Transforming Artists’ Books:
What Do You Want to Make Today?
Transforming Artists’ Books Research Articles: A research network exploring digital transformations in the creation and reception of artist books
February – August, 2012
(Published online) 22nd August, 2013
Artists have always had a fluid relationship with books and evolving technology. For Sarah Bodman the future is full of possibility for the artist book, but questions remain about how the physical and the digital might co-exist.
Artist books are strange beasts. In terms of form they are currently flitting between paper-based and digital platforms, or as the writer and artist Radoslaw Nowakowski has put it, between ‘p-paper and e-paper’.[i] In terms of content they explore a vast range of ideas and subjects, from social commentaries to self-reflexive critiques about what they mean in the digital age.
Since the Centre for Fine Print Research’s AHRC-funded project was completed in 2010, the field has moved swiftly following the development of iPads and other tablets, while artists and commentators continue to debate what an artist book can be, or even should be, today.[ii]
Artists are continuing to produce dynamic and fluid works of art in and around the book, whether these are one-off, hand-produced works, paper-based books, print-on-demand, free downloads, or other digital formats such as e-publications or online video works. What has changed is the amount and availability of digital software that can be used to make and view books, such as Book Creator applications, and the renewed interest in paper-based productions that has arisen from a desire to defy the limitations of the increasingly mainstream outputs of e-publishing. These are interesting times in the history of the book and the artist book.
Artists have always used modern technologies to make new artworks, from lithography to photocopiers, Polaroid film to screenprinting, typewriters to letterpress. So the fact that artists are using digital tools to make book works that might be experienced through screen-based media – including iPads, tablets, phones and computers – should not come as much of a surprise.
Having said that, artists do also still like working with paper, and the main argument against using digital tools is that they work against the physical. Just as the mainstream and small publishers mentioned above are looking at ways to present the physical book, so are established and younger generations of artists. Many artists create handmade books because they have an inherent desire to produce physical artworks, whether these are unique editions or sculptural books (such as Fred Rinne’s hand-painted books, The Caseroom Press’s Fairy Tale, Robert The’s Book Guns, Su Blackwell’s cut books, Reassemble’s Never The Same Book Twice), or small editions (such as Ann Tyler’s Souvenirs, Tim Mosely’s Make Like An Eskimo, Clemens-Tobias Lange’s Ghiacciature I, Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison’s bookworks, Otto’s screenprinted books, Dmitry Sayenko’s 'medieval’ books, Ampersand Duck’s letterpress books), or experimental books and publishing (such as Seekers of Lice, Information as Material, Sharon Kivland, Sara Ranchouse, LemonMelon). This list could go on, but it is safe to assume that paper-based books are not going to disappear any time soon.
As artists we also need to learn how to make good use of the technologies available. While we have been offered many new ways of working digitally, we still need to work out what we actually want to do with these tools. Do we want to use them just to try and replicate the experience of the physical book? Probably not. Yet we can use them to produce related works that bring our existing knowledge, love and experience of the physical book into the broader digital artists’ publishing arena: a place where e-paper and p-paper can sit comfortably beside each other, each with its own values and qualities. Now that is an exciting prospect.
[i] Radoslaw Nowakowski’s hypertext book END OF THE WORLD according to EMERYK is a ‘hasarapasa hypertext tale about what may happen one hot summer’s day in a few or in a dozen of years when p-paper is finally replaced with e-paper’. See http://www.liberatorium.com/emeryk/emeryk.html, accessed 18 April 2013.
[ii] The AHRC-funded project was concerned with the following question: in an arena that now includes both digital and traditionally produced artists’ books, what will constitute the concepts of artists’ publishing in the future? The published outputs from the project, including A Manifesto for the Book, are all available as free downloads from the project’s homepage http://www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk/canon.htm, accessed 18 April 2013. For ongoing debates see http://artistbooks.ning.com/group/21stcenturybook, accessed 18 April 2013.
Sarah Bodman is Senior Research Fellow for Artists’ Books / Programme Leader, MA Multidisciplinary Printmaking, Centre for Fine Print Research, UWE, Bristol.
The Transforming Artist Books research network held a series of workshops in 2012 to discuss the potential of the digital to change the understanding, appreciation and care of artist books.