Artists' Books

The artist's book, informed

Conceptual approaches in the handmade artist's book

Tony White -- Pickled Books
Two jars from Tony White's pickled books (1992)

My last post explored book artists who work conceptually using print-on-demand technology, but the use of conceptual methodologies extends to those who work in hand-made books as well.

This summer and fall, I have spent time in special collections at the University of Washington (partly in preparation for the Affect and Audience in the Digital Age symposium, and partly to find books for my spring workshop).

The artist's book as idea

Book artists who print on demand

Travis Shaffer Reworded
Travis Shaffer, Reworded (Self-Published, Print-on-demand book, BLURB, 2013). Image: Travis Shaffer

My last commentary began by asking what a print-on-demand artist's book might look like and explored works of conceptual writing that use the trade paperback form as a central aspect of their poetics.

I'd like to ask the question again, and offer a somewhat different print-on-demand approach:

So what might a conceptual, print-on-demand artist's book look like?

It might resemble Travis Shaffer's work.

The POD people

Writing through, erasure, appropriation, mimicry

Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff, American Psycho
Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff, American Psycho (2012). image: Mimi Cabell

So what might a conceptual, print-on-demand artist's book look like?

Several contemporary writers are using the form of pre-existing books as a container for innovative publishing experiments that they can make available at a reasonable price thanks to POD and affordable printing options. Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these new books resemble their sources externally, but diverge dramatically in content, which involves erasure and writing-through. They are also facilitated by the availability of digital editions of these books which provide a searchable, scrapable, alterable source.

The following are not all print-on-demand publications, but they take on trade paperback form in ways that intrigue me: 

The conceptual artist's book

Are all artists' books conceptual?

Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha
Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha (1962), image via Franciselliott, Wikipedia.

This fall I am co-organizing a symposium through the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington called “Affect and Audience in the Digital Age.” A collaboration between researchers in poetics from the Bothell and Seattle campuses of UW, our event explores the impact of digital mediation on contemporary poetry. Here is how my co-organizers Sarah Dowling, Brian Reed, and Gregory Laynor and I describe it on the conference website:

Audience in the Digital Age is a one-day symposium exploring emergent modes of creative public scholarship. Specifically, we are interested in scholarly, pedagogical, curatorial, and creative practices that attend to the digitally mediated character of contemporary poetry.

Local crime

Forensic iterations

Detail from The Crime LINKS in the Smoke by Campbell Walker
Detail from The Crime LINKS in the Smoke, by Campbell Walker

My final post takes a very local turn. Like Prigov’s Little Coffins, New Zealand artist Campbell Walker’s 2012 work The Crime LINKS in the Smoke is an undead work that plays on the print book as both fetishized object and repeatable copy. The Crime comprises cut-up pages from detective novels that were burnt in the fire that destroyed Raven Books, a secondhand bookshop on Princes St in Dunedin, New Zealand. Walker’s book is a memorial both to a particular shop and to the town where it was located. Dunedin, the small city near the southern end of New Zealand where I live, is known for its penguins and sea lions but also for its crumbling Victorian grandeur. Now mainly a university town, Dunedin was once New Zealand’s largest and most prosperous city, and the energetic local cultural scene today springs partly from the spaces opened up by the slow urban decay of a city that never grew. Walker’s work links the fate of Raven Books and Dunedin to the fate of the print codex at a time when bookstores everywhere are closing their doors and e-book sales are increasing exponentially.

FACSIMILE (again)

pt. II

In my previous post I claimed that there has never been a more interesting historical moment in publishing than the present. “Publishing” is often understood as synonymous with the “publishing industry,” but in my teaching and writing I prefer to use the term inclusively in order to put small press publishing, self-publishing (including blogging and other forms of social media) and other forms of grassroots activity in dialogue with the more traditional commercial media outlets. Personal and interactive media have absorbed or trumped traditional mass media providers, and those that have survived the ‘big switch’ (as Nicholas Carr calls it) have done so by incorporating the paradigms and principles of emerging media technologies. While writers still embark on book tours to promote new titles, many publishers have cut back significantly on the budgets allotted to personal appearances, favoring virtual promotional tactics such as Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, FaceBook pages, and networked blogging. The fact that all of these tools are user-friendly and essentially free has done much to level the playing field inhabited by small presses and major presses. Where it would have been prohibitive for most small presses of the pre-personal computer era to send a poet on an all-expense-paid trip to promote their new book of poems, a similar press can now create an online campaign on a very limited budget.

Propolis Press

Karen Randall started Propolis Press in 2001. My introduction to the press was Rosmarie Waldrop’s Within the Probabilities of Spelling, produced in an edition of just eighteen. A few years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Karen in person in New York, and a few years after that, I had the pleasure of including her edition of Christina Strong’s The New York School in Poem & Pictures. Other poets published by Propolis include Nancy Kuhl, Elizabeth Willis, Jane Rice, and Randall’s own poems. The images in all of the books are created by Randall, who is the leading authority on four-color letterpress printing on gampi.

She is currently collaborating on an artists’ book with Lee Ann Brown entitled Bagatelles for Cornell, which includes three poems written in homage to Joseph Cornell accompanied by Randall’s digital collages printed via cyanotype and gum bichromate photography, as well as mixed relief techniques. She is also collaborating with Anne Tardos on Ginkgo Knuckle Nubia, a segment in The Dik-dik's Solitude (Granary, 2003). 

Portland's Best Bookstores

Portland, Oregon is a book town. While it may be known nationally as the home of Powell’s and zines, and of course, Women & Women First Bookstore from the TV show Portlandia, it is also the home of two of my favorite bookstores: Passages and Division Leap. Both are run by artists and specialize in poetry, artists’ books, little magazines, rare, and signed copies. Both have a relatively small, but carefully curated inventory.

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