Learning by the book

By Dr Caren Florance

What do photographers and poets have in common? Despite the contemporary ease of digital publishing, they both yearn for the authority of a physical book. Funnily enough, this is also the case with academics, but here we are thinking about non-traditional outputs, so I won’t go there. Photo albums are out, photobooks are in, and Print-on-Demand (PoD) services are booming as individuals and small publishers revel in the ability to print one or fifty copies without breaking the bank. I read somewhere that the most famous photobook in art history, Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, spent a lot of time boxed under his bed before they started selling, because in the old days of offset printing you had to get things printed in bulk to make them affordable, and as every poetry publisher knows, 500 copies of anything isn’t really “affordable” unless you sell them all. Boxes of books languishing under beds is another thing they have in common.

It’s impossible to describe a generic physicality for the artist book, because it can take many shapes, from the basic traditional codex to radical, sculptural forms, with myriad variants between, and can use a wide variety of materials.

Ruscha’s book is also an artist book, a book made by an artist. That’s the simplest definition among many, because there are as many kinds of artist books as there are artists. It’s impossible to describe a generic physicality for the artist book, because it can take many shapes, from the basic traditional codex to radical, sculptural forms, with myriad variants between, and can use a wide variety of materials. It is also an object that can accommodate a number of roles in its conception and production, which makes it a capacious vehicle for collaborative and cross-disciplinary non-traditional research. Artist books are also an excellent teaching tool, used by design, architecture, creative writing, and visual arts, to get students thinking about things like space, structure, narrative, time, and movement.

As an artist who works predominantly with text, I have spent a lot of time hovering in the Venn overlaps between traditional and non-traditional experimental publishing. For my practice-led doctorate, I collaborated with poets to explore ways to move their words into and through different forms, inspired by the championing of literary fluidity by Roland Barthes (‘From Work to Text’, 1977), Umberto Eco (‘The Poetics of the Open Work’, 1979), and Jerome McGann (‘The Textual Condition’, 1991). While the poets were excited about involvement with an artist book outcome, they also, ever practical, desired something that they could sell at readings.

Another common definition for an artist book is that it is the work, not a copy of an artist’s work ... each collaboration resulted in at least one original artist book, sometimes editioned, sometimes unique, and also produced a commercial poetry book that used the material from the artist book in a new, individual way.

Working actively with live poets was important to my projects because when art and poetry work together, it’s often done through ekphrasis, or with a publisher mediating the production space, which removes any chance for play between them. Another common definition for an artist book is that it is the work, not a copy of an artist’s work. I grasped Johanna Drucker’s term poetentiality and ran with it: each collaboration resulted in at least one original artist book, sometimes editioned, sometimes unique, and also produced a commercial poetry book that used the material from the artist book in a new, individual way, making it a new work, not just a reproduction of our earlier efforts.

I take this fluidity of format back to my classes, which could be categorised in their own right as interdisciplinary. The students are drawn from 2D and 3D practices – for example, photography and digital media, textiles, painting, sculpture, printmedia – as well as from the broader university. Each class is an extremely diverse group, and the book form can stretch to fit any of their interests.

The students are guided through a variety of techniques, like lo-fi zines (which they do as a group, working out a theme together) through to binding codex forms, and then they are encouraged to use the book format to extend their own particular interests. A Glass student might work with the idea of translucency, or actually make a book out of glass. An English major’s book might not be technically proficient, but their textual play might be dazzling, encouraged by the physicality of the page turn. The digital students, some of whom work with animation, rediscover that book pages can work as cels, progressing ideas through time and space. All of them respond enthusiastically to the physical making of a book, an outcome that we are traditionally hard-wired to see as an object of authority, no matter how odd its shape.

References

Barthes, Roland. 1977 (1971). “From work to text.” In Image – Music – Text, edited by Stephen Heath, 155-164. London: Fontana Press.

Umberto Eco. 1979. “The poetics of the open work.” In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, 47-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jerome J. McGann. 1991. “Introduction: Texts and textualities.” In The Textual Condition, 3-16. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


Dr Caren Florance is a typo-bibliographic artist and writer who lives and works in Canberra, Australia. Her recent practice-led doctorate from the University of Canberra (UC) explored the overlaps of visual poetry, text art and artist books through material collaboration with poets and artists. A sessional lecturer, she teaches visual art classes at the ANU School of Art & Design, and visual communications classes at UC, and she does freelance book design and layout. Her work, sometimes under the imprint Ampersand Duck, is in national and international gallery, library and private collections. You can find out more at www.carenflorance.com