Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Artist's Books (or Artists' Books)


Yesterday I participated in a very interesting meeting with some colleagues from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Carleton College. The purpose of our meeting was basically to come up with "who, what, where, when, how & why" ideas and thoughts related to planning a symposium around the themes or threads of curricular connections, book artists, and institutional collectors. We're looking for those unexpected connections between artist's books, the classroom, and the library. There were lots of ideas and thoughts flowing around the table and I've continued to ponder our discussions.

This image, by the way, is from The Book of Ruth: King James Version published by Sutton Hoo Press in 2002. "100 copies were printed from hand set Lutetia types by C.M. Oness with engravings by Ladislav Hanka." We have most, if not all, of Sutton Hoo Press books in our collection. While not an artist's book according to most (if not all) definitions (Sutton Hoo defines itself as "a literary fine press"), it is a beautiful work of the book arts (and an image that I am fond of and had readily at hand).

Another image (here at the left, also readily at hand, and probably more in line with the accepted definition), comes from Harriet Bart's work Poetry of Chance Encounters. We are delighted to have her work in our collection. One of her commissioned works, Cento, is in Walter Library on the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota. If you ever have the chance, I would encourage a visit to view the work. It is wonderful!

One of the big questions is what do we mean by artists' books? The Wikipedia article is a start towards the answer to that question and gives a straightforward defintion: "Artists' books (also called bookworks) are works of art realized in the form of a book. They are usually published in small editions, though sometimes they are one-of-a-kind objects. Artists' books have employed a wide range of forms, including scrolls, fold-outs or loose items contained in a box. Although artists have been active in printing and book production for centuries, the artist's book is primarily a 20th century form." The full article is worth a look.

At the core of our discussions yesterday was the question "how do you use an artist's book?" It is a complex question framed, for our purposes, within the context of academic institutions. Maybe not surprisingly, the question itself came up towards the end of our meeting, after we had talked a lot about other things.

For much of the meeting, I was trying to get a sense of the landscape and the folks interacting on that landscape. For the moment, let me simply list some of the places and people that crossed my radar. I'm sure I'll be revisiting a number of these places later on and adding to my list.

One resource is Artists' Books Online. According to their web site, the mission of the site "is designed to promote critical engagement with artists books and to provide access to a digital repository of metadata, scans, and commentary. The project serves several different communities: artists, scholars and critics, librarians and curators, and interested readers. ABsOnline operates as an online collection with curatorial guidelines established by an advisory board of professionals. Founded in 2004 ABsOnline is an ongoing project hosted at the University of Virginia under the direction of Johanna Drucker and with assistance from staff and interns working with the University Library and its units in digital scholarship. Anyone interested in participating in the project should contact us directly for guidelines on submissions."

Another player on the field is The Press at Colorado College. On their site is a bit of background, including this: "The Press at Colorado College, founded by Jim Trissel in 1978, is a letterpress printshop dedicated to the art of making limited edition books and broadsides. Under Trissel’s guidance, The Press became one of the finest letterpresses in the country, producing stunningly beautiful books on a variety of subjects, from 'Color for the Letterpress' to 'Twelve Mammal Skulls,' to 'A Selection of Poems by Helen Hunt Jackson and Emily Dickinson' and 'Silence,' the latter considered one of the most beautiful books ever made. Over the years the Press has published work by some of the best writers in the English language. Since Trissel’s death, The Press has continued its work under the supervision of Brian Molanphy, Chris Forsythe, and Colin Frazer."

Someone else of interest is Ruth Rogers, Special Collections librarian at Wellesley College. In 1995 Ruth helped organize ABC: The Artists' Books Conference at Wellesley. The panels and speakers page is of particular interest (Betty Bright is part of our committee). Artists' books have also been a subject of discussion at RBMS preconferences. There were a number of other folks mentioned as possible resources or participants. Please feel free to drop me a note or make a comment if you have other people or resources that should be kept in mind.

There's lots more that we talked about, some of if the kind of nuts and bolts stuff you need to put together a successful event. We're looking at having this sometime in the Spring of 2009, probably late April or early May. We're trying to make sure we don't conflict with other events scheduled at MCBA or with the FABS conference planned for later in May. MCBA will be the likely venue for the event, probably a day and a half symposium starting either Thursday or Friday evening. Given the three threads of curriculum, artist and institutional collector the main audience will probably be faculty, artists, and librarians connected in some way with colleges and universities in the Midwest. One of the possible outcomes of the event that we discussed was some kind of curricular design, a recipe that could be taken home to another institution and tried out or experimented with, that actively engages artists' books and students. Another possible outcome would be to collect case studies of how artists' books are currently used in the curriculum. Yet another outcome might be a greater understanding of how and why academic institutions collect artists' books and provide access to them, through individual study, classes, exhibits, or online. In the end, there were a number of other questions that might be explored in this setting.

For the moment, however, I need to put my pondering aside and go look for Betty Bright's book No Longer Innocent : Book Art in America : 1960-1980. I've got some reading to do.

1 comment:

andreweason said...

It sounds like you've had an interesting discussion on the topic. Artists' books practice is the subject of my PhD at the moment, and I, too, am asking the question 'How Do You Use Artists' Books?'. I think there's a difference though. I'm seeking to produce a view of the books through artists' practice. How do artists use artists' books to facilitate their practice? I hope that this will end up backing up my hunch that it opens up all kinds of cognitive/cultural/practical pathways towards legitimacy, roles, diffusion, etc. Whilst this probably has some appeal in an art-pedagogy way, and also as a possible alternative/additional way to schematize artists' books by (something like) 'practice-effects' rather than appearance or historical milieu, your discussion, if I read it correctly, seems more to do with how artists' books might serve a general pedagogy. Not 'how do books help us teach artists how to pursue their ideas?', but a more general 'what can we teach using artists' books?'

I'm biased, of course, but I get more excited by the idea that book arts can work as a sort of conceptual trainer. They allow artists to produce arrays of material, held critically together by the book form. What this means is that the person making the book gets to 'encircle a set'. The meaning of a book can depend on all the poetics or material the artist brings in or alludes to. This might be intimidating in other media, where a book offers certain boundaries- and certain capabilities. The artist can experiment with publishing, multiples, multiple viewpoints, multi authors, etc. I'm not sure how one would organise an exhibition of 'practice-effects' like these (an unwieldy term, anything better?), but it's something I'm working towards here in the UK.

Good luck with your event.

Andrew Eason