Artist books are strange beasts. In terms of form they are currently flitting between paper-based and digital platforms, or as the writer and artist Radoslaw Nowakowski has put it, between ‘p-paper and e-paper’.1 In terms of content they explore a vast range of ideas and subjects, from social commentaries to self-reflexive critiques about what they mean in the digital age.
Since the Centre for Fine Print Research’s AHRC-funded project was completed in 2010, the field has moved swiftly following the development of iPads and other tablets, while artists and commentators continue to debate what an artist book can be, or even should be, today. 2
Artists are continuing to produce dynamic and fluid works of art in and around the book, whether these are one-off, hand-produced works, paper-based books, print-on-demand, free downloads, or other digital formats such as e-publications or online video works. What has changed is the amount and availability of digital software that can be used to make and view books, such as Book Creator applications, and the renewed interest in paper-based productions that has arisen from a desire to defy the limitations of the increasingly mainstream outputs of e-publishing. These are interesting times in the history of the book and the artist book.
In the field of traditional book publishing, as the e-book now outsells the p-book, small publishers continue to offer reasons to believe in the future of paper. Visual Editions have brought out publications by Jonathan Safran Foer, Marc Saporta and Adam Thirlwell since their first book VE1 in 2010, a version of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy designed by A Practice for Everyday Life.3 These all build upon the physical appeal of the book through considerate design and construction. The Liberature movement founded by Zenon Fajfer also considers the concept and design context of the book from the perspective of the author.4 In 2012 Katarzyna Bazarnik and Fajfer, in conjunction with the publishing house Corporation Ha!art in Krakow, released the first Polish translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as part of their Liberature series, working closely with his original layout, typography and design. They also recently presented the first Polish translation of Herta Müller’s first poetry volume Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm as a boxed collection of poems in the form of collages.5 At the same time, the larger publishers are publishing some beautifully designed books, Penguin’s Clothbound Classics, for example, or the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics Series, which are prominently displayed in bookshops to tempt the casual browser into making a purchase.6
Artists have always used modern technologies to make new artworks, from lithography to photocopiers, Polaroid film to screenprinting, typewriters to letterpress. So the fact that artists are using digital tools to make book works that might be experienced through screen-based media – including iPads, tablets, phones and computers – should not come as much of a surprise.
Having said that, artists do also still like working with paper, and the main argument against using digital tools is that they work against the physical. Just as the mainstream and small publishers mentioned above are looking at ways to present the physical book, so are established and younger generations of artists. Many artists create handmade books because they have an inherent desire to produce physical artworks, whether these are unique editions or sculptural books (such as Fred Rinne’s hand-painted books, The Caseroom Press’s Fairy Tale, Robert The’s Book Guns, Su Blackwell’s cut books, Reassemble’s Never The Same Book Twice), or small editions (such as Ann Tyler’s Souvenirs, Tim Mosely’s Make Like An Eskimo, Clemens-Tobias Lange’s Ghiacciature I, Gracia and Louise’s bookworks, Otto’s screenprinted books, Dmitry Sayenko’s ‘medieval’ books, Ampersand Duck’s letterpress books), or experimental books and publishing (such as Seekers of Lice, Information as Material, Sharon Kivland, Sara Ranchouse, LemonMelon). This list could go on, but it is safe to assume that paper-based books are not going to disappear any time soon.
However, the advantage of digital is that it offers a means of sharing books and presenting book related works in accessible formats; artists are mixing and matching, selecting what they want to use, from paper and ink, to animated video or audio. Stephen Fowler’s Home Made Record Sleeves, for example, is a collection of artist books compiled from his finds in second-hand shops.7 Fowler collects records that have hand-drawn or collaged (homemade) covers, creates DJ sets with the records, and photographs them to produce documentary-style book works. The artist, writer and postman Kevin Boniface has made blog-to-movie-to-book versions of his observations of postal delivery rounds, published as The Most Difficult Thing Ever, with endearing entry headings such as ‘I pulled up too far from the control unit for the entry barrier …’ or ‘A woman answered the door in Heights Road …’8 Andi McGarry makes a range of works around a particular idea for a book, under his Sun, Moon and Stars Press. He might create a one-off, hand-painted version on paper, then produce a short animation of the book, and write music to accompany it and publish it on YouTube; The Browness of Sleep 2010 is just one example of this multi-faceted approach.9 The artist, poet, and musician John Bently has been making books under his Liver & Lights Scriptorium imprint since 1983 (with forty-eight editions published to date).10 He also performs their content through his collaborative band, currently named Bones & The Aft, where characters are played out, tales told and texts sung. Incidentally, McGarry and Bently had a retrospective exhibition as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival, Ireland, in August 2012, and in the run-up to the event produced a touching and insightful video where they discussed each other’s book practice.11
Artists who have used video as part of their practice for years are finding it easy to share their work on internet platforms; uploading video onto their own websites or Vimeo has never been simpler. They can also exploit the potential of linking screen and paper by disseminating video works on the internet that explore the performative aspects of books. For example, Guy Begbie’s Orange Rumba is a ‘video short bookwork activation’, while Davy and Kristin McGuire’s The Icebook utilises projected live performance to bring a blank book to life.12 Tom Sowden’s video bookworks No Dutch Details 2011 and Some of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip 2008 were made as part of his ongoing exploration of the seminal book works of American artist Ed Ruscha (born 1937).13 Sowden’s collaborative project with the artist Michalis Pichler Follow-ed (after Hokusai), explores their collections of books by artists produced in the style of, or in tribute to Ed Ruscha. Simon Morris’s video The Royal Road to the Unconscious – The Aleatory Moment (223,704 words Travelling at 90mph) and book The Royal Road to the Unconscious 2003 (‘undesigned’ by Pavel Büchler from Information as Material), are also inspired by Ruscha, and can be seen as essential screen and paper based components of one piece. 14 Similarly, Heidi Neilson’s Cloud Book Study 2011 comprises a 752-page hardbound digital-offset printed book and a fifty-second video designed to be viewed together.15
Angie Waller also works across physical artist books, video and the internet. One of her concerns is how organisations gather data about consumers from their internet searches. Her artist book Data Mining the Amazon 2003 compared Amazon’s recommendations for music in relation to the political leanings of the consumer, based upon their previous browsing history and the purchases they made on the site. Waller took further inspiration from her project Library of the Unknown and Unknowns 2011 (for which she rebound forty-five found books in identical covers, with regulation foiled titles, all of which contained the word ‘unknown’) to create a new online publication project Unknown Unknowns, a quarterly newsletter with the tagline: ‘We provide timely information you didn’t know you didn’t know’.16
Nicolas Frespech has been using the internet as a resource to share free artist e-books produced by himself and others in ePub (Electronic Publication), a format compatible with virtually all digital players, from PC to Apple, tablets to phones. Books can be downloaded at http://lirepub.com, including Prendre du recul 2012 by Florent Lagrange, which is optimised for viewing on an iPad. To create an ePub, Frespech advises that the user ‘download Sigil, a multiplatform free, open source editing software; insert images, text, metadata etc … and it’s ready. Test it on your iPhone, tablet or on your Mac or PC using the free download book viewer Calibre, and it is ready to share’.17 The latest version of InDesign also allows users to export their publication in ePub format and, if equipped with an iPad and the Book Creator application, it is easy to make a book and send it to contacts or make it available on a website.
Frespech’s An Augmented Artist’s e-book? is a Mind Map produced in Freeplane. He was thinking about some of the concerns or requirements of digital artist books in relation to the physical, and what artist e-books might offer the viewer/reader through varying experiences of the work, in relation to geographical location, weather conditions, the time of day or night etc. There is still a long way to go before artists can access all the tools they want in order to produce the digital editions they intend to make. As artists we also need to learn how to make good use of the technologies available. While we have been offered many new ways of working digitally, we still need to work out what we actually want to do with these tools. Do we want to use them just to try and replicate the experience of the physical book? Probably not. Yet we can use them to produce related works that bring our existing knowledge, love and experience of the physical book into the broader digital artists’ publishing arena: a place where e-paper and p-paper can sit comfortably beside each other, each with its own values and qualities. Now that is an exciting prospect.
Sarah Bodman is Senior Research Fellow for Artists’ Books / Programme Leader, MA Multidisciplinary Printmaking, Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE, Bristol.
The Transforming Artist Books research network held a series of workshops in 2012 to discuss the potential of the digital to change the understanding, appreciation and care of artist books.