The three meetings of the research network ‘Transforming Artist Books’ – which took place at Tate Britain, Chelsea College of Art & Design, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2012 – revolved around the impact of digitisation on artist books. One way to get a perspective on this topic might be to envisage what a similar series of meetings assessing the impact of photography on artist books might have been like fifty years earlier in 1962, when the American artist Ed Ruscha’s photo book Twentysix Gasoline Stations was conceived.

In 1962 a discussion of artist books would have been concerned mostly with the kind of books known even in English as livres d’artistes or livres de luxe, which were largely the product of printmaking techniques – lithography, etching and engraving – and which were in editions limited either by process or intent. At that time books of photographs were rarely thought of as integrated artworks. Rather they were considered to be albums of works executed as single, mostly separate, images. Coinciding with the emergence of conceptual art and the publication of the classic pioneering artist books, these open-edition offset photo books may not have been perceived to be a threat to the livres d’artistes, but then neither were the tiny mammals in the age of the dinosaurs. Apart from notable exceptions, such as Robert Frank’s The Americans published in English in 1959, and those produced by Ruscha in the 1960s, photobooks only became identifiable as a subgenre of artist books in the 1970s.

If we now jump forward fifty years, can we assume that the expansion of digital formats heralds a similar innovative breakthrough in book production? This would not seem to be the case. Admittedly, digital photography is revolutionary but it is still photography. The utilisation of digital photography in book production barely affects the intrinsic qualities of the resulting books; it affects image making but not book making in any substantial manner. Books produced on demand by, for example, are not so different from the artist books of forty or fifty years ago.

Much of the preoccupation with digitisation coheres around the development of ‘digital books’. However, aside from the digital aspects of photography and book publishing processes, digital books are conspicuously separate, disembodied from the book, the codex book. So-called ‘digital books’ mostly have a life on screen, and are only as familiar to their readers as celluloid film stars once were to warm-blooded filmgoers. ‘Digital books’ lack materiality. They are not books. If they are considered to be books then the language that is used to categorise them has been stretched out of all recognition.

Artist books emerged alongside conceptual art. Conceptual art was a radical break with the past; we are still swimming in the tide that it has generated. It took over well-worn media – the paperback and the pamphlet – to carry its dematerialised content, just as artists were beginning to rediscover the paperback as a form that could articulate serial images, and sometimes sequences of words. The parameters of conceptual art are also still expanding; in journalistic terms it now embraces painting, sculpture, assemblage, installation, performance, public art, digital art, multi-media art, and more. Thus digital art is just one current in contemporary art; it is basically only the utilisation of a process, just like ‘photographic’ art.

Now it is possible that, overshadowed by contemporary dinosaurs, we simply cannot perceive progressive small mammals in the undergrowth, and that there are a number of promising new species lurking under the leaves of ‘digital art’ or even ‘digital books’. But the appearance of another radically redefining moment nearly fifty years after the emergence of conceptual art seems unlikely, given the tidal wave that so-called conceptual art has become. Thus digitisation applied to the area of artist books appears not to be accompanied by parallel reinforcing events.

At the research network meetings attention was also paid to the ‘provision of access to artist books’. This territory is complicated. Although access to so-called ‘digital books’ is simple, since they can be consulted online, access to fifty-year-old artist books and their progeny is more problematic. What are acceptable surrogates for these works? Not so long ago a verbal or numerical record of artist books in a library’s card catalogue was the norm. However, since these books were artworks, and therefore often conspicuously visual, it was considered desirable to create records with some sort of visual access. Initially, this took the form of parallel records in slide form, and then even the incorporation of slides into the old-fashioned catalogue card.

With the rapid development of online library catalogues, other possibilities arose, particularly since slide curators were simultaneously grasping the nettle of digitising image collections. Inevitably, in order to give a better idea of the nature of these artworks, the introduction of digitised images in conjunction with verbal or numerical records was then considered. And the next step was to propose that digital surrogates for artist books be offered alongside cataloguing records.

Putting aside technological, financial and labour constraints that may inhibit activity, the big question is whether a digital surrogate for an artist book is a travesty of the original? Can an image on a screen give an acceptable sense of the scale and materiality, the heft, of an artist book? What is ‘acceptable’? A cinema audience can make an emotional connection with a movie, even when they cannot feel the heat of the jungle or the cold of the Arctic, even when they cannot smell the flowers, the appetising food, or the state of the drains, but how close to real life is any movie? Any cinemagoer normally accepts that they are suspending not only disbelief but also the full experience of the event that has been filmed.

Provided that the users of library catalogues that incorporate digital surrogates keep in mind their parallel experience while at the movies – that they are not experiencing the real thing – and provided also that artist books, as opposed to ‘digital books’, are understood to be properly experienced by the hand as well as the eye, a limited awareness of the nature of artist books can certainly be encouraged through digital means.

Clive Phillpot
August 2012

Clive Phillpot is a writer, curator and former librarian at Chelsea College of Art & Design, London, and former Director of the Library at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.