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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 30, No. 1, Mar 2007

Codex Foundation Conference and Book Fair

Fine Press & Fine Art Editions “The Fate of the Art: The Hand Made Book in the 21st Century”—February 12-15, 2007—UC Berkeley

— by Larkin Higgins

Attending the very first Codex symposium + bookfair, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. At the evening opening reception, I was greeted by friendly artist book enthusiasts and given an organized folder with the event timetables. I was waved on to enjoy the flow of wine, sparkling water and conversation among artists, university and private book press owners, and special book collection representatives. The dark wood roof beams of The Berkeley Faculty Club were carved with mouths. The warm ambiance, table spread of seafood, fruit, and cheese, all made for easy introductions, re-connecting, and dialogue. The Arts and Crafts architecture seemed apropos for this occasion—A room filled with a bundle of letterpress artists who make books by hand.

Next morning, Tuesday, the symposium began with “Hybrid Lexicon: An Overview of Contemporary Artists Publishing in the UK.” Presented at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Sarah Bodman (Impact Press/Center for Fine Print Research, Bristol, UK) shared an abundance of artist books created by an extraordinary diverse group pushing the definition of book arts. These varied tremendously by process, concept, and finished “object”—from single book to room installation. Bodman edited a helpful publication, Artist’s Books Creative Production and Marketing (Impact Press), a free guidebook for book artists which can be found on University of the West of England’s website (www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk) as a free download. An updated version is due this summer.

After lunch, Felipe Ehrenberg’s “Cutting and Pasting: Metaphor of Life” lecture and “slide” show began with declaring himself a neologist, among other titles. His routes in Fluxus jive with his dictum, “books just happen to me.” Born in Mexico and former publisher of Beau Geste Press, he takes “cutting” and “stamping” literally as printing processes stemming from the body—tattooing being a form of etching. “To cut and print yourself” is “graphic performance.” Ehrenberg also described several of his complicated, book-related installations, and “throw away art offerings.” Especially impressive is his dedication to helping many in Mexico and Nicaragua to obtain, and learn to use, printing presses. He confesses his current love for Adobe computer software, printing thousands of photos for a concertina book.

Early Wednesday morning brought Stefen Soltek’s lecture “Verso Recto: Bookart as a Matter of Sidesteps.” As Director of the Klingspor Museum in Offenbach, he presented German typography manuals from circa 1902, calligraphy artwork from 1925, Dada examples of word breaks, and then raced to the early 1980s when many contemporary German artists began careers in the book arts. Soltek’s descriptive phrases like “anti-illustrative methods of the world of words”, “low tech + high tech”, “enlarging book into the room”, and “word installations,” described the examples. He culminated the talk with his definition of a book artist: “reflecting the codex as phenomenon of space and time.”

A panel followed shortly, “Seduce and Convert: Integrating the Arts of the Book in the Academic Curriculum.” Ruth Rogers (Special Collections, Wellesey College) presented a succinct (and humorous) list, “Infiltration Tactics that Work.” Madelyn Garrett (Rare Books, University of Utah) gave examples of practical uses of visiting a rare book collection as an aid in utilizing “real thing” teaching strategies. Suzy Taraba (Special Collections, Olin Library, Wesleyan University) added tips for “good financial help” such as Friends of the Library and then shared “The Library Project” website in which the “Old Books, New Pedagogies” exhibit is archived.

Following a taco lunch, I entered the book fair. Throughout the symposium various definitions for “artist’s books” were declared—the pleasure was physically witnessing such a spectrum: limited edition books and one or two-of-a-kind; bound pages or three dimensional objects; hand letterpress with metal type to designed computerized typography; large fine art press photography books (portfolio-like), to tiny circular hand-cut and folded accordion books (brush painted). And countless more versions.

Book artists from countries such as Colombia, Italy, Russia, France, Mexico, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Israel, and Australia participated in displaying and explaining their work at the table-filled ASUC Pauley Ballroom on the Berkeley campus. I counted 27 U.S. states represented by book artists and fine art presses on the registration roster. This number doesn’t include representatives of university library book collections or private collectors who attended. Impressive—to have artists, poets, press-publishers, book binding and paper suppliers, typography kits/software, and library reps and collectors who actually have a budget to purchase artist’s books. Very gratifying to have all the book arts components together at the same event! (Of course, one person often wears more than one hat.)

I confess, I missed the Thursday panel on “The Fate of the Art: Raising the Bar.” Since it was a last minute funding decision to attend the symposium, hotel rooms were scarce. I had to agree to move from one location to another (repack, check out, check in, unpack) three of the mornings. Before repacking on Thursday, I raced to the UC Berkeley Art Museum for Robert Bringhurst’s early morning talk, “Spiritual Geometry: the Book as a Work of Art.” Delivered eloquently. His close-up visual—two snails, side-by-side, on a flower pot—only a master of language could weave these two creatures, the spiral, golden mean, philosophy, architecture, the book, puzzlement, and “beauty” with skillful, fluid resonance. Excellent.

So on to the book fair for my second entire afternoon in the huge room filled with tables of books and book objects. To any bibliophile, a paradise. Except, impossible to look at and “read” every book in the allotted time. My only regret was not being able to visit all the tables and give each work the attention it deserved.

By dinner time on the last day, vision and minds were saturated from seeing book after exceptional book object. We gathered blurry-eyed at The Berkeley Faculty Club for the closing banquet. Our meal tickets were hand letter-pressed by Peter Koch Printers. If the entire book fair wasn’t convincing enough to prove the current viability of the “hand made” book with its multiple interpretations, the tiny letter-pressed meal ticket (which made it to our pockets as a souvenir) was a symbol of the aliveness of the “hand made” page. A favorite Codex scene: witnessing an entire table of dinner guests, artists and collectors, stroking their paper dinner tickets with their thumbs for the pleasurable evidence of handset metal type—a deep imprint.

Larkin Higgins is an artist, writer, and educator living in Los Angeles.

And from Bill Stewart of Vamp & Tramp:

As far as we could tell, Codex was a great success. By that, I mean that the general buzz – the spirit – the zeitgeist – was intense, positive, inspiring. In the room where the book fair was held, it felt like a family gathering – a big, happy family gathering.

The organizers reported that all the 200 conference spaces (limited by the auditorium size) were filled, and that the 100 spaces for exhibitors were fully subscribed. I don’t know how many extra tickets they sold to the Book Fair, but we saw many, many people – mostly Bay Area book artists and printers – during the Book Fair who I’m pretty sure didn’t attend the full conference.

The future success of the Codex will, I think, rest on whether the presses and artists from overseas were able to sell enough to warrant their coming back. My sense was that the presence of these non-US people greatly added to the positive frisson. It certainly did for me even though I wasn’t able to get to them to see their work or introduce myself/Vamp & Tramp.

We were busy continuously busy during the Book Fair. So busy, that we didn’t get a chance to break away to see many of the other exhibitors – and the room was packed. That’s the only minus side to our experience – that we didn’t have time to get around to everyone one we wanted to see.

Busy for us at this type of fair means that we were busy talking and showing and educating. Most of our customers are institutions and they – if they were there – know that we will visit soon or have visited in the recent past, and will drop by to say hello and move on. So for us, sales at Codex – as at Pyramid Atlantic – are minimal.

All in all, it was a great experience. High, high praise should go to Peter and Susan – and the volunteers – who did the work. I’m sure there were snags, but as far as I know they were in the minority.