What is the Art of the Book?an introductory essay by Susan Warner Keene
It has been many years since the book ceased to reign supreme as purveyor of information and preserver of text. Today schools do not necessarily assign basic textbooks for courses; libraries looking for space for other formats of information storage are reducing their allotment for books. The dissemination of text over electronic networks is faster and cheaper than even automated mass book production can achieve. As more and more of us have the capability to become part of the network, not only can we have access to texts in abundance, but we can also become virtually published authors ourselves.
Yet interest in the making of actual books continues to grow, as the exhibition The Art of the Book '98 testifies. Perhaps the apparent democratization of access to publication that the computer enables has helped to fuel the current burst of interest in the handmade book. Certainly the availabilty of technologies for high quality photocopying and transfers, page layout, manipulation of imagery, and laser printing places the elements of bookmaking within the reach of almost anyone.
But do the results of such samizdat bookmaking have anything to do with the exquisitely wrought books produced by professional design binders, whose understanding of materials and techniques of construction is based on years of personal commitment and centuries of tradition?
Both approaches are represented in The Art of the Book '98. The fact that this exhibition allows for such juxtapositions to occur demonstrates the organizers' willingness to invite a broad interpretation of the art of the book and to raise fascinating questions about what the book means in the context of this so-called information age.
It is customary in juried exhibitions of this kind to establish categories for entries. The fastest growing of these, Artists' Books, frequently causes puzzlement. Is an artist's book a volume containing examples of the artist's work? Is it a book conceived by an artist but carried out by a skilled bookbinder? Is it a work conceived and carried out by an artist dealing with book-related ideas, possibly for the first time? These and other variations are all possible. They are usually set apart from the category Fine Binding which highlights the considerable range of skills and experience required to produce an outstanding interpretitive structure to house a particular text.
While it is no doubt right and proper to acknowledge the differences between these categories of endeavour, the fact is that all of these objects can be viewed as artist's books. In an environment in which information is ubiquitous, malleable, and of variable form, handmade books can aspire to be personal, sensuous, surprising, challenging, or moving. When successful, they blend text and form in an intimate experience of which reading is only a part, thus engaging a reader in a complex range of responses. In this sense, they are artistic: they invoke values that extend far beyond the useful task of making a text available to be read.
In this exhibition the principal difference between the books in the Fine Binding and Artists' Book categories appears to be the emphasis, in the former, on the traditional codex form interpreted through sophisticated materials and refined structures and, in the latter, on exploring more personal formats, using less technically demanding materials and techniques and frequently incorporating found materials. Makers of both kinds of books, however, insist upon the presence of the book as object, whether by means of qualities of materials, ingenuity of folds, fluidity of turning covers and leaves, impression of type in handmade paper, or juxtaposition of letter-form, text, and illustration.
Dawn Skinner's Point of the Graver and Hélène Francoeur's Endgrain, are award winners in the Fine Binding category. In both books, contrasting textures of leather and paper present a succession of sensations to the fingertips as well as to the eye, as the book, in traditional codex form, is withdrawn from its box, covers opened, and pages turned. In the Artists' Book category, Claire Van Vliet's Tumbling Blocks is a palm-sized version of a child's alphabet book in which ingenious folding attaches each successive letter page to the previous one by a different edge. Reading the book requires that the pages tumble in the hand rather than turn predictably. While the eye searches out the narrative, "A,B,C...," the fingers discover how to keep the block tumbling, enacting the learning of a sequence that is critical to the purpose of alphabet books.
Both approaches are predicated on the overwhelming importance of physical interaction between book and reader.
This desire to provide an intimate, personal encounter with language and image is evident in small books in which individuals give form to a poem, a diary, or short narrative. Good examples in this exhibition are Emily Martin's pop-up books about personal growth, Peggy Heigold Strong's accordion-fold book Waiting for Frogs, in which she records her springtime vigil, and Lise Melhorn-Boe's exasperated tunnel book about wifely submission, A Good Wife Wouldn't....
Such individual products, in which the artist creates text, imagery, and structure are at odds with the European tradition of fine bookbinding, which employed the skills of several people. Although in this exhibition we do not see work from truly traditional workshops, collaboration is very much in evidence as a contemporary practice. In Kafka - An Ancient Manuscript, William Rueter's typography and Don Taylor's paste paper illustrations work perfectly together to portray the narrator's deteriorating state of mind.
Bookbinder Jacques Fournier collaborated with visual artist Sylvia Safdie and writer Denise Desautels to create La passion du sens, an interpretation of a short text by Desautels. This elegant, simple, yet intriguing work embodies key qualities that promise a long life for the art of the book. Materials deployed with skill and ingenuity transform reading the text into an experience as delicate, nuanced, and shifting as the words themselves. Colour, texture, translucency, reflection, weight -- all come into play; the movement of the reader's head and hands, as well as eyes, uncover meanings in the text and give them form.
This work succeeds because of the artists' completeness of vision, their understanding of the interpenetrating realms of visual, intellectual, and sensory experience, and their skill in manipulating materials to give them shape.
These are the strengths of the book arts as a medium for expression. At a time when information is described as just another commodity to be manipulated and managed for profit, those who practice the art of the book possess the means to inform the reading experience with passion and imagination.