Artist Books 3.0

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Picking up on the salient point Paul Salt made in his reply on the previous discussion: “Do we use the word ‘book’ as a short hand way of identifying the form?” Do you have any proposals for what can and cannot be included in the description ‘book’? And then what does the word book mean to you?

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I've hopped over here from the other discussion on publishing. I've always been puzzled by the claim that it's a book if the artist says it is. We don't permit this sort of thing in other discourse -- you can call it a book if you want, but the notion of what a book is, is collectively determined. What I'd like to know is, when did the notion of a book become problematic? And dependent upon that, what's in it for the artist who has made something if it gets identified as a book rather than a sculpture or a series of prints? Andy Warhol produced stuff which is hard to classify -- a box of Chinese takeaway receipts, for example -- which give (gave?) people who want to draw a line between art and non-art fits. Reprise John Cage in music. It's easy to see why people might want to be included among the artists and musicians. I wouldn't have thought 'book artist' wielded that much social capital as to be preferable to 'sculptor' or 'printmaker'. What object of desire or mode of experience is not captured by the dictionary definition of "a collection of sheets of paper or other material, blank, written, or printed, fastened together to form a material whole" that provokes people to want to fiddle with that?
I like to think that it's all in the aims of the artist. If the intention is to make a book - however unlikely - then it will be a book that is made. The problem may arise when it's somebody else that defines the artwork, "it's a bit like a book".
I don't think we should be scared of artworks that may fit into more than one category ie. sculpture and book.
We are a society that like clearly defined boundaries and categories, but that's what's confusing us all.
It probably starts at University where you follow a defined programme, heaven help you if you start using photography on an illustration course etc. I love the fact that many artist's books cross these boundaries and become alive in 2 or 3 genres.
More unlikely looking books challenge us to consider our relationship to the book - which is all part of the delight.
I think it's important to remember that sorting and chunking are the basis of rational thought. They are not products of education or ideology, and learning to stop doing it requires years of zenniish training. The rigidity and intellectual tribalism which Jackie Batey points to is something else. A major advance in thinking provided us by postmodernism was to point out the pervasiveness of this by-product of sorting, its social as well as intellectual origins, its deleterious effects, and how a more nuanced approach would benefit. As an erstwhille cataloger and bibliographer (one has to make a living somehow) I'd not be pleased if catalogers and drawing teachers became code for backward-looking intellectual rigidity.
One of the consequences of my distinction just made is on the matter of whether an artist can call whatever they've just made a book -- or more carefully, what they have just intended to make. Certainly they can, as Jackie says. But that doesn't make it a book. Us chunkers and sorters are likewise privileged to call it what we please. The postmodernists (again) taught us that the artist has no special standing here, and how slippery are concepts like 'intention' and how fraught are attempts to privilege one group (say, artists) over another (say, critics). Really, at this point it becomes not an interesting question, doesn't it?
I see where you're coming from on this. Maybe the debate stems from whether we let the 'maker' categorise their work or the cataloger categorise it. I hope that this is where digital systems may really help, an archived artist's book could be listed by key words, phrases, images and meta tags - this would mean that the categories are flexible, depending on the searchers requirements, ie. they could search for artifacts by medium, intention, place of creation, tone, page size, scale, theme, artist etc.
Flexible changing boundaries could really enhance out understanding by bringing together artifacts that were unexpected.
Since we are talking about 21st Century books we need to consider not only digital books but books that exist in virtual worlds. These are books that exist in 3D, can be operated, read, purchased, and interacted with, but which have usually been created completely from pixels (ie they are not from images of real life books). There are conservative books in 'traditional format' in this genre, published books and, as in the real world, there are artists pushing the boundaries.
I have just created a Flickr site (http://www.flickr.com/photos/2ndedition_virtual_books/) for my virtual world book group Second Edition, and you may enjoy going there to see what I am talking about. There are not a lot of images there yet, but it will grow. Second Edition now operates in the following virtual worlds - Second Life, Open Life, Open Sim and Twinity.
I have posted two images from the Flickr site into my profile.
Jackie, do you think that the website www.artistsbooksonline.org is making headway here in what I think is termed a 'folksonomy' (that seems to imply a certain amount of crowd-participation, which is in practical terms, not really the case. Same, unfortunately, with Wikipedia.)... that tag-related aspect of definition, at any rate?

My interest in such a nominally crowd-driven (which the above isn't really an example of) way of sorting is that it creates something functional, rather than something which is, from all (or any) angle, 'true'.

If, as seems to be the case, we've got lots of competing ways to describe what's going on, it seems more useful to grasp something functional rather than something true. That's why I share your enthusiasm for more flexible cataloguing. It seems to me that the definition we seek ought to be something that helps us build up momentum towards linking to things in the outside world, rather than a wall to stop us doing so. Really good definitions can do that, but they need to have the courage that science sometimes has, to seek something larger when what is being observed no longer fits the theory.
Jackie Batey said:
I see where you're coming from on this. Maybe the debate stems from whether we let the 'maker' categorise their work or the cataloger categorise it. I hope that this is where digital systems may really help, an archived artist's book could be listed by key words, phrases, images and meta tags - this would mean that the categories are flexible, depending on the searchers requirements, ie. they could search for artifacts by medium, intention, place of creation, tone, page size, scale, theme, artist etc.
Flexible changing boundaries could really enhance out understanding by bringing together artifacts that were unexpected.
I think that the frequency with which the intention question comes up might point to something interesting though.

If artists are reduced to falling back on their intentions to situate their activity, I guess it's because they lack vocabulary to describe what they've done or the cognitive realisation that would allow them to describe it in simpler terms. I think in part there might sometimes be a difficulty in describing simple hybrids/ transgressions against the book/ etc (pick your own 'difficult to delineate book-moment' here) because of the fetishization of the book, enshrouded in its mysterious definition.

I think the intentional argument is almost always a fall back in the face of the argument to define, rather than a position that artists, er, intentionally adopt. (Notwithstanding quoters-of-Duchamp). I think we use 'book' as a short hand term because it's relatively irreducible. It's difficult to argue against someone who has their footing firmly planted in the book; even when their work looks like sausages, they don't have to budge. I think this is because we need to be having a different conversation though; one that's not about defining book, but describing making.

Another side to it- the side that 'wants to fiddle' with the book, takes issue with its status and position in society. Books are a powerful social phenomenon with meanings beyond their material description. A blank book still speaks about literacy for example. A glued-together book denies us the reading that would otherwise be there. Such works interrogate both the physical description (they look wierd/don't look like books at all) AND the book-as-a-social-phenomenon: because they're nominally a book, they interact with our feelings about the socially-constructed idea of the book. So much for things which are 'still a book' despite our incredulity or confusion. On the other hand, people like Ed Ruscha make intentionally spare, cheap objects that are 'just a book'. This too, intersects with the book as a socially constructed idea. Just a book, we find, doesn't really wash, despite the carefully-produced plainness or banality. It's a book.(!)

Charles Brownson said:
I think it's important to remember that sorting and chunking are the basis of rational thought. They are not products of education or ideology, and learning to stop doing it requires years of zenniish training. The rigidity and intellectual tribalism which Jackie Batey points to is something else. A major advance in thinking provided us by postmodernism was to point out the pervasiveness of this by-product of sorting, its social as well as intellectual origins, its deleterious effects, and how a more nuanced approach would benefit. As an erstwhille cataloger and bibliographer (one has to make a living somehow) I'd not be pleased if catalogers and drawing teachers became code for backward-looking intellectual rigidity.
One of the consequences of my distinction just made is on the matter of whether an artist can call whatever they've just made a book -- or more carefully, what they have just intended to make. Certainly they can, as Jackie says. But that doesn't make it a book. Us chunkers and sorters are likewise privileged to call it what we please. The postmodernists (again) taught us that the artist has no special standing here, and how slippery are concepts like 'intention' and how fraught are attempts to privilege one group (say, artists) over another (say, critics). Really, at this point it becomes not an interesting question, doesn't it?
I've just been reading in another context about Heidegger and authenticity. It was noticed 50 years ago (!) that authenticity had replaced sincerity as a marker of artistic good faith. The trouble with authenticity is that its presence can't be well estimated because it's largely internal and fatally involves intention, which also began to be suspect as a critical strategy about the same time. Not co-incidentally, Warhol was also at work. Faced with the tradition of the stand-alone art work distinguished from that which is not art (e.g. kitsch) only by this metaphysical quality of intention, wise and clear-sighted Andy simply ignored the issue and refused to make that sort of distinction. The artist may say he intended to make a book but that statement is unverifiable and makes no headway against the viewer/reader's insistence that it's not a book. This disagreement is fundamentally unresolveable. I think it would be best to use whatever word best facilitates understanding of the piece at hand. We could also follow the anthropologists in seeking "thick descriptions" of the cultural contexts in which things of interest to us have been called books. Perhaps this would help us to understand why it's important to get a thing identified as a book. (Aside from the cultural weight of the word, I think it's partly as Andrew says, that there aren't any good alternatives. OK, it's not a book. So what is it? Ummm... ahh...)

Andrew Eason said:
I think that the frequency with which the intention question comes up might point to something interesting though.
If artists are reduced to falling back on their intentions to situate their activity, I guess it's because they lack vocabulary to describe what they've done or the cognitive realisation that would allow them to describe it in simpler terms. I think in part there might sometimes be a difficulty in describing simple hybrids/ transgressions against the book/ etc (pick your own 'difficult to delineate book-moment' here) because of the fetishization of the book, enshrouded in its mysterious definition.
I think the intentional argument is almost always a fall back in the face of the argument to define, rather than a position that artists, er, intentionally adopt. (Notwithstanding quoters-of-Duchamp). I think we use 'book' as a short hand term because it's relatively irreducible. It's difficult to argue against someone who has their footing firmly planted in the book; even when their work looks like sausages, they don't have to budge. I think this is because we need to be having a different conversation though; one that's not about defining book, but describing making.

Another side to it- the side that 'wants to fiddle' with the book, takes issue with its status and position in society. Books are a powerful social phenomenon with meanings beyond their material description. A blank book still speaks about literacy for example. A glued-together book denies us the reading that would otherwise be there. Such works interrogate both the physical description (they look wierd/don't look like books at all) AND the book-as-a-social-phenomenon: because they're nominally a book, they interact with our feelings about the socially-constructed idea of the book. So much for things which are 'still a book' despite our incredulity or confusion. On the other hand, people like Ed Ruscha make intentionally spare, cheap objects that are 'just a book'. This too, intersects with the book as a socially constructed idea. Just a book, we find, doesn't really wash, despite the carefully-produced plainness or banality. It's a book.(!)

I've always been puzzled by the claim that it's a book if the artist says it is. - Reply by Charles Brownson on October 9, 2008 at 3:40pm


I have in my time seen a Sydney based Masters student put hinges on a run of canvasses and turn around to me and start trying to justify that it was an AB. Seems anyone who can make a concertina or such related shape is suddenly making ABs. This is of course absurd. Somehow this work had got through the academy and been justified by the tick from a disinterested painting faculty with little to no understanding of the field, that yes, this was an AB. This was just a rampant attempt to give a bad series of paintings more value than they already possessed. Jump on the AB bandwagon.

I feel if a practitioner is making  contribution to the broader discussion then it should be allowable (the argument, not necessarily the qualification of 'bookness'.). Fringe activites are always interesting for that antagonism or challenge they pose. It can be fun to play with the definitions or restrictions of forms, but I feel, to enter a discussion, there needs to be some kind of awareness of Historicities, expectations and principles which allow you to enter into a field of enquiry (or maybe some critical discussion or backup from someone else with a more versed and honed vocabulary?). A field of 'works about books' is relevant or 'interesting' to Book Artists, but not necessarily valuable to the field as a collective whole (or maybe it is?).

There is an old adage I was taught when I was studying music, especially when it came to Jazz, that one must understand the rules to be able to break them. I think this holds true for many forms of Art, if not all. This is like building and expanding new expression on a Language that already exists. It's mutation in Linguistic terms. Successful works creates a 'sense', and become readable and interpretable. It has a certain sophistication.

Like with a lot of the arguments surrounding bookness, and 'what is a book', 'what is Art': maybe we need to call a spade a spade sometimes and call a dud a dud when we see one (I wanted to use a stronger word there... If it looks like and smells like, it probably is...). There is much to be said for the lack of vigorous critical appreciation (esp. on the negative side) across all the Arts. Seems polite behaviour and social networks are precluding vigorous intelligent dialogue and criticism.

If ever I see someone trying to claim hinged paintings are an AB again, I can assure you, I will say the same thing I said the first time: No it isn't.

I guess it will always be an ongoing negotiation and discussion what a book is. I think the freedom of material expression should be as free and loose as it needs to be - maybe we could ask, would a work, which wants to be a book, that was intended as a book, that really isn't but was successful in expressing or communicating - does it really matter? After all, it's all Art. If it wasn't, and that was consensus, who would be upset by it all?

On a Tangent:

I sometimes feel an undertone to these discussions that might be voiced thus: Are we allowed to say some work is really bad and should not qualify as Art or Book? but simply be relagetd to Hobby-based Craft.

That seems about right. There is a lot of good, interesting work out there which doesn't have a name -- I've been calling it the sculptural or 3D tradition -- which it would be foolish not to recognize.

Pickaxe wrote: There is much to be said for the lack of vigorous critical appreciation (esp. on the negative side) across all the Arts. Seems polite behaviour and social networks are precluding vigorous intelligent dialogue and criticism.

Maybe what I'm really complaining about is the lack of substantial review media in the field. I floated the idea once but it seemed unlikely that a practicing artist would take the time or risk needed to write for it. You talk about the rules which need to be understood before being broken, or a sense of historicity, but I don't find much (any?) continuing discussion of these matters. I don't believe there are rules, just personal preferences locally enforced by people who have something to trade (money, space, exposure). Where are the critics like Apollinaire to explain Cubism or Greenberg for Abstract Expressionism? No practicing artist has such standing, and it's not clear anyone wants it. The field has not attracted critical attention. It won't so long as tchotchkes, hinged paintings, concertinas, and such small art are treated seriously. Where are the Faulkners and Pounds among us who want to take on subjects of human importance on that scale? Where are the critics, theorists, and historians to create wider recognition and understanding? Where are the publications to give them voice?

Since post-modernism, which was the final nail in the head to any sense of authorship or critical authority, there is very little a critic can say without being criticised as a fascist! What has happened, at least in Australia anyway, is that anyone with a critical voice or skill in writing who would once have become a critical writer, has become a curator (and I use that in the loosest way). Curating leads you into a nice protected cushy job in the Arts funding bodies, or some well funded institution, it doesn't mean you'll have anything to say other than the usual post-uni-art-babble-obscurantist towing the party line bullshit, but as you are a Curator, everyone will suck your proverbial and kiss your other proverbial to get an opportunity to exhibit, or be recongnised, or receive funding or just get ahead. Critical review in the press on the most part (excluding of course one or two good writers that are always there depending on your taste), especially in street press, a bunch of ass kissers and back patters that are scared of giving a bad review where one is necessary because a bunch of people might de-friend them on facebook and limit opportunities elsewhere for them due to social pressures. It's a bloody popularity contest. It takes a fearless writer to take the risk and put forward an opinion which will have them making coffee or waiting tables a few years longer. The stakes are too high for any real critical discussion.

I feel a bit strange saying this, but I get the feeling that books, paper codices, will need to start to vanish from people's everyday life a lot more before the the field can actually be seen as a form of High Art or with the potency you are talking about. I don't think this, but I think this is a reality to some extent. Duchampian aesthetics are running their course, and I think with the way the world is becoming increasingly technocratic and digitised, and we become curators of large cultural techno assemblages, a counter will emerge, and books are part of a great counter punch. People are physical abject bodies that need more than a mediated virtual experience if they are to feel truly alive.

Did you know there is a massive movement of musicians (a lot of them young) using cassettes to move their work, and share their music. Tapes for God's sake! This is a counter culture movement, which I feel will happen with books in the next 50 years. I love the idea that the old buggers out at the NSW Bookbinders guild, a lot of them ex-tradies, who are keepers of a lot of skills and techniques that they are passing on, that are well passed the used by date of  being relevant to industry, are becoming the founders of a counter culture of the future. The mood is there with Zines already, and they come from that counter culture of punk in the 80s. I've got a feeling book artists of the future will be more potent or relevant in some way to "Art". It might happen in our lifetime if google, amazon, barnes and noble and the like get their way.

Sorry, I'm just waxing lyrical. I could be wrong. But I'm excited by the idea.

With all that is happening technologically, there is a real urgency surrounding Book Arts. What it is exactly is indefinable, but we may yet see a rise of some kind of currency, or critical discussion, or something, in the next 10 years that we've been craving. Maybe the "death of the Book" is what is needed for it to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and be renewed.

Sorry, waxing lyrical again.

Really, I don't know.

A point-by-point reply to these long posts is not feasible, but here are some thoughts.

-- I wouldn't say that post-structural post-etc ism had ended authorship or critical authority. Among the things this re-orientation pointed out was the role of the reader in making meaning, and that the author could not claim sole ownership of the artwork. This is not an especially new idea -- it is essential to the Surrealist program and the supposedly dead aesthetics of Duchamp. As for the complaint against musicians interacting with tapes, this too is an old tradition and can produce some very good improvisatory results where computers are used to modify the sound properties and feed it back. Cage and Varese among others did this years ago, not even quite sans computer. And what is the theremin?

--As regards the art industry, it is indeed a popularity contest. That's what taste is, Read Bourdieu on the social role in the formation of taste. There are also several books on the cyclic nature of taste and the mathematics of the cycle.

--As regards the complaint against curators as lesser critics, the reverse is true, I believe. Contemporary critical theory teaches us that transcendental knowledge free of exigent local experience and perceptions is unachievable. The curator takes responsibility for a temporary and local configuration openly based on personally owned expertise to structure a segment of the cultural/intellectual artifacts to make the same claims the critic does/did but more honestly.

-- The curators of the art industry are the gallery owners. What are the implications of this for artists books? It seems to me that galleries are in the same position as regards the kind of artwork this group is looking for as publishers are as regards e-books. Print publishers are not going out of business -- people who buy e-books are more likely to read print books. The arrangement is synergistic. Galleries are eventually going to have to accept the same relationship to indie artists' e- books. Pickaxe looks at the music industry for examples. Unfortunately, the e-music narrative is strongly one of industrial capitalism and minority tastes go to the wall. A significant amount of classical music is now available only in MP3. Artists books are, I think, unable to shed their sensual aspects. This does not bode well. It suggests the tragedy of the commons.

  -- a blog is nothing more than a serial publication with roots in the 18th century. It is an art form like any other. Whether it can be turned to use for artists books is only a question of sufficient imagination.

-- as regards issues of the status of the book, the book arts, the "frantic need or compulsion to colonize new technologies in the name of the book" -- <i>book</i> is a metaphor. <i>art</i> has the same problem.

-- nuff, I think

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