Bookishness: A Conversation on Bay Area Book ArtsJanuary 16, 2012
The following is an abridged version of a conversation between Art Practical contributor Chelsea Wong and Jaye Fishel and Nance O’Banion that took place on December 7, 2011. Jaye Fishel is a book artist, letterpress printer, and librarian. She is currently working on a letterpress edition book. Nance O’Banion is the chair of the Printmaking Department at California College of Arts. As a book artist, she is currently working on her ongoing Tablet Project, a bookworks series that includes over five hundred wood tablets (and counting).
From their unique perspective as book artists, they contemplate the definition of the book, the development of digital artist’s books, the endurance of the handmade, and how the art of making books intersects with other art-making modalities. Their conversation explores the relationship between the act of bookmaking and archiving or historicizing ideas, inquiring into how the book object can affect the ways we communicate and the things we choose to say.
Chelsea Wong: When I think about book arts, I conjure ideas about bookbinding, book objects, and conservation techniques. Since it’s such a broad and experimental art form, what are the essential elements in the definition of a book?
Nance O’Banion: One can look at bookmaking in terms of paper-making, bookbinding, letterpress, or printmaking—these are all ingredients that add up to bookmaking. Yet, a bookwork can also be a sculpture and doesn’t necessarily have to have a classic codex structure with a cover, back, spine, and guts in between.
Jaye Fishel: The essential elements of book arts are limitless. The material, the structure could be almost anything. It could be totally involved in traditional bookishness or totally devoid of bookishness. Bookmaking denotes making a book of some kind, but artists' books could involve making an array of things from a book to a very tangentially book-related object. The livre d'artiste book is much more grounded in the classical codex form.
NOB: In Betty Bright’s book No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960–1980 (Granary Books, 2005) she mentions books embodying space, book assemblage, and readymade appropriation in regard to deluxe books.
If we look at books in a pared-down way, a book to me always tells a story. Whether it’s something abstract or something concrete—something that’s visual, verbal, or a combination of those things—a book is a time-based medium. It’s interactive and involves sequence. The time-based aspect is different than when looking at a painting; the storyline gets revealed through an extended experience over time in some kind of narrative.
JF: It’s something about sequence, something about the codex (if it follows that structure), something about being self-conscious about bookishness, even if it’s not necessarily a book. In Johanna Drucker’s California Rare Book School, we defined artist’s books over and over again, and our baseline definition was that there are no rules, that it encompasses so many different things. It’s a book if someone says it’s a book.
CW: I’m interested in the multiplicity aspect of books and how they can be vessels to pass along information. What relationship do book objects have to recording and disseminating history, to that narrative?
JF: A well-crafted artist’s book communicates through its form as much as through its content, as a holistic object. The popularity of books completely changed the way people existed because they had always been read to. One could say that books literally changed the chemistry of the brain and how people thought of things.
NOB: In The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Vintage Books, 1998) Frank Wilson discusses how the evolution of the hand and language are connected. I find it really fascinating how developing the hand and opposable thumb enabled our ability to record history. Something that’s handmade is inherently a mode of communication. All art is a form of communication.
The materiality of the book, too, not just the story that might be printed on the page. I have a strong belief that everything we do is autobiographical—I don’t mean autobiographic in terms of just the personal sense of it, but a story of a time and a place, as well as of the maker. If you think about the book as being autobiographical, it becomes an archive, a resource for looking at over time. What does it say about the people and place? And what was going on at the time it was made?
In terms of art as a form of communication, we receive it through all of the senses—it’s not just necessarily the eye looking and reading images or text. There are certain things that can be said with a book sculpture that can’t be said with a codex. They’re different, and the artist has that choice and perhaps might choose to do it online.
CW: Online culture revels in immediacy, yet physical books tend to take a slower approach. How might new technology and online publications affect book arts?
JF: We’re beginning to see a rise in the digital artist’s book. It’s especially interesting for me, as someone who is particularly interested in physical objects.
NOB: One great example of a digital artist’s book is Michael Henninger’s Hand Book (2007). It’s a book that is accessible online but is also a handmade book. I'm part of this book group that includes [book artist, writer, and curator] Betsy Davids and Julie Chen [of Flying Fish Books], among others, who all teach book arts in the Bay Area. One day Michael said, “Can I take pictures of your hands?” So he took digital photos of our hands and made it into a book online.
CW: Did the book cost any money?
NOB: No, it’s free. You print it out yourself and get a beautiful book. It’s in the air electronically, and then you put it together from something that’s out there and available. I don’t think the crafted, well-made book is going to go away just because there are online books.
JF: Conceptually, Hand Book also pays homage to craftiness and the hand. It’s about the juxtaposition of taking the book into a digital realm while also honoring the hand.
CW: The online circulation of Hand Book seems to emphasize the original purpose, creating something that’s accessible. Yet, despite content being available online for free, people still crave the handmade object. What are your thoughts on the idea of
CW (cont.): books as fetishized objects? Artists' books are examples of how an object can be transformed through the work of the hand. Is there an inherent power gained by making handmade objects?
NOB: This notion really goes back to the idea of the evolution of the hand in connection to communication and language. There’s something really basic and almost primitive about holding something. It’s an intimate feeling and in the purest form of a book—it’s a very intimate object. It’s a private experience.
Historically, early readings were public, but fairly quickly they evolved into something that was much more private and silent. We relish this intimacy in an age where there’s so much information out there in a public arena. It becomes an antidote to that experience and fetishizes it in a way, too.
JF: I read a fantastic essay about the rise of books, and how they were spread throughout the masses. It was a revelatory thing for people to be silent readers, but it’s in human nature for people to crave physical contact. There is physicality to books—they have weight and physical presence; they have pacing; they're experiential.
A computer screen isn't that dynamic. There might be the architecture within something on the screen, it might be very intricate and interesting, but you're interacting with fixed elements—a mouse, a keyboard, and a monitor. But the way you physically move through a book, the experience changes and it’s much more dynamic. Though they’re definitely connected as a means of communication, they're so separate in this other way.
NOB: There’s an interesting book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011), by Nicholas Carr, that talks about how the computer has altered our brains and how we can only understand things on a certain level. It makes the artists' book, the book arts, more relevant as an opposite kind of activity, where you could spend much more time looking at a book and appreciating it on multisensory levels. If we think about printmaking as a multiple, digital books seem to be a different kind of multiple. We also have books that are much more rarefied and personal and intimate—a one-of-a-kind book or maybe a limited edition book of something very small that makes all those possibilities really dynamic.
I don’t want to say that an online book isn’t necessarily a dynamic book because we started out the conversation with the premise that if you think it’s a book, it’s a book. To me, I really like playing with a full deck of cards so it’s just one of the possibilities, even if it’s different. Like Hand Book, I love the idea that you can produce something that’s accessible to a lot of people.
CW: In some ways, online culture is the infinite multiple because it makes content accessible anywhere. It’s really great for passing along information, yet there’s also something unique about holding a book in your hands. Printmaking is important for my bookmaking practice because I’m able to create multiples. When I think about books traveling and being shared by people it relates back to this notion of passing along history or passing along an idea.
NOB: I love the multiple in terms of public art versus private art. The editions that I've done with Julie Chen are fairly big editions, and a lot of different libraries and museums have them. The idea that a public library could have a work that’s a multiple is fantastic because then it really opens its activity to a large number of people instead of just the private, intimate side.
Historically, book arts and printmaking have an interesting relationship, which clearly remains in a contemporary context. Printmaking is very broadly defined these days. There are so many ways to create multiplicity, including digitally or through Xerox. It’s not necessarily letterpress or lithography, although all of those traditional printmaking techniques have definitely been used historically in making books. That’s the goal of different forms of multiples and printmaking—you can create work that’s fairly inexpensive.
JF: Though multiples are part of my practice as a letterpress printer, it’s not necessary to the bookmaking process. The relationship between the two makes me think about the 1960s’ return to books, a movement that was all about the democratic multiple as a way to get art out of the galleries and into the streets and in people’s hands.
NOB: I have a ton of students who are doing just that: reacting to Occupy Oakland, Occupy San Francisco, and they’re making zines like crazy. They’re doing it through Xerox, screen print, down and dirty stuff; they’re utilizing whatever they’ve got going. It’s very interesting and very lively right now.
One of the early reasons for the Arts and Crafts movement that William Morris and the gang came up with was sort of withdrawing from a capitalist society to try to have a more authentic personal lifestyle. It’s happening again now. I've come through two phases of the crafts movement—not the first craft phase with the Arts and Crafts movement, but the phase in the ’60s.
It’s important that [the book] is not a rarefied object; it can be, but I think sometimes people think of book arts, bookmaking, and the artist’s book as being something that needs to be in a case and locked up and not touched. The down and dirty side of it is really still alive and well.
JF: It’s a shame that artists' books aren’t seen as much [as other artwork]—it’s not something that you can walk into every gallery and see on a wall. Most people aren’t walking into a library and saying I'd like to see this [artist’s] book, I'm going to look at it at this table, and this will be my art scene experience, which is something I’d like to see changed. I’d love to see people get to know book objects and realize that it’s something that anyone can do. You can fold up a piece of paper and that can be your book arts project.
CW: I like the idea that anyone can be a bookmaker and anyone can make a book.
NOB: What is it about craft that makes people so empowered? There’s something about controlling your environment. Having something that you’ve made yourself is very satisfying because it’s something you can control when there’s so little to control in the world around us.
I have a friend, Karen Sjoholm, who flies a lot. She always takes materials with her and will make a book on the plane. And her seatmate gets to make a book with her. People go away in the end having had this trip where they made a little book. Anybody can make a book.
We’re at such an exciting point again where there is a full range of possibilities. You can have something that’s really private and only for you, or something that’s out there in an international, multidisciplinary kind of fashion. It’s hard to define the book because the branch is so huge right now.
Nance O'Banion is internationally known for her work in textiles, papermaking, and book arts. For more than thirty years she has had solo exhibitions in the United States, Denmark, Japan, and Italy, as well as group shows in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In addition to her work as an artist and professor at CCA (she has taught there since 1974), Nance has taught courses and workshops throughout the United States, Europe, and Canada. Her courses, like her art, reflect a multimedia, interdisciplinary, and often collaborative approach to creativity.
Jaye Fishel is a seasoned letterpress printer, working and living in the Bay Area of California.