With the exception of Unpacking my Library, Spector’s works in the Books On Books Collection fall into the category of ephemera. Unlike much other ephemera such as invitations, broadsides and the like, however, these items have that self-reflexiveness so characteristic of book art.
Artist, curator and historian Jeffrey Abt wrote that the “irresistible” idea of placing an exhibition of artists’ books alongside the University of Chicago Library’s collection “broadly representative of the history of the book” started with a visit to famed art dealer Tony Zwicker‘s studio. It was also, however, almost as if he were taking a cue from this statement by artist-printers Betsy Davids and Jim Petrillo just the year before:
A representative collection of artists’ books often does not seem visually remarkable in a gallery, where a wide range of visual experience is the norm. The same collection, installed in a library or bookstore, can seem visually startling almost beyond the limits of decorum. — “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses”).
While Abt’s introductory essay rings the historical changes on the roots of book art — once there was Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard, but before Mallarmé, there was William Blake — the works included and the catalogue’s design ring some chimes of their own about book art. One way or another, all book art self-consciously draws attention to some particularly bookish element. For the most part, the 49 works listed in this catalogue ring true. The catalogue’s design itself, however, not only chimes to that notion of self-reflexiveness but also to wider notions about the nature of book art within contemporary art.
Not long after this exhibition, Spector wrote of “the language of the book” and all its parts — pages, signatures, cover, letter forms and their placement on the page, etc. — as having a syntax (“Going Over the Books”). With its pencil-circled numbers, alignment guides, pastedowns and other designer’s marks appearing throughout — as if a printer’s devil had run amok and let the marked-up proofs go to press unchanged — the catalogue draws attention to that syntax, the underlying processes of bookmaking and, therefore, this object’s “bookness”. The colophon’s note initialed by Jeffrey Abt to Buzz Spector and “pasted” on the last page jokingly rings the self-reflexive chime of the markings throughout the catalogue.
The second chime comes in the catalogue’s verbal and visual punning. Like book art, punning is self-reflexive, words playing on words. The title ”the book made art” can be read with different meanings: “the book made into art”, “art that is bookish” and so on. The catalogue’s trim and two-dimensional representation of three-dimensions create the visual pun of a glass or white cube. The verbal and visual puns also play with Abt’s “irresistible” context. Here in the Joseph Regenstein Library was an exhibition catalogue, teasing the viewer with a reminder that vitrines separated them from the bookworks. Reviewing two other exhibitions of book art, Spector elaborated explicitly on his visual tongue-in-cheek irony:
The dilemma in staging exhibitions of books as art objects is the denial of access to the work that conservation necessarily demands. … and it is a morethan passing irony that implications of hermeticism and elitism should surround books shown to a public using the library as a means of gaining access to texts. — “Art Readings”.
The catalogue also teases with its title and design by suggesting that once books have been placed on display like this, the setting is no longer a library but a “white cube gallery“. As the catalogue progresses, black-and-white photos of items from the exhibition appear on the verso page in frames that appear to be hanging on the trompe l’oeil cube’s rear wall.
Poster distributed on the University of Chicago campus. The image combines Michael Kostiuk’s Airplane Shadow Book (1981/82) with a variation of the catalogue cover. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
But a viewer standing in the “brutalist” construct of the Regenstein Library and holding the finished catalogue might have asked, “What makes these objects I cannot touch — or, in some cases even if I could, cannot read — art?” There is the catalogue’s third chime. From the start, book art has faced a constant definitional or identity crisis and even the challenge “but is it art?” The catalogue’s title echoes Lucy Lippard’s Duchampian proposition: “It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is”. The catalogue’s design says, “This is the gallery, these are the objects on display in it, they are art”.
The “white cube gallery” brings on a fourth and final ironic chime. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, artists’ books were pitched as a “democratic” medium and means by which art could escape the clutches of the gallery and reach a wider public. In another catalogue — the one for the 1973 Moore College exhibition, nominated as the first of book art — John Perreault writes:
Books as art, from the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s point of view, are practical and democratic. They do not cost as much as prints. They are portable, personal, and, if need be, disposable. Because books are easily mailed, books as art are aiding in the decentralisation of the art system. — “Some Thoughts on Books as Art”.
By the mid-80s, lo and behold, The Book Made Art’s catalogue-cum-gallery jokingly recaptures “books as art”. And in a further irony, by the mid-80s and since, the increased rareness and price of such bookworks have made them into galleries‘ and museums’ expensive objects of desire. Including this catalogue.
The Library of Babel (1991)
The Library of Babel Curated and edited by Todd Alden; catalogue designed by Buzz Spector. Dos-à-dos binding, offset. H241 x 177 mm Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, Hallwalls Inc., 1991.
As with The Book Made Art, Spector uses the cover (this time with a photograph of The Library of Babel) to introduce the self-reflexivity so characteristic of book art, but he does not stop there. Pagination and the back-to-back binding structure work together to evoke a mirror’s reflection; the last page of the first half “faces” the last page of the second half.
The first half contains Todd Alden’s essay “The Library of Babel: Books to Infinity”, Paul Holdengräber’s “Unpacking Benjamin’s Library: Bibliomania in Dark Times”, and a checklist of the 34 works by their 10 artists.
The second half contains half-tones of selected works and brief CVs of the artists. Among the half-tones are also photographs of works referenced by Alden (one by Jasper Johns, two by Marcel Broodthaers). Notice how the rules change position in the footers of the two halves, again evoking the back-to-front theme of the dos-à-dos binding.
As in The Book Made Art, Spector had an entry in “The Library of Babel“ exhibition. With its torn pages, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) echoes Altered LeWitt, but it is instead a work 10 feet long and presented on a table appropriately jutting out from the wall like a pier. “M.B.” is Marcel Broodthaers, to whose works there are multiple and layered references. The eleven “waves” of torn pages placed in a row on top of the steel shelf are the excised material from another of Spector’s works: Marcel Broodthaers, made from eleven copies of the Walker Art Center’s 1987 catalog to Broodthaers’s first U.S. retrospective. Spector painted all the pages in each copy with white gesso before excising them and leaving behind his 1990 “altered Broodthaers”.
Marcel Broodthaers (1990) Buzz Spector An altered copy of: Marcel Broodthaers. Minneapolis/New York: Walker Art Cente/Rizzoli, 1989.
He saved the excised “wedges” and bound them at the fore edges. Because the gesso does not completely obscure the text and images from the catalogs, viewers who come close to the work can see slivers of some of Broodthaers’ works along with the word fragments typical of Spector’s altered books.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Spector’s library contains a copy of Broodthaers’ 1974 artist book, A Voyage on the North Sea. These layered references and self-references — direct references to Broodthaers’ A Voyage, indirect references through the self-reference to Spector’s Marcel Broodthaers (1990) — bring into sparkling focus two features of book art and, in particular, late 20th century book art: reverse ekphrasis and bookworks in conversation with one another.
When a visual work of art inspires poetry or prose, the literary result is called ekphrastic: “the verbal representation of visual representation”. But where the poets Keats, Auden and Jarrell, for example, use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel and Donatello’s sculpture of “David” — book artists have in turn used the letter, words, actual books, the physical materials of the book or even the shape of books, their functions or processes of making them to create works of art. A kind of ekphrasis in reverse.
Not only does Spector perform this reverse ekphrasis with exhibition catalogs in North Sea (M.B.), he does it in conversation with a multimedia work by Broodthaers. Works in conversation with one another is also a common occurrence in poetry. An entire anthology showcases these poems that talk to other poems. The later work not only evokes the earlier work, it illuminates and adds to it. In book art, other instances include Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), a one-sheet folded book of photos of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) being set on fire and burning to ash, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Flower Arrangement for Bruce Nauman (1970), a leporello which refers to Nauman’s Flour Arrangements (1967), a video in which the artist pours over 50 pounds of flour on a mock talk-show studio floor and then sculpts it into ephemeral shapes. Nauman’s shift to an ingenious folded single-sheet structure and Oppenheim’s shift (and pun) to an accordion view of flowers are part of the addition to their conversations with their very structurally different counterparts. Spector’s shift to the sculptural is part of the addition to his conversation with Broodthaers’ book and video. Consider not only Spector’s gessoed sea of pages and the pier, but also those two 19th century black bronze sailing ship bookends evoking the 19th century nautical painting that Broodthaers appropriated in A Voyage on the North Sea.
North Sea (for M.B.) (1990) Buzz Spector Books, steel, gesso, 25 x 96 x 10 inches Collection Orange County Museum of Art,CA; Museum purchase with additional funds provided by Peter and Eileen Norton and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Photo: Courtesy Orange County Museum of Art.
Unpacking my Library (1995)
Unpacking my Library (1994-95) Buzz Spector Leporello full-colour offset printed; folded H100 x W155 mm, unfolded W3600 mm; Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Installation exhibited at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994.
Clearly from his entry in The Library of Babel, Spector’s artistic output extends beyond altered books and catalogue design to larger scale installations. One of the more well-known, Unpacking my Library imposes multiple orders on what Walter Benjamin called “the chaos of memories”. How “multiple orders”? First, because of its subtleties; second, because of its several forms.
From the start at the San Diego State University Art Gallery, 1-31 October 1994, the installation imposed the order of “descending height” on Spector’s library, unpacked and displayed across one shelf attached along the white walls of a room in the gallery. The single shelf ran 188 feet.
Although Spector is rejecting the library’s traditional method of making sense of a collection of books — ordering by academic category — in favor of a physical criterion, the title imposes another method of making sense — allusion. The installation makes “more” sense if you have read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library — A Talk on Collecting” (1931). If you haven’t, then, on the reverse of the leporello produced with the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, are these two sentences from the essay:
This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.
So what has ordering by height to do with the chaos of memories? Well, if the order of the personal library had been chronological by acquisition, that would be an assertion against chaos, a kind of aide- mèmoire. If the order had been by the library’s traditional method, again that would be an assertion against chaos. Benjamin and Spector embrace the chaos. Spector’s at-first amusing and puzzling organization of his library prods the viewer into the chance to do somewhat the same — to wander along the shelf with that phrase of process hovering in the mind and be reminded of books once read (when? where?), familiar and almost-familiar names and places (from when or where?) and subjects studied (what did that cover?). But the viewer also experiences a surge of unknown names, places and subjects, and spines that mystify.
The allusion to Benjamin’s essay offers another way of making sense of this experience into which the viewer is prodded. If a personal library is a kind of self portrait you can detect from the clues that its usual groupings into fiction, biographies, history, science, etc., give us about the owner, then here the order by height washes them and the portrait away. And if the viewer knows the essay, Benjamin’s last sentence may come to mind:
So I have erected one of [the real collector’s] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he going to disappear inside, as is fitting. — Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”
Spector mentions this disappearance in a video record of the making and showing of the installation. Whether or not the installation’s spectator knows Benjamin’s essay, the installation’s title is a clue to the imposition of a fictional order. “Unpacking my library” is a phrase implying an activity that is just getting going. For his essay, Benjamin created the fiction of the reader’s being present as the library is being unpacked. Likewise for Spector’s installation, any spectator walking into it has entered a fiction. Spector’s library has already been unpacked, sorted on the floor and placed on the single shelf running around the room.
Of course, however, the owner of the leporello form of Unpacking my Library does not experience this fiction as directly. The opening and arranging of the leporello is a hands-on activity; the unpacking of Spector’s library occurs panel by panel in the reader’s hands. The library’s arrangement by height appears more gradually than in the gallery. Once the bookwork is fully extended, the installation’s fiction then becomes more readily available to the leporello’ s reader/viewer.
As fictions, Benjamin’s essay and Spector’s installation need an ending. Benjamin’s technique is to disappear into his collection. Spector chooses a different technique. In correspondence with Books On Books, he writes:
The length of all the publications in my library was 165 feet; the single shelf, at the UCSD Art Gallery, on which they were placed ran 188 feet. That additional space implied a future, and life-affirming, growth of my collection. — Buzz Spector, 26 March 2020.
Whether it is leporello or installation, the reader/viewer of Unpacking my Library is launching and launched on this open-ended ending.
The Book Maker’s Desire (1995)
The Book Maker’s Desire: Writings on the Art of the Book Buzz Spector Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995. 2nd printing. Cover design by Buzz Spector. Image: History of Europe (1983) by Buzz Spector; plaster over found book, 10.5 x 12 x 15 inches.
Spector’s essays are tonic. His comments on Margaret Wharton’s bookworks could refresh any reader and viewer lucky enough to see her works (Union League Club-Chicago or Yale) or remind the viewer of them when looking at works by later artists such as Thomas Wightman or the “Mystery Book Artist of Edinburgh”. In the past few months, Walter Hamady and John Baldessari have died, and Spector’s essays on them bring them both and particular works of theirs to present life. His essay and letter on Broodthaers would enhance any reading of the artists who have stood on Broodthaers’ shoulders to address Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés: Bennequin, Mutel, Pichler, Wyn Evans, Zboya. The essay “Going Over the Books” may have inspired Alden’s curation of ‘The Library of Babel” exhibition.
The essays are not entirely the point of having The Book Maker’s Desire in the Books On Books Collection. What completes the point is the cover design. The object on the book’s front cover is Spector’s own work History of Europe (1983), which pays homage to Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête (1964). But look closer. The cover stock has elements of text and colour seeping through, almost as if it were made of shredded books. The aptness and artistry of the cover design make The Book Maker’s Desire an object of desire in and of itself.
Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 160.
Lippard, Lucy. “New Artist’s Books” in Artists’ Books. A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press,1985), p. 53.
Mathews, Emily, and Sylvia Page. “Off the Shelf and Into the Gallery: Librarians on Spector”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 9-15.
Otten, Liam. “A sea of torn pages“, The Source, Washington University in St. Louis, 26 February 2010. Accessed 26 March 2020.
Perrault, John. “Some Thoughts on Books as Art” in Artists Books, Moore College of Art, 23 March – 20 April 1973, curated by Dianne Perry Vanderlip (Philadelphia, PA: Moore College of Art, 1973), p. 21.
Schlesinger, Kyle. “The Missing Book”, Buzz Spector: Off the Shelf, Grunwald Gallery of Art, October 19 — November 16, 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Grunwald Gallery of Art, Indiana University, 2012), pp. 17-25.
Spector, Buzz. “Going Over the Books” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 8.
Spector, Buzz. “Art Readings” in The Book Maker’s Desire (Pasadena, CA: Umbrella Editions, 1995), p. 13.
Spector, Buzz. “I stack things. I tear stuff up”, Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: selected works, Bruno David Gallery, January 22 — March 6, 2010 (Saint Louis, MO: Bruno David Gallery, 2010).
The [artists’ book] movement had its beginnings with a few individuals (conceptual artists Dieter Roth, Hansjörg Mayer, and Ed Ruscha immediately come to mind), but in the area of structural experiment and invention only one person seems to have been markedly influential (albeit seriously ignored): Hedi Kyle.
Alastair Johnston, “Visible Shivers Running Down My Spine”, Parenthesis, Fall 2013m Number 25.
While Alastair Johnston’s 2013 interview with Hedi Kyle is a rich one and welcome, it is inaccurate to say Hedi Kyle has been seriously ignored. After all, in 2005, the Guild of Book Workers awarded her an honorary membership, and Syracuse University’s Library invited her to deliver that year’s Brodsky Series lecture. In 2008, the Philadelphia Senior Artists Initiative recorded her oral history and posted her artist’s statement along with an extensive list of prior exhibitions, honors, professional roles and board memberships stretching back to 1965.
And now, in 2018, Laurence King Publishers has brought out the eagerly awaited The Art of the Fold by Kyle and daughter Ulla Warchol, which is the immediate impetus for this essay. The authors aim their book at artists and craftworkers, but there is a secondary audience: anyone interested in book art or artists’ books or origami — and learning how better to appreciate them.
On picking up the book, the first thing its primary and secondary audiences should notice is the folded “dust jacket”. Why the quotation marks? Just look:
This innovative, subject-appropriate cut, fold and print can set the reader on a hunt for precursors such as Peter and Pat Gentenaar-Torley’s Paper Takes Flight/Papier op de Vlucht, designed by Loes Schepens, where the multilayered dust jacket has small envelopes attached to hold paper samples from the contributing artists, or Doug Beube’s Breaking the Codex, designed by Linda Florio, where the dust jacket includes a perforated bookmark, whose removal implicates the reader in a bit of biblioclasm and challenges Western parochialism.
The Art of the Fold‘s clean, balanced design (Alexandre Coco) and excellent diagrams (authors) mesh well with the text. While this integrated clarity in the introductory section on Tools, Materials, Terminology, Symbols and Techniques will be appreciated most by artists and paper engineers, the secondary audience of library/gallery curators, aficionados and collectors will benefit from the description and comments in particular on materials, terminology and techniques. Knowing these points about an object of book art enhances appreciation of it and improves its handling, presentation and preservation.
Following this introduction, Kyle and Warchol provide 36 sets of detailed instructions across 5 sections:
This double-page spread introducing the accordion structure shows off the the diagrams’ clarity, a feature throughout the book. Also in this spread are two important statements in the verso page’s final paragraph:
The accordion fold as an independent component is our focus point in this book…. Let us start with a brief visual display of a variety of folding styles. Hopefully they will inspire you to grab some paper and start folding. (p .28)
The focus on structure “as an independent component” is a strength and weakness. The strength is self-evident in the thoroughness and attention to detail. The weakness? More than occasionally, the authors make asides about the meaningful interaction of structure with content and, occasionally, with other components (type, color, printing technique, etc.). Some exemplars selected by the authors would have been welcome. The artist’s and reader’s challenge is to provide their own examples of how the structural component might work with different types of content, mixed media and other components that combine to deliver the artistic object.
The second statement — the exhortation “to grab some paper and start folding” — illustrates an unalloyed strength of this book. As towering an authority and figure in the book arts and book art as Hedi Kyle is, she and her co-author go out of their way again and again to keep readers open to playing with the techniques and structures and finding their own inventiveness and creativity. For those content to collect or curate, both statements push them to look for or revisit outstanding examples and inventive variants of the structures elucidated. After this section, a browse of Stephen Perkins’ accordion publications, a site running since 2010, would be a good start.
This double-page spread introducing the section on Blizzard structures delivers that blend of the anecdotal with essential engineering-like detail that is characteristic of the authors’ style throughout. Having explained how this family of folded structures that bind themselves got its name (a fold discovered in a daylong fold-a-thon due to a blizzard’s shutting everything down), the authors dive into the proportionality so key to getting them right. Perhaps because of its non-adhesive, origami-centric nature, the blizzard book structure generates more than its fair share of kitsch exemplars. When blizzard books do come along that rise to the level of art — integrating structure, content, printing, typography, color and other components of bookmaking in an artistically meaningful way — they stand out all the more. One such work took first place in the 23 Sandy Gallery’s juried exhibition in 2015, “Hello Hedi”:
Next to The Accordion section, the One-Sheet Books section has the most models. It is also the section that most addresses that challenge mentioned above:
A book folded from a single sheet of paper, including covers, offers a unique opportunity to consider the content and cover as one comprehensive design exercise. We explore the coming together of printing, layout and folding. (P. 94)
Given this opportunity, some treatment of imposition would have been useful, especially for the Franklin Fold and the Booklet Fold Variations. For the Booklet Fold Variations, one could lightly pencil into the book’s clear diagrams the usual markings and enumerations as below.
Again, a few selected photographs of examples of One-Sheet Books that achieve the coming together of content, design, printing, layout and folding would have been welcome.
The double-page spread above with which the Albums section begins exemplifies the book’s quality of photography (by Paul Warchol, Ulla’s husband). Like the “dust jacket”, the crisply photographed Panorama Book structure (upper right) and the pages that explain it will send readers on a quest to make their own or hunt for outstanding examples such as these by Cathryn Miller and Cor Aerssens, a long-time friend and correspondent with Kyle.
A cautionary, or perhaps encouraging, note though: the fact that some structures can enfold others will frustrate readers with strict classificatory minds and exhilarate the more freewheeling. The Phelps’ Blizzard Book highlighted above includes in its sections items exemplifying the Flag Book and Fishbone structures. Aerssens’ Memories is even more so an integrated variant of the Panorama Book structure, featuring as it does panels within panels, two 8-leaf booklets bound into front and back with paper hinges, and mylar folders holding pressed flora from Aerssen’s northern Dutch environs.
The Enclosures section presents fascinating structures, not all of which are suited “to fit many of the projects in the previous chapters”. For example, the second-most fascinating form — the Telescoping Ziggurat, shown in the lower left corner of the recto page above — looks incapable of enclosing any of the other 35 structures. The authors acknowledge it is “less of a book and more of a toy — a stimulating and curious object whose inherent mathematical quality mesmerizes as it spirals inward and outward”. The most fascinating form, however, is as much a book as stimulating and curious object: the Sling Fold structure.
This structure looks suited to enclosing scrolls or narrow, collapsed accordion books of diminishing height, and its mechanics invite playful integration with content and variations of color, typography or calligraphy, printing method and materials.
It would not do to conclude a review of this book without touching on the Flag Book structure, for which Kyle is so well-known. It is found in The Accordion section. The outstanding works implementing this structure are legion. Here it is below in all its glory, which is exceeded only by the Two-Sided Flag book in the pages following it.
The Art of the Fold should become an instant classic. If readers are tempted to “grangerize” their copies with photos and clippings of favorite examples and variants, they would do well instead to create one of the authors’ album structures in which to keep them. There could be many editions of this classic to come.
Pictured above is the back cover of dongghab, a sort of self-portrait in book art in that its content derives from events occurring in 1963, the year of the artist’s birth. The back cover is not just “another conversation” with Ed Ruscha, but one with American culture, as is the book as a whole.
Why do some books of photography lodge themselves in our minds as book art or artist’s books? Ed Ruscha’s books have done that, so much so that it seems almost odd to call them photobooks, although their deadpan presentation as such is essential to their artistic status. Why do works like Sean Kernan’s The Secret Books and Abelardo Morell’s A Book of Books defy relegation to the coffee table?
In juxtaposing his photos with text from John Lloyd Stephens, the 19th century explorer of Mesoamerica, Charles Agel positions Monuments to the Industrial Revolution (1998) as more than a book of photos. Quite a different conceptualizing strategy from the typologizing pursued from the 1970s onward by Bernd and Hilla Becher, mentioned by photographer John Pfahl in his introduction to Monuments.
Seeking the differences and similarities in strategies of composing the works as well as those of composing the photos adds to the appreciation and understanding of them.
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.
Did you read on New York Times Interactive how text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality? We are passing through an internet portal turning our evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.
Welcome to the post-text future.
The seemingly unintentional irony of delivering the welcome by text rather than by podcast or tweeted looping video meme undermines the hyperventilation a bit. But we should not roll our eyes and move on. The NYTI journalists are reminding us to pay attention.
Our literacy has always been multimodal (read and hear the orality in the opening text of Genesis in the The Douay Version). With each new medium it rapidly becomes more multimodal. In Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books”, there’s the tongue-in-cheek evidence from 1894.
In Literacies, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, trace its occurrence back to the mid-twentieth century age of radio and television. And not that long ago (2012), Amazon released Immersion Reading, enabling audio in sync with ebook reading.Leaving aside the apocalyptic speculation on the fate of letters, we should take the point: our literacies are entangled and evolve together. Putting the more scholarly view of differences between orality and text alongside the post-text Futurists’ observations about tweets, memes and other social media, we can see why we would benefit from closer attention to that entanglement and evolution.
Here is Walter J. Ong:
Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight … (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982, pp.31, 37-49).
Here is the post-text future:
An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. — Farhad Manjoo
Here is Ong:
Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.
Here is the post-text future:
Doyle Canning, who wrote a book on using memes for political movements and co-founded the Center for Story-Based Strategy, said people have now realized memes are replacing nuanced political debate.“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph, … And it didn’t.”“Now politics,” she said, is just “a battle of the memes.” — Nellie Bowles
These comparisons/contrasts underscore Kalantzis’ and Cope’s educational earnestness about the importance of teaching to these entangled and evolving literacies as perhaps the only systematic means we have of offering children social equity and a chance at social equality. Imbuing their literacies with critical thinking skills is paramount. The art of living depends on the art of reading.
At the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, you can step into this increasingly busy intersection of literacies at an exhibition called The Art of Reading. The exhibition is divided into six rooms labeled “Reading is Turning the Page”, “Reading is Seeing”, Reading is Touching”, “Reading is Remembering”, “Reading is Concentrating” and “Reading is Reacting”. Unusually the art is not simply on display. Touching is allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book), he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”.
Physicality or the haptic is an affordance that print literacy lords over digital literacy. We know where we are in a print book because we can feel as well as see where we are. Welcome then to the first room “Reading is Turning the Page”, where William Kentridge turns the tables on that claim. As you watch the “film of the book” across the room, you can try your hand at flipping the pages of the physical copy like a flipbook to mimic the video. Look closely though. The page numbers are not sequential.
And the entries are not in alphabetical order.
When the order of text, numerals, narrative and images collide, we are left with the literacy of art — be it digital or physical. Which brings you to the next room: “Reading is Touching”.
The names of South African soldiers, both black and white, killed in the First World War, are set in hot metal type then impressed without ink on flesh. Photographed and filmed, the names fade away. In the exhibition, a voice from the touchscreen device repeats, “Touch me, touch me”. Each touch upon the screen — on the skin before you — advances the work running as a video on the touchscreen. Touching is the only way to read all of the names of the dead as they fade away. This work is but one of several that make up The Lost Men Project.
In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.
To read the pages of Like a Pearl in My Hand, you must rest your hands on them then lift your hands away.
The face revealed on each page is the face of a blind or visually impaired child in a Chinese orphanage. As you read the page, the face fades into blackness.
The next room is “Reading is Seeing”.
Were the curators being tone deaf with this juxtaposition? No, it is the bluntness and earnestness of recognition that literacies and our sensibilities are jumbled up. The literacy of art does that. It can move us from somberness to whimsy and back. The first work in this room of sight is a children’s flashlight (or torch) book; the next, a device for the visually impaired; the next, an augmented reality app on iPads.
The curators deftly paced the impact of these rooms. Something from the one before lingers with you in the next, or something in the next reminds you of the one before.
“Reading is Remembering” is the next room. Here the artists play with re-membering text vs dis-membering text, recalling vs forgetting, excavating vs filling in, deconstructing to reconstruct, destroying to create.
Rick Myers was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center to commemorate the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The work he proposed required permission to obtain Pentelic marble fragments (quarrying is restricted for the purpose of restoring the Acropolis) and grinding them into dust. He then sourced four different translations of Cavafy’s poem “Before the Statue of Endymion”, arranged a reading and recording of each, and, for each, cut a stencil. The chronologically first translation’s stencil was positioned on stretched plastic film suspended over speakers. The marble dust was sifted onto the black plastic through the stencil, leaving the legible white text on the black background with which the video starts after the credits above. As the recording of the chronologically second translation plays, the sound’s vibration obliterates the marble dust words of the first translation. Then comes the turn of the second stenciled translation to be obliterated by the third’s recorded reading. And so on.
Here, then, is a work of art that simultaneously endorses and refutes the premise that text recedes in favor of some new universal language of sound and image. It is a textual palimpsest in motion where sound dissipates the text of the past, making way for the next version of the text to be dissipated by the sound of the third and the text of the third to be dissipated by the sound of the fourth. A moment of the work is captured in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete (see below). The work runs a little over three minutes, excerpts can be found here, but the experience under the exhibition room’s banner provides an unsurpassable frame for the work.
Inspired by The Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell (the crew that filmed a Royal typewriter being thrown out of a Buick travelling at 90mph), Simon Morris had seventy-eight students cut out all of the words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, he “threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, traveling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.” The work on display consists of a Ruscha-like book (right down to the plastic spiral binding) and a film of the epic literary littering.
If you are expecting the next room — “Reading is Concentrating” — to help you gather any scattered thoughts or words, think again.
Marinus van Dijke’s work draws your eye and ear first. Chickens clucking and strutting onscreen, superimposed small white circles the size of a chicken’s eye jerking and gliding across the screen, a sheet of paper being laid over the screen (ah, it’s a screen within a screen), and then a hand with pen enters the frame, picks a circle and, trying to track it, leaves a scrawl on the paper.
Van Dijke’s work echoes Jan Dibbets’ Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June, which Germano Celant included in his Book as Artwork show in 1973. Like the deliberate echo of Morris/Ruscha, this chance echo of Van Dijke/Dibbets recalls the grounding of contemporary textual and book art in the conceptualism of the 1960s/70s.
Dibbets documented the flight patterns of this highly territorial bird and presented that in a book as a conceptualization of an “as if” sculpture drawn in space.
There was admittedly some “artistic license” in Dibbets’ documentation — somewhat the same as when Van Dijke’s tracing pen cannot keep up with the peripatetic circles, which are projections of the chickens’ eye movements as they hunt for food.
“Reading is Reacting” is the last room. Here it seems that printed text comes out on top. Over in one corner is a Dutch encyclopedia, stacked vertically four feet high.
In the opposite corner, on shelves from floor to ceiling, is the Dutch version of Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia. The paperbacks scattered on the display table began their textual lives online.
Although printed text seems to be having the last word, attend to the curators’ last words on your way out:
Reading and writing have become increasingly open arenas: there are more readers than ever before, there are more books and publication outlets, which can reach vast readerships thanks to the internet. Readers feel more empowered and are able to combine or alter texts found online. Readers become writers. Online texts have therefore come to resemble oral literature, in that they are constantly changing and being passed on from one person to another, retold — sometimes differently. They are unstable and at the same time highly accessible.Text in books appear to be fixed, but annotations and deletions change the printed text, just as editorial changes alter a page on the internet…. Even so, printed texts are in principle less changeable than those posted online. This makes them appear inviolable and irrefutable. Some people fear that young people believe everything they read on the internet. That is nothing new. Philosophers from Socrates to Locke thought that written or printed texts would be accepted as the absolute truth.Where do we stand today? … How reading will develop in the future is unclear, but one thing is sure: connection and interaction will be key to that development.
Leaving The Art of Reading and thinking again about a post-text future, you can be sure of one other thing: the art of living will still depend on the art of reading.
Where to go to compare and contrast the book art in Germano Celant’s pioneering “catalogue” of the Nigel Greenwood Gallery exhibition in London (1972) with that of the last half century?
Being a sort of small and portable catalogue and curator’s explanation for the gallery’s exhibition of ca. 300 works, Celant’s Book as Artwork is arranged chronologically and then alphabetically by artist. Presumably it was organized to match the exhibition’s organization (note the year 1967 in upper left of the photograph below and the distinctive Hidalgo cover, fifth from the left). With no photographs of the works, Book as Artwork gives no easily accessible visual sense of the 300 works in that exhibition. If we had that starting visual touchpoint, it would be easier to “place” the period or individual works in relation to book art from the 80’s onward.
Stephen Bury’s Artists’ Books: The Book as a Work of Art, 1963 – 2000 (2015) includes, by design, only a handful of the artists and works selected for the Celano/Greenwood exhibition.
Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (1973, 1997) — a “bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically” — comes as close as one might hope in black-and-white print for a starting visual touchpoint. Lippard’s scope, however, ranges beyond book art, so the number illustrated limits systematic visual comparison and contrast with the book art of the ensuing decades.
Phaidon’s Artists Who Make Books(2017) provides good coverage and bridges the 1960s to the 21st century. The essays and descriptions bring the book art off the page and into the mind’s hands.
Best of all is Lynda Morris’s mini-memoir of her role in organizing the Celant/Greenwood exhibition.
Germano had sent Nigel [Greenwood] a wonderful, arty handwritten letter in pink capitals … on December 22, 1970:
DEAR PUBLISHER I AM PREPARING FOR A NEW INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE A COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY OF BOOKS MADE DIRECTLY BY ARTISTS.
…Nigel had met Germano and had his telephone number in Genoa. I was sitting beside him when he phoned and proposed Book as Artwork exhibition for September 1972. Germano immediately agreed.
For sources of book art since the close of the Celant/Greenwood exhibition, we are spoilt for choice. Print and digital, image-rich aggregations of book art abound. We can return to the Phaidon and Bury books. We can turn to the well-illustrated print and online publications from the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of Western England, online library collections such as the MassArt Library or Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, the websites of dealers such as Zucker Art Books displaying their wares, the dozens of websites for recurring book art fairs such as International Artist’s Books Triennial Vilnius (1997 – present) and CODEX International Book Fair (2007 – present) and community sites suchas Artist Books 3.0. In the future, the Getty Research Institute‘s processing of the Steven Leiber Basement archive should also yield a rich source of images of works by the artists selected for the Celant/Greenwood exhibition.
Present-day online access challenges Mallarmé’s dictum: ”Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” Now it seems:
Everything in the world exists to end up on the web.
As far as that premise holds, this annotation and rearrangement of Celant’s bibliography — a “webliography” — offers an online starting point for connecting the book as artwork 1960/1972 with the book as artwork since. In providing some images of the works and links to images, the webliography offers anyone interested in book art the means to gain a more colored impression of the period’s book art. That the primary impression is still black and white underscores the impact of xerographic technology on artists then as well as that of conceptualism driven by text or photograph. A webliographic approach also offers the opportunity to link the book art of the Celant exhibition with book-oriented Web-art or Net-art such as that of Amaranth Borsuk, Taeyoon Choi, Gunnar Green, Johannes Heldén, Bernhard Hopfengärtner and many others referenced below.
The reorganization here of Celant’s and Morris’s list — by artist alphabetically then chronologically — makes it easier to see the curators’ tendencies in selection as well as the influence of practical factors. The curators’ selection is obviously more Western, less Eastern European and even less Middle Eastern and Asian. Individuals’ prodigality surely played a role in whom and what was included. As Morris’s essay in the Phaidon book reveals, the geographical proximity of works available to be chosen played a role; so, too, the influence of the then-contemporary art network played a role (Atkinson, Beuys, Celant, Dwan,Greenwood, Hansjorg Mayer, Walther König, Maenz, Siegelaub, Sperone and the many other personalities of the Art-Language, Arte Povera, Conceptualist and Fluxus movements); and even the size of suitcases and availability of transport for bringing the artwork into the UK played a role.
Generally the online links for the artists’/authors’ names lead to biographies, either in their official websites, Wikipedia or other news sources. Where an artist/author is listed multiple times, the links vary from instance to instance to provide a wider range of information about the individual and, in some cases (such as Dieter Rot’s), more images. The links behind the publishers’ names go to publishers’ websites or Wikipedia entries about them. The links that follow each entry resolve to images of the work, videos, audio, interviews or essays relevant to the work. For selected entries in Celant’s list, a compare/contrast takes the user to websites or works whose juxtaposition might shed light on the similarities or differences between the item in Celant’s list and book art of the subsequent decades.
The webliography also supports the haptically as well as digitally inclined. The links behind the titles of the works provide information on the nearest library location of the work (although not all titles could be located). Be sure to enter your own location and refresh the results. And when you visit, be sure to take a copy of Germano Celant’s little book, which, thanks to 6 Decades Books is possible by download and, thanks to online used-book sellers, can still be purchased in print.
Lole, Kevin; Smith, Paul. Handbook on Models. Coventry: Self-published, 1972. [Unable to locate a work of this title in WorldCat, but one with the title The Relativism of Emotion Handbook to the Model and same date of publication is described in Paul Robertson‘s “A Collection of Rare Art+ Language Books and Internal Documents – Many Unknown in Literature”, Gorebridge, Midlothian: Unoriginal Sins/Heart Fine Art, n.d.]
30 x 21cm, 50pp (printed recto only) plus printed card covers. Xerox inner pages as issued. The first and only edition of this theoretical work based on a physical model (electro-shock, photo beams and electronic buzzers) acting as metaphor for analogue, theoretical and representative models. Cover is very minority marked on the front and back cover has a faint diagonal crease else VG++. From the archive of David Rushton who believes only 10 or fewer of this book was published.
“30 x 21cm, 16pp (recto only). White card covers – with offset title. A text published by Bischofberger from a theoretical document written by Kevin Lole, Philip Pilkington, David Rushton and Peter Smith (formerly Analytical Art and by this time fully regarded as members of Art & Language) which applied Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shift to art (the original theory by Kuhn being a view that revolutions in scientific thought only occurred when sufficient contrary evidence to the prevailing orthodoxy had mounted up and the original hypothesis could no longer explain the physical evidence emerging from empirical studies). It is worth noting that at this time Bischofberger bought a great deal of Art + Language material from the group and published other documents by them including some of the group’s rarest publications – storing many of the more three-dimensional works for later resale. Bischofberger did not print the books himself – rather Art and Language arranged design and publication in Coventry (for free using the University’s resources) and David Rushton drove the books over in a camper van to Switzerland (breaking down just on the edge of the city due to running out of petrol and having little money left, Rushton coasted the last mile down hill on an empty tank).
The limitations of these series of books are usually placed at c. 200 but Rushton remembers taking far fewer than that with him and this Analytical Art book was in fact only produced in 50 copies taken to Zurich plus a few retained by the artists in the UK.
That said this is one of ONLY 5 copies which were numbered in roman numerals (this one being III/V) and signed by ALL of the four writers in pencil on the first title page.”]
“30 x 21cm, 28pp carbon copy pages and printed cover. This was one of ONLY four copies made and published by the group – two copies being signed by David Rushton and Peter [sic] Pilkington and created from original typed sheets and two copies remaining unsigned and created (as here) using the carbon copies from the originals. These latter two examples were regarded by the group as artist’s proofs of the book. This is the only copy of this book available for sale anywhere as from the original four prices: one is in Paul Maenz’s archive and another two copies are in the hands of private collectors (who purchased them from ourselves). This copy is signed by David Rushton and Philip Pilkington and has been stamped on the inside front cover with the official Art & Language Stamp and also designated in blue ink “Second Copy”. Fine estate and clearly rare.”]
The Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei specializes in original texts and book art by twentieth century visual and literary avant-garde artists such Baldessari, Lewitt, Munari, Man Ray, Ruscha and Warhol among others. Recently the owner’s son – Giulio Maffei – “started making film as a side activity” and introduced a series of short animations “to put on the social networks and reach new potential customers”. An anonymous pair of hands displays a variety of the books and book art in stock.
But Giulio’s videos are not always the straightforward marketing effort intended. They provide an experience of book art or artists’ books that most of us will never hold or touch. And that may be Maffei’s point in his series “Le Vite dei Libri” (The Lives of Books) in which these usually glassed-off works are playfully handled, gently made fun of and still honored.
Some of the videos are derivative artworks in their own right in the same vein as Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968. Nauman poked fun at Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, by composing a book of photos recording the burning of a copy of Various Small Fires. Maffei’s Nauman-esque handling of Various Small Fires and Milk involves flash paper or its Photoshop equivalent. His celebration of Ruscha’s The Sunset Strip is still more endearing with its soundtrack and toy convertible. His cheeky animations of the pop-ups in Warhol’s Index (Book) and the ironically daring destruction of Papa Maffei’s copy of Some/Thing No.3 are even better. In the latter, the plastering of a Banksy-like mural with Warhol’s “Bomb Hanoi” stickers torn from the perforated cover is a sharp-edged example of the arch, reflective commentaries throughout Maffei’s videos.
Most of the films’ credits pay typographical homage to the work at hand, which is a nice self-deprecating and affectionate touch. At my last viewing, there were twenty-two works in the Lives series. They are listed below, but once you reach one on YouTube, the others follow. Giulio Maffei has also created a longer video catalogue for his father’s enterprise: Tra Libro e Oggetto (Between Book and Object). The Maffeis are a knowing team. The catalog title can be read as the beginning of a statement displayed on the cover.
BETWEEN BOOK AND OBJECT
The artists’ book, the multiple and the object
become an artwork
A statement that refers not only to the works in the catalog but to the video catalog itself and to the elder Maffei’s lifework of collecting, selling and writing about book art.
The Paul D. Fleck Library & Archives at The Banff Centre has over 4,000 artists’ books and multiples. Inspired by Ed Ruscha’s seminalbook “Every Building on the Sunset Strip”, we will display every item in the collection in a case in the library, rotating through 15 items weekly. Here you will find a photo log documenting the items, chosen randomly for display. Click through on any photo for title and creator caption.
For more information and full catalogue records for the items pictured, visit banffcentre.ca/library/.
“There is art to be found in science books and science to be found in artist’s books.”
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library has been kind enough to share the exhibit labels for its display held in March this year in the Grosvenor Rare Book Room. The section devoted to “Artist’s Book History” begins with the Book of Kells and runs to Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations.
Although many will claim that artist’s books began with William Blake in the 1700’s or so that would dismiss entirely all of the artistry that went into many lovely and ornate illuminated manuscripts that proceeded and somewhat overlapped the printed text in codex form. Whether painted in monastic scriptoria, as was the Book of Kells (c. 800), or by secular guild artists as were many others, the figures and/or flora are artworks to behold.
World Wars I & II brought many artist books associated with the Avant-Garde, Futurist and Surrealism Movements. Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté (1934).
The second half of the nineteenth [sic] century brought Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha’s works. Roth was a Swiss artist for whom the book was just one of his media. Paint, sculpture, installation work and more also provided means of artistic expression.
Ed Ruscha is an American pop artist whose focus is in paint, drawing, printmaking and photography. His Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) photographically captures gas stations in book form as Andy Warhol did Campbell soup cans on canvas. This artist’s book is considered an important milestone for the genre.
Ruscha’s book also figures in the exhibit section called “Artist’s Books and Bookworks Today” along with works by Julie Chen and Susan Allix as examples of the growing availability of collectible book art today.
Julie Chen founded Flying Fish Press in California through which she creates handmade “artists’ books with an emphasis on three-dimensional and movable book structures and fine letterpress printing” according to her web site. These books are frequently moveable and/or interactive in their design.
British book artist Susan Allix also has her own (self-titled) press and she creates handmade books with a variety of fine papers and textures with letterpress printing, embossing and all manner of printmaking. Though some of her books convey a certain whimsy, the choice of materials, method of printing and crafts[wo]manship is the result of serious thought, planning and selection.
Other sections are devoted to historical examples of illustrated works of scientists such as Vesalius and Lamarck, which are well punctuated by the inclusion of Guy Laramée’s Grand Larousse, Brian Dettmer’s The Household Physicians and Doug Beube’s Fault Lines.
Books altered and/or sculpted by artists to represent something other than the original readable text are known as bookworks and they are works of art. This type of art is not technically an artist’s book whereby a book is created. Altered/sculptural books take from a book that had already been created and turn it into art by cutting, folding and/or sculpting it into an art form. Although there are many examples of this type of work, perhaps the most inspiring artists’ works (some available in art galleries today) are those by contemporary and still-creating Canadian Guy Laramée, American Brian Dettmer and Toronto-born, schooled-(in part)-in-Rochester/Buffalo and now-living-in-New-York-City Doug Beube. The examples of their works shown are all pieces inspired by some aspect of science or subject of scientific study including geology, medicine and geography.
The theme of the exhibit deserves a catalogue. As the exhibit’s online announcement notes, “Today’s mutually exclusive idea of ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained’ activity discounts longer understood ideas that science is a creative pursuit—that there really is art to be found in science—and that creative artworks often have some scientific basis and/or inspiration.” One would do well to start with Harry Robin’s The Scientific Image: From Cave to Computer (1992) and Brian Ford’s Images of Science: A History of Scientific Illustration (1993) and take further inspiration from the Grosvenor Rare Book Room.