Figuring Absence (CBAA Notes, pt.3)

I’ve had several people ask me for a transcript of my talk from CBAA so for the final installment of my conference notes, I offer a (somewhat amended) transcription of my talk Figuring Absence, Using Theme-based comparison to Look at Artists’ Books. It is long enough that I am going to divide it into several posts—one for each of four books I examined.

Figuring Absence, Part One

I want to talk with you today about the theme of absence as played out in several different artists’ books. We will be looking at works by Sophie Calle, Ken Campbell, J. Meejin Yoon, and a work of my own that was done in collaboration with Brad Freeman. Absence takes many forms—physical absence, emotional absence, political absence, historical absence—and each of the works looks at a different type of absence and they each express it in radically different way. In comparing these works I hope we can discover something about how artists’ books work by examining how a variety of artists, working in different book mediums, have approached a somewhat perplexing challenge—that of figuring absence. How, after all, does one visually represent absence—The non-being-thereness of something? It is a visual paradox, but each of these books draws strength from their visual components and utilize the form of the artists’ book to speak with more than just words.

Absence by J. Meejin Yoon

Let us begin with a book that takes as its name our very theme, Absence by the architect J. Meejin Yoon. This book is extremely simple. There is no text. Its pages are made of the thick white cardboard of an architect’s model and when closed it forms a rather solid cube. The front cover is die cut with the word absence, and as you open it up, all you see is the small black dot of a small hole missing from the first page. That continues, page after page, for awhile and then the hole transforms into two squares, which again continue on and on until the last page which is a die cut angled grid of streets familiar to any who followed the news at the time. Upon turning to that last page you suddenly realize that what you’ve been seeing (or not seeing to be more accurate) are the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the 110 pages you’ve just gone through represented each of the 110 floors of the now absent buildings.

Opening spread of Absence

Opening spread of Absence

Middle spread of Absence

Middle spread of Absence

The obvious thing to point out about this book is that it is about negative space. The architect’s traditional model has been inverted, and the usual negative space of air around an architectural model has been turned into the model itself so that now the negative space of this model represents the absent buildings.

Last page of Absence

Last page of Absence

But what makes this book interesting is more than just the simple use of negative space to represent loss. The book form brings something more to the equation. This is not, after all, just an architectural model of inverted space. When you stop to think of about it, you realize that you cannot actually see the negative space of the twin towers that the book has created. The absence of the buildings is locked up inside the white cube. From the end of the book, I can try to look up into the void, but I can only see so far, certainly not up to the antenna that those initial pages of small holes represented, and anyway, this is not the perspective from which we ever looked at the towers. Were this a solid model I would not be able to see its subject at all, but because it uses a book format, I know what is going on. I can see each slice of the negative space as I page through the book. So negative space, yes, but the real effect comes from the use of the book structure to both give us the understanding of the book’s subject, while at the same time preventing us from visually experiencing that content. Now that is a truth of absence—the thing is present in my mind, but I can never see it.

There are other things that are going on in this book as well, for instance the lack of any text to introduce the subject.  You don’t know anything about what the book is about until you reach the end. The impact of that is that the book is, in fact, quite boring when you first encounter it. Page after page of small diecut spaces. After awhile you think, “I get it—absence—missing squares. Clever. Are we done yet?” You get impatient. You flip through the pages quickly. You pay them no special regard. They all seem the same. And then when you’re done, and you finally realize what the book is about, and that each of those pages represented a floor, a unique floor with unique people,  you feel like you’ve violated something. You feel guilty for your disregard, your impatience. Like the guilt that is felt as tragedies slip into the past and survivors begin to go on with their lives and no longer feel the presence of the absence quite so strongly. Absence is not always painful, as painful as that may be to admit. The experience of this book reminds us of that.

Which leads to another interesting aspect of the lack of text. Not everyone will get the book, even at the end. That grid. Those shapes. They aren’t recognizable or meaningful to everyone. And if they aren’t meaningful to you, all the textual descriptions in the world won’t change that, or help you experience the book as it was meant to be experienced. 100 years form now, no one will experience this book in the way that some do now, because it is not the mere absence of the towers that is the point, but rather the feeling that they should be there. That they belong there. A feeling that comes from having known them when they were there.

To give a simple example, you could look to your left, and look to your right and say that I am absent from your side—except that you would never say that. Because I don’t belong there in the first place. Absence is not the random non-presence of something, but rather the non-presence of something that once was there, or should be there, or is desired to be there. There is intentionality in the idea of absence. The absent one or absent thing belongs. This leads to our next book, Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain which will be taken up in the next post.

I’d like to thank Laurie Whitehill Chong at the RISD library for access to their copy of Absence.

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CBAA Notes, pt. 2

In which is reported more from the CBAA conference including new scholars studying book art,  established faculty teaching book art,  the use of point of view in artists books, and some odds and ends of notes that don’t fit anywhere else.

Studying Artists’ Books

One of the exciting things about CBAA was seeing the number of students in Masters and PhD programs who are working on theses and dissertations about artists’ books. I wrote in my last post about University of Pennsylvania student Michelle Strizever’s analysis and comparison of the digital and physical encounter with an artists’ book.

Another such talk was Sarah Hulsey’s Linguistic Theory and Book Art. I first met Sarah when we were both learning how to take care of our printing presses in one of Paul Moxon’s Vandercook Maintenance classes, but in addition to being a printer, Sarah is studying linguistics at MIT. Her exploration of the applicability to linguistic concepts to analysis of artists’ books was a refreshing and promising approach. She took patterns such as recursion and using examples of several artists’ books, walked through how such terms could describe some of the factors at play in the narrative and structures of the books.

Slavicist Melissa Tedone, who is currently in the Conservation program at UT Austin, looked at three aspects of the book—architecture, art, and literature—as they played out in the various artistic movements of revolutionary Russia.

Three students from Columbia College Chicago, Brandon Graham, Karol Shewmaker, and Matthew Aron, led a discussion on the importance of high-quality writing in artist’s books. Arguing for the advantages  of going outside the field for critical theories, they explored John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, Phillipe LeJeune’s On Autobiography, and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium which included what he considered to be the values of literature: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Consistency.

I was sorry that I only caught the tail end of Jennifer Chisnell’s discussion of the artists’ book as metafiction as that topic seemed to be one that re-occurred throughout the conference in panels and individual discussions.

Favorite Books to Teach With

A group of artist/teachers from the Bay Area have been meeting together reguarly and they created a presentation in which each discussed a book that they find particularly useful for introducing students to artists’ books. In particular they talked about sequence, flow, and word & image. This is a great topic and I’d love to hear others share their favorite teaching books.  I’ve tried to track down where there is an online version (full or in part) of the books that they discussed.

  • Macy Chadwick presented Warja Lavater’s Cendrillon, a retelling of the story of Cinderella in which each character is represented by a graphic shape.
  • Julie Chen presented Barbara Tetenbaum’s Gymnopedia no. 4 which acts like visual musical score in four parts
  • Betsy David’s presented Warren Lehrer and Dennis Bernstein’s French Fries, a typographic panoply in which each color/typeface represents a different character in a story about a day in the life of diner.
  • Alisa Golden presented Coleman Polhemus’ Crocodile Blues, a children’s book which Alisa argued shares many of the features of artists’ books
  • Michael Henninger presented David Stair’s Asperity, a book whose pages are made of sandpaper
  • Charles Hobson presented Michael Hannon and William Wiley’s Fables, a collaboration between an artist and poet which was printed by Harry Reese at his Turkey Press
  • Nance O’Banion presented Lisa Kokin’s Supreme Court: A Dream
  • Chris Rolik presented Johanna Roger’s Secrets which appears to be simply an all-white book until it comes alive under UV light.

Point of View

Susan Viguers did an interesting presentation on point of view in artists books using a variety of books to show how point of view can be played out in different ways.  She examined Valerie Carigan’s Messenger, Katie Baldwin’s Storm Prediction,  Clarissa Sligh’s Wrongly Bodied Two, Clifton Meador’s Memory Lapse, Michell Wilson’s El Proceso, and the point-of-view tour de force, Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover.

Just recently I was re-watching Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent movie classic Man with a Movie Camera and was struck by its similarities to Cover to Cover. Both works play with the viewer’s sense of narrative continuity by disrupting the point of view and confounding who is watching and who is being watched. Vertov and Snow are both exposing the ability of their respective mediums to lull the viewer/reader into a belief in the truth of the medium.  They each exploit this strength by creating a rich, compelling visual narrative, only to then break it apart by exposing the artifice required to construct it.

Snow’s book is an completely visual journey, following a character as he walks through a door, into a room, interacting with what he finds, and then continues to follow him through the mundane journeys of a day. This seemingly seamless visual narrative is punctuated, however, by photographs which reveal the 2 photographers required to capture the various perspectives of the man’s movements. As the man enters a room, the photographer behind him capturing his back as it walks through the door, also captures the photographer on the other side who is capturing his front entering the room. As the book continues, photographs that appear to be a part of the seamless visual narrative of the man’s day turn out to be photographs being held by the man, thus revealing the artifice of this visual narrative which must, in fact, have been photographed not in one continuous stream as it appears, but in multiple ‘scenes’ shot and reshot, perhaps even over several days.

I highly recommend finding a copy of Cover to Cover at a library (a search of worldcat.org will tell you the nearest location) and studying it closely.  And in the meantime, you could get your hands on a copy of Man with a Movie Camera for a similar study in point-of-view and truth in image. [This all harkens back to my comments on Munari’s Photo-Reportage which approached the same theme from a different angle]

Odds and Ends

I also find myself left with cryptic notes from the conference about things to look at that I can’t remember the context in which they were discussed, but I list them here as being of possible general interest.

and a wonderful little quote:

Metaphor is something the brain does when complexity renders it unable to think straight. ~Brian Greenberg

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Notes on the CBAA Conference 2009

I’m finally recording some notes (some short, some long) from sessions I attended at Art, Fact, and Artifact: The Book in Time and Place, the first-ever College Book Art Association conference. Sessions ran concurrently so it was unfortunately impossible to see and hear everything and I’m sure I missed all sorts of interesting talks (hopefully others will be posting notes about the conference as well), but let me start with my telegraph summary that I hope captures the experience shared by all:

 CBAA BIENNIAL CONFERENCE STOP
 MERRIMENT LIVELINESS DISCOURSE STOP
 ARCTIC MIDWINTER ENVELOPED IOWA CITY STOP
 —OWLET

Now if you attended John McVey’s CBAA talk,  Codex/Code : Book and Procedure at the Center of Telegraphic Reading and Writing, you might immediately wonder about the true meaning of my telegraph above.  Indeed, you would be right to do so for if you were to pull out your trusty Adam’s Cable Codex you would quickly discover that what I really said was “Please name and reserve berths for four gentlemen everywhere we can think of.  Will write soon. No prospect of higher prices at present.  Sell at once, even at a loss.  Keep me well informed. There is an uneasy feeling in commercial circles. What do you intend to do–Reply by wire. –12Midnight”

McVey’s talk explored the world of the codes and code books used during the heyday of the telegraph to convert common phrases and sentences into less expensive single  words that would then, in turn, be decoded by the receiver. His talk was a fascinating overview of a topic I knew nothing about and as soon as I got home from the conference I investigated the code book holdings of my library. The books themselves are typographic delights (especially for those of us who have a thing for columnar typography), but they are even more fascinating for the sociological evidence they provide of that society’s concerns and communication needs. Some of these code books are 4-5 inches thick, many of the them devoted to a specific commercial sphere – mining, cotton, finance – codes to buy and sell and promise any amount of any thing at any price. Other of the code books were for common inter-personal communication.  The codes for birth telegrams speak volumes about the harsh realities of the time—a code word for every possible variation: “Confined to-day. Baby and Mother well” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother fairly well” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother weak” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother very weak” and so on.  A glimpse into the common occurrences of the era and the need for fine-grained distinctions in the vocabulary of communication from a distance.

Zebra Code

Zebra Code. From McVey's specimen pages

Mastering the codes must have been quite a feat since the organizational structure of these books was often  opaque.  I could not help but wonder at the economy in which it was cheaper to pay to employ coders to encode, decode, and correct messages than it was to send a couple extra words.  Many codices seem to have grouped codes/phrases together by topic, but headwords were not always used to identify the beginning of each new topic. Others seemed simply to arrange the phrases alphabetically (e.g. all phrases using the word uneasy or uneasiness falling under U). Typographically and design-wise, these are a instructive specimens of information organization (or non-organization, as the case may be). McVey showed an example of the decoding of a telegram whose translation had been heavily corrected and re-decoded.  Looking at my Adam’s Cable Codex I imagine mistaking ‘keynote’  for ‘keyhole (the code word one line up) and the major miscommunication that could ensue. The former means “Buy what you think best without loss” while the latter means “Buy what you think best without limit.” Image the havoc that could be wrecked with one wrong word.  [Hmm, perhaps this is what’s gone wrong in our current economy!]

It is hard not to imagine that at least some people took a certain delight in trying to compose coded telegrams that were meaningful both in code and in translation  (as I attempted above). It makes me want to track down telegraphs between artists and writers.  Meanwhile, I’ve discovered that McVey maintains a web site which includes scans of specimen pages from various code books that can give you a more concrete glimpse into this topic.

SciFi Fanzines

New Worlds Fanzines

New Worlds Fanzines

Another genre-specific talk was Gregory Prickman’s Social Networking and the Books Arts: A Futuristic Pre-History, which discussed the history of the sci-fi fanzine and their role as a precursor not just to the social networking of today, but also as examples of interesting printing endeavors. Prickman traced the development of fanzines and showed their relationship to book art movements, such as DIY and amateur printing associations.

One of the features of these fanzines was that while production was extremely low-tech (mimeograph and hectograph pages stapled together), there was often a fair amount of interest in the design of the zine and Prickman showed a lot of examples of the influence of contemporary artistic movements on the layout of the issues. Neither were they amateurish in their content—some of the luminaries of science fiction writing were regular contributers (Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, etc.).  Prickman also discussed the way in which the zines branched out beyond their obstensible topic to become mediums for simply connecting people together.  As a nascent blogger, I was fascinated to hear more about the history of one of its predecessor mediums. Prickman’s talk was significant because it of the way he looked beyond the specifics of the medium to the significance of the endeavor and so began to draw a theoretical map of the social networking space that is much broader than that commonly discussed today.

Reading the Digital Artist’s Book

There were several talks that delved into the role and use of online reproductions of artists books.  Michelle Strizever, walked through her experience reading Johanna Drucker’s From A to Z in both digital and physical form. Her conclusion was that each experience had its advantages and that the two really complemented each other.  For her, the physical copy was only available within special collections and this raised some lively discussion afterwards about the barriers that readers can experience in a special collections reading room, both psychological as well as physical.  The ubiquitous presence of the digital version – a great boon when doing extended research on a book as Strizever had been doing- was only one of the features she mentioned.  Also important was the ability to zoom in to see aspects of the text that were not so easy to read in real space.  The question was raised of whether this is problematic to be able to ‘see’ more than what can easily be seen with the naked eye – which presumably is what the artist was designing for – but I for one, as an artist, love the idea of people being able to uncover hidden treasures in my work. I think often artists pay attention to all sorts of minute details that get lost in the totality of the work.  Perhaps it is not just he mechanical aid to our sight that a digital version can offer, but more the focus that it forces upon us that changes our reading.

Manuel Portela in his Codex Codes: The Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics of Bookscapes, began to outline a methodology for understanding the experience of reading in a digital archive.  Given the audience, he focused on Artists’ Books Online, but I spoke with him afterwards about some of the major literary digital archives as well (e.g. the Blake archive and Rosetti Archive).  Portela talked not just about the particulars of how a book is translated into a digital display(e.g. images presented as single pages or as page spreads), but also about the entire framing mechanism that the archive provides and how it affects your reading of a book.  An approach very much in line with the work of scholars like Jerome McGann who studies the material conditions of textuality. As a digital librarian myself, the discussion afterwards was especially interesting in raising some of the frustrations that users of such archives can feel.  While I know full well how easy it is to criticize and how hard it is to actually pull together the staff and money and time to build anything – let alone something that works the way we want it to – in the end it is the user’s experience that matters and that keep us striving – not our explanations for why something got built the way it did or what compromises we had to make.  But to create some methodological structure for talking about this experience, as Portela is doing, takes this discussion to a whole new level.

Ok, this is enough for now.  I’ll write up some more conference notes in my next post

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New issue of Mimeo Mimeo released

Just a quick note to alert readers that Kyle Schlesinger has announced the second issue of his journal  Mimeo MimeoTo quote Kyle: “Mimeo Mimeo is a forum for critical and cultural perspectives on artists’ books, fine press printing and the mimeograph revolution. This periodical features essays, interviews, artifacts, and reflections on the graphic, material and textual conditions of contemporary poetry and language arts.”

I’m not going to do that confusing blog thing in which I quote the entirety of the journal’s blog on my blog – hopefully this has whetted your appetite enough to simply go to the Mimeo Mimeo site where you can read all about the contents of the issue and more about the ideas behind the journal.  And most importantly – you can order a copy so you can spend your holiday pouring over it. Happy reading!

p.s.  I’m sorry to have to admit that I already have fallen down on my promise of regular columns (this has been a crazily busy couple of weeks) but I’m back now and am already half-way through my next full column (on my experience at the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair).  Keep tuned and thanks for your patience as I get used to doing this…

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Bruno Munari and Photo-Reportage

Have you read Bruno Munari’s Photo-Reportage?  I discovered this book awhile ago quite by chance.  Sometime when traveling, somewhere on a bookstore table, I’m not even sure what made me pick it up.  And then I read it and didn’t know how I hadn’t known about it before—a book not particularly about artists’ books, but all about artists’ books.  I’m reading it again on my way to the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair while I sit on an airplane, beside a window that has a large oval  whorl of stress cracks etched into it.  Apparently everything must have a fingerprint nowadays.

“Photo-reportage,” Munari declares, “is a means of expressing oneself more through images than words. The images can be sculpted, drawn, or photographed, the medium isn’t important. The urgent needs of modern publication have turned the cameraman’s chisel into a camera. In the past, to see the story narrated on the Trajan Column, everyone had to go to  Rome. Nowadays that column has become a roll of negative of which the most distant reader can receive a copy at home.”

What are the important words in the above paragraph?

I maintain they are “more” in the first sentence, and “cameraman’s” in the third.

Let us begin with the latter. What can Munari possibly mean about turning the cameraman’s chisel into a camera?   When was the chisel ever the tool of the cameraman?  Why, when the cameraman was a Roman sculptor, of course!  With this simple description, Munari has positioned the photographer in a long lineage of art-makers, the term cameraman inter-changeable with the term artist.  It is 1944 and Munari has subtly and cleverly bypassed the strained, defensive whining of the underdog photographers vying for a place in art world, and simply written as though it is so (something the book art world could learn from). This is not a book defending photography as art, it is a book on how photographic images work their artist magic.

But that, in fact, is a misleading statement, which brings us back to the first important word in Munari’s paragraph: “more.”  I haven’t really yet explained what this book is about.  To read Munari’s preface, one would believe it to be all about images, but he then proceeds to create a book where the words are integrally intertwined with the image experience and critically important to their meaning.  Which is what makes this books so interesting for book artists.  “More.”  More about images, but not just about images.  The force of the “more” comes in large part from the way in which images come first in Munari’s story-telling. First in time, though not necessarily in importance.  Photo-reportage is all about telling stories based on pictures – stories which, despite the implications of the term “reportage,” are completely made up (Munari sprinkles the book with parenthetical comments that “its not true”).  These are fanciful imaginings, written as though they were factual descriptions. The truth lies not in fact but in the meaning that can be drawn out of the images. Munari appropriates pictures and finds in them not the obvious story but surprising non sequiturs; stories that come more from the artist’s internal thoughts than the pedantic world of everyday occurrences.

Photo-Reportage acts partly as a treatise on art, partly as an exposition of a way to think about images, as well as an interesting example of how to weave together multiple narratives though textual hooks.  Each story begins where the last left off, though never as simple sequential follower. There is much more to be said about it, but you can see for yourself since it has been reprinted again. Photo-Reportage: From the Island of Truffles to the Kingdom of Misunderstandings.

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William Kentridge – Everyone Their Own Projector

I bought a book at the New York Art Book Fair. Well, truth be told, I bought several books, but I’m going to start with this one, William Kentridge’s Everyone Their Own Projector. (I’ll cover some of the other books in later posts). If you don’t know Kentridge’s work, he is a remarkable artist from South Africa whose animated drawings define their own genre of art-making. Using stop-motion techniques and charcoal drawing, Kentridge draws, erases, draws, erases, photographing each stage in the metamorphosis of his black and white charcoal stories. The results are lyrically beautiful, conceptually melancholic, politically complex films where the passage of time and the narrative’s history become persistently inscribed in the erasures on the page.

cover of Everyone Their Own Projector

cover of Everyone Their Own Projector

But back to Kentridge’s recently published artist’s book. Though best known for his charcoal animations, Kentridge was a printmaker before venturing into film and he has continued his practice of etching and lithographic printing even while working on his animations.  I don’t know if this is his first foray into the codex book format but if so, his films have taught him well how to use the rhythms of the pages to draw out his story.

The book explores the human proclivity to shape the world through the lens of our perceptions, using collages of torn books to literally draw the ground for the images on the page.  The images alternate between a meta-dialog on the artistic agenda itself—reproducing  quick ink sketches of famous works of art (primarily depictions of females), a visual representation of written language with its characteristic patterns of words and sentences, and finally a riff on Gogol’s story of The Nose. These themes intertwine, visually crossing in and out of each other’s borders. The staccato lines of a text become lines on a face, become the spaces between a nude that has been cut apart in a venetian-blind-like collage. The historical procession of well-known paintings of women become the setting for the Nose as he makes his foray into the world independent from his face and owner.  Images appear and reappear transformed, creating visual echos as the book progresses.  This is book-making as it ought to be done.  Dense. Beautiful. Evocative. Intelligent. And all with an acute awareness of the construction – the book as a construction of a story, the story as a construction of life, life as a construction of our minds.  Everyone their own projector.

As one of the pages declares, “what lies in store/what lies in wait/what lies asleep,” the book explores themes of potency and foreshadowing. Kentridge uncovers unexpected meanings hidden within the torn up texts that ground the collages through juxtaposition and defamiliarization. Images appear without context, foreshadowing the fuller role they will eventually develop within the narrative as we come to understand their part. These are just a sampling of the ways in which literary devices are reinterpreted through a visual vocabulary.

The placement of images and their repetition, take advantage of the book’s codex structure.  Page spreads sometimes act as mirrors, each side reflecting a slightly different version of the reality of an image.  Or similar images reappear, situated on the same side of a page, using the same visual placement, triggering the brain to experience an instant recognition of the familiar, but always with some difference.  Sometimes these are done sequentially, one after another, providing a sense of progression, or variations on a theme.  Other times the reoccurence is spread out over time, appearing many pages later, calling on memory to draw the correspondence.

If you have never seen Kentridge’s work, try a little exploring on youtube which seems to have some low-quality versions of several of his films.  Better yet, get your hands on Drawing the Passing which is a documentary of his film-making practices and includes clips from his work. Or one of the new CDs/DVDs that David Krut Publishing makes available.  David Krut  is also the distributor for Everyone Their Own Projector as well as many books about Kentridge.  (p.s. don’t be surprised at the prices – they are in South African Rands!)

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Undefining the Book Art Field

The word-of-the-day is movement.

Not a ground-shattering word, but one the book art field might benefit from employing more liberally.  I’ve recently returned from a stimulating four days at the New York Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference/New York Art Book Fair, where I had my eyes opened to a lot of interesting works and ideas, many of which differed significantly from the manner in which I work and think about books.  It was delightfully refreshing.

I wonder, however, at the persistent desire (in evidence at the conference) to define the totality of book art by a mere slice of the field. This happens both explicitly as well as implicitly.  It is easy to spot the explicit definitional statements that some people seem compelled to employ (and there is at least something to be said for the candor of such explicitness), but even more pervasive are the implicit assumptions that underlie much of the field’s discourse—discourse framed by an obliviousness to the very idea that not everyone shares one’s selfsame perspective. Take, for instance, the impetus to create inexpensive, easily distributed books—the democratic multiple.  Why is it that so many artists and publishers talk about that motivation as a given that is universally shared among book artists, rather than as a particular approach that they themselves happen to have embraced?

To put it another way, why, as a field, are we so resistant to the idea of eras and/or movements within our medium? If I were a painter I could go to the Met and look at medieval paintings and I could go to MoMA and see conceptual paintings, but would I then try to assert that this one is not painting because the painter’s approach and interests differ from mine?  So why is it so common to display a need to define away much of the activity in the book art field?  To not be satisfied with saying “this is my slice within a greater whole.” Even our conferences tend to divide along these lines with relatively homogenous programs and points of view.  Having been to the Wellesley conference and this New York conference, each were so good in their own way, but you’d think I was on two different planets.

Context is a such a useful thing, and there is a certain degree of honesty that comes with framing one’s remarks with phrases like “I believe” and “from my perspective” instead of implying one’s ideas are universal with “artists’ books are” or “we all want to…”  At some level this is a rhetorical issue, but rhetoric is powerful.  And not only that, it can be quite revealing of ones prejudices.

I have to admit to something that will likely be heresy to some. Ed Ruscha’s books do not rock my world.  I understand how and why they were significant, but they are of an era and of a type and I am of a different era and a different type. As such, I feel no need to reject them but neither do I embrace them as fundamentally definitional. They may have defined a movement but they do not define a field.   I find them interesting for what they are (and were) and I learn from that, but I also learn a lot (probably even more) from books that are quite different, such as the William Kentridge I just bought at the NY Art Book Fair (I’ll have to write later on the books I bought and saw…). And then look at something like Oliver Byrne’s Euclid from which there is so much to be gained but which makes irrelevant the importance of declaring whether it falls in or out of those carefully drawn definitional boundaries.

In my talk at this NY Contemporary Artist’s Book conference I characterized the field as an archipelago full of islands that don’t interact.  I’ve had more people come up to me and try to convince me of the virtues and exclusivity of their island.  I’d rather fashion myself as a traveler – set out in some ships and establish some trade routes.  Exploration seems to me to be such an excellent means to innovation and devleopment.  I know this sounds a little too much like a  “can’t we all just get along” speech. I’m not sure I’m asking for everyone to get along.  I just think we should acknowledge each other and forgo the partisan rhetoric.

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Welcome and a Word About This Blog

Hello and Welcome.

Why This Blog?
As you may have seen from my About page, I am an artist with a particular interest in books—making books, reading books, thinking about books, thinking about what I read, reading about how to make, making what I think about…  I am starting this blog in order to explore these areas on a regular basis and share my thoughts with others.

I believe what Andre Gide said, “the only real education comes from what goes counter to you.” This is easy enough to say but less simple to live by in practice. The tendency to gravitate towards that which accords with our own interests and ideas, to find confirmation from others of a like mind, to feel superior through criticism of those whose concerns differ from ours, has all too strong a pull.  This column is my attempt at an antidote for that – an exercise to keep myself venturing always into new territories, and to ensure those ventures are of a type more meaningful than tonight’s discovery that I am not particularly partial to Wensleydale cheese (useful to know, but hardly enough to supply sufficient velocity to prevent the gravitational thud of a static mind falling from orbit). I hope to explore and examine my reactions to the many different movements, and ideas, and artwork that exist in the book art field. We need more writing in he field and I hope this proves useful to more than just myself.

Scope and Goals
It seems only fair before asking of readers even a small part of their time, that I describe up front what kind of things I am planning for this column.  In many ways, my main goal is a personal one: I intend this as a commitment to regular writing – since writing transforms amorphous thoughts and reactions into something more meaningful.  I plan to write at least once each week about ideas: thoughts on things I have read, things I think about when I think about art-making, thoughts I have on dialogues current in the book art field, thoughts I have on what dialogue is absent from the book art field, etc.  Mini-essays that may be too short or informal for a printed publication and yet can take full advantage of the interactivity possible on the web.

At the same time, part of what makes me a book artist is my engagement with particular forms and formats—printing, book-making, etc.—and with how those forms can be used in engaging ways.  As such, I may occasionally write on the actual process of making things, on problems and solutions.  I don’t intend straightforward technical how-to articles (there are far better places to get such advice e.g., the Vanderblog and various listservs), but rather something more like a discussions of technical approaches to aesthetic issues, formal solutions that suit particular content demands, etc.

I hope that others find this column informative and I especially hope that you will respond and tell me your thoughts. Just click the comment button and join in the conversation.

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