New York City, 18 June through 11 July, 2015.

Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia, 2015
Exhibition “From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!” by the Denny Gallery, 261 Broome Street in New York City, 18 June through 11 July, 2015.

Print Wikipedia is a both a utilitarian visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge and a poetic gesture towards the futility of the scale of big data. Mandiberg has written software that parses the entirety of the English-language Wikipedia database and programmatically lays out thousands of volumes, complete with covers, and then uploads them for print-on-demand. Built on what is likely the largest appropriation ever made, it is also a work of found poetry that draws attention to the sheer size of the encyclopedia’s content and the impossibility of rendering Wikipedia as a material object in fixed form: Once a volume is printed it is already out of date. The work is also a reflection on the actual transparency or completeness of knowledge containers and history. (Denny Gallery)

Mandiberg  echoes a conceptual framework initiated by John F. Simon, Jr. and his “Every Icon” in 1996-97.  Every Icon is a grid of 32 x 32 empty squares underpinned by a Java applet that explores successively every combination of black and white squares that could occur within the confines of that grid. Changing from light to dark and back again, the black or white boxes “hop” progressively to the right. Over time (say a trillion years), the grid will will populate itself with shapes. Simon’s algorithmically driven “artist’s proof” speaks to the ephemerality, futility and power of art, which is the unavoidable, underlying theme of “Every Icon” and, for that matter, any instance of installation or performance art.

As Simon puts it,

While Every Icon is resolved conceptually, it is unresolvable in practice.
In some ways the theoretical possibilities outdistance
the time scales of both evolution and imagination.
It posits a representational system where computational
promise is intricately linked to extraordinary duration and momentary sensation.

In Mandiberg’s case – whether it is the complete  set or a print-on-demand segment – the realized print element of the Print Wikipedia demonstrates the work’s unresolvability in practice. Even if I hold out hope that the “art” (the algorithmic techne/craft) of Print Wikipedia lasts long, any artifact “resolved” by Print Wikipedia will always be out of date until the “final moment” of Wikipedia (whatever that might look like). Warning: the links from previous reviews of Every Icon are often dead, which is doubly ironic: the technical community always speaks of “links resolving to a resource”, so with those dead links, there is a further, unintended “unresolvability”.

Mandiberg’s work also echoes the conceptual framework initiated by Paul Soulellis and Library of the Printed Web. Like the volumes in Mandiberg’s Printed Wikipedia, those in the LotPW are created by print on demand.

“Special Collection” (2009), by Benjamin Shaykin. Photo by the Library of the Printed Web.

Special Collection (2009), by Benjamin Shaykin. Photo by the Library of the Printed Web.

In Soulellis’ words,

Library of the Printed Web is a collection of works by artists who use screen capture, image grab, site scrape and search query to create printed matter from content found on the web. LotPW includes self-published artists’ books, photo books, texts and other print works gathered around the casual concept of “search, compile and publish“.

The content in Benjamin Shaykin’s Special Collection consists of found pages in which a scanner’s hand was accidentally captured by the Google scanning system during the Google Book Project . This is truly “manually” found content. The content of Mandiberg’s work is algorithmically “found content” on a massive scale. While it may be that Print Wikipedia represents the “futility of the scale of big data”, I prefer the irrational hope that its print element, however tied to the digital, and the physical book art of the LotPW secure the consolation of “ars longa, vita brevis”.

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