Michael Donaghy (1954-2004) was something of a throwback to the Metaphysical Poets of the seventeenth century. Their love poetry excelled at extended metaphors designed to touch the heart and mind. “Machines” illustrates this best among his poems. It is worth a listen.
For Barbara Tetenbaum, intense listening to works of literature has provided a rich source of artwork. Her Mining My Ántonia (2012) is based on hours in a gallery at Reed College listening to a recorded reading of Willa Cather’s novel. Here is how she describes the artist’s book:
It features five automatic drawings made while listening to the novel, printed as etchings. A cloth-bound book of handset letterpress-printed excerpts accompanies this. A large fold-out map of how I see the novel, printed as a large etching with letterpress text, is housed inside the book along with one piece of text from the original Reed College installation.
Framed copy of the large fold-out map included in My Ántonia (2012). Photos: Books On Books Collection. With permission of the artist.
Decades earlier while working with Ron King, founder of Circle Press, Tetenbaum was engaged in a 10-year body of work of “marks on pages, marks as diary entries, marks as keeping time, marks as recording lived experience”. That work foreshadowed Mining My Ántonia — as did the result of meeting Michael Donaghy and his wife Maddy Paxman in 1986. That same year, when King and his wife left for an extended vacation in Eygpt, he gave Tetenbaum free rein to make any chapbook she wanted while he was away. She naturally turned to Donaghy’s melodic poetry to find the right one to react to with typesetting, paper choice, printing, binding and her own artwork — not to illustrate the poem but rather to create a companion experience for the reader.
The first of that companion experience comes from the warmth of the cover’s color, texture and weight.
The cover is actually a large single deckle-edged sheet, trimmed at top and bottom then folded to quarters.
In addition to strengthening the cover, the folding protects the three-point single-thread binding that attaches two sheets of rag paper and one sheet of mitsumata paper to the cover.
Structurally the pages have a subtle imbalance. The first sheet of rag, bearing the title and colophon, folds to two slightly unequal panels. The title page is wider than the colophon page.
The second sheet folds to three unequal panels, the last bearing the dedication to Maddy Paxman on one side and the poem itself on the reverse. In a gestural embrace, the panels fold to envelop the sheet of mitsumata paper on which Tetenbaum’s marks appear.
Also folded in “slightly off” thirds, the soft translucent mitsumata has an additional subtle imbalance. Unfolded for “reading”, the panels show a steady increase in the number of marks from left to right. Oddly though, the first and third panels show vertical marks, while the second’s are horizontal and printed on the other side of the sheet.
What is going on? The answer begins to appear from the view of the triptych of marks alongside the poem and its music. The columns of marks move left to right and down like the lines of verse. Taken together, the four panels achieve a forward-moving balance: vertical-horizontal-vertical- horizontal. Like a bicycle ride, the poem and marks start slowly, then move forward picking up speed — a natural outcome of a performative response to Donaghy’s poem.
But then, this is a view the artist did not fully intend. She writes, “The folding in the book was in part to allow the reader to have access to the poem without the intrusion of the visuals“. Listen though to Donaghy as he speaks the poem, which at the end appositely replies to the artist’s intention: “So much is chance, So much agility, desire and feverish care, As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove Who only by moving can balance Only by balancing move”. The same for the book artist. The varying folds and contrasting papers envelop, separate and blend art and text. Just as the asemic pulsing marks contrast with and mirror the rhythmic, rhyming text.
Before going on to the next artist, it is worth a short online detour for background on the mitsumata paper that Tetenbaum chose. The paper is handmade from the inner bark (or bast fibre) of a plant called mitsumata (argeli in Sikkim, India). A sustainable and renewable resource, the plants are cropped above ground level and reharvested after 3-4 years. Argeli’s scientific name is Edgeworthia gardneri, in honour of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, botanist and civil servant in India, and for his half-sister, writer Maria Edgeworth. So much is colonial science, so much is literary chance.
Mitsumata paper is made with the Japanese nagashizuki dipping and layering method of papermaking. From “Mountain Plants to Paper: A Sikkim Story“, documentary by Jaya Jaitly, Dastkari Haat Samiti, n.d. Accessed 25 September 2020.
Béatrice Coron has dived into the mechanical and musical metaphors of the poem and emerged with a knife-cut leporello pop-up incorporating text, images and metal gears.
The black thread unwinds from the sprocket on the fore edge of the box, and the box opens to a pastedown title page sprinkled with drops of solder. The enclosed leporello unfolds to a tour de force of paper engineering.
The first double-panel spread presents a centered fanfolded pop-up, whose slits and folds across the crease deliver a stroboscopic effect. Or that of a speaker vibrating with music. The words of the first stanza bracket the pop-up like parentheses representing motion or sound.
For the next double-panel spread, Coron takes the first line of the poem’s second stanza — “The machinery of grace is always simple” — and centers it appropriately at the top. The lines expanding on that statement are cut just below the teeth and into the circumference of interlocking gears. Along with their struts, rims and teeth, these gears are the only remains of this section of paper. Despite all that air and the weight of the small metallic flywheels and gears centered in the cutouts, the double-panel spread balances gracefully.
The floating layer technique is used for the third double-panel spread. The whole note (or circle) in the center hovers over the musical staves by virtue of hinged multi-tier paper supports. The words appearing between the staves and inside the whole notes (or rests?) take in all of the third stanza and first line of the fourth.
The remaining lines of the poems are cut above, below and into two interlinked spiral pop-ups. Normally a spiral is cut from a circle on one page, and one end of it is attached to the facing page. Here, with this variant on the technique, Coron give us the two bicycle wheels linked by a chain, or perhaps two treble clefs fallen over.
Coron’s and Tetenbaum’s palettes reflect the rich diversity of book art. With a few elements in common from the book arts, these two very different works, engaging the same poem, speak to the eclecticism of the Books On Books Collection and some of its underlying themes. One is the meaningful materiality of book art as well as its haptic pleasure — be it in the structure, paper, the type or lettering or marking, the colors, the balance of image and text, or that of shape and space.
The second is a particular kind of engagement with literature. Not all of the book art in the collection engages with literature, but that which does performs a sort of ekphrasis in reverse, where the poem engenders the work of art. So distinctively different in their responses, the two works show that, even within that underlying theme, eclecticism seems inevitable.
And finally, the last of the three is chance. As noted, the poem itself addresses the role of chance in the “gadgetry of love” and creativity. But what of this then? When Donaghy reviewed the proofs of Tetenbaum’s typesetting, he called out the presence of one extra word that threw off the meter. The type had to be reset. When Coron’s rendering was opened and inspected, the collector called out the absence of a one word. The leporello had to return for recutting. Mirrored typos thirty-one years apart — now there’s chance.
Small quarto book chain-stitched in boards, with a paper label to the upper cover, 40 pages, H275 x W272 x D15 mm, housed in a paper four-flap enclosure H175 x W278 x D16 mm. Signed edition of 20, of which this is #18. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
In the playground of the alphabet, papermaking, calligraphy, page design and layout, image and text, printing and binding, John Gerard has created an outstanding and contemplative work of book art and the book arts. Eastern and Western traditions meet on the page and in the material and structure: Coptic-style binding, handmade paper and spirited brushing of the letters right up against the geometric constraints of Jan Tschichold’s diagram for deriving the text block’s ideal space and positioning from the Golden Ratio.
The cover’s paper label shows the image of Jan Tschichold’s canon for page layout, which is reproduced on every page of the work. Each letter of the alphabet is messily scrawled in black over and over to fill the mathematically precise text area defined by Tschichold’s canon.
The text and label papers for Alpha Beta are handmade from cotton and hemp using a velin mould with Gerard’s early watermark depicting the Eifeltor Mühle (Eifeltor Mill) and the letters S and G (Studio John Gerard). The weight of the paper is about 150-180gsm. The lettering is done with Indian ink, and the printing of Tschichold’s diagram, with a proofing press using a photo-sensitive nylon plate. The cover papers are also made with cotton and hemp using a coagulant with slightly different pigmented pulps, which creates the decorative speckled look. The sewing thread is linen.
Artist booklet, stitched with linen thread, two sheets hand-made of cotton and abaca fibers, the cover sheet being double couched using a layer of colored pulps, the inner sheet printed in 14p Book Antiqua in relief printing. H200 x W150 mm. Edition of 100 unnumbered copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Inspired by the 19th century poem “Seifenblasen” (“Soap Bubbles”) by Theodor Fontane, John Gerard uses pulp painting to create the shifting prismatic colors displayed on the surface of a soap bubble. By layering different colored pulps on a sheet of plain wet pulp, he evokes the same pleasure, color and lightness evoked by the words.Here is a loose translation:
Children to show their delight
Send soap bubbles up to the light.
How they shimmer in the sun —
Some big, some small.
Blown with a mouth just so, some
Hold out a whole second —
But several there —
Yes! — hold on for two.
One rises as high as the house —
Bumps there — then it’s over.
Gerard seems drawn to respond to things displaying a tension between spirit and form, be it the tension of soap bubbles or the tension between repeatedly scrawled letters constrained by a canonical grid.
Leporello of two connected sheets of hand-made cotton and hemp paper, pulp-painted with red and black lines. H140 x W130 mm (unfolded approx. 770 mm). Unnumbered, signed edition of 25 copies. Acquired from the artist, 29 July 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther” embodies the tension that Gerard seems to love. Three stanzas in black 12 pt Book-Antiqua pace across the leporello like the panther behind what seem to him “a thousand bars”, which Gerard evokes in black and red pulp painting on the reverse of the leporello. Fully open, the torn top edge slopes and rises like the back and shoulders of the panther as it strides and turns in the smallest circle it can make. The bars behind, or in front of it, end above the lower edge in rounded shapes like the panther’s paws, whose texture the soft and rough handmade paper mimics.
The alternation of black and red pulp echoes the tension between the cage and panther’s heart in the poem, and the leporello opens and closes on the panther just as its own pupil’s nictitating membrane slides open, then closes on its world. Reportedly, at Augusta Rodin’s behest, Rilke stood before the animal’s cage in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris for nine hours. At the end of the poem, he has placed the reader/viewer inside the animal, absorbed the reader/viewer through the animal’s movement and gaze. Gerard’s artist booklet — by giving the reader/viewer a chance to see through the panther’s eyes — makes Rilke’s poem just as tangible as Rilke’s poem makes the panther and its world.
Gerard’s three works belong with the Books On Books Collection’s first seven books of the Rijswijk Biennial. His Alpha Beta even features in that series’ Papier op de vlucht = Paper takes flight (2006) and contributes to two of the collection’s sub themes: abecedaries as well as the technique of pulp painting. Seifenblasen and De Panther exemplify the sub theme of “reverse ekphrasis” represented by works such as Barbara Tetenbaum’s version of Michael Donaghy’s poem “Machine” or herman de vries’ argumentstellen 1968 / 2003 (de wittgenstein — tractatus — ) (2003). Gerard’s two works are, in fact, the epitome of transforming a literary text into an artwork.
Architecture — be it theory, principles, practices or instances — inspires book art. Lay the book flat; you have a foundation. Open and turn it on its fore-edge; you have a roof beam or arcade. Stand it upright; you have a column or tower. Turn the front cover; you open a door. Put the text and types under a microscope; you have a cityscape. As the examples in this virtual exhibition show, architecture-inspired book art goes beyond these simple analogies.
There are seemingly unrelated texts that help considerably in going there. The Eyes of the Skin (2005) and The Embodied Image (2010) by Juhani Pallasmaa, architect, teacher and critic, are two of them. He writes as if he were an artist preparing an artist’s statement or descriptions of the book art below. The title of his earlier book gives away his alignment with the visual and tactile nature of book art. Pallasmaa’s two books will enrich anyone’s enjoyment of the works shown and mentioned here.
Malone’s Ten Books of Architecture is a good place to start in the collection. Like Pallasmaa, Malone takes a broad historical and, most important, haptic view of architecture from Vitruvius to Hadid. Each of the ten books is a bookwork that exemplifies its subject.
The aspiration to fuse the cosmic and the human, divine and mortal, spiritual and material, combined with the systems of proportion and measure deriving simultaneously from the cosmic order and human figure, gave architectural geometries their meaning and deep sense of spiritual life.The Embodied Image, p. 23.
And further apropos the link between the book and architecture, consider the connection that Vasari drew between Gutenberg and Alberti:
In the year 1457 [sic], when the very useful method of printing books was discovered by Johann Gutenberg the German, Leon Batista [sic], working on similar lines, discovered a way of tracing natural perspectives and of effecting the diminution of figures by means of an instrument, and likewise the method of enlarging small things and reproducing them on a greater scale; all ingenious inventions, useful to art and very beautiful. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, trans. Gaston Du C. de Vere (London: Medici Society/ Philip Lee Warner, 1912-1914), 494.
In “An Architectural Confession”, Pallasmaa writes:
One’s most important teacher may have died half a millennium ago; one’s true mentor could well be Filippo Brunelleschi or Piero della Francesca. I believe that every serious artist — at the edge of his/her consciousness — addresses and offers his/her work to a superior colleague for approval.The Eyes of the Skin, p. 82.
This curiously textured cube sits perfectly alongside Pallasmaa’s observation: “The basic geometric shapes have their symbolic connotations, but more important than their conventional meanings are their conceptual and visual organising powers” (The Embodied Image, p. 58).
Malone’s Ten Books has a predecessor in Laura Davidson’s contribution to the 1994 Smithsonian show on book art inspired by its collection of rare science books (see section below). Although there is also Karen Wirth’s sculptural take on the Ten Books as well as Ron Keller’s take (see section below) on Palladio’s Fours Books of Architecture, which is Palladio’s take on Vitruvius, I have not found any other Vitruvian-inspired works of book art. (Pointers welcome.)
These two works — 30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009) and 30 St. Mary Axe: Cladding(2009) — are among several architecture-inspired works of book art that Brannan has created. The text in one of those several — Situated — could have come straight from Pallasmaa, Bachelard or Merleau-Ponty:
Being situated is generally considered to be part of being embodied, but it is useful to consider each perspective individually. The situated perspective emphasizes that intelligent behaviour derives from the environment and the agent’s interactions with it.
By integration of image, colour and structure, Brannan situates the “Gherkin’s” architecture in your hands.
In the The Radiant Republic (2019), Sarah Bryant (Big Jump Press) brings together concrete, wood, glass, paper, ink and embossed printing, sewn binding, box container and texts from Plato and Le Corbusier.
Bryant’s insightful integration of Plato’s and Le Corbusier’s texts and ideas and her setting them in the physicality of the blond wood, linen cover, embossed type and sewn papers could easily be a response to Pallasmaa’s comment in The Eyes of the Skin: “The current overemphasis on the intellectual and conceptual dimensions of architecture contributes to the disappearance of its physical, sensual and embodied essence.” (p. 35)
Chinese Whispers (1975) is conceptual, visual and spatial narrative that takes the reader into a “game of embedded games”: a game of Chinese Whispers used by the artists to combine the process of making a book with the process of recovering an old cottage, making a corner cupboard, making jam, making ideas and making an exit.
Chinese Whispers (1975), Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes, Photo: Books On Books Collection
The selection of images above begins with the front cover’s photo of a patch of grass outside an abandoned farm building and ends with the back cover’s photo of the underside of the patch of grass. In between, the pages take the viewer through the trimmed hedge and the doorway into the room, through the building, the stocking of the shelves, using of the stock and closing of the shed cupboard, and so back to the other side of the patch of grass. As Stokes explained in the Journal of Artist’s Books (Vol. 12, 1999):
We started with the corner cupboard, that was the part that occupied our thinking most, that and the two colour vignettes (as we called them) printed on different stock. But then we started to think backward to what might be before the cupboard’s construction. To the thing before that, and the thing before that, and the thing before that which was cutting of the hedge and before that which was the boot brush which we called the hedgehog- that was where the book started. Then we started to photograph from that point forward, through the book.
The work blends the features of book structure, collage and montage to create something that resonates uncannily with Pallasmaa’s approving citations of Bachelard’s central idea of the hearth and domicile as central to our time-bound “being-in-the-world”.
Folded book pages rarely generate a work that rises above mere craft. Heather Hunter’s Observer Series: Architecture (2009) achieves the necessary height. It combines the altered book with an accordion book that incorporates a found poem composed of the words excised and folded outwards from the folded pages of The Observer’s Book of Architecture.
The very fact of a found poem made of excised words that happen to fall at the folds shaping a column from a book on architecture chimes with the title of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
Chicago Octet (2014) byMarlene MacCallum embodies the collaborative creative approach often taken in architects’ practices. Collaborative working arises almost as frequently in book art. Think of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay, Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn, Julie Chen and Clifton Meador, Robin Price and Daniel Kelm. Many more can be added. As described by MacCallum:
From May 19 – 26, 2014 a group of eight gathered at the Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts for a final collaborative project. This event was organized by Clifton Meador and myself and included David Morrish, Scott McCarney, and four Grenfell Campus BFA (Visual Arts) grads, Stephen Evans, Maria Mercer, Virginia Mitford, and Meagan Musseau…. The letterpress printing consisted of a word selected by each participant printed on one of Scott’s folded structures. The images were a digital layering of every cityscape photograph that I made and then inkjet printed on top of the letterpress. The final folded structure was designed by Mary Clare Butler. The case was designed and built by Scott McCarney, the front cover embossment was by David Morrish and Clifton Meador.
Chicago Octet fully unfolded, 17.5 × 11.5 inches Photo: Books On Books Collection
Can you hear the traffic and sense the layers of experience? What Pallasmaa writes here of rock art in Africa and Australia reminds me of Chicago Octet (or is it vice versa?): “
At the same time that great works of art make us aware of time and the layering of culture, they halt time in images that are eternally new. … Regardless of the fact that these images may have been painted 50,000 years ago, … we can … hear the excited racket of the hunt.The Embodied Image, p. 109.
Mill: A journey around Cromford Mill, Derbyshire (2006) is the result of the artists’ exploration of Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, the first water-powered, cotton-spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771. Solid, plaster cast blocks are held softly between calico pages containing hidden texts, bound in recycled wooden library shelf covers that indicate there is history to be found within.
Having Mill is like having the building inside your house.
Architecture plays more than an inspirational role in Karen Wirth’s portfolio. As mentioned above, she has created her own take on Vitruvius’ Ten Books. She designed the Gail See Staircase at Open Book and the Hiawatha Light Rail Station, both in Minneapolis. The collage work Paper Architecture is based on an architectural installation at the Minnesota Center for Arts Design and draws on Wirth’s photos of Ayvalik, Amsterdam, Florence, Istanbul, New York City, Rome, San Diego and Venice.
In The Embodied Image, Pallasmaa singles out “the collaged image” as creating “a dense non-linear and associative narrative field through initially unrelated aggregates, as the fragments obtain new roles and significations through the context and dialogue with other image fragments” (pp.71-72). The materially disparate words in the title of Wirth’s work imply the dialogues she creates among paper, designs of letters and architecture, buildings across time and the globe, and photos tinted, four-colour, and black-and-white in palimpsest.
Former professor and head of the Department of Architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, Yoon is now Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. She is also cofounder of Höweler + Yoon, a design-driven architecture practice. Absence appears to be her only work of book art so far.
When you hold this small white brick of paper and turn its thick pages, a small pinhole appears on the page. Then two larger square holes emerge, one of which falls over the pinhole. Page after page, the two square holes repeat, creating two small dark wells in the field of white, until on the last page they take their place in the cut-out schematic footprint of the city blocks and buildings surrounding the Twin Towers of New York City. What you hold in your hands at the end is an object of art and book of memorial prayer.
Architecture-themed worksfrom other sites
Twice a semester, the Environmental Design Library at the University of California, Berkeley hosts “Hands On: An Evening with Artists’ Books”. In 2017, one evening’s theme was “Building on the Built”, illustrated by 25 works of book art. Organised by 23 Sandy Gallery in the same year, “BUILT“ was an international juried exhibition featuring 66 artist books by 51 artists examining the relationship between contemporary book art practices and architecture, engineering, landscape and construction.
Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, this section provides links to favourites from these two exhibitions as well as other collections, exhibitions and installations.
On her site, Bruggeman writes, “This book/box project is built around excerpts from Architectural Body by Madeline Gins and Arakawa…. incorporates a blueprint of their Bioscleave House as part of the imagery….”. Somewhat like A Clockwork Orange or perhaps more like Heideigger’s tomes, the Gins and Arakawa book is a challenge to the reader’s expectations of diction and syntax.
Richard Minsky: Model of Buckminster Fuller’s Tetrascroll (1979). See also Polly Lada-Mocarski, Richard Minsky and Peter Seidler, “Book of the Century: Fuller’s Tetrascroll“, Craft Horizons, October 1977 (Vol. 7, No. 35). For one (very helpful) reading of Tetrascroll see Jessica Prinz’s “The ‘Non-Book’: New Dimensions in the Contemporary Artist’s Book” in The Artist’s Book: The Text and its Rivals, a special two-issue volume of Visible Language, Vol. 25, Nos. 2/3, edited by Renée Riese Hubert (Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design, 1991), pp. 286-89.
Going against the usual structure of the book, that of a beginning, a middle and an end, Perera provides a space for infinite possibilities and multiple authors, creating “modules that can be re-sequenced and re-aligned to develop variable permutations and encourage participatory involvement, to share the final editorial control with the viewer to transform the ever-evolving work”.These possibilities for variable permutations are no more evident than in her constantly evolving project, Building Blocks Book, and its numerous subsequent iterations including The Negative Space of Architecture and The House That Jack Never Built (2008). Once again we find Perera exploring human interaction, not only with the concepts and her quizzical ideas surrounding architectural and public spaces and how we build between and move within, but also the physical interaction with the artists’ books she produces – the rearrangement and reinsertion of pages which allow the audience and participants new opportunities and pathways to proceed. Through the positive and negative space of the page or the type font, the Underground versus over ground, the artist takes us on journeys that are at once fluid and at other times obstructive. In these cityscapes, the U-turn is as common as the page turn – a necessary rupture in a free-flowing narrative. Chris Taylor, From Book to Book (Leeds: Wild Pansy Press, 2008).
Elizabeth Williams, “Architects Books: An Investigation in Binding and Building”, The Guild of Book Workers Journal, Volume 27, Number 2, Fall 1989. This essay not only pursues the topic of architecture-inspired book art but turns it on its head. An adjunct professor at the time, Williams set her students the task of reading Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books (Nicosia: Aegean Editions, 2001) then, after touring a bindery, “to design the studio and dwelling spaces for a hand bookbinder on an urban site in Ann Arbor, Michigan”. But before producing the design, the students were asked “to assemble the pages [of the design brief and project statement] in a way that explored or challenged the concept of binding”. In other words, they had to create bookworks and then, inspired by that, create their building designs. Williams illustrates the essay with photos of the students’ bookworks. [Special thanks to Peter Verheyen for this reference.]
… in medias res … in the midst of things … Nel mezzo del caminn di nostra vita …
I asked Barbara Tetenbaum if we could base this interview on her selection of a book she owns and may or may not have read. Perhaps sounding like a card magician, I instructed:
Go to any row or stack of books (or file folder of books; yes, ebooks would count) in your home or workplace. Select the title that is in the middle. Please note the author, title, year of publication, publisher and ISBN, if available. Now, turn to the middle of the title selected and choose any element (paragraph, image, footnote and sentence footnoted, bit of dialogue, etc.). Please note the page number or other means of identifying the element’s location.
And here is the result of this “deliberated” selection of the book, of this bit of ordered randomness or random order in finding our point of departure for our interview.
BoB: Where was Hines’ book when you selected it? What are the objects immediately on either side of the book when it’s on the shelf? As you take the book from its place, what are your physical sensations? As you open it to its midpoint, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
BT: I took the book from my living room, the main bookshelf that houses my main books-about-art library. I chose the middle shelf and the middle book.
Here are the first four books to the left of the book in contiguous order:
When I took the book out, I had these feelings: trepidation – on what was inside; pride – that I had found it years ago and knew to acquire it; charm – that it so reflects what I’m working on at the moment; slight disgust – at its ugly dust jacket; and curiosity – to read and discover what I had been missing all these years since purchasing it.
The book smelled academic. Like a book that is published for a very narrow audience and is rarely opened, but produced with a certain level of quality that is better than a mass-market paperback for instance.
And to say something about the adjacent books on the shelf: I was surprised how many of them had German content! These books represent people I have met, places I’ve been. For instance, the Hildegard Korger book was a gift from her after I spent a semester in Leipzig. She had been so very suspicious of me as an American, so shortly after the Wall had come down, very odd to speak with, but in the end she saw that I was trying to do something positive for the school and the students. She gave me this book and told me we could say “Du”. It was an important moment for me. And Peter and Ines’s encyclopedia is one of my favorite projects of the last decade or so. I admire them so much and can’t begin to imagine what it takes to make the work they make. I know them well, but they are super heroes for me. That book on paper is smart and continues to prove that the development of book culture is primarily a political process.
BoB: You say you had forgotten you bought this book. Having taken it from its place, have you recalled the circumstances of the book’s purchase? What were you doing when you decided to buy it? What prompted the purchase?
BT: I bought it possibly 10 years ago. I found it in Powell’s “Literary Criticism” section, which is a place I go to when I am not being productive in the studio and feel like reading some smart book will inspire me to be a better/smarter artist. I often buy books in this way that I don’t get around to reading. Or maybe I read a bit and find that it actually triggers an idea that was sitting dormant. In this case, I think it did. I was working a lot between music and visual books then. I was interested in the languages that these arts have developed individually and how these languages can be learned and used by other disciplines. This book for me is a bit dry as I like books that get to the point without exploring example after example. I’m often bored by the examples used by these theoreticians and would prefer them to get to the point! (that’s me in general).
BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general?
BT: Reading/handling books can lead to many possible reactions! First off, I’m very aware of their physical body: the weight in my hands, the feel of the cover, of the paper, how well the book opens and the pages ‘drape’, the smell to a certain extent. I notice if the layout is of good quality, that the text is easy to read for my eyes, that this is an object that will help me spend time with its contents and not annoy me. I think we are all this way, though maybe not so conscious. Because I am both a book artist and a teacher, I’m always noticing/looking for books that add to the discussion about the dynamic nature of the book. So I may become interested in a book because it shows something that I want my students to think about, or that will inspire me to utilize a particular ‘move’ in a future project. So books themselves contain the evidence/proof of the vitality of the book structure and book organization.
I’m also very interested in the presumed ‘authority’ that books convey. I think this was my opening into the book arts back in 1979: to challenge this presumption. I still am!
BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?
BT: When I’m working on a project, books are everywhere, on all surfaces. [In the] photo of my new kittens hanging out on my kitchen table [you can] see all the books that I was referencing as I worked this week on a new quick Cather project (creating a visual score for My Ántonia). Books are either direct source material, or they are reminders of a standard of design, or palette of colors, or format, or mix of materials, etc., that I want to influence this particular project. Buzz Spector gave an interesting talk a year or so ago on the artist’s library relationship to their studio practice. I like this image of the fluid interaction between the studio and the library.
BoB: As might be expected with a university press book, the Hines text is dry, but it came to life a bit for me when I noticed how it touches on two key themes in your life and work. In particular, the collaborative form in which two or more artists work together on a joint creation and the collaborative form in which an artist works the elements of two or more arts into a solo creation. Now you have taken this several steps beyond what Hines writes of. Not only do you work in mixed media but you collaborate with contemporaries (like Julie Chen) and with past authors and artists (like Willa Cather).
Most often we think of the literary or pictorial artist as creating in solitude. If asked for outstanding examples of artistic collaboration, don’t we most often turn to music? Picking one or more of your contemporary collaborations, can you tell me how that kind of collaboration works with what so many think of as the solitary creative process?
BT: Hmmm….’solitary creative process’ is definitely an aspect of being an artist and for me personally it is the most bizarre part of my time making work. I am a fairly social being and my imagination is mostly ignited by the world/ideas/people around me. But yes, there are those times when it’s just your own struggle to get through the place you’ve brought yourself to. I love rereading Georges Perec’s essay “The Parachute Jump” just to be reminded of the absolute fear that one can experience in the studio, not knowing where to go, but knowing that you brought yourself to this point and the only thing you can do is throw yourself into the void.
Maybe collaboration for me is to partly feel the impetus from outside myself. So this is an energy thing. I am really great at answering to the needs of others. If I collaborate, then there’s another person to help drive the projects. Otherwise I can spin in on my projects for a long time.
I have a highly reactive mind. So even having a very brief interaction with another artist can trigger a direction to take. So to sum up this part of the question: collaboration is a way to get outside of myself and bring impetus into moments of fear and stagnation.
But the other side of collaboration, the bringing together of otherwise distinct, separate disciplines, is something I must thrive off of. I have always loved collage. Max Ernst said that there’s a spark that comes from bringing together seemingly unrelated things. So collaboration contains a lot of potential ‘sparking’! I like to create things that show something new to the world. Collaboration offers a means to discover new territory. A Reed College professor brought her literature class to see my Cather installation last year, and we also looked at the book project I’d just finished. She said that having an artist show a way of seeing a novel opened up otherwise uncharted ways of looking at a piece of literature. Literary scholars have long discussed “My Ántonia”, but here was new information. So this aspect of working outside, but slightly parallel to one’s discipline, can be exciting.
A third reason I like to collaborate with certain people is because I admire them so much, that this is the closest way I can get to walking in their shoes. I’m not normally a collaborator who is all about showing MY imagery in the work, but rather one who is always thinking “What would Julie do?” These questions help me work in ways that I don’t usually. And maybe collaborating with a dead author is the ultimate homage and selfish way to make a connection…??!!! I only say that, but don’t think this was my impetus for making work with Cather’s text, whom I had never read before then.
BoB: You have described how you listened for days to Willa Cather’s work being read aloud when preparing for Mining My Ántonia. And Ute Schneider in her essay “Turning the Page” writes of the “sound world” of your work Black Ice and Rain. And you mentioned that when you bought Collaborative Form you were “working a lot between music and visual books.” How important is sound to your work? What do you hear as the work progresses? Or when it is finished, what do you hear and hope your audience hears when experiencing the work?
BT: … I never thought about this, but there is definitely a rhythm to my books (well, anyone’s books, really). I know intuitively when this rhythm is ‘right’. We know what it means to sit through a symphony, or a sonata, or a rock song. We know that there will be certain refrains, changes in texture, returning themes. I think we all make books with this kind of sense. I can’t say that there’s any real sound going through my head, but its more knowing that something is right. Not just based on aesthetics, but more on rhythm.
I did teach a class in NYC a few years ago in which we examined musical notation as inspiration for mark-making, and looked at musical form as inspiration for the organization of the parts of the book, so I definitely am in tune (sorry) with this other discipline. And I am a musician, too.
BoB: As you described taking Hines’ Collaborative Form from the shelf, you spoke of the “drape” of the page, the weight in your “hands,” and the “feel” of the cover and paper. That strange but apt word “haptic” (from the Greek ἅπτω = ‘I fasten onto, I touch’) comes to mind. It often comes up in critiques of the digital revolution we have been, and are, living. The digital revolution challenges almost everything physical around us – especially the book. You are something of a “biblioclast,” too, in your challenging “the presumed ‘authority’ that books convey,” no? Many of the digerati, the “born digital first” or the “born-again” digital first are proclaiming that the social network effect and the inevitable demise of print on paper mark a fundamental challenge to the authority of the book and its form. Is that digital challenge to the book’s authority different from what you have in mind?
BT: I think my journey with the book, being at first iconoclastic, could be explained as a way of making friends/healing a wound from childhood. I grew up with intelligent scientific parents who luckily loved music and art. I was kind of the black sheep, the one who didn’t get the good grades, who smoked pot, ran with the wild crowd, got in trouble. My siblings were achievers. My brother got perfect scores on 2 of his SATs and went to M.I.T. So the book and text and school-learning became an easy target for my early youthful endeavors. What I didn’t expect was that I would do a 180 degree turn and become so enamored of books and the printed word, and have become fairly missionary about the future-of-the-book. I have been inspired and influenced by Gary Frost who points to the fact that learning IS a haptic phenomenon. When we remove the physicality of knowledge, we are in danger of losing levels of understanding. Also, I am worried about the survival of so much digital information. Paper, even acidic paper, can still survive wars, floods, fires, neglect, political change. So I’ve become pretty militant about the survival of the paper-based book. It is still the most accessible object for the widest amount of readers.
BoB: The kittens in your photo suggest a world “a-borning” in your life. On what will you fasten or touch next in your art?
BT: Ahhh, the kittens. It’s just nice to come home to these living creatures who are so interactive and of course very very cute. They won’t be the subject of my art, but rather a distraction from the studio.
Like the conversation that Willa Cather relates to begin My Ántonia, this one concludes too soon for me. By some ordered randomness — as in pulling the book that happens to rest in the middle of the shelf and finding our way from it to the things around us — I will find myself in Portland or in a gallery somewhere and suddenly hear that generosity of spirit, and our conversation will resume.
Further reading and listening relating to Barbara Tetenbaum and her art:
Donaghy, Michael. “Black Ice and Rain.” [Read by the late poet, the poem incorporated in Tetenbaum’s limited edition artwork Black Ice and Rain.]
Here is another instance of “reverse” ekphrasis. When a writer creates poetry or prose in response to a work of art, that is an ekphrastic work. Think of John Keats and “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” William Carlos Williams and his poems inspired by Breughel, Randall Jarrell’s “The Bronze David of Donatello” or Mark Doty’s extended essay in response to Jan Davidsz de Heem’s “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon.”
Tetenbaum, both writer and artist, spends a month in a gallery listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, and the result is an “artist’s book” or “bookwork” called Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map.
Put aside — difficult as it may be — the pleasure of craft and art so plainly suffusing the print, paper and binding of this work, what is its relation to the material of which it is made? Is it like a “movie of the book”? Or some sort of literary/artistic criticism? Are we enjoying Tetenbaum’s “making the novel her own” (as in the pun on mining), or is the work inspiring us to go back to Cather’s novel with renewed interest? To what degree can we appreciate Tetenbaum’s book art without having read My Ántonia?How do we think about the “material” of which Mining My Ántonia is made?
Some work in this category of the artist’s response to book material, in which a well-known scene from the book is created, is merely craftwork. Other work — which can stand on its own, albeit better appreciated in the context of full knowledge of the inspiring book — is art. We want to make it our own — to mine it — which curiously might send us back to the quarry from which the artist drew her material.
Nathalie King, “Reading the Literary Text as ‘Art in Space’: Barbara Tetenbaum’s My Ántonia,” The Artist’s Yearbook, 2014-2015 (Bristol: Impact Press), pp. 95-99.