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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 29, No. 1, Mar 2006

Book Art & Web Art: A Forum

New Configurations

Since the 1960s, print media has been crucial to artists who want to find new ways to distribute their work and reach new audiences. Frequently such goals have been accompanied by ideological and political objectives: to get outside of elitist art world institutions and to express ideas that were not supported by their market driven agendas. And yet, what has made artists’ books and magazines compelling alternatives to the art world establishment is not only their content but their form. The homegrown, low-fidelity look of many artists publications may have stemmed in part from financial constraints, however it also symbolized the grassroots ethos and anti-commercialism that they stood for. An analogous phenomenon can be found in the rawness of the alternative exhibition space, which cultivated the roughhewn look not only due to a lack of funding for renovation, but because this ‘unfinish’ opposed the polish of the uptown white cube. Likewise, the aesthetic of cheap Xeroxed pages or newsprint or courier font was set in opposition to the glossiness of the commercialized art press.

With the onset of the internet as a new space for alternative media, how will the visual signifiers of printed matter be translated into cyberspace? How will the materiality so important to our experience of reading manifest itself online? These are not new questions, and the answers that have been offered generally either celebrate the dematerialization of printed matter or mourn its loss: the end of the book or its relegation to the status of a precious (and hence unfunctional) object.

I would like to offer a third way to think about what happens when books and magazines are distributed online. While acknowledging the radical shift represented by the medium of the internet, I also want to highlight the continuities between the realms of printed matter and digital information. The book, after all, has always been a combination of physical and virtual worlds. Like its sister technology, one point perspective, the printing press made possible the representation of time and depth on a two-dimensional surface. Just as books did not displace or replace our “real” experiences of space and time, cyberspace is not likely to supplant our experience of printed matter. A more probable scenario will involve new configurations between the three: print, cyberspace, and the real world.

— Gwen Allen
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
Maine College of Art


Page And Screen

A book shows signs of its use. Its destiny is to wear out and die like a living thing. But while ‘digital’ forms tethered to their codes and technology can become obsolete, their fate is not to age, but to circulate, merge and disappear into memory, or the desktop trash. To enable storage and transmission, digital alchemy reduces images, sounds and texts to the same oscillating material state. It is off or on, nothing or something. Whatever they may come to mean, print artifacts like drawings, photos, maps, and books are tangible in ways the electronic image is not. Because they are collectible, transportable and transformable without the aid of a mediating device other than the hand, they can be inserted into new public and private circumstances: Picture the movement of the same image or text from bedroom wall to office desk to lamppost to scrapbook to envelope to bulletin board to toilet stall and so on. What does it retain and what does it lose as it assimilates and characterizes its changing circumstances?

Reliant on common software and transmission procedures, digital presentations are defined by the relationship of text and image fragments on the screen, and unseen but accessible locations in virtual space. The graphic collage conventions utilized in a typical web screen design—icons, buttons, word and image links, menus, floating windows, scrolling fields—may simulate a coherent plane of navigable details, but reading them as stable and transparent requires a suspension of disbelief: a leap of faith. If a mouse click brings these narrative tools and worlds into play and another can as easily make them disappear, a sense of omnipotence must deflect the fundamental instability of the scheme. What you see and manipulate is light on a screen. The program can crash, the file be corrupted, the power fail. The skittish screen cursor—an essential surrogate for the hand extended by the mouse—points to and mimes intentions. In contrast, the pushpin, without hesitation, nails documents to the wall; the staple holds them in a stack; and the book with its glued spine, weight and heft lends support, if not stature, to the other books on the shelf.

Where does the screen’s presentation arrive from and where does it go? Held together by a vision of multivalent connection, a magical feed to and from a collective source, internet speech, commerce and knowledge is just there—no less insistent in its need for attention for being virtual and immanent. Ask yourself: The next time you are reading a scrolling, digitized text on screen, what is holding it together materially and conceptually, if not past experience with the rituals, codes and aura of the codex book?

Is that a pop-up window, or a message from God?

— Paul Zelevansky, February 2006


To state the obvious, both books and web sites share content in terms of text and image.

To state what is even more obvious, an instruction book intended to be a guide for the assembly of a bicycle is not art. It stands to reason, that a web site with the same intention is also not art.

Even when the instruction book is well written, beautifully illustrated and elegantly bound it is still not art. It is an example of excellence in craftsmanship.

The same may be said of a beautifully designed web site; excellence in design and programming.

Now, if an artist wished to use the subject of bicycle assembly, complete with text and images, in an object intended to be a piece of art, then art it is.

The same is true of the analogous web site.

The key difference in both cases between what is art and what is merely functional communication is intention.

Therefore, in both books and websites, even a poorly executed work created with the intention of being art, is art. It may be poor art, but it is art nonetheless. Beautifully crafted pieces intended to be nothing more than an object of some functional utility are what they purport to be, which is not art.

In one sense it is unfair to judge work, either books or web sites, as art that is not intended to be art. Even superb craftsmanship that was not created as art should not be subjected to the rigorous definitions of art. And, conversely, work created with the intention of being art, ought to be judged as art.

Furthermore, a book containing representations of art, is not necessarily art itself. It is a book about art. The same applies to a web site that contains representations of art. To call such objects art would be identical to designating a print bin as art simply because it contains art. The map is not the territory and the container is not the contents.

No doubt a book with trivial content could be regarded as an example of the art of making a book. This must also be true of web sites, but it is difficult to ascertain the same distinction as that between the arts of content and binding in the difference between a web site’s content and the craft of creating a web site. I say this as someone who has been involved both as a book artist and as web designer and programmer.

There is a case to be made that web content, including image, sound and text could become the engine that will redefine what a poem is, much as writing and the printing press redefined the nature of a poem in previous times.

The idea that a web site is a form of book art does not savage the concept of book or art, it savages the usage of language. For example, when film became defined as an art form, no one felt it necessary redefine film as a form of book art.

But the use of language does depend on the idea that we agree to allow a word to mean a specific thing, or definition. Otherwise, if a word means whatever we want it to mean (with apologies to Humpty Dumpty), then that word is essentially meaningless.

It seems far easier to call books books and web sites web sites, whether they are intended, or not intended, to be art.

— Michael Andrews, 2006


In Defense of Computers

Artist books created with a computer are less respected than those generated by more traditional methods such as letterpress. Photographs printed on inkjet printers are dismissed as inferior to traditional darkroom prints. A real print maker would never scan their work for digital manipulation. Believe it or not, these are all statements that I have heard from other artists. I don’t get this kind of response for collectors or buyers, but from artists themselves. We seem to have reached a point of technological snobbery in our book arts world.

I’ve been musing lately about why these technological generations of artists can’t all just get along. There seems to be this underlying tension and lack of respect between artists who use computers and those who don’t. The computer is just another tool at the disposal of the artist. The computer, the darkroom and the letterpress all require certain skills, technical knowledge and practice to be done well. A well-designed page printed on an inkjet printer is much preferable to a poorly designed page printed on a letterpress.

At times this tension between artists is palpable. Recently one photographer was “deeply offended” when I suggested in a lecture that photographers were “resistant” to switching to digital. I remember a meeting once where a book artist told me that my books would be better if I used letterpress printing instead of inkjet for the text. One of my students recently asked me if the quality of the inkjet type in my books bothered me, again implying inferiority.

Photographers these days are especially feeling this anxiety. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the skill and craftsmanship required to make a good print in the darkroom. I’m cheering for my photographer friends who are “resistant” to giving up their darkrooms. And to them I say bravo, go your own road, do whatever makes you happy. But please, don’t look down on those of us who have made the transition to digital.

What this all boils down to for me is one question: Can’t we all just play in the same sandbox and get along? Let’s respect, appreciate and celebrate each others artistic visions and be less concerned with the technology behind the page. Whether the image was made with a traditional process and equipment or modern technology doesn’t matter. The final image and how it portrays the artist’s vision, heart and soul are the important part.

Whatever our artistic passions, we are all the same, really, we are just aching for the days when we worked with our hands. Our minds are active as we sit in front of our computers all day, but our hands are not active anymore. In fact, I think that in the near future we will see a booming growth as artists discover the book arts as a way to use their hands, touch things again and escape the digital frontier.

So, let’s stop the technological snobbery. We can all play in the sand box happily together if we understand that we are all just looking for ways to satisfy our souls by using our hands. I may want to use a bucket and you may want to use a shovel, but we can both build beautiful sand castles. Let’s start admiring each other’s castles and not worry so much about the shovels.

— Laura Russell


Material as Metaphor in Chicago

by Richard Minsky

Paper can be made from and into many things, and when used for prints and books can be much more than a substrate. The proof of this was recently at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, in an exhibition that ended March 11 titled Politics On Paper: Global Tragedies/Personal Perils.

I am partial not only to the three artists in this show, but to the use of art to raise political and social awareness, and to the choice of materials that support the content of the work. All three have a global perspective and have traveled extensively.

John Risseuw has been working in this genre for over three decades. You may recall his 1973 book, The Politics of Underwear. He still publishes under the imprint of Cabbagehead Press. On exhibit was his current powerful work on the global issue of land mines. It is a series of prints documenting the numbers and sources of the 100 million mines currently endangering the people in 62 countries, printed on paper made from the clothing of land mine victims. The scale of this disaster is staggering, and this work certainly raised my consciousness of it. Proceeds from the purchase of these prints will benefit landmine victims’ assistance organizations. Go to his website, see the prints, and read all about it.

Wood bobbin, spun printed handmade paper

Robbin Ami Silverberg
The only skill that women have, is turning the spinning wheel. (Hebrew, Israel)
Wood bobbin, spun printed handmade paper.
17.7 cm. h. x 8.7 cm. diam.

Dr. Eric Avery’s works in this show focus on AIDS, and vary in scale from huge compelling linoleum prints to a small letterpress book for which he made the paper, which included pulped cotton clothes from AIDS orphans. The book, Hurry Up Help Me Africa is Dying, was printed in 2003 by Mark Attwood, The Artists’ Press, White River, South Africa, in an edition of 100 copies. A good web page to start at is his prints listed by themes.

Robbin Ami Silverberg exhibited works that expressed traditional societal views of the role of women. A wide variety of objects, all made with handmade paper, showed her virutuosic handling of both the medium and the message. My favorites were a series of large wooden bobbins, each labeled with an aphorism of a different culture. The “thread” on each bobbin is spun from handmade paper printed with text. Is the text that of the homily on the label, the entire set of phrases, or some other content? We won’t know, because the spinning has hidden this woman’s words.