Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hunger for the “Altogether Here” as Found in the Book as Sensorium

Pyramid Atlantic’s 10th biennial book arts fair held November 8-9 in Silver Spring, Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.), provided the best mix out of the book fairs that I visited in the last year. Artists showed work in both letterpress and offset-printed books. I was curious to see how this mix would work considering the organizing theme of this year’s gathering, “Society and Sensoria: Books at the Speed of the Senses.” As a confirmed generalist (for me it’s about the quality of the experience, the memorability of the work, not about a particular medium or approach) I was also curious to hear the speakers address the theme, which attested to the upswing in interest in the book’s haptic properties that entreat and entrance viewers. And in the back of my mind I was wondering how much letterpress would play a role—primarily it was in evidence at the Fair more than the conference. That’s not to say that the speakers didn’t offer food for thought for all book artists.

In particular, Jana Harper’s talk, “From the Dérive to the Digital,” was mesmerizing. Harper is a Senior Lecturer in Book Arts at Washington University in Saint Louis. When I think sensoria, I think of the human sensory apparatus and the book’s embodiment of those touchstones of sound, sight, smell, the haptic, of course, with movement and the integration of multiple frames of reference and experience into a time-space interaction, heightened by an emotional resonance that emerges from a cumulative paged experience. Harper focused her comments on touch and time and breath, and pacing—in its multiple meanings.

She related walking to reading in pace and rhythm, and then she explored how that relationship affects our experience and perception of an artist’s book—such as in the books of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton—above, you see an offset lithograph from Fulton’s Seven Winds (from Fourteen Works), 1982-1989. Harper interspersed brief videos of her bipedal movement (the camera directed down toward her feet, walking), and compared her progress through a landscape with paged reading, to emphasize how both unfold through time. She examined a number of books in the Urban Books Collection at Washington University, to illustrate her observation that the mind, and our feet while walking, move at roughly the same pace, at 3 miles per. hour, evidently. She added that the poet Wendell Berry suggested that the faster one goes while engaged in any activity (not just walking, but reading, we might suppose), the greater the strain that is exerted on the body, on one’s system. The suggestiveness of the affective power exerted by a book-based experience is clear, as well as Harper’s interest in the gap between the mind and the body in other daily endeavors, when the body does not caught up with the mind. The book appears to offer the ideal union of body and mind, as suggested by phrase coined by Berry, the “altogether here.”

Harper followed her topic into other byways. One comment was that her students, net-savvy every one, move through the world differently than she does. Even the architecture students are more comfortable talking theory or surfing the web than taking a walk and recording that walk through their body’s response. Harper said, “it freaks them out.”

If it is true that our bodies have become the new frontier to be feared and longed-for, the new Beyond, then the students who are turning to books today, and (to bring this back to my focus) to letterpress printing in particular, those students comprise our seekers wishing to return to themselves. St. Paul printer Paulette Myers-Rich shared a frustration with me that sometimes afflicts her while teaching. I had asked her how she would define craft to a student. She spoke at first of some of her students’ divorce from the physical that has to be dealt with before discussions of craft have relevance. “What do I say to those who barely can handle a ruler or need safety scissors the first semester, who call the human body ‘meatware,’ who are so removed from physical objects in space and are living in a world of screen-based mediated experience, that to make things, to handle things, is just as valuable to their thinking as reading Descartes?”

Clearly, Harper and Myers-Rich are confronting the same loss that is leaving this rising generation hungry for experiences in three dimensions that realign them with body time. In the discussion period that followed Harper’s talk (where she was joined by other presenters Chris Burnett and Tate Shaw), Ward Tietz suggested that perhaps what he called the cultural distribution may be changing, in that the dominant visual culture is being slowed down to a more humane pace or rhythm, as part of a sensorial shift, as opposed to the “imperative of speed.” I think this may be wishful thinking regarding a change in the mediascape we all move through, but I agree that the rising interest in letterpress and book art in general demonstrates that the haptically disaffected see in the book a haven and a fundamental means for realigning mind with body.


  1. How true. I think of my beloved stepson who is dissmissive of anything that has to be done by hand, from mending something to picking up an actual telephone. A large proportion of his interaction exists only on-line, and this is combined with a complete lack of dexterity or indeed interest in being dextrous. Whether the turn towards automation in everything is the cause or a symptom of his lack of manual skills I don't know. He views my interest in the handmade as an amusing aberration.

  2. Your comment touches on both the implosion of a present-moment experience of time (from multi-tasking) and the accompanying loss of reflection, as well as the disconnection from the physical when "face time" devolves into thumb-driven texting. As a writer I struggle with that loss of mind-body connection that is a daily gift in much of artmaking.

    How great a leap is it for younger artists to turn to a slower tempo, a moment-by-moment response that is at the heart of some arts or crafts, including letterpress? I continue to be stunned at how quickly and how far technology has altered the mind-bodyscape. Younger artists have to learn their own sense of the dextrous, as you note.

    In fact, this next generation may have to reinvent the sensual altogether, because they are coming to it from such a different, disconnected realm than even the tv generation that I grew up in. I caught the end of an interview on the Today Show, and I think I have a sense of the cross-generational gulf, along with a hint of the fascination, the welling up of desire, that is leading some younger artists to letterpress. An NBC Affiliate in Philly challenged 5 teens to go without technology--cells, Ipods--for 10 days. Wait 'till you hear how they did. I was surprised by the sense of discovery, the emotion, that accompanied their comments. When you hear how one teen described reading a newspaper, you'll understand why so many papers are facing chapter 11. It reminded me of that YouTube bit with the monk trying to figure out how to open a book. Here's the link: The title of the story is "OMG! Teens Go Without Texting, Tech."