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 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, nor 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?

Bridging history, the book arts, and contemporary electronic literature, this volume reminds us that the book is a fluid artifact whose form and usage have shifted over time under numerous influences: social, financial, and technological…. 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 — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — Borsuk reminds us that human artifacts exist 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, the Blakean flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes.  Rather Blake and his work represent three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form”: 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. In fact, Borsuk notes these additional themes: 

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 Moseley’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. With his famous 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. 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 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 — is Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints. In several respects, Ruscha and Carrión are counter-flashpoints. 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 manifestoes (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 fifth 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)

She 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 arts’ 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 sixth theme — the book as mute object — 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 and 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. 

Bookmarking Book Art — in medias res … Math Monahan

Math Monahan’s installation Specimen is book art that cannot be ignored.

SONY DSC
Specimen , 2012
Inkjet Print
Photo credit: Math Monahan
Specimen, 2012Inkjet PrintPhoto credit: Math Monahan
Specimen, 2012
Inkjet Print
Photo credit: Math Monahan
Specimen 5
Specimen, 2013
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan
Specimen 2
Specimen, 2013
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan
Specimen 3
Specimen, 2013
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan
Specimen 4
Specimen, 2013
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan

[ The book is an organism.  It lived, spread all over the world and, some would consider, is endangered today.  These creatures have a life of their own.  They manifest themselves in many forms but where did they come from?  If they are animals of paper and text, from what kind of beast did they evolve?  This series studies those primordial creatures that became the developed beings colonizing our homes and libraries.  By looking at growth patterns, mutations, and morphological similarities we can better understand this animal’s rise in population for so many years, as well as its current decline toward extinction. ]

The images above constitute a mesmerizing series on Monahan’s site.  It is as if we are looking at photographs of deep-sea creatures or impressions of fossils or slides of microscopic organisms. The latter impression is reinforced by the petri dishes in which the circular images are framed, but of late, the organisms, shown in the rectangular photos, have escaped the petri dish to occupy an undefined abyss. Like snorkeling or diving for the first time in strange waters, the experience of viewing Specimen is beautiful, exhilarating and a bit scary. The words quoted above and fixed alongside the images are humorous, wistful but still, in the end, a bit scary.  The book: evolution or extinction?

Monahan hails from the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, whose library by chance was one of the original five library partners in the Google Library Print Project that began in 2004.  In March 2012, Jennifer Howard reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Google’s book-scanning project had reached its 20 millionth volume but was slowing down.  Even so, at its average rate, Google should have about 25 million books scanned now.   As if foreshadowing Monahan’s metaphor literally and using the Google collection like a literary genome project, Harvard’s Steven Pinker, Jean-Baptiste Michel and the Google Books Team “constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed [enabling them] … to investigate cultural trends quantitatively”. From this reservoir of digital strands, they plucked out the references to each year between 1875 and 1975 in the books, plotted them and found

The plots had a characteristic shape. For example, “1951” was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for 3 years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next 15 years. Finally, the plots enter a regime marked by slower forgetting: Collective memory has both a short-term and a long-term component.

But there have been changes. The amplitude of the plots is rising every year: Precise dates are increasingly common. There is also a greater focus on the present. For instance, “1880” declined to half its peak value in 1912, a lag of 32 years. In contrast, “1973” declined to half its peak by 1983, a lag of only 10 years. We are forgetting our past faster with each passing year.

Ironic that.  Analysis of the “DNA” extracted from over 5 million specimens of the organism designed to preserve our past tells us that we are forgetting it more quickly year by year.

Curious about his interactions with the book species, I wrote to Math Monahan to ask if we could conduct the “in medias res” experiment: to go to his bookshelf, select a volume from the middle of any shelf, open the volume to its center pages, tell me what is there and answer a set of questions.

  • What are the objects immediately on either side of the selected book? As you take the book from its place, what are your physical sensations?  How does the book feel to you? As you open to its middle page, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?
  • Do you recall the circumstances of acquiring the book?  What were you doing when you acquired it?  Why this book?
  • As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general?
  • Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?

MM: I decided to choose from my “to read” shelf. The book I found in the center felt “right” as soon as I saw it there. Although it was on my “to read” shelf, I decided to read it before replying. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or not, I think it was the right choice. Anyway, here is my choice. As you can see, the book I’m using has a slightly different layout.

Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer Visual Editions, 2010
Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer
Visual Editions, 2010
 
Image from Visual Editions.
Image from Visual Editions.
Author of Everything is Illuminated, Foer took one of his favorite books, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and used it as a canvas, cutting into and out of the pages, to arrive at Tree of Codes.

BoB: And what about the books and things around it, and what you felt as took Tree of Codes from the shelf?

MM: To the left stands the book, Folklore and Book Culture by Kevin Hayes. To the right, two wooden boxes stacked, act as a book end/space filler, followed by more books.  The larger box on the bottom contains various samples of handmade papers. The smaller box on top contains blank note cards.  As I removed the book I felt the unfamiliar squeezing of pages that I was surprised by when I first bought the book. It was caused by the cutouts on each page. They create the different densities that differ from the standard solid-block feel of a book.  When I opened the book to its estimated middle page, I remember being very gentle.  The layout of the book made the pages delicate lattices that I am very careful to keep intact. The carefulness must have overridden my other senses, because I don’t remember anything else.  I thought the book felt “right” when I found it because, as a book artist, I work with the form of the book and the book as an object.  That is my main interest.  This book is published by Visual Editions, a publishing company that believes “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell” (www.visual-editions.com).  This idea meshes well with ideas in my own work.

BoB: Now that you’ve read Tree of Codes, you will have noticed how The Street of Crocodiles has pretty much disappeared. Almost but not completely. Are there echoes of that phenomena in your own work?

MM: Yes. Often the content of the books I’m using in my work is irrelevant. I am exploring the book as a physical form.  Through folding, braiding, warping or any other alteration, I am revealing the transformative nature of the book. Each one holds different possibilities. My struggle is in convincing the viewer of this.  We have a tendency to immediately read text, almost instinctual.  Can text be texture? Is there more information contained in a book than words and images?

While a part of my process is (what I have been calling) relieving the book of text, I don’t feel this is an act of violence against any author(s).  It is clear in Tree of Codes that the removal of text is an act of love or admiration for the primary story. My admiration is for the object itself. The text will live on in many forms. I am not using rare or one-of-a-kind books here.

BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of buying Tree of Codes?  What were you doing when you decided to buy it?  What prompted the purchase?

MM: I found it in a Barnes and Noble. I remember being surprised to see it there because it is a sort of unconventional book.  I quickly put together that the author, Jonathan Safran Foer, recently had one of his books made into a movie and that could prompt the store to have all his works in stock.  Still, I was very pleased to find it.  I was introduced to the book about a year earlier by a friend.  It was coming home with me that day, no question.

BoB: As an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general?  The question may have different answers depending on the type of book or your intention on opening the book, so feel free to qualify your answer as you like.

MM: I think my relationship to “the book” changed how I approach books in any context. For better or for worse, I have noticed this change.  The phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” comes to mind here.  I find myself judging a book not only by its cover but also by its weight, size and shape, the textures of its cover and pages. Even by the fonts used in the body of the text are included in this analysis. Of course I read the summary and printed comments on the back, but these often fall after the book passes the physical tests.

BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?

MM: This is where all the information gathered through the process described above come into use.  Understanding how paper textures interact with colors and fonts, how negative space in a text block affects how quickly you move through the book, how the lines of text change as you curl and warp the pages; all are now the backdrop to the creation of my own work.  Sometimes this raw data is in the forefront of my thoughts while I’m working, while other times it is synthesized into a cloud of intuitive responses. The latter is often what I’m referring to when I say something “feels right”.

BoB: Decades ago, Peter Frank commented that exhibiting artists books behind glass was to confine them ” in some anaerobic chamber”. Unless your “organisms” in Specimen present themselves in the equivalent of a petting zoo, their exhibition requires us to stand at a distance and prompts us to view the book as an object to be regarded rather than “read” in the usual sense.

Your installation Between is another case in point but intriguingly different. There, you have taken two sets of books, opened each book, braided its pages so that it stands open and arranged each set of braided books in a circle spine to spine.

Between, 2012
Between, 2012
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan
Between, 2012
Between, 2012
Photo credit: Math Monahan
© Math Monahan

The circle arrangement holds the set together, without adhesives or mechanical apparatus, and the pages slowly unbraid themselves, each book returning to its original form. Although the installations, one in the Penny Stamps Graduate Studio and the other in the Hatcher Graduate library of the University of Michigan, are not under glass or otherwise fenced away from the “reader”, the “reading” or art experience can only occur as the unfolding occurs.  And, of course, being in two separate locations, the installations do not allow us to experience them simultaneously. Yet, you intend “the installations [to] form a whole existing between the two spaces”. 

So while Specimen is “at a distance” from us in one way, Between is so in another. With Specimen, we are relatively passive viewers. With Between, although we are not reading the unbraiding volumes, we are more active, almost participating. Our “witness” to the unbraiding is a necessary element of the artwork, but is that unbraiding toward forgetfulness and extinction or memory and renewal?

MM: Participation is the point of books.  They are meant to be interacted with.  That interaction has become a recent focus, especially thinking of library books and other books as they pass through several hands.  I can admit, reading a good book leaves its mark on me. But what marks do we leave of books? What are the traces of these intimate interactions? Through time, whole communities are embedded in these artifacts. Find a book from a library or thrift store and try to imagine everyone that has ever handled that specific edition. Can you feel them around you? I aim to reveal that community. 

BoB: One last question. Between forgetfulness and extinction, on the one hand, and memory and renewal, on the other, where would you bookmark us and the book?

MM: Whether book sales are up or down, it’s irrelevant.  Even if the extinction of books never happens, the fact that text CAN be read digitally opens the book to possibilities beyond text, similar to (in my opinion) what happened to painting with the invention of photography.  Artists are still working in representation, even hyperrealism, but the rapid expanse of painting and thought behind what a painting is – that is the direction that I’d like to see our interaction with books move in.

Related

  • Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998, p.67, citing Jacqueline Brody, “Peter Frank: A Case for Marginal Collectors”, Print Collector’s Newsletter, IX, no. 2, March-April 1978, p. 44.
  • Michel, Jean-Baptiste et al. “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”, Science, 14 January 2011, Vol. 331, no. 6014, pp. 176-182,  accessed 19 September 2013: DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.

Bookmarking Book Art – Books on Book Art | 4 August 2013

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Abt, Jeffrey. The Book Made Art: A Selection of Contemporary artists’ Books Exhibited in Joseph Regenstein Library – University of Chicago, February Through April 1986 Exhibition catalog.

Antaya, Christine and Sloman, PaulBook Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books Gestalten (May 26, 2011). Documents current art, installation, and design created with and from books. “The fascinating range of examples in Book Art is eloquent proof that–despite or because of digital media’s inroads as sources of text information–the book’s legacy as an object and a carrier of ideas and communication is being expanded today in the creative realm.” Book jacket. See interview with Antaya and some of the artists here.

The Book as Instrument: Stephane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture – Anna Sigridur Arnar. An academic study of the literary and cultural seedbed of book art. “This is a highly ambitious, original account of Stéphane Mallarmé’s lifelong engagement with the book and the vast network of forces (cultural, aesthetic, political) that both informed this engagement and were transformed by it. Anna Sigrídur Arnar seamlessly brings together divergent areas of inquiry in order to support the idea that the book was and remains a site of numerous debates about democracy, public and private space, the uses of art and print, and the role of authors and readers. The Book as Instrument is elegantly written, in engaging and highly readable prose. Arnar succeeds in presenting and analyzing with remarkable lucidity ideas that many of us have learned to approach as difficult and thus nearly off-limits. This will be an important work of scholarship for a variety of disciplines.” (Willa Z. Silverman, Pennsylvania State University).

Art Is Books: Kunstenaarsboeken/Livres D’Artistes/Artist’s Books/Künstlerbücher – Guy Bleus. Catalog of a travelling exhibition in 1991. See also Artists’ Books on Tour edited by Kristina Pokorny-Nagel.

No Longer Innocent: Book Art In America 1960-1980 – Betty Bright. A history of an important period in book art. Like Drucker (below), Bright categorizes book art, places it within the movements of the period and profiles its individual and institutional supporters. Artbook review.

Artists’ Books: The Book As a Work of Art, 1963-1995Stephen Bury. Explores the impact artists had on the format of the book.

A Century of Artists Books — Riva Castleman. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994. NAL pressmark: AB.94.0020. A catalog of an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The selection tends toward the livre d’artiste but does address the impact of the digital shift on artists’ books.

Chapon, François. Le Peintre et le Livre: l’Age d’Or du Livre Illustré en France 1870–1970. Paris: Flammarion, 1987. NAL pressmark: 507.C.172

Courtney, Cathy. Speaking of Book Art: Interviews with British and American Book Artists. Los Altos Hills: Anderson-Lovelace, 1999. NAL pressmark: AB.99.0001

New Directions in Altered Books – Gabe Cyr. A book of projects and techniques by a book artist.

The Century of Artists Books – Johanna Drucker. “A folded fan, a set of blocks, words embedded in lucite: artists’ books are a singular form of imaginative expression. With the insight of the artist and the discernment of the art historian, Drucker details over 200 of these works, relating them to the variety of art movements of the last century and tracing their development in form and concept. This work, one of the first full-length studies available of artists’ books, provides both a critical analysis of the structures themselves and a basis for further reflection on the philosophical and conceptual roles they play. From codex to document, from performance to self-image, the world of artists’ books is made available to student and teacher, collector and connoisseur. A useful work for all art collections, both public and academic.”Paula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Library, Library Journal.

#5168 Altered Book – Special Effects (Design Originals) – Laurie Goodson. One of a series of booklets on book-alteration techniques. Other authors include Beth Cote and Cindy Pestka.

Altered Books, Collaborative Journals, and Other Adventures in Bookmaking – Holly Harrison. A showcase of book art with an emphasis on multi-artist collaborations.

The Cutting Edge Of Reading: Artists’ Books – Judd Hubert and Renee Hubert. Published in 1999, a close examination of 40 examples of book art. Illustrated.

Books Unbound – Michael Jacobs. A book of projects by a book artist.

Johnson, Robert Flynn. Artists Books in the Modern Era 1870–2000: the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. NAL pressmark: AB.2001.0002

Artists’ Books: A Critical Survey Of The Literature – Stefan Klima. A 1998 monograph summarizing the debates over the artists’ book. 

Book + Art: Handcrafting Artists’ Books – Dorothy Simpson Krause. A book of projects by a book artist; covers mixed-media techniques as well as bookbinding.

The Penland Book of Handmade Books – Jane LaFerla (Editor); Alice Gunter (Editor); Lark Books Staff. Tutorials, inspiration and reflective essays by book artists.

500 Handmade Books – Steve Miller. A highly illustrated, wide-ranging coffee table book.

Artists’ Books on Tour – Kathrin Pokorny-Nagel. Catalog of a travelling exhibition organized and sponsored by MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna), MGLC (Llubljana’s International Centre of Graphic Arts) and UPM (Museum of Decorative Arts) in 2011.

1,000 Artists’ Books: Exploring the Book as Art – Sandra Salamony. External and internal views of works, descriptions at the end of the book.

Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels: How Joseph Cornell reinvented a French agricultural manual to create an American masterpiece – Dickran Tashjian and Analisa Leppanen-Guerra (editors). A part-facsimile, part-DVD, part-boxed-presentation that gives some idea of the artwork by Joseph Cornell held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artwork is Cornell’s alteration of the Journal d’Agriculture Practique (Volume 21, 1911), a handbook of advice for farmers.

Playing with Books: The Art of Upcycling, Deconstructing, and Reimagining the Book – Jason Thompson. Techniques-driven; covers bookbinding, woodworking, paper crafting, origami, and textile and decorative arts techniques.

Masters: Book Arts: Major Works by Leading Artists – Eileen Wallace. Illustrated selection of work from 43 master book artists with brief comments from the artists about their work, careers, and philosophies.

The Book As Art – Krystyna Wasserman; Audrey Niffenegger (Text by); Johanna Drucker (Text by). An illustrated volume covering over 100 artists books held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Book Art: Creative Ideas to Transform Your Books, Decorations, Stationary, Display Scenes and More – Claire Youngs. A crafts book of 35 projects.