Richard Price and his team at The British Library just concluded their fifth event in this series of “show and tell” talks by book artists. Most of the events have staked a claim to some relationship with a British Library event or exhibition current at the time — World Book Night, Writing: Making your Mark, and Buddhism — but the title of this fifth event punningly encapsulates the real point of the entire series: “Contemplating: Artist’s Books Now”.
When picturing an artist’s book what do you imagine? Intricate design, ornate bindings, blank space, fold outs and pop-up rinsed through with vibrancy of text and colour. Is it something more unearthly and harder to describe? An air of peace in the topsy-turvy hullabaloo of our modern world. A pause of contemplation as a work speaks to you? Or, on the contrary, is it a space of immense energy, of ‘thought-provocation’, where contemplation is something you feel compelled to do to make sense of the sensations and ideas the book stimulates? “Contemplating: Artists’ Books Now”
Whether the organizing theme has been “here and now” “place”, “Latin America“, “writing” or “contemplation”, the evening inevitably turns to reflecting on the nature of book art, bookworks, the artist’s book, the book arts, bookness and even art itself. Even with 50-60 in the audience and four to six presentations, Price and team have arranged the agenda to allow for hands-on “viewing” of the works, conversations with the artists and question time that evolves into a room-wide conversation, not just Q&A.
The Antibook (2002) Francisca Prieto Book: 205 x 105 mm Icosahedron: 15 x 17 x 19 cm
The Antibook deliberately opposes convention by challenging our ideas of what a book should be. Using the text of Nicanor Parra’s AntiPoems Francisca visualises the poem’s idea of ‘Anti’, creating a work that reacts both with and against its deconstructed material.
Francisca uses modular origami to extend the dimensions of the flat page and change the lines of its folds, producing a book that only makes sense when assembled as a three-dimensional icosahedron. When in a conventional format, bound with one spine, Francisca’s pages cannot be read. Creating a visual defiance from a material usually confined,
Francisca forges new meanings for the resistant ‘Anti’ – and for the book as an object itself.
To hold and turn The Antibook in your hands to read Parra’s poems makes the book of poems strangely more palpable than the conventionally bound version. The work as a whole has its maximum effect when the reader/viewer engages with both the icosahedron and bound book, weighing the experience of each against the other.
By investigating the nature of print, numerical and alphabetic characters, the Printed Matter Series alludes to, or poses, a partial origin story for the alphabet. Archaeological finds suggest that numbers preceded letters, and the Hebrew alphabet includes numbers with its letters.
Graphic artists and, especially book artists, seem to place the characters we use to express any word or message right alongside ink, paint, paper as just one more raw material for making art. As Prieto writes on her site,
Breaking down the lines of typographical characters, meaning is celebrated for its form, abstracting the shapes of these figures curious yet perfunctory flicks, curves and flourishes. Type’s personality is felt through its familiarity, so when these recognisable symbols are split, adjoined and turned on their head, the results are playful and stylised – questioning our own oblivious acceptance of the way things ought to be or read.
Francisca Prieto (2018)
Hill, Sophie. Francisca Prieto (Santiago, Chile: Fundación Lustro, 2018). Hardback – slipcased, 300 pages, 250+ Ills Bilingual: English and Spanish Limited edition of 2200 230 x 280 x 35 mm
Having seen Composition No. 1, I can attest to the precision of its folds. Like The Antibook and all of Prieto’s works I have seen, it is nearly impossible to resist touching it. By using this old cricket club record book and placing it on a diagonal like a falling wicket stump, the artist adds paper-dry humour to a beautiful work of book art.
London 1827 takes us back in time, unfolding the nineteenth-century city before us. In a fluttering of pages we are cast among the grand stone of new buildings, under bridges, along the paths of Regents Park, up to a long-forgotten skyline – an elegant rising of church spires. — Francisca Prieto,Between Folds
In August 1827, William Blake’s family walked along these London streets in the cool of the buildings’ shadows to the site of an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields in the Borough of Islington. If the mind’s eye lets the spectator step into those shadows, the metallic edging of the folds in this work recalls Blake’s invention of relief etching on copper plate to enable the “Illuminated Printing” of his “Illuminated Books”. Where the eye passes Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Blake’s apprenticeship springs to mind — for 50 guineas to an architectural prints engraver (James Basire, 1730–1802) for the tasks of polishing the plates, sharpening the gravers, preparing the surfaces for the acid, guiding the graver’s bite through the copper and, eventually, creating the sketches for the plates in Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain.
Gradually becoming aware of Prieto’s painstaking mathematical precision and calculation to expose between the folds just the right text and illustrations from London and its Environs in the Nineteenth Century by Thomas H. Shepherd, published the month before Blake’s death, the flâneur of London 1827 might wonder whether Blake would have cast Prieto’s lot in with those of Newton, Locke and Bacon, his sterile scientific materialists. But no, Blake praised the unity of art and science:
“What is the Life of Man but Art & Science?” (Jerusalem, plate 77)
“Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars, and not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power.” (Jerusalem plate 55: line 62).
Prieto’s works consist of these “minutely organized Particulars” and, being so, they bring the viewer to “Life” and assert their place in the tradition of book art.
Under the blog name “Wynken de Worde,” Sarah Werner writes about books, early modern culture, and those of us who may be postmodern readers — when she is not preparing the syllabus for her course at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Wynken (not related to Blynken or Nod) was the primary assistant to William Caxton the first printer of English-language books — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and The Golden Legend.
If Sarah Werner channels Wynken de Worde in her classroom as well as she does through her website, her students are to be envied. She makes what she writes tangible, palpable, haptic. Three brief examples, the last of which prompts this bookmark:
Imposition is “the arranging of pages in a chase [a steel or iron frame for holding them tightly for the letterpress] in a particular sequence . . . so that when folded the printed pages will be in consecutive order.” Glaister, Encyclopedia of the Book (2001). But the earliest books did not have page numbers, so how were old Bill and Wynk to know which to place where? Here’s Werner:
Above is a numbered example of the same newsbook that I used as an image in my last post. The red numbers are page numbers: folded in the right way, you’d get an 8-page booklet in the order indicated. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the actual news sheet doesn’t have page numbers. Instead, there are signatures: at the bottom of the first page is a tiny, blotted “L”; at the bottom of the 5th page is a tiny “L3″ (the “L2″ has been cut off at some point when the page was trimmed). These are signature marks that count off by leaves. What’s a leaf, you ask? It’s a physical unit of paper: when you turn the page in a book, you are actually turning a leaf of paper. Early modern printers would have thought in terms of sheets and leaves, not pages, when they were figuring out how to print a work. Depending on the imposition (how the text is laid out on the sheet), you could end up with different numbers of leaves: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, 24. A quarto imposition results in a sheet of paper being turned into 4 leaves; there are 2 pages to each leaf (a recto side and a verso side), so there are 8 pages in all. The blue letters and numbers show the signatures. One thing that throws off beginners is understanding how recto and verso relate to each other. They do not mean right and left but front and back.
Providing a downloadable PDF with which to follow along, Werner walks the reader through the exercise and proves her point: “it’s a handy way to understand and demonstrate to others the general principle of early modern format: multiple pages are printed onto a single sheet in the correct order so that when folded, they appear sequentially.”
The second example of the pedagogically palpable or the palpably pedagogic comes in the same posting:
“When you’re done, you can try folding it into a tiny little pressman’s cap, following the instructions that appear in this lovely piece, “The Newspaper Man is Defunct,” from The Cape Cod today.”
That bit of fun was two years ago. The brilliance is undiminished today; if anything it’s brighter. For this year’s course, Werner is handing out her syllabus in unpaginated quarto format. To figure out the syllabus, the students have to fold the imposition correctly! Try it yourself and grasp the meaning of the “book arts.”
Ah, the books arts. Imposition. The dying arts? You need look no further than the end of your Proboscis to see that that is not true. Proboscis is a London-based non-profit studio that commissions and facilitates new works and publications, some of which can be found in the DIFFUSION library.
DIFFUSION ebooks are hybrid digital/material publications. They bring together the “tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.” Shareable paper books, free to download as PDFs, print and make up, DIFFUSION eBooks “can be shared electronically or as material objects – scanned, photocopied, emailed or posted. The eBooks bridge analogue and digital media by taking the reader away from the computer screen and engaging them with the handmade.”
And just a bit further along the continuum is Francisca Prieto, also in London. Inspired by the serio-comical poet Nicanor Parra’s “antipoems,” Prieto offers up The ANTIBOOK.
The reader must fold the pages of the book (20.5 x 10.5cm) to form the icosahedron (15 x 17 x 19cm) in order to read Parra’s antipoems in order.
Whether Prieto’s ANTIBOOK or the DIFFUSION ebooks are book, art, both or neither, they and Wynken de Worde make us think with our hands as well as our minds about what can be done with the form and concept of the book. And that makes the concept of imposition worth a bookmark.
PS: “Books On Books” acknowledges David Pearson‘s Books as History (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2008 and 2011), p. 75, for the inspiration of the wording of the conclusion here.
PPPS (6 January 2021): Weeks into a third Corona virus lockdown, another contribution for learning imposition by doing has appeared. Appropriately this time in the Quarantine Public Library started by Katie Garth and Tracy Honn in May 2020. It comes from Barb Tetenbaum; check out the download and instruction video here.
Untitled Barbara Tetenbaum Chemistry stencils (Prague, 1993); colored pencils (Madison, WI, 1975); and press-on letters from the model train industry are combined with a 100-year old Encyclopedia Brittanica page.