Books On Books Collection – Helen Douglas

The Pond at Deuchar (2011)

The Pond at Deuchar (2011)
Helen Douglas
Hand scroll, printed on Chinese Xuan paper, ultra chrome inks. Silk ribbon edged.
14 metres x 270 mm. Edition of 4.
Photos: Weproductions.

Details from end of The Pond at Deuchar (2011)
Edition of 4, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artist, 18 February 2019.
Photos: Books On Books.

The Pond at Deuchar (2013)
Helen Douglas
Online version produced by Armadillo Systems. Screen captures: Books On Books.

Shortly after orchestrating the series of workshops Transforming Artist Books (2012), during which Helen Douglas created the digital version of The Pond at Deuchar (2011), art historian Beth Williamson marvelled at how the gestures of digital reading affect “our thinking as our (digital) hand navigates around the screen and thinks through the work”. That phrase “as our hand thinks” is magic in its aptness for all of Helen Douglas’s works. Helen Douglas is a book artist who makes our hands think. But what does that mean? Consider these three excerpts:

[t]he hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes — and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries … [e]very motion of the hand in every one of its works carries itself through the element of thinking, every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element. All the work of the hand is rooted in thinking.

Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking? trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper Perennial, 19 68). P. 16.

… the digital hand is […] a version of what the artist’s hand, the craftsman’s hand, the poet or scholar’s hand, and the lover’s hand has always been: a means of marking, touching, selecting, interacting, molding, expressing, and refusing that remains essential to human thinking, even when that thought takes place increasingly in an immaterial environment ….

Tyrus Miller, ”Rethinking the Digital Hand”, CrossPollenBlog, 18 October 2013. Accessed 15 September 2019.

The Tongue and Heart th’intention oft divide: The Hand and Meaning ever are ally’de”.

Guil. Diconson, “To his ingenious Friend the Authour; on his CHIROLOGIA“ in John Bulwer, Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand (1644).

When talking about her art and the “breadth” or ”span” of the spreads and their “flow” — as she did at the London Book Fair in 2013 and the British Library in 2020 — Douglas gestures in ways that evoke those words of Heidegger, Miller and Diconson. When experiencing The Pond at Deuchar — whether in its scroll edition or its digital version — the reader/viewer makes similar gestures — spreading arms wide, sweeping with the hands; or tapping, pointing, pinching, spreading and swiping with the fingers.

In its scroll edition and its digital version, The Pond at Deuchar draws the reader/viewer into two different literacies but with a continuity between them that does not yet exist between reading a print book and reading its ebook version. Are hand and eye more allied when processing the visual whether on paper or screen than when processing words? Is The Pond at Deuchar a special case because unrolling a scroll and scrolling across a screen are more gesturally similar than turning pages in a codex format and tapping a screen?

Douglas’s own description of the next work Between the Two (1997) brings this question about visual and textual literacies front and center.

Between the Two (1997)

This bookwork is constructed to unravel across the open spread and around the edge of the page to express one continuous visual narrative. It begins with sparse photographic renderings of grasses as black line on white, progresses into a softer tonal sequence embodying flight and finally, in the latter part of the book, develops an arabesque dance of tendrical peas, as light on dark, leading to a flowering of the book. Black and white throughout, the book is bound in scarlet crushed velvet.

Weproductions, accessed 26 February 2020.

Between the Two (1997)
Helen Douglas
Offset, 130 x 130 mm, 168pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.

Reading “around the edge of the page” in Between the Two is a “hard read”. Most turns from recto to verso effect a sense of continuity with stalks, fence, tendrils, etc., wrapping over the edge into the verso page; others do not. The codex format inherently presents this challenge. The edge of the page is a scant plane, although the earlier work Water on the Border (1994) exploits it well (see below). There are other visual strategies that work. Think of Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover (1975) and consider the following work from the same year.

Chinese Whispers (1975)

Douglas has created numerous visual narratives in the codex format, but none of them have been reproduced in a digital format. If Chinese Whispers — one of her first books in partnership with Telfer Stokes — were delivered in a “tap-to-turn-the-page” digital format, would a sense of continuity between the different literacies occur or diminish? The tightness of the binding of Chinese Whispers makes full appreciation of the spreads and flow difficult, but on the other hand, the meeting in the gutter of the two photos on each double-page spread is essential. Say that two copies of the book were unbound, the “freed” double-page spreads would have to be displayed somehow in a way that still captures that meeting in the gutter. On a gallery wall? As Clive Phillpot has pointed out, to do so with Douglas’s work is to destroy what is going on in moving across and turning from one double-page spread to the next. A digital version would need to be fiendishly quirky in its own way to find a parallel semantic and artistic solution to its codex counterpart’s effects.

The front cover of Chinese Whispers (1975) shows lush green grass in a photo that bleeds to all four edges. Flip the book over and find another edge-to-edge photo showing the dirt and roots beneath the front cover’s patch of grass.

Chinese Whispers (1975)
Helen Douglas
Offset, 110 x 180 mm, 176pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Photos: Books On Books.

Doing this is a bit like jumping to the end of a detective story; it is literally jumping to the end of the game of visual Chinese Whispers to which the book invites us. Decades after the book’s appearance, Brandon S. Graham revealed some of the behind-the-scenes process, driving home the filmic character of the book. In correspondence with Books On Books, Douglas confirms the “absolutely continuous narrative” of Chinese Whispers, emphasising how the artists would “come up with a concept and starting point together and then … would go backwards and forwards“ (20 March 2020).

Like the give and take of a word game, this book was scripted, planned page by page and section by section. Stokes would suggest a starting point and a concept, Douglas would interpret the idea slightly differently, add to it and relay it back to Stokes. Stokes would run with the evolved idea and it would start again. In this way the book evolved as an honest representation of the collaborative process that yielded it. The photography began once they had the whole object planned.
… For the cover image, Douglas and Stokes used a spade to cut a rectangle of sod to the exact dimensions of the finished book and took a photo.

Brandon S. Graham, “Chinese Whispers“, Fiction Doldrums, 26 July 2011. Accessed 9 December 2018.

The visual narrative takes us from trimming the overgrowth from the outside of a derelict cottage, entering it and starting the process of building a corner cupboard, populating its shelves with a breadbox, a coffee pot and many other objects that lead from one element of the narrative to the next. Packets of seeds lead to a cabbage and pea pod. A bunch of berries leads to jam in a jar. Toward the end, a pair of scissors and sheet of paper lead to a cut-out butterfly whose wings gradually close along with the two “wings” of the corner cupboard, leaving us in the dark with a double-spread of black pages. Below are close-ups of the front and back covers. Notice the impression in the dirt-side photo? It looks like a rectangle the trim size of the book; whether it is or not, Chinese Whispers is a bookwork of continuous page-turning inside (and outside) jokes.

Clinkscale (1977)

“Clinkscale” is the name of a company that specialised in the musical instrument photographed by Douglas for the bookwork of the same name. Perhaps every book art collection has a one-note joke. Clinkscale is almost that for the Books On Book Collection. Brandon S. Graham defended the work against the characterisation years ago:

It would be easy to dismiss this as a clever one liner: accordion with an accordion fold format. But on closer examination there is more going on. Over top of the accordion body a band of atmospheric and biographical information can be observed: the blue sky, the green of the field, the bright spring sunlight, the work shirt and threadbare work coat. When one looks closely at Telfer’s hands and nails, particularly the thumb on the back cover, one can see a criss-cross of the shallow cuts that have been stained with dirt. All of these details speak of a place and a time and a situation. They are a record of standing in a field in rural Scotland on a crisp spring day,  a record of the work that Telfer’s hands are performing on the Mill. These details ground the work and tie the work to a person at a moment in time. It is a record, a document. 

Taken in this context there is another layer of meaning evident in Clinkscale: the idea of breath, air, anticipation, rejuvenation and renewal. As a viewer holds the book with the bellows closed the viewer sees Telfer’s fingers poised. This builds anticipation of a motion and perhaps a sound. As the book is opened the accordion inhales, the bellows expand and the rush of air stirs the spring grass. The hands are those of a workman. The workman is standing in a field with an accordion, taking a break; taking a breather. The sea of green spring grass is symbolic of rejuvenation and renewal.

Brandon S. Graham, “Telfer Stokes”, FictionDoldrums, 8 April 2011. Accessed.17 March 2020.

Clinkscale (1977)
Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes
Accordion binding, two hardboards joined by a single leaf; full colour photograph commercially printed.
H278 x W174 mm (closed), W1708 mm (open). Acquired from Douglas, 29 November 2018.

Water on the Border (1994)

Water on the Border (1994)
Helen Douglas
Offset, 150 x 190 mm, 124pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Photos: Books On Books.

The two pairs of double-page spreads below demonstrate the artist’s success in taking the reader/viewer “around the edge of the page”. In the first pair, after the boat‘s prow disappears at the edge of the recto page and reappears from the verso’s, the artist introduces a vertical border at the tip of the prow. On the other side of the border is a photographic tracing of a building’s reflection in water. It is not necessarily the same stretch of water on either side of the border, but it feels that it is.

In the second pair, the seven columns of characters of a Chinese poem precede the picture of the lower part of a right leg that wraps around the edge of the recto page into the image of a man performing T‘ai Chi. As above, the verso page of that double-page spread is divided by a vertical border, which is followed by a child’s ink drawing that falls across the verso and recto pages. As with the continuity of water above, there is a continuity of the man’s pose on one side of the border and the lines of the drawing on the other side.

Water on the Border engages sides of multiple borders. Six Chinese poems rendered in calligraphy balance against Brian Holton’s transcriptions into Scots (first image, top row, below). Children from Scotland and China provided the drawings (second and third images, top row, and fourth image, below). The reflective images photographically traced come from the water surfaces of Yarrow Water Scotland and West Lake, Hangzhou.

Wild Wood: A Border Ballad (1999)

Wild Wood: A Border Ballad (1999)
Helen Douglas
Offset, 116 x 160 mm, 144pp. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.
Photos: Books On Books.

Wild Wood has been conceived as a Border Ballad and takes as its inspiration the Carrifran Wildwood project and the ancient woods at Deuchar and Tinnis Stiel in Yarrow. In 2000 Wild Wood won The Nexus Press Atlanta Book Prize. Opening the book and turning the pages is analogous to entering and exploring the Wild Wood where different moods and feelings move the viewer through the visual narrative.

Weproductions, accessed 26 February 2020.

A fair enough and fair description of this bookwork, but what astounds is the manipulation of borders and the framing of photos within photos. Below, on the left, a thin white border around a recto page; on the right, a thin black border encircling a double-page spread (notice also the precision of alignment from verso to recto.

Borders yield to full-page bleeds (first spread below), and full-page bleeds are manipulated to create frames of images (second spread below).

Strange roundel vignettes of the forest appear within close-ups of a tree.

Photos of the wood create a border for other photos of the wood, and some burst wildly beyond those borders.

Unravelling the Ripple (2001)

Unravelling the Ripple (2001)
Helen Douglas, Rebecca Solnit
Offset, 170 x 127 mm, 76pp. Perfect bound. Acquired from retail, 15 November 2019.

The opening and close of Unravelling the Ripple. Photos: Books On Books.

Like three of the following works — Illiers Combray, A Venetian Brocade and In MexicoUnravelling the Ripple takes the reader/viewer on a journey away from the Scottish Borders to one along the coastline of a Hebridean island. Among the book’s many striking features is the precision of alignment across the double-page spreads. Slowly opening, then closing, then opening each spread is as much a pleasure as the sensation of peering through clear water at the sea wrack, urchins and shells. Moving the view from tidal pool to crashing waves and moving from greys to full colour then back to greys, the bookwork delivers on the back cover’s assertions. The assertion that “the book could be bound in a circle”, however, begs for an answer to the question “what if it were bound in a circle?” A variety of more sculptural solutions are possible: one of Hedi Kyle’s “blizzard book” variations or the Chinese dragon-scale binding. Without the codex structure, though, that pleasure of the double-page spreads would be lost. So the work must depend on the reader/viewer’s memory and perception to recognise the beginning in the end.

While Solnit’s essay is lyrically in keeping with the body of the bookwork, it stands apart. Where the livre d’artiste most often begins with the text and follows with the art, Unravelling the Ripple clearly starts with the art.

Illiers Combray (2004)

Illiers Combray (2004)
Helen Douglas and Zoë Irvine
Offset, four colour, 92 x 92 mm, 120 pages; two mini audio CDs, (18 mins each) placed in end pockets on board covering the two-sided accordion book; embossed title, red fastening band. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.

The journey to this small French town immortalised by Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time intensifies a recurrent feature or element of Helen Douglas’s art: the surreal weaving of images (drawn or photographed, present or past) into the photographed townscape and its environs — where the warp of the townscape/environs meets a weft of images taken from paintings, still-life arrangement of objects, poppy-coloured stitches, and words or ornaments that run like strings from panel to panel.

Sound artist Zoë Irvine and visual artist Helen Douglas collaborate to create a richly textured, multi layered soundscape composition (2 CDs: Irvine) and ornately interwoven visual narrative (2 sided concertina book: Douglas), exploring a sense of memory and place. Inspired in the month of May by a week long visit to Illiers Combray, the small town immortalized by Marcel Proust in his epic novel In Search of Lost Time, Irvine and Douglas weave together their own distinct mythologies and reveries; their subjective responses elliptically united by their shared sense of place. This book won the Birgit Skiöld Memorial Trust Award LAB 04 and the Seoul International Book Arts Award 2005.

Weproductions, accessed 26 February 2020.

In their obsolescence and presence in the front and back covers, the two mini-CDs bracket a gap that the artists’ collaborative effort could perhaps only close in performance or an installation. Irvine’s soundscape is available online, which, as long as the link lasts, overcomes the obsolescence of the mini-CDs but not necessarily the gap. Perhaps the technology of augmented reality could close the gap if Douglas integrated NFC (near field communication) tags in a new edition of Illiers Combray.

Loch (2005)

Loch (2005)
Helen Douglas
Offset b&w, french folds, 195 x 105mm, 28 pages; black cover with inset title. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.

Loch consists of twenty images facing each other across eleven uncut leaves. The roundel vignettes capture a sense of wind and light moving across the loch’s surface. These roundels standing in their white space naturally differ from those in Wild Wood. They are more similar to those in a work unfortunately not in the Books On Books Collection: Winter: Celestial Mountain (2015).

A Venetian Brocade (2010)

A Venetian Brocade (2010)
Helen Douglas, Marina Warner
Case bound in Ratchfords Inspiration with foil blocking. Offset, four-colour, on Hello Extra Matt 130gsm.
128×180 mm, 180 pages. Acquired from the artist, 6 September 2014.

The journey here crosses space (the cityscape of Venice) and time (present and historic figures). The warp-and-weft technique from Illiers Combray blends with the bordering technique from Wild Wood. But what Douglas does with the double-sided accordion format of Illiers Combray and the codex format of A Venetian Brocade attests to her ambidextrous mastery of both.

From Tommaso Mocenigo’s tomb – its great curtain drawn back – the city of Venice unfolds in the hands of Douglas’ rich visual narrative, delighting in textural contrast and intricate layerings. As oneiric zone that Venice embodies, stone, brick, water, inside and out, near, far, night, day, east, west, past in present are juxtaposed and woven as one continuous brocade. Within each landscape-format spread an inner page is floated and embellished at its edge. Borders of brick dissolve as sky, images shift, merge and overlay, water laps and floods, whilst reflective glimmerings morph into mosaic and golden threads. As masterful threading within this Venetian Brocade – at its fore, Marina Warner contributes a dexterous story of unique, wondrous wide-eyed looking from East to West.

Weproductions, accessed 26 February 2020.

In Mexico (2014)

This concertina opens in vibrant colour to reveal in progressive spreads of two, four and six pages a rich sensory exploration of Edward James’ surreal jungle garden Las Posaz, in Mexico. Lush vegetation intertwines with the constructed buildings and staircases of James’ imagination and with Douglas’ own, in experiencing this garden and the rich culture of Mexico. Within the book the abundant garden is interwoven on the page with decorative threads from Mexican embroidery and feather work. Patterns of leaves are echoed by cut paper craft whilst the delicate encrustation of flora and fauna is enriched with ancient Indian beadwork. With the unfolding pages, from ground to tree tops, the viewer can ascend with the staircases and flit with the butterflies of the garden, suspending gravity and disbelief, venturing through gates and windows to boughs and fern vaults in the sky. And in so doing experience, within the small intimacy of book, something of the unfolding immensity of the garden and its timeless fusion of earth and paradise, real and surreal.

Weproductions, accessed 26 February 2020.

In Mexico (2014)
Helen Douglas
Offset, four-colour, 145 x 145 mm, 92 pages; green paper band around green foiled card covers, enclosing double-sided concertina. Acquired from the artist, 10 February 2015.

Dark Cloud (2015)

Dark Cloud (2015)
Helen Douglas
Printed on Toshu paper with ultra chrome inks, 105 x 250 mm, 24 pages; blue fastening paper band around card cover over 6 folded leaves hand stitched. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.

The images, colours and texture’s appearance create an expectation that the paper will feel wet to the touch. The double spreads of the unprinted side of the leaves create a surface mist or cloud across the images.

Odd to say, but the physical sensation — of fingers trailing in the water — created by the digital version of The Pond at Deuchar is best replicated by Dark Cloud and the next work.

Follow the River (2015-17)

Follow the River (2105-17)
Helen Douglas
A set of 8 books, 930 x 183 mm; concertina binding; varying from 12 to 14 to 16 pages; printed on Chinese Paper, with Surecolour Inks; colour card end covers, letterpress title with back cover information of set number, date and edition; edition of 30, of which 25 sets are encased in a protective card sleeve produced in 4 different colours with the title Follow the River. Acquired from the artist, 29 November 2018.

Follow the River (2017) takes the river’s stretches, bordering vegetation, and its seasonal changes as “narrative structure”, yet the eight pamphlets lend themselves to separate viewings and to composite views arranged vertically or horizontally. But this is the wrong way for the reader to seek structure.

Douglas provides a phrase that redirects the quest when she describes “the concertina form as unfolding arm’s breadths, each one with a distinct theme of light, colour and mood” (Weproductions). This returns to the gestures associated with The Pond at Deuchar.

Douglas continues:

Each open spread can be viewed individually, or in runs of 4, 6, 8 or more pages. The first spread contains a text poem, which, integral to the reach of the river draws the eye into the book and a close reading of its pages. Leaves, grasses, ferns, flowers and trees form part of following the river, at its edge. In light and shadow they frame and are interwoven with the water’s movement: its flow, light and shade, and reflective colour, taking in its nuanced surroundings, as one contemplative whole.

Weproductions

Be it scroll, codex or accordion — Douglas’s structural goal would seem to be arrival at that contemplative whole. By leading our hands to think, Douglas takes us with her.

Further Reading

Bookmarking Book Art – Helen Douglas”, Books On Books, 3 February 2015.

Bookmarking Book Art – Helen Douglas, Podcast by Bookbinding Now”, Books On Books, 12 March 2016.

CDLA (Le Centre des livres d’artistes). “Helen Douglas — Telfer Stokes”, le cdla: Expositions publications et collection de livres d’artistes, 26 February 2020. Accessed 26 February 2020. A “catalog raisonné”-like listing of 30 works by Douglas, 9 of which are co-creations with Telfer Stokes.

Graham, Brandon S. “Telfer Stokes”, FictionDoldrums, 8 April 2011. Accessed.17 March 2020. Commentary on Chinese Whispers.

____________________. “A Venetian Brocade and other topics“, FictionDoldrums, 4 June 2011.

Taylor, Chris. “Books, Scrolls and Ripples: In Search of an Audience through the Printed Works of Helen Douglas”, Arts 2020, 9(1), 35.

Williamson, Beth. “What Does It Mean Not to Touch a Book?” in Code—X, edited by Danny Alfred and Emmanuel Wackerlé (London: bookRoom, 2015), pp. 01:53-2:06.

Williamson, Beth, and Eileen Hogan. Project: Transforming Artist Books, Tate Library, February 2012 – August 2012.

On “The Book” (MIT Press, 2018)

With apologies to the preacher:  Of making many books [on books] there is no end. 

                                                                                                                (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

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.

The Origin of Species (2016)
Dr. Simon Park, Guildford, Surrey
“The small book shown here was grown from and made entirely from bacteria. Not only is the fabric of its pages (GXCELL) produced by bacteria, but the book is also printed and illustrated with naturally pigmented bacteria. ” Posted 27 March 2016. Photo credit: Dr. Simon F. Park

Silenda: Black Sea Book (2015)
Jacqueline Rush Lee
Transformed Peter Green‘s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and the Black Sea Letters
H9.5″ x W12″ x D6.5.” Manipulated Text, Ink, Graphite
Photo credit: Paul Kodama. In Private Collection, NL

Enclosed Content Chatting Away in the Colour Invisibility (2009)
Anouk Kruithof
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Field (2015)
Johannes Heldén
Produced, and premiered, at HUMlab, Umeå University
Reproduced with permission of the artist

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 BlakeStéphane 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 Story by 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.

Display of Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, at the Gulbenkian’s Pliure: Prologue (la Part du Feu), 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo credit: Robert Bolick
Reflected in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; in the lower left hand corner, Bruce Nauman’s 1968 Burning Small Fires;  and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s 1974 La bibliotheque en feu.

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 WilliamsSweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s The Readies (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 machineIn 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’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.

Composition No. 1 (2011)
Marc Saporta
Translation by Richard Howard, Introduction by T.L. Uglow, Google Creative Lab, Diagrams by Salvador Plascencia and Designed by Universal Everything Photo credit: Robert Bolick

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 DuchampDieter 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‘s Mi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.

Recomp (2014)
Cathryn Miller
Copy of Decomp, Collis and Scott (2013) nailed to a tree. Photo credit: David G. Miller

Recomp (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller

Recomp vandalized (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller

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)

 

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

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.