Trophic Avulsions (2016) Jaz Graf Cyanotype accordion book with thread drawing, paper lithography and laser engraving on wood. Closed: H6 x W8.5 x D1.0 inches; Open: W80 inches. Unique. Acquired from the artist, 14 March 2018. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Graf has used satellite photos of various river deltas around the world to create the cyanotype prints in this work. The patterns from which are exposed come from paper litho prints made on fabric. The result is a blurring, softening yet “nearing” of the otherwise sharp, scientific and remote images normally viewed on digital screens or photographic paper. As Graf points out in her description, the word trophic “relates to an ecological concept of the trophic cascade, in which one action leads to another in an ecosystem, implying ideas of interconnectivity.”
That interconnectivity and the impact we have on “the separation of land from one area and its attachment to another”, which is what avulsion means, is implied by the streams of thread meandering across and off the panels of the accordion form from beginning to end. Even though the panels fold to fit within their laser-engraved birch panels, they vary in width, which breaks up the expected regularity of the accordion when it is extended. The engravings show a delta emptying into a desert and are mounted on wood blocks covered in muslin bearing the printed delta image made with paper lithography.
The environmental focus of Trophic Avulsions places it in a well-loved tradition in book art. Other works by Graf, such as Mother Water (2018) below, would be comfortably at home in an exhibition with
Biography (2010) by Sarah Bryant, who creatively connects the human body’s elements with those of the periodic table to bear witness to our impact on the environment and vice versa;
the Ice Books series (2007-17) by Basia Irland, who selects local seeds and embeds them as “text” in a block of frozen river water, carved into the shape of a book to be released into the local river where it melts, releasing the seeds;
the Whorl series (2013- ongoing) by Jacqueline Rush Lee, who returns books to their botanical origins by sculpting books and inserting them into the cavity of a tree to allow time, changing weather conditions and insect activity to rewrite them into the shape of a whorl in a tree hollow;
Batterers (1996) by Denise Levertov, Kathryn Lipke and Claire Van Vliet, who combine Levertov’s powerful poem extending a metaphor of abuse to the earth with Lipke’s clay paperwork set into a wooden tray as the base of this sculptural book, whose pages Van Vliet makes unfold into a fiery landscape; or
Silent Spring Revisited (2016) by Chris Ruston, who uses her frequent visits to natural history museums to inspire works that blend science and art that highlight extinction and the interdependence of humans and nature.
If such an exhibition — a twentieth anniversary of Betty Bright’s 1992 “Completing the Circle: Artists’ Books on the Environment”? — were organized, Trophic Avulsions would be available to loan!
Mother Water (2018) Laser-etched acrylic, cyanotype, porcelain Dimensions variable (15 panels – each 14”x11”) The river featured is Thailand’s Chao Praya. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Holuhraun (2015) Chris Ruston Box: Exterior – Greyboard covered with Nepalese Lokta paper painted with Indian ink; Interior – Greyboard covered with Washi paper with fibre inclusions and painted with Indian ink. Closed: H215 x WW224 x 78 mm. Open: H110-210 x W484 x D625. Acquired from the artist, 9 March 2017. Photo: Books On Books
On 31 August 2014, the active Bárðarbunga volcano in Holuhraun, Iceland erupted. On 27 February 2015 — 181 days later — it ceased.
Chris Ruston’s artwork inspired by this event sits monolithically when closed, a flicker of orange-red barely visible through the jagged crack across its top. When the top and bottom of the box are removed, the color wells up more clearly through four sides of the upright fissure.
Free of its enclosures, Holuhraun “erupts”, the four flaps of black “basalt” falling away and displaying the full burst of “lava”. The flames come alive with any change of light or viewpoint.
The shallow tray of Lokta-covered greyboard contains 181 individual ”pages” documenting each day of the eruption. Each page consists of two torn pieces of Canson Black glued together and tipped with a “flame” of Japanese Ogura Lace paper made from Manila Hemp fibres and torn into various shapes. The Canson Black and Ogura Lace have been painted with Rohrer & Klingner Traditional Drawing Indian Inks. Here are the first and last days’ pages, followed by the work’s colophon.
The destructive and regenerative nature of geological phenomena is but one of several muses driving Ruston’s imagination as is evident from these other works in the collection.
The Great Gathering Seven Books, Seven Moments in Time (2015)
The seven volumes of The Great Gathering (or “the ammonite books”) first appeared as an installation at the Natural History Museum in Colchester from March through May 2016. They then moved to “Turn the Page“ in Norwich, where attendees and visitors awarded the work First Prize in the show.
The Great Gathering, Seven Books, Seven Moments in Time (2015) Chris Ruston Detail of the display at the Natural History Museum, Colchester, Essex. A nicely ironic touch for this seven-fold artwork, the museum is housed in a de-consecrated church. Photo credit: Chris Ruston Acquired from the artist, 27 June 2016.
The Great Gathering, Seven Books, Seven Moments in Time (2015) Chris Ruston Awarded First Prize, on display at “Turn the Page”, Norwich, England, May 2016 Photo credit: Chris Ruston
The Great Gathering reaches beyond the event of one volcanic eruption and introduces human knowing of such events and the associated shadowiness of beginnings and change. Combining traditional techniques of the book arts, painting and sculpture with the biblioclastic techniques of book art, the artist charts our perceptions of the mysteries of cosmic origin (Volumes I and II), the sedimentary earth and the ocean (Volumes III and IV), natural history and human geography (Volumes V and VI) and our creative future (Volume VII).
In using the form of the ammonite fossil as a unifying thread, Ruston reflects the influence of her recurring visits to natural history museums, in particular the Natural History Museum in Colchester and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge. The use of the ammonite form for the pre-fossil periods of Vol. I Dark Beginnings and Volume II The Age of Light & Shadow might seem odd, but it symbolically underscores the anthropocentric lens through which we naturally explore the origins of the universe and this world in it.
Vol. I Dark Beginnings Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W210 x L210 x D60 mm Lining: Shoji Gami Kozo paper soaked in Sennelier Indian Ink. Pages: Shoji Gami Kozo paper, soaked in Sennelier Indian Ink and then cut to size. Binding: Black Gutterman Thread sewn over tapes.
Fittingly, the first and smallest box contains the only untorn set of pages. All black, the first volume stands against the last volume’s all-white blank pages.
Vol. II The Age of Light & Shadow Box: Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W420 x L410 x D95 mm Lining: Unryu laid over Shoji Gami Kozo paper, painted with various Rohrers Inks. Pages: Torn book pages. Binding: Red Gutterman Thread pamphlet-sewn and sewn over a single tape.
The book from which Volume II’s pages are made is Hubble: Window on the Universe by Giles Sparrow (Quercus Publishing, 2010). The painstaking effort with which the pages have been shaped across the length of the volume and then sewn together leaps out from the finished work and the following work-in-progress photo.
Work in progress: Vol. II The Age of Light and Shadow Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Vol. III The Age of Ocean Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W350 x L360 x H90 mm Lining: Shoji Gami Kozo paper painted with Rohrers Inks. Pages: Fabriano Artistico Watercolour Paper painted with Rohrers Inks. Binding: White Gutterman thread pamphlet-sewn and sewn over two white tapes.
The colours and patterns of all the lining papers and of the pages in Volumes III and IV are so remarkable they are best explained by the artist: “The marks are created by laying the paper on a plastic sheet over a variety of other textured papers. A wash of water is applied carefully with a large soft brush followed by a wash of various Rohrers inks. Once the paper has throughly dried the pages are ‘peeled off’ the plastic. It is similar to a monoprint technique but using watercolour process rather than traditional printing inks.”
Vol. IV The Age of Innocence Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W370 x L480 x D105 mm Lining: Shoji Gami Kozo paper painted with Rohrers Inks. Pages: Fine Rice paper painted with Rohrers inks. Binding: Yellow Gutterman thread pamphlet-stitch and sewn over two brown tapes.
Although the painting technique applied to Volumes III and IV is the same, the visual and tactile effects are as different as sheets of ice on the one hand and sheets of sediment and mineral on the other.
Vol. V The Age of Transition Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W380 x L360 cm x D85 mm Lining: Unryu paper laid over Shoji Gami Kozo paper with Rohrers Ink Pages: Windsor and Newton Smooth Cartridge Paper 220 gsm and torn book pages. Binding: White Gutterman Thread pamphlet-stitch and sewn over a single beige tape.
Volume V blends pieces of blank white paper with shaped pages torn from a copy of On the Origin of Species.Volume VI draws on pages from National Geographic magazines. While the titles and “contents” of the two volumes suggest a forward, evolutionary movement in human knowledge, the juxtaposition of the sewn binding, carefully torn pages and 30,000-year-old red ochre hand prints and stencils from the Chauvet caves in France evokes a different view of human creativity across time. It is a variant of the suite‘s “ammonite” paradox of the entanglement of constancy and change.
Vol. VI The Age of Knowledge Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W280 x L290 x 100 mm Lining: Shoji Gami Kozo paper painted with Rohrers Inks. Pages: Torn magazine pages. Binding: Yellow Gutterman thread pamphlet-stitch sewn over a single brown tape.
Photos: Books On Books and Courtesy of artist, respectively
Vol. VII The Time is Now Box: Greyboard glued in several layers and covered in Buckram Bookbinding cloth. W330 x 330 x D75 mm Lining: Nepalese Decorative paper made with Lokta fibres – Little Dot – Pale Grey. Assemblage of pages of Blank Windsor and Newton Smooth Cartridge Paper 220 gsm pamphlet-stitch sewn with white Gutterman Thread over a single grey tape, among cut photos of objects and Contents page from Planet earth – the future: what the experts say by Fergus Beeley, Mary Colwell and Joanne Stevens (BBC Books, 2006) pasted to a mirror.
The seventh and concluding volume offers a sort of boxed performative installation platformed on a mirror that implicates any viewer who leans over to take a closer look. A reminder that, whether from a scientific perspective or that of modern aesthetic theory, observation affects and effects results. And a closer look at the table of contents pasted to the mirror offers another reminder: that all of us in the present anthropocene era are implicated in the planet’s future.
In progress Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Lost Voices Artist Books The Captain’s “Ditty Box” (2017)
The Great Gathering has an optimistic innocence to it. It moves from The Age of Transition to The Age of Knowledge. By openly alluding to the diligence in the series‘ creation, Volume VII suggests an art- and science-based path to the future. Even the last chapter of the pasted-down Contents page is “Optimism and Hope”. But Ruston’s more recent works leaven that with a lament for what has been and is still being lost.
Lost Voices Artist Books The Captain’s “Ditty Box” (2017) Chris Ruston Repurposed wooden box: H150 x W325 x D40 mm, containing two unique palimpsest journals and various objects. The text in both journals — The Captain’s Log Book and his Wife’s Journal — is hand printed with rubber stamps or hand written. The images are drawn, hand printed with rubber stamps or painted. The papers consist of Gampi, Kozo, Fabriano and Resurgence Magazine pages; the latter are coated in gesso to submerge the text. The fold-out page in the Wife’s Journal is a photo of whale’s baleen (taken in the Natural History Museum, London) backed with a darker inked sheet. The bindings for the log book and journal are limp leather. Sources of text: Moby-Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville (Harper and Bros, 1851); One Whaling Family by Harold Williams, ed. (Houghton Mifflin Co, 1964); Whale Nation by Heathcote Williams (Jonathan Cape, 1988); The Hull Whaling Trade: An Arctic Enterprise by Arthur G. Credland (The Hutton Press Ltd, 1995); Heroines and Harlots, Women at Sea in the Age of Sail by David Cordingly (Random House, 2001); and Resurgence Magazine. Acquired from the artist, 1 December 2019.
Here is a work of art that invites the very acts required by a keepsake box: unpacking, manipulation, rearrangement, regarding and repacking. Only by responding to the invitation do discoveries within discoveries come. On one level is the discovery (or recovery) of the lost voices of a whaling captain, his wife and child, his crew and the creatures they hunt. On another level are voices from other times that underlay and overlay the mid-nineteenth century voices in a time-twisting palimpsest that leaves the reader/viewer in a limbo of pasts, presents and futures. On yet another level are the found objects (pens, a clay pipe) from the past that rest alongside objects clearly made by the artist in the present (the sperm whale cutout and coloured lining papers).
The white cutout of a sperm whale and the inscription from Moby-Dick on its reverse reflects one of several inspirations for this assemblage. Others came from the artist’s wide reading (noted in the opening caption above), trips to Hull and visits to museums as with The Great Gathering, but perhaps most important is the one that came from the creative process:
I love the process of building a history onto the page – things can be ‘hidden’ leaving just a trace, or revealed in part fragments. During this period of whaling it wasn’t unusual that journals and ledgers were reused due to the cost of paper. This was the inspiration and starting point in making these journals. Correspondence with Books On Books,
The Captain’s Log Book
In every respect except the captain’s and his wife’s own words, the log and journal are artifice. Not even all the words belong to them. By letting the words from elsewhere and other times bleed through or overlay their words, by painting and ink stamping over the words, Ruston is stealing the phenomenon of palimpsest from the realm of artefact for that of artistic technique.
Pages overdrawn or ink-stamped, watercolor printing, use of mixed papers, manipulation of spread layouts and fold outs, hand stitching — so many of the techniques of book art and the book arts are brought to bear in the log and journal that they echo the assemblage that The Captain’s Ditty Box is.
The Wife’s Journal
The inclusion of The Wife’s Journal underlines the artist’s embrace of the surprising fact that women and their children did ship on the whalers. Physically, the Journal is as “muscular” as the Log. The use of gesso to ‘knock back’ the text on the printed sheets changes their texture and makes them feel stiffer and heavier. Turning the stiffened pages and the pages made of translucent Gampi and Kozo gives a tactile imitation of the visual palimpsest.
With its reference to the baby, the Journal has its tendernesses. But even with these and her moment of fastidiousness about entering the mouth of a beached whale, the captain’s wife has the air of a natural historian and seafaring field biologist.
Through its keepsake-box metaphor, The Captain’s Ditty Box is an immersion in time. Through the artist’s choice of assemblage and palimpsest as technique, it is an immersion in natural and human consequences.
Lost Voices Artist Books Just One Bone… (2017)
Lost Voices Artist Books Just One Bone… (2017) Chris Ruston Fabriano Artistico Watercolour Paper. Double gate fold, with a fold out central page. Sewn together with pamphlet stitch. Board cover consisting of collaged vintage sea chart, and hand painted paper. Painted paper envelope wraps around the book. Text: Moby -Dick ,’The Whale’ by Herman Melville (Harper and Brothers, 1851) and The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, 2000). H340 x W215 x D150 mm. Acquired from the artist, 1 December 2019.
Just One Bone is a different kind of assemblage, yet with similarities and ultimately the same aim. The multiple folders or enclosures reprise those of the “ditty box”, and as with the log book’s and journal’s palimpsest pages, there are layers on layers here.
The double gate-fold silhouette of a whale’s vertebrae below echoes the multi-page white outline in The Captain’s Log above.
Just One Bone may begin with the same handwritten quotation from Melville that appears on the cutout in The Captain’s “Ditty Box”, but it concludes with lines from Jeannette Winterson clearly articulating the aim underlying both works.
Whaling Logbook (2017)
Whaling Logbook (2017) Chris Ruston Soft cover, Pamphlet Stitched pages Various papers including Ingres paper and Translucent paper. Hand carved stamps and text printed using rubber stamps. Inks. H190 x W110 mm. Acquired from the artist, 1 December 2019.
Compared to Lost Voices, The Whaling Log Book and Moby Dick (below) are small. They may be works preparatory to, or left over from, The Captain’s Ditty Box and Just One Bone. Although less wide-ranging, they each deliver.
The Whaling Log Book celebrates those handstamps used on whaling ships to document sightings and, at the same time, strikes dual notes of lament and loneliness.
Moby Dick (2017)
Moby Dick (2017) Chris Ruston Soft cover, concertina fold sea chart on Fabriano Artistic Watercolour paper. Inks. Images from hand carved whale stamps, Text from rubber stamps. Quotation from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (Harper and Brothers, 1851). H185 x W235 mm. Acquired from the artist, 1 December 2019.
Although the handstamps make an appearance in Moby Dick, the main celebration here is how the printing gives the viewer’s eye and imagination freedom to fare and find as they will. In the upper left, a whale’s eye seems to emerge from the pattern. In the upper center, a diving right whale. In the upper right, ocean depths in the underlying chart. Across the lower row’s fold outs, ice floes break up on the sea’s surface.
For the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth (1819), the Bodleian’s Bibliographical Press invited letterpress printers and artists to claim one of the eighty prefatory “Extracts” from Moby-Dick (1851) and create an artwork in response.
The Blackwell Hall exhibition case accommodates thirty of the eighty contributors‘ artworks, plus the rare three-volume version of the novel published by Richard Bentley in London as The Whale before Harper & Brothers issued it in November 1851 in New York as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Here are just four of the outstanding prints among the several artforms on display.
Extract 25: ‘The mighty whales which swim in a sea of water, and have a sea of oil swimming in them.’ ─ Fuller’s Profane and Holy State Brittany Starr and Mallory Haselberger, BookLab at University of Maryland Mixed media (collage and letterpress). Printed on a Line-O-Scribe, Model 1411 on Strathmore printmaking paper using rubber and oil-based ink; includes Jenson, News Gothic and Bookman typefaces with Hamilton wood type. Image courtesy of the Bibliographical Press and artists.
Notice how Starr and Haselberger integrate the verbal and visual to emphasise the seas of water/oil paradox that Melville plucked from his source. Like Melville’s hand, the artists’ manicule in the lower left points to the extract that reads/rises from the bottom to the top. Inside the shapes of whales around the extract appears the source of the extract (the verbal in the visual) against a seawater blue (another layer of the verbal in the visual). The letters “o” and “f” evoke bubbles and currents (the verbal for the visual). The words “oil” and “water” in contrasting inks but composed in the same typeface loom large at the heart of the artists’ embodiment of this paradoxical extract. (It is an insider’s paradox that the work surfaces from the BookLab, devoted to exploring the oil-and-water mix of the material and the digital.)
Extract 35: ‘* * * * * and the breath of the whale is frequently attended with such an insupportable smell, as to bring on a disorder of the brain.’ ─ Ulloa’s South America Elizabeth Fraser, Frauhaus Press, Cambridge Handset letterpress. Blind deboss using wood and metal type. Whale created from face and back of woodtype with ornaments for eye and spout. Text 12pt & 6pt Baskerville italic. Whale breath 12pt glint (Monotype B1309 & B1310). Printed on Somerset Velvet 300gsm soft white paper with a tabletop flatbed proofing press.
What attends the whale’s breath in Fraser’s print? The whale’s breath is the extract streaming into a sea of white blind-debossed words. That sea of human detritus is the source of the insupportable smell that attends the whale’s breath. The insupportable smell takes on “the whiteness of the whale”. The threatened whale takes on an environmental green. which Fraser creates with the non-verbal side of the woodtype. Even so, the carrier of the verbal makes up every visual aspect here, underscoring Fraser’s contemporary paradox: the insupportable smell disordering the brain has been brought on by the disordered brain of humankind.
Rowsell’s linocut represents the more traditional entries in the exhibition. Capturing the furious struggle expressed in the extract, he locks whale, man, boat, sea, cloud and sky into a vigorous, swirling image on a paper and in a style that evoke the century in which Moby-Dick is set. As he pulled his prints from the 1828 Albion printing press, Rowsell might have wondered what the nine-year old Herman Melville was doing when hands were first laid on that Albion.
Extract 71, ‘It is impossible to meet a whale-ship on the ocean without being struck by her near appearance. The vessel under short sail, with look-outs at the mast-heads, eagerly scanning the wide expanse around them, has a totally different air from those engaged in regular voyage.’ ─ Currents and Whaling. U.S. Ex. Ex. Jennifer Farrell, Starshaped Press, Chicago Letterpress: metal type + rule linocut; Paper: Fabriano Tiziano printed on a Vandercook SP15. Image courtesy of the Bibliographical Press and artist.
Starshaped Press is aptly named. Jennifer Farrell stars at wringing shapes from type and its surrounding furniture. The citation outlining the upper deck and bowsprit runs gracefully and appropriately under the sails on which the extract appears in that variety of display faces characteristic of nineteenth century flyposts.
To round out the display with another multi-artist effort, the curators included Harpune Verlag’s Moby-Dick “Filets” (2011~). In 2011, Harpune Verlag Wien began publishing Melville’s masterpiece as a serialized subscription. To do justice to the book’s many voices, 136 different artists were invited, each to illustrate a chapter.
Etymology, Moby-Dick “filet” No. A (2012) Moussa Kone Leporello of 16 pages, 150 x 200 mm closed, 200 x 710 mm open. Acquired from Harpune Verlag February 2019.
Published in non-chronological order at varying intervals and printed in a limited edition of 460 copies, 37 “filets” have appeared so far. At this rate, all of the filets may only be served up by the bicentennial of Moby-Dick’s publication! Fortunately for the Bibliographical Press’s display, Moussa Kone’s rendition of “Etymology”, the prefatory item preceding “Extracts”, is one of those already delivered. It makes a suitably lengthy and apropos link across cases.
If, like Ishmael with “November in [his] soul”, you were walking down the damp, drizzly streets not of New Bedford but Oxford on the 15th this month, you might have substituted the Weston Library for The Spouter Inn. Inside, second copies of the remaining fifty “Extracts” submissions were on display in Blackwell Hall for viewing and handling after a screening of Philip Hoare’s The Hunt for Moby-Dick (2011). Ten years ago, Southampton-born Hoare won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction for his book Leviathan, or the Whale. Hoare himself was on hand to introduce and take questions after the film.
His lifelong passion for whales and Melville’s book is infectious and influential. UK book artist Chris Ruston traces her series of artist’s books Lost Voices — Whaling (2016-17) to Hoare’s Leviathan. Like Hoare’s work and many entries in “Very Like a Whale”, Ruston’s work challenges our anthropocene era. Hoare was also instrumental in organizing the Moby Dick Big Read (2012) — another multi-artist affair and effort to address the effects of the anthropocene era.
Click on the screenshot to visit and listen to the Moby Dick Big Read.
The Big Read offers freely available readings of each chapter of the book. Individuals (well-known and unknown) contributed the readings, artists contributed artwork (viewable as thumbnails on the site), and the site offers an opportunity to donate to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).
Hoare participated in another Melvillean documentary: David Shaerf’s Call Us Ishmael (2019). It is a multi-artist affair like the Big Read, Moby-Dick “Filets” and “Very Like a Whale”; includes a sighting of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual days-long continuous reading of Moby-Dick; and features interviews with artists and other creatives inspired by Melville’s tale. One of those artists interviewed is Frank Stella. Uncanny, but Stella also appears in this book to be found in the Bodleian: Elizabeth Schultz’s Unpainted to the Last (1995).
From among the artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and others whom Schultz discusses, Stella serves best to tie off this fisherman’s tale and return to the title of the Bibliographical Press’s exhibition. About his Moby-Dick series of prints and metal-relief paintings to which he devoted a decade, Stella writes:
The idea of the wave and its various permutations is what drives this new series. Once I started on the wave shape, I saw it began to look like a whale — a combination of waves and whales. … The idea of the whale reminded me of “Moby Dick,” so I decided to go back and read the novel and the more I got into it, the more I thought it would be great to use the chapter headings of the novel for the titles of the pieces. — “1989 Previews from 36 Creative Artists,” New York Times, 1 January 1989, Sec. 2:1. Images here.
With apologies to the preacher: Of making many books [on books] there is no end.
With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.
The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh? For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art? Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.
Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.
Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?
To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)
In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:
its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).
But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it.
In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.
With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)
At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground. As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.
As such, works of book art
have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)
Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117). These “flashpoints” are William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).
Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes. Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.
Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)
Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)
Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)
One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China) — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Storyby Sam Winston (UK). As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.
For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.
Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.
Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).
The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.
Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and and the text animation of American Emmett Williams‘ Sweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s TheReadies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).
A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machine. In her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.
Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more. Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically. In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.
Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum:
I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)
To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel Duchamp, Dieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes(2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments. Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.
There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘sMi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.
The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence. Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.
Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read(Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends. Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless:
Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)
Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.
Borsuk reminds us:
Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)
Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.
At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:
Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)
Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:
The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)
How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1(2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?
That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.
The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier. The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.
The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.
The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand. The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book. And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then crouch within the door. Red is the fire’s common tint; But when the vivid ore Has sated flame’s conditions, Its quivering substance plays Without a color but the light Of unanointed blaze. Least village boasts its blacksmith, Whose anvil’s even din Stands symbol for the finer forge That soundless tugs within, Refining these impatient ores With hammer and with blaze, Until the designated light Repudiate the forge. – Emily Dickinson, Part One, Life, XXXIII
MARC STRAUS, the contemporary art gallery in the Lower East Side of New York, opened “an exhibition of white paintings and sculptures by an international selection of artists” on 3 June 2017. It runs through 3 July, and its title The White Heat comes from the first line of Dickinson’s poem above.
Books on Books offers this “white book report” on book art not included to put attendees in the mood for their experience of the works in white by artists such as
Joan Levison and others.
Irwin Susskind‘s “Book Faced Down” is an example of the technique of mixed media – a stark white plaster block facing down the objectified cookbook – to create book art. A piece of sheet cake, a cutting board?
Jonathan Callan‘s piece denies viewers the colorful still lifes of Francisco de Zurbarán and leaves them with this drained-of-color, chiselled double-page spread of a book on the artist.
Where Callan chisels away from the edges inward, Noriko Ambe carves from the inside almost to the edges in her work above.
As the Straus exhibition notes, “In Chinese cultures, White is associated with Death.” In J. Meejin Yoon’s book Absence, the absence of color in a solid white block of thick stock cardboard pages and the “text” of one pinhole and two identical squares die-cut into each of its 120 pages – one for each story of New York’s Twin Towers including the antenna mast – lead the reader down through the missing buildings to the final page where the footprint of the absent structures ends in a die cut of the entire site of the World Trade Center.
Olafur Eliasson seems to have followed Yoon’s technical approach in Your House, 2006, although the effects are far more intricate.
Echoing Yoon’s somber note, Julie K. Dodd‘s paper and book art often dwell on environmental issues, such as the death of a coral colony above and the contours of the natural landscape versus manmade as shown in Untitled.
A more hopeful note is struck in the whiteness of Chris Ruston’s final “ammonite” book in the series The Great Gathering, inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The mirror under the maker’s tools and the made thing implicate the viewer here and now in an optimistic ongoing evolutionary process of making and remaking.
Where the white of Yoon’s and Dodd’s works evokes absence and the white of Ruston’s work evokes the blank invitation to singular creativity, Michael Mandiberg‘s installation of multiples, Print Wikipedia, evokes the plenitude of white noise that is our online lives.
And just as technologically allusive, M.L. Van Nice‘s Swiss Army Book poses (tongue in cheek?) the single volume as somehow able to capture, store and transmit knowledge in ways it need not, albeit the meaning of the whiteness here is a bit elusive.
Werner Pfeiffer’s works constitute an extensive treatment in white. The installation at UConn Storrs represents a small proportion of the works shown in retrospectives in the last ten years at Bucknell, Cornell and the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Pfeiffer’s works touch on censorship, and from his Cornell exhibition, he explains:
The objects I create are made with real books. They are not casts, nor are they sculpted imitations. At its core each piece has bound, printed pages. Glued together and painstakingly covered with gesso, they are silenced and sealed for good. I practice this destruction, this obvious censorship, simply as metaphor. It is to visualize, to demonstrate, to provoke. For these acts of violence are not about the damage done to stacks of paper, to books. The objects are about the harm inflicted on the human spirit. The ropes, the nails, the clamps, the hooks and knifes are real as well. They are symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act.
With the advent of ebooks, Pfeiffer celebrates the tangibility of the book with his white gessoed book objects and their punning titles as well as origami-like works such as Zig-Zag.
But back to the white works of art at the MARC STRAUSS gallery. Book art is not entirely neglected. Following in their tradition since 1984, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (“Kids of Survival”) pondered, discussed and “jammed” on 1895 novella by H.G. Wells to produce THE TIME MACHINE (after H.G.Wells), which is included in the exhibition.
According to the artists, “We believe that every total work of art is a time machine – a synthesis of a living past and present located in an object that can only be completed by the social experience of a viewer in the future. The total work of art exists in the invisible fourth dimension of space/time and it is this notion that unites the works in the exhibition. We paint on historic texts in the present so that they can haunt our futures.”
Suitably prepared? Jump in your time machine and head over to 299 Grand Street, on the Lower East Side in New York, and immerse yourself in “The White Heat“.
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
– On the Origin of Species, 1869, the final paragraph.
In disparate “entangled banks” and micro-climates around the world, book artists and Charles Darwin have evolved a symbiotic relationship. By date and place, here are some bookmarks on that evolution.
1995, Washington, D.C., USA
Carol Barton and Diane Shaw organized the exhibition “Science and the Artist’s Book” for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Washington Project for the Arts. Barton and Shaw invited book artists to respond to works in the Heralds of Science collection in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library. Among twenty-one other pairings, George Gessert was invited to respond to Charles Robert Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London, 1859.
Gessert’s response wasNatural Selection(1994), an artist’s book consisting of computer-printed handwriting and Cibachrome prints of the results of Gessert’s own experiments in hybridizing irises. Citing Darwin’s description of the breeding of pigeons for their ornamental characteristics, Gessert contends “that Darwin also recognized aesthetics as an evolutionary factor”. Since the 1980s, Gessert’s work and writings have focused on the way human aesthetics can affect evolution and the aesthetic, ethical and social implications. His work and that of artists/theorists such as Suzanne Anker, Eduardo Kac, Marta De Menezes, the Harrisons and Sonya Rapoport have constituted the bio art and eco art movements. A collection of his essays appeared as Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution in the Leonardo Book Series, published by The MIT Press in 2010.
2004, Manchester, UK
Inspired by Darwin’s The Descent of Man, Part I, and cell structures in biology texts, Emma Lloyd‘s Evolution Triptych sparks thoughts of fossils, woodcarved altarpieces or the tooled cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the code of life embedded in DNA structure and the code of information embedded in the codex.
The artistic technique here – carving the book as artifact – is prevalent in book art; see the work of Doug Beube, Brian Dettmer and Guy Laramée, for example. Lloyd’s treatment of the Darwin volume is the only one of its type in this collection of bookmarks. Given the influence of On the Origin of Species, though, it would be unusual if other “book surgeons” have not been similarly inspired by it.
2009, London, UK
Storyteller and book artist Sam Winston set about categorizing the words in On the Origin of Species and poet Ruth Padel’s Darwin, A Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, 2009). He sorted them by nouns, verbs, adjectives and “other”. As Winston puts it, he “wanted to present a visual map of how a scientist and a poet use language – a look at how much each author used real world names (Nouns) and more abstract terminology (Verb, Adjective and Other) in their writings.”
To do that, he categorized the 153,535 words in On the Origin – a dot with a 4H pencil for the 50,567 words categorized as “Other”, a 2H pencil for the 38,266 categorized as “Noun”, an HB pencil for the 26,435 categorized as “Verb” and a 4B pencil for the 38,266 categorized as “Adjective”. The result – Darwin, a series of visual “frequency poems” on display at Le Gun Studio in London – is a book altered through the DNA-like pattern of its own words into a completely “other” scroll and into a topographical map of itself – guided by the artist’s hand and mind.
In the same sesquicentennial year, in the same city, Stefanie Posavec collaborated with Greg McInerny to issue (En)tangled Word Bank, a series of diagrams, each representing an edition of On the Origin of Species, and the work’s title alluding to Darwin’s “entangled bank” passage presented above.The pressed-dandelion-shaped chapters and subchapters are divided into paragraph ‘leaves’ with wedge-shaped ‘leaflets’ representing their sentences.
The sentences forming the ‘leaflets’ of the organism are of orange, senescent tones when they will be deleted in following editions. The green, growth tones are applied to those sentences that have life in the following edition. The tone of each colour is determined by its age, in editions, to that point. Through these differences in colouration the simplicity in structure in the early stages of the organism’s life develops into a complex form, showing when the structures developed to its changing environment. Around the organisms the textual code is provided, showing the changes in the size of the organism, and where the senescence and growth is derived in that code. A series of re-arrangements of the organism focus on changes at each level of organisation.
This is “structural infographic” as art.
2009, Boston, MA, USA
Across the Atlantic, Ben Fry, author of Visualizing Data (O’Reilly, 2007), created a similar work of art called The Preservation of Favoured Traces. Fry color-coded each word of Darwin’s final text by the edition in which it first appeared and used the data to build an interactive display at fathom.com demonstrating the changes at the macro level and word-by-word. Fry went on to produce a poster version and print-on-demand book version.
2009, Vancouver, Canada
Three thousand miles away that summer, Canadian poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott placed multiple copies of On the Origin of Species in various outdoor locations “not … to put the natural into the text, [but] … to put the text out into the natural world and see what happens to it” (p. 2). After a year, Collis and Scott photographed the results in situ and collected and used the some of the still decipherable words as found text for their volume Decomp (Coach House Press, 2013).
Former science teacher and now botanical artist and bookmaker, Kelly Houle embarked on a 10-year plan to create an illuminated and scribed copy of the first edition of On the Origin. Where medieval scribes and rubricators had abbots to preside over them and their book art, Houle has University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Jerry A. Coyne and several other academics. As she notes about her process, the past techniques have also yielded to present concerns:
Today many artists still practice the tradition of illumination using medieval and renaissance-era materials and techniques. While many of these have stood the test of time, there are more earth-friendly materials than those used in the past….
The Illuminated Origin of Species will be written on hot-pressed Fabriano Artistico paper made in Italy. It is the best paper in the world for both calligraphy and botanical art. These are extremely smooth, beautiful, and durable papers. They are chlorine-free, acid-free, and 100% cotton. No animal by-products are used in the sizing. Combined with Winsor and Newton watercolors and gouache, this paper will be perfect for the demands of The Illuminated Origin.
To mimic the play of light on various shiny and iridescent surfaces in nature, I am using 23k gold foil, shell gold, and interference watercolors, which contain small flecks of mica to produce an iridescent effect. These metals will distinguish The Illuminated Origin as a truly “illuminated” manuscript. — Kelly M. Houle, “The Making of a Modern Illuminated Manuscript“
Houle aims to complete her work in 2019,On the Origin‘s 160th anniversary.
2009, Farnham, Surrey, UK
Between its hardback covers lined in marbled papers, Angela Thames’ Darwin’s Poetic Words has distilled the often liturgical, poetic passages of On the Origin of Species.
Between 2009 and 2013, Thames created four more artist’s books besides Darwin’s Poetic Words, based on excerpts from On the Origin of Species. In this focus and technique, Thames takes and interprets portions rather than the whole of the source as do Houle, Collis and Scott, Fry, McInerny and Posavec, Winston, and Lloyd in their differing ways.
Poor Man (2009-13) is the only exhibit in this survey that demonstrates the pop-up technique in book artistry, but as evolutionary biology and fossil-hunting have shown, who knows what undiscovered forms are out there.
2012, New York, NY, USA
Following in their tradition since 1984, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (“Kids of Survival”) seized on Darwin’s “Tree of Life” diagram
and “jammed” to produce a series of paintings and preliminary works in ink and watercolor on pages of the book to create ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES (after Darwin). Eighteen students, aged 13 to 16, worked with Rollins on the preliminary studies, one of which appears below, that preceded the 2013 exhibition of paintings at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery.
The large-scale paintings consist of almost all of the 360 pages of On the Origin fixed to canvas and ink-stamped over and over with the “Tree of Life” image, which had been cut into 60 handstamps. Rollins described the concept of the works in an interview for Brooklyn Rail:
The whole book is 360 pages but we don’t ever want to be literal so it’s not all of the pages. They’re there to inspire. It’s like an opera. The libretto inspires the music. You can watch an opera in a language you don’t know, without reading. It’s the same with our work. It’s about a visual correspondence with the text. The work is not about something. That’s why you can’t get hung up on interpretation. That’s a big issue, especially with so much politically engaged art. We want to create a situation, learning machines, so everyone is learning in the process of making and then hopefully the audience will be inspired too. Maybe they will pick up Darwin or continue with the idea. These are catalysts for action.
In a video interview with ArtNet, Rollins also refers to the K.O.S. jamming process -reading aloud from the book in a studio setting, discussing it with students and seeking inspiration from the text – not as a school lesson or classroom exercise but as a kind of séance, an assertion that touches the essence of “reverse ekphrasis” in book art. Rather than the literary work or book capturing the spirit of a work of art, the work of art captures the spirit of the book.
2013/14, Oxford, OH, USA
At the University of Puget Sound (2013) and Center for Book Art in New York (2014), Diane Stemper exhibited her Darwin-inspired book art that explores “the intersection between the natural world, daily living, science and the collective and individual experience of landscape”.
Hand bound, printed and produced in her Plat 21 Studio, in Oxford, her Galapagos Map (2013), Darwin’s Atlantic Sea (2014) and Universal Sample (2014), these works have an eerie physical presence. At the Center for Book Art, I have seen and, with the kind permission of Alex Campos, the curator there, touched the works. The intaglio printing and richly textured creamy paper still communicate themselves even across the digital divide.
2014, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and London, UK
Simon Phillipson completed a variorum edition of On the Origin of Species, in which every verso page is the evolved or amended text and the recto page is the final text from the the Sixth edition.
The verso pages are completely printed in a special metallic bronze ink. The recto is printed in a combination of black and bronze ink. The bronze highlighted words in the recto correspond to the evolving or amending text in the verso. Very reminiscent of, but distinct from, Ben Fry’s The Preservation of Favoured Traces (see above).
2014, Minneapolis, MN
Vesna Kittelson is an American-Croatian artist based in Minneapolis. Her résumé cites public collections ranging from Tate Britain and Minnesota Museum of American Art to Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Armenia and the Modern Museum of Art in Croatia. In 2009, she spent time at Churchill College, Cambridge University, where she learned about the life and marriage of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood. Subsequently she created four artist books titled Mrs. Darwin’s Garden depicting primitive-seeming plants imagined as flora that Darwin might have seen from the deck of the Beagle. The names of the plants are made-up Latin names or variations on those of contemporary plants.
These abstract images are imagined plants for Mrs. Darwin’s garden. They are illustrations of named floral specimens that never existed in reality. In Mrs. Darwin’s Garden they are presented as if they correspond to data derived from Darwin’s experimentation in his greenhouse. In this book I replaced the 19th C methods of botanical drawing with pouring paints to incorporate the contemporary notion of valuing an accident, followed by drawing with brushes and pencils to gain control and give the images a place and time in the 21st C.
2014, Grasswood, Saskatchewan, Canada
Jonathan Skinner (Warwick University) wrote in his preface to Decomp (see above):
Writing rots, meaning flees. … Yet the book is written to locate (some) meaning here. Would it make any difference to leave Decomp itself in the wilderness? Probably not.
Book artist, papermaker and co-founder with her husband David Miller of Byopia Press, Cathryn Miller reviewed Decomp in 2013. If not prompted by Skinner’s preface, Miller must have felt how appropriately evolutionary it would be to attempt to replicate the Decomp experiment by substituting the result of that experiment for the subject of the replicating experiment. Thus, in January 2014, Miller nailed to a tree “a book based on letting brand new copies of On the Origin of Species rot in various locations”.
For over twenty months, Miller monitored and husband David photographed the book’s weathering. That, however, was not the transformation that would result in an altered book and possibly a work of book art. Nature had some ironic appropriateness in store for Miller, Skinner, Collis, Scott and all of us. The blown pages were visited by Bald-faced Hornets, who digested them á la John Latham and his students but regurgitated them as cellulose with which to build a large nest.
In the context of book art, the nest offers a curiously serendipitous digression. In 1719, the French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur published an essay to the Royal Academy of Sciences on the natural history of wasps. In the passage below, he hypothesizes how their natural papermaking industry could be adopted by man.
In 2015, Miller presented the results as Recomp in her blog at Byopia Press. In September that year, however, critics (raccoons, the artist thinks) visited the work and deconstructed it.
Might this prove that, to paraphrase the last paragraph of On the Origin, “by laws acting around us…. from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals [and their art], directly follows”? If so, that makes raccoons and critics equal laws of nature.
2015, Umeå, Sweden
Johannes Heldén’s work Field is book, visual art and installation all in one. Heldén’s is perhaps the darkest variant on Darwin’s theme here.
It consists of interactive landscape animations on a floor touchscreen of 20 sqm,
a series of sculptural mutations of the Eurasian Jackdaw*,
an ever-changing soundscape and an interactive screen wall with a text responding to the changing DNA of the bird
– as the ”code” of todays species is slowly lost, so is the code and context of language. The gaps in the text correspond to the shift in the DNA sequence, prose turns into dark poetry, connections and meaning changing for each iteration.
All these pieces are connected: as you explore the landscape and trigger the glowing touch points with your body, time is rapidly speeding up (clouds move over the scene, trees wither away, a flood is coming), one by one the four bird sculptures in the installation will be ”activated” with light and sound, spiraling the species further down into mutations. At the end of the piece, no lights remain in the landscape, the sound is immense, all mutations have occurred, the last poetry dissolves into entropy. Then all fades to black.
Since Darwin’s theory encompassed extinction, perhaps Heldén’s vision is not so much a variant on Darwin as it is a pessimistic appreciation and warning about the impact of our interaction with the entangled bank.
2016, Guildford, Surrey, UK
Cathryn Miller’s “bio-book-art” and that of Collis and Scott stand at the collaboration end of the bio art spectrum, where the artist yields considerable control to nature in the creative process. At the coordination end of the spectrum – closer to domestication of species – stands Dr. Simon F. Park’s bio-book-art – The Origin of Species – perhaps “the first book to be grown and produced using just bacteria”. Presented at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the small book has pages made of bacterial cellulose, produced by the bacterium Gluconoacetobacter xylinus (GXCELL). Its cover is even printed with naturally pigmented bacteria.
Although Park’s science-driven process for paper manufacturing and printing echoes the speculations of French naturalist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (see above), it seems to have much in common with the painstaking craft of handmade paper and hand letterpress printing. The first sheet of Park’s micro-organically grown paper took a little under two weeks to be generated and stencilled with his bacterial ink.
2016, Colchester, Essex, UK
It seems chronologically backwards to move from bio-book-art’s live media to Chris Ruston’s ammonites of The Great Gathering. As should be evident by now, however, the evolution of the symbiotic relationship between book artists and Darwin has been anything but a straight line. It has curved, circled and recursed.
Tim Rollins + K.O.S may have had their séance 30-50 feet away from Darwin’s lodgings in Edinburgh, but Chris Ruston brought her Darwin-inspired book art to an even more fitting venue: a church converted into Colchester’s Natural History Museum.
As the artist comments at her site:
The Great Gathering refers to our continued exploration of where we have come from, and where we are going. Combined the seven volumes tell an amazing story spanning 650 million years. Sculptural in form, each book reflects a moment of this journey. From black holes and dark beginnings, through ocean and sediment layers, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and recycled National Geographic magazines the work charts the inevitability of change.
They are a response to visiting Museum collections, in particular the Natural History Museum, Colchester and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences Cambridge. Fossils hold the key which have enabled us to unlock the story of our Origins – from the largest creatures to the smallest organisms. The 19th century saw an explosion of knowledge and understanding, culminating in Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. By piecing together the riddle of the fossil record, Darwin and his contemporaries began asking revolutionary and challenging questions, the results of which are still felt today.
Science and art are the presiding geniuses over The Great Gathering. In The sciences of the artificial (1969), Herbert Simon emphasized: “The natural sciences are concerned with the way things are” and engineering, with the way things ought to be to attain goals. Like the scientist, the artist, too, is concerned with the way things are. They are the raw material with which the artist works or to which he or she responds. But like the engineer or the designer, the artist is concerned with the way things ought to be:
how a solander box ought to be constructed to operate with the work and, in enclosing it, be “the work”;
what materials (photos from the Hubble telescope) ought to be used to reflect a moment in time;
how thread, tape and stitch ought to be to hold together a spine that will flex and spiral into the shape of a fossil;
how the color of the material ought to be juxtaposed with the material’s altered shape to carry meaning;
how the shift from content to blankness ought to be juxtaposed with the material’s altered shape to carry meaning;
how the selection and alteration of text ought to be made to show the fixity and flux of knowledge and ourselves;
and how our reflection in the mirror in Volume VII under the maker’s tools and the made thing ought to implicate us — the viewer here and now – in an ongoing process of making and remaking.
If you have come this far with these bookmarks on the evolution of book artists’ symbiosis with Darwin, note that today and every 12th of February is Darwin Day, marking international celebrations of the birth of Charles Darwin and his contributions to science. From today’s engagements and all those to come with the concepts of On the Origin of Species and (I hope) with these bookmarks, perhaps new discoveries and new creations of book art will emerge.