Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thinking through Craft, Art, & Letterpress

Who reading this has described what they do as craft? If the term is used by others to describe your work, do you smile or flinch? Craft is one of those words that generates a visceral reaction that can differ dramatically depending on who you are and what you do in this bookish universe of book art.

At the same time, what are the limits of craft in art, and in book art? How about if we were to agree that craft meant the knowledgeable involvement with a technology, material and method to the degree of executing work of a high standard on a consistent basis. I just made that up—does that define craft for you, and if not, what does?

Since my current research focus is on letterpress printing, it was inevitable that craft would come into the picture. And anticipating attending MCBA's Biennial this Saturday, with one of its panels, "Book: the Object," being about craft among other things, I’ve been considering the meanings of craft, and how those meanings survive (or not) when talking about letterpress practice. This is important because those meanings lead us toward key concepts that shape the way artists and others perceive this work.

Debates around craft and art, and around letterpress and book art, express dichotomies that have long been in the larger art world. That art/craft divide influences views of letterpress, and despite rising evidence of an interest in process and material in the art world, within our field some still b
elieve that an investment in craft removes a work from serious art-world consideration. So, even though we may wish to simply ignore the bias, it is undeniable that this attitude has repercussions for artists and others. I’ve decided to read what has been written about craft, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of its place in artistic expression today.

Let’s begin by talking about definitions and how they change. For example, consider letterpress. You’ll note I’m using the term letterpress rather than fine press or fine printing. Many printers today describe themselves as letterpress artists, perhaps because the term letterpress returns us to, well, the medium of relief printing, and removes any value judgment or cultural connotation suggested by “fine press.” At the same time, the cultural norm of literature implicit in the term, “letterpress,” as Inge Bruggeman recently noted (at the "Hybrid Book" conference in Philadelphia), establishes a relationship with language that remains active in assumptions about letterpress whether or not the content in the finished work carries any text.

Equally important, there is not one kind of relief surface for letterpress printing. Historically, letterpress was associated with handset type (and then linotype). Today, type can still be lead or wood, but for over a decade now, type can also be made of plastic, “cast” in a relief polymer plate and composed from a design “set” on one’s computer. The involvement of computer technology vastly expanded the expressive range of letterpress, even as it unseated any simple equation of “handset type” with a justification of craft.

Where does that leave ideas about craft? I believe that we have entered the 21st century of craft, where definitions are fluid and distinctions multiply. Evidence of craft (or lack of it) can still be most readily discerned in a hand-thrown pot, but I think that a sense of craft can enlarge and diversify to also represent values about making. My own changing opinion about what constitutes craft is what led me to pick up Thinking through Craft (above right), a book I've written about recently in this blog. In that earlier entry I considered Adamson's observations on art education. Today I'd like to look more closely at different meanings of craft and art, and how those meanings might affect our expectations about letterpress printing or book art.

Thinking through Craft, as I mentioned before, was written by Glenn Adamson, who is Deputy Head of Research and the Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Thinking through Craft is one of a stack of books to appear in the last five years that track and analyze an upswing in interest in craft, and it places us squarely in the midst of more questions than answers.

What I appreciated in Adamson’s book is not that I agreed with everything he said, but that hi
s thinking repeatedly forced me to revisit and clarify my own ideas about craft. He states his main premise as, “Craft is not a defined practice but a way of thinking through practices of all kinds.(p. 7, my emphasis) With this statement Adamson suggests that craft’s profile is fluid and responsive within the larger universe of making. At the same time, I wondered, how can craft not (also) be a defined practice? In book art alone, the Guild of Book Workers has been sponsoring Standards of Excellence seminars since 1982. I would suggest, instead, that the identification of one’s own work as craft is determined by the artist first, with all the risks implicit in that choice. In other words, craft can reflect a work’s standards of production, or it can depart from or comment upon such standards, more like Adamson’s sense of craft as “a way of thinking.”

In this way the artist directs the traffic, so to speak. At the point that a work is released to a
n audience, however, those of us who encounter it weigh in with our own responses, judgments, and biases about craft. But what about art? Where is art in this discussion?

Art, for Adamson, is not here at all, at least for most of his book. To achieve the end of craft as a way of thinking rather than as a defined practice
, Adamson asserts that craft will regain an active artistic profile only when it is set free from what he sees as its static condition, a condition that has accrued from the term’s historical and philosophical associations. In fact, Adamson argues that we must “dispense with the simplistic formulation that the crafts can (or should) be art.” (p. 2) This is because of three facts about craft: craft is supplemental, it is material, and it is about skill. These attributes remove craft from the realm of art. Let’s begin by unpacking these three terms.

By supplemental, Adamson means that craft does not function as the vehicle of rigorous internal analysis that art does. Craft is instead a supplement to the artwork, that which “provides something necessary to an
other, ‘original’ entity, but which is nonetheless considered to be extraneous to that original.” (p. 11) This is, to me, an outdated definition of craft that has been projected onto it by a larger art community in which concept and content are somehow leeched from material and process. This is not my meaning of craft, but I understand that Adamson is seeking clarity through opposition.

Adamson explains further that, by supplemental, craft is not, then, what he calls autonomous. Art is autonomous, because it is independent, it “strives to stand apart from the interests that are everywhere manifested in the rest of the world,” as “a zone of free practice” (p. 9) that seeks to critique social, political and cultural institutions, including art itself. The frame around a painting, for example, asserts art’s detachment.

I am disagreeing with Adamson by this point. For one thing, this distinction he makes for art as being at its essence inherently separate and self-critical is the goal of much art but not all art. The face of art can certainly be critical through biting commen
tary or satire, but art can also explore formal qualities of its genre, or it can be elegiac, or celebratory. Clearly my sense of what art is, differs from Adamson’s.

And when he asserts art’s autonomy, its presumed independence from the stuff of life, I fear that Adamson has become ensnared in the same kind of romanticism that he later points to in some of craft’s supporters. Art’s autonomy is true only as long as everyone in the room follows the group-think. In truth, issues of art patronage undermine any claim for autonomy, to cite just one example. For hundreds of years patrons have supported artists, and in some cases at least, they have influenced
art, and today that support exists as foundation or government grants or a university’s resources available to its artist-instructors in off-hours. Art is many things, but autonomous? I don’t believe so. Later in the book, Adamson will suggest that contemporary craft can actually take on an art persona when it embodies a self-critical
ce. One artist whose work he pictures is Mike Kelley, who attaches stuffed animals and afghans to a quilt which is then hung in a gallery.

I try to give both art and craft more room to
maneuver. I fundamentally disagree with the opposition that Adamson has chosen: autonomous for the art object, vs. supplemental for a crafted object. I think that craft, and, for our purposes here, book art that incorporates evidence of craft, occupies a much more charged position in the culture. There is nothing supplemental about an object in which the process and act of crafting is integral to its ultimate expression. If that were true, then we could turn the tables and apply it to a work of “fine art,” say, the painting, Old Books, by British artist Howard Hodgkin (above). Would this work exert the same powerful presence if we scraped off the impasto and left the surface flat and without articulation? I think not. Hodgkin’s brushwork is as much craft as art, revealing evidence of the exchange between brush, paint, and surface.

Let me suggest a different term which may better align with craft’s characteristics. Let’s consider the word, integral, as it represents the role of craft and art as they coexist in Harry Reese’s Arplines (cover, right). Integral is defined as, what is essential or fundamental, that makes a whole complete. When craft works within the realm of art, it does not supplement anything but plays a key role in contributing to the ultimate expression of a work along with image, text, symbol and form, even as it asserts physicality, invites touch, and teases us with a record of its making.

Arplines was publ
ished in 1990 in an edition of 43 copies. Its ten folded sheets are held within a chemise wrapper and box by Sandra Liddell Reese. On each cover panel of the completed boxes Harry Reese created an original acrylic painting. The content of Arplines consists of Harry Reese’s selections from the poems and writings—the lines—of Jean Arp. Reese recombined those phrases into a new voice, and then responded with a shifting palette of pattern and line created from a surprising means of mark-making.

On this page (below) we have
one of the meldings that punctuate the book, as the reader sorts out what is Reese, what is Arp, and where the two have merged. Collaged fragments appear from a French book that was coincidentally given to Reese at the project’s inception (coincidence being an aspect of art-making that Arp and Reese both embrace). These fragments appear to have drifted down and settled on the surface of the opening. On the righthand page a fragment sits on an irregular patterned field, and below it the fragment is echoed, more or less, by a space of absence caught in a loosened grid.

The background pattern is actually composed of a most commonplace material: cellophane tape adhered to a type-high wood block (below right). Reese realigns Arp’s phrases into a poem that references Reese’s process in constructing the poem, and, more subtly, in
image-making itself: “I stuck together, unstuck, began again, and destroyed, / But language broke in my mouth. / I shut my eyes, chose words and lines from newspapers. / From that time on I’ve used only the most primitive forms.”

In another opening (below left), Arp’s words are at once stuck and unstuck, present and not-there, due to the blind-printing that Reese reveals through strokes of graphite. The reader is led irresistibly to follow the type’s impressions, a finger drawn across the page, like a child learning to read, as if to conjur again the transformation from silence into speech. Arp’s reconfigured text calls for creating “new appearances” through the use of “new materials which were not weighted down with tradition.” In his turn, Reese renders “new impressions” that evoke a range of voice possible with letterpress. His typography here is as quiet as an exhalation, the shapes to left and right subtly biomorphic.

In the previous opening Reese fashioned a field out of cellophane tape. Here, he again follows Arp’s approach of inspired improvisation by coaxing texture from inked bubble wrap (in blue), and in gray, what Reese describes in his "Guidelines for Arplines" as, “a strange spongy material [sent by] LA Type a few years a protective wrapping for some type we ordered.” Materials so ephemeral as to be un-identifiable, the resulting stippled effect would no doubt elicit praise from Arp himself. To return to terms, let us remind ourselves that, as opposed to Adamson’s autonomous art object coolly reigning separate in its presumed objectivity, and craft restrained in its supplemental, subsidiary role, the word, integral, suggests the complexities of a crafted object engaged with larger ideas beyond the object itself, even as it is situated in the everyday and open to the intimacies of reading.

Now let’s move on to Adamson’s second point, that craft, unlike art, is, “grounded in material specificity.” Adamson contrasts that materiality to modern art, which he describes as visual, a purely optical experience. In contrast, craft’s investment in the material places it at odds with what he calls, “the normative idea of modern art [that generally-held view, which]...involves the transcendence...of just this encounter.” (p. 39) The assumption is that art is primarily optical, and craft is primarily sensual. This simple opposition only grows clunkier when applied to books. The opposition of material to optical doesn’t work for artists’ books that carry text and image, the tactile experience and the intellectual response altering as they are unearthed page by page, cumulative in every sense of the word.

Third and last, Adamson equates craft with skill, which is a no-brainer, except that in order to enforce his opposition, by extension he divorces skill from art-making. Again, this dichotomy doesn’t work: art means concept but not craft; craft means process, but not content. Does this make sense to you? This dichotomy seems outdated, and sure enough Adamson supports his assertion by hearkening back to Conceptualism of the 1960s, to the idea as the machine that makes the art. The historical reference is accurate, but in this field at least, conceptual content is a rich vein often quarried by book artists, letterpress printers included. Art today is never one thing and often too many to enumerate—or maybe we are simply capable of seeing now what was always true: idea and material, image and object, language and its absence can layer into a palimpsest that is revealed differently to different people over time. Books are not either/or; they are implicitly and.

Consider Arplines once more. This kind of book is far from a unilateral and univocal object. Its conceptual program engages chance and the legacy of Dada, and its voice is literally multi-vocal, as Reese uses French, German and English, thus varying the degree of comprehension for each reader. Add to that his playfulness with the readable (printed) and the once-invisible (revealed through the act of rubbing). Confronting non-English words, language itself becomes an element of mystery if you don’t know the language, and, play, if you do, as punning wordplay can extend into concrete poetry. Reading Arplines we integrate touch and sound and sight, and add texture and scale and weight, all senses firing, and accumulating in time: this, then, is the artist’s book, the ultimate challenge to any simple dichotomy.

In regard to skill, Adamson suggests elsewhere that not all crafted works should be treated as art. Many works can bring pleasure as objects that fit the body and enrich the visual landscape of our daily lives. As such, these works should be prized but not subjected to the kind of critical apparatus brought to bear on artworks today. Instead, they pursue a more traditional ideal of craft as excellence in technique for its own sake, free of a larger conceptual program or agenda. Adamson suggests that such a designation should not devalue a work, and I add that this is another instance when the artist’s intent is crucial. In our field, the general term of the book arts designates that larger sphere of activity that acknowledges and celebrates the contributions of binders, papermakers and printers engaged in the ongoing investigation of a craft. The research conducted by these practitioners feeds in turn the artistic development of the field as a whole. I agree with Adamson, that we could profit from a more pointed consideration of what constitutes art and what craft, but I also acknowledge that such an exchange will need to address the persistent art world bias that seems to lie behind some of Adamson’s own observations.

I feel that to be fair to Adamson I should emphasize that he does not reference book art. When he cites craft, he discusses ceramics, fabric, or wood. I am left to wonder how he would view books. As I have noted, books have numerous streams of content to deploy. Books (often) carry language and embrace multiple voices, in text and pictorially. A book’s conceptual program may extend from the page to its binding, even its materials, such as a vellum-bound book that magically flexes and relaxes when held in a reader’s hands, skin to skin, craft and concept cohered.

As I have suggested, and no surprise, the book form greatly increases the complexity of expression on every front, and so it follows that a debate over craft and art is similarly fraught. On the one hand, a choice to print books by letterpress implies a stance to engage a letterpress aesthetic (note that I say, a letterpress aesthetic, not the letterpress aesthetic). Each printer finds his or her way through or around standards of design and printing. If the printer chooses the longer route, to ignore printing standards and instead engage the medium in a free spirit such as we find in D.I.Y. (do it yourself), printers should then heed Adamson’s warning that, “when an artwork is not made to the standards a viewer might expect...skill becomes all the more present as a consideration. It is most conspicuous in its absence.” (p. 69) A rejection of traditional craft standards may be exactly what an artist seeks—but in the end the book’s success will turn on its cohesiveness in form, content and execution.

Adamson’s book includes observations on a number of related topics. To mention just one, he explores the historical contexts of craft in Britain and the U.S., although that history is salted throughout the book in a way that is a bit difficult to track. Although I wish the book were organized more coherently, I appreciate Adamson’s ambition to address what he sees as the reasons for craft’s perception as “second-class.” Adamson’s solution is to apply his reframing of craft to all manner of production, even including architectural design. Upon finishing the book, however, I was left wondering why Adamson didn’t attempt what I see as a greater ambition—to identity those traits that coexist in art and craft rather than to reinforce the artificial oppositions that have served so long to prop up art world clichés still active in some gallery cultures, which underlie a market economy of art held separate in the frame, to adopt a trope of Adamson’s.

The apparent contradictions in, Thinking through Craft ultimately paint a portrait of a transitional time in craft and art. Turn that around and it becomes a time of opportunity for each of us to add our perspectives to the mix. Adamson’s book succeeds in making us think about craft, and about how patterns of thought may impede fresh considerations of craft’s artistic identity. His findings suggest that we have much to think about, summed up in the compound term of “book art.” Book joined to art challenges us to find our footing on the slippery ground shared by art and craft. Adamson has found his; I’m still looking, and what about you?

We need to begin a discussion with one another from a 21st century perspective, to better articulate why this work matters. It’s not about making a case for craft to measure up to art. It’s about understanding how the book and letterpress can create craft and art together, how those two entities find in the book an optimal medium and format for integrating all manner of expression: visual, haptic, sensual, perhaps literary, in a format that continues to challenge and reward makers and readers alike. When that happens, when the forces align, memorable works result.

Toward the end of the book Adamson states that, “craft’s specificity and limitedness [have] offered a possibility for useful friction. In such sleights of hand, the challenge is always to see craft not as a subject for celebration or self-congratulation, nor as a disqualification for serious artistic enterprise, but rather as a problem to be thought through again and again.” (p. 168) With this, I agree, and again, I recommend Thinking through Craft as each of us thinks through what is craft, what is art, and why it matters.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

See You at the Biennial?

There is no better launch pad for generating discussion about craft and art, than in the five finalist books competing for the 2009 MCBA Prize, the first international prize from the U.S. that in its conception supports artistic invention and investigation across the book art spectrum. Full disclosure: I served on a committee (along with MCBA Artistic Director Jeff Rathermel and artist Paulette Myers-Rich) that drafted the guidelines. The prize expresses MCBA’s longstanding commitment to opening up discussion across the field and supporting the best in contemporary book art today.

A look at the finalist works on MCBA’s website can’t help but get you thinking about content and craft and the vast number of ways that books engage readers. Their means of making include calligraphy, offset printing, and letterpress. One book is hand-lettered on walnut-stained Cavepaper, and another is letterpress-printed on 50 year-old gossamer-thin Toshaban-Genshi paper. Languages used include German, Japanese and English. Graphic character marches forward in layered sans serif type, or it is coaxed from subtle progressions in ink accompanying nautical charts and scientific data that subtly respond to three poems in the book.

Pictured in this post are the five contenders: Julie Chen's Panorama (top right), Jan Owen's Requiem (above right), Clifton Meador's Avalanche (below left), Veronika Schäpers's Durs Grünbein: 26°57,3’N, 142º16,8’E (below right), and Simon Redington's Bomb (bottom left).

The three judges who chose the five finalists are respected artists John Risseeuw and Scott McCarney, and Wellesley College Special Collections Librarian Ruth Rogers. They brought a vast range in experience and interest to the task of winnowing down the field of over 100 submissions from ten countries.

If you can make it to Minneapolis the evening of Saturday, July 25, join with the jurors and our local artist community to share cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, gaze at the finalist works on display, and debate which work most deserves the inaugural MCBA Prize. Later that evening the winning work will be announced. In fact, the three jurors will have chosen the winner just the day before after arriving in Minneapolis. You will be joined that evening by four of the five finalists: Julie Chen from Berkeley, California, Clifton Meador from Chicago, Illinois, Jan Owen from Belfast, Maine, and Simon Redington from London, England. (The travel plans of the fifth finalist, Veronika Schäpers from Tokyo, Japan, are as yet undetermined.)

Equally important to note, is that the Biennial actually begins at MCBA in the morning and runs throughout the day. Juror John Risseeuw will deliver a keynote talk at 10 am, followed by panels on “Artists’ Books as Agents of Social Change: a Tool Kit,” and then, “Book: the Object.” Panelists will include the jurors and local arts leaders, and the visiting finalists will no doubt add their thoughts to the discussions. See MCBA’s website for registration details; it should be a memorable day.

Hope to see you at the Biennial!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Artist’s Book Profile: Inge Bruggeman’s Simple Harmonic Motions

What does a successful merging of craft and concept look like in the letterpress book? Is it possible to make a book whose contents and presentation instigates conversation of sorts with the craft of letterpress printing, that is not distracting or dismissive of skill or of the driving content behind the book? At “The Hybrid Book: Intersection + Intermedia” conference earlier this month in Philadelphia, I took the opportunity to talk about Inge Bruggeman’s Simple Harmonic Motions (2001), as an example of a letterpress book that, beyond satisfying its content, brings into play ideas about craft, art and letterpress printing. 

Every so often I will present a profile on this blog that describes a favorite letterpress book, either one I have long admired, or a book that has recently caught my attention. Bruggeman's book resides in both categories, because whenever I spend time with it, it sends my thinking in new directions.

Simple Harmonic Motions, carries poetry by Hank Lazer, and is printed from polymer plates. Because the book acts as a vehicle for literature, a reader might be lulled into an expectation of the book delivering just that--a satisfying typographical presentation of literature. Once a reader begins to page through Simple Harmonic Motions, however, he or she finds that the book integrates multiple sign systems, both literal and implied, and employs a surprising strategy to question assumptions about a letterpress, literature, and reading.

Bruggeman seeks to bridge the divide between sound and vision, between the silent perusal and the poetic performance. The title page introduces a spherical motif, carried throughout the book, that echoes the dimension of the mini-disc held enclosed: the spoken. Along the bottom runs the verbal equivalent of Morse code, in some combination of: dah-dah-dah dah-dit. Its syncopated character echoes the rhythmic word play in Lazer’s poetry, as when the first stanza ends, “thelonius all alone.”

Here is letterpress delivering systems of meaning that collide or reflect, each seeking to convey thought into the air and the reader’s ear and mind, through language, image, and sound.

Once the poetry begins, the Morse code converts to dots and dashes, as if to remove literary competition, although the sounds of the dots and dashes reverberate in the reader’s subconscious. Along the top edge of the page runs photocopy transfers of sound waves. The text of Lazer’s poetry, presented in a spare typography, carries handwritten annotations that post-date its printing. Periodically in place of a poem Bruggeman presents an image of a mouth, speaking, caught within the circlet, a collage of texturized photographs and charted sound patterns.

And at the end of Simple Harmonic Motions, Bruggeman closes the circle, by making an endless book and delivering a surprise. We complete the poems and turn the last page to find….a second title page!

Here, Lazer’s name is gone; this is Bruggeman’s version, and the sound waves above carry us into this second sequence, anchored by the mystery of an unreadable text. Bruggeman has reprinted the poems in a smudged state, breaking typographic rules, refusing comprehension. Now the “dah dah dit dit” reappears along with the collages, as these alter-languages advance into prominence. If we wish to solve the puzzle, Lazer’s handwritten dates remain, and lead us to the same dates on each poem’s original presentation, which happens to be--on the exact opposite of the page.

Why present this secondary unreadable stream, which appears cloaked, held back?

Perhaps it serves as a subconscious echo of the original reading, of what remains buried, as we try to recall a poem months later. For me, any effect is heightened by the fact of the printing medium of letterpress, accompanied by its historical connotations with classical typography  
and the privileging of literature and readability. Bruggeman has created a doubled performance
of Lazer’s poetry. The first version (the book’s public persona?) places the poems' literary (literal) manifestations alongside the sound patterns that are the visual references to the poetry's voiced version on the accompanying cd. In the second, artist’s version, the unreadability of the poetic text suggests what lies behind language, the Other that we experience, for example, in a country whose language we don’t share, as we gather clues and discern a mood but are ultimately shut out of full comprehension. It is a gutsy move in a book of poetry, but this book is about much more than poetry. 

Craft, Art & Education

Over the last several years I’ve had the chance to visit with students and faculty at several of the educational programs around the U.S. that offer an M.F.A. degree in book art, or an M.F.A. with a concentration in book art. The programs vary greatly from one another, but each in its own way confronts the unique status of the artist’s book in respect to art and craft. Tracking and reporting on those programs is one of the projects underway by the College Book Art Association. It is a challenging undertaking, as many, many schools have incorporated book art coursework in departments that include art, English, graphic design, intermedia, and the library. Sometimes it’s a matter of just finding where the program resides, and depending on its “home,” the coursework itself can vary widely.

I could not help but think about that diversity and the challenges of integrating book art into higher ed pedagogy while reading a recent book by Glenn Adamson, Deputy Head of Research and the Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The V&A, as it’s called, is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Adamson published Thinking through Craft in 2007, one of a number of recent books that have responded to an upswing in interest in craft. There is much to talk about in the book, and I will be commenting further on it here and elsewhere in the next few months. I recommend it, in part because I would very much like to hear other readers’ thoughts on Adamson’s ideas about craft and art, which is an area of confusion and debate that affects book art in general and letterpress in particular.

At one point in the book Adamson talks about teaching craft in post-secondary education, and his comments apply to the book art field as well. Adamson sets historical context by describing the debate over Progressivism in the 1930s and later, as promoted by John Dewey, when, concurrent with the expansion of schooling to the working class, social reformers pushed craft-based teaching. The critique was that the well-meaning infusion of craft contributed to a two-tier educational establishment, with the working class directed toward craft as a means of vocational training for marketable employment in an industrial economy, and the upper class accorded more abstract approach keyed to a more reflective, liberal education. Behold the beginnings of craft’s ambiguous profile in art education. Adamson goes on to describe philosophies that occupy different places along the spectrum of craft- or process-based teaching, including a section on Joseph Albers, who believed that, “art is not an object, but experience.” [86]

Adamson’s premise in all of this is that education plays a huge role in how craft is perceived by the larger culture. Indeed, Adamson suggests that the educators among us may hold the final balance of power in the ultimate dispensation of craft in art, as the attitudes inherent in their teaching are passed along to the next generation of artists and teachers.

Moving into the later twentieth century, Adamson points to a change that occurred in the 1970s as higher-level art educators began to teach skills to students “as and when.” The change instigated a sea change in craft education. In this approach, students in the arts are trained to approach their art-making much as a professional artist would, where concept is king. Students are exposed to a range of materials and techniques, they read extensively, and then they devise a project. At that point, they learn the requisite skills to execute their project. Their work is idea-driven and conceptually-based. As a result, content is divorced from in-depth and sustained training in process or “making.”

In itself, this may not seem like a bad thing to teachers wishing to emphasize content in teaching, but when Adamson projects that disconnect beyond a student’s education and into the community, he finds art fairs that are populated by artists who “may present sculptures, paintings, etc, each with a high degree of conceptual sophistication and (unless the fabrication of the work has been hired out) amateurish production values.” Adamson goes on, “This post-disciplinary approach to making art is compatible with [the] notion of skill not as a calling in life, but as friction applied to an action in the service of any intended outcome.” [74] In other words, skill bent solely toward the realization of an art object and not as an investment in the process itself, dislocates an artist from another, organic means of art-making and a sense of material that develops from a sustained immersion in technique and material.

But the answer is not simply to ride the pendulum to the other end of its trajectory into pure process. My sense of the most successful book art graduate programs honor craft, process, and material, even as they challenge students to begin to find a voice, to work through content. Denying or devaluing craft leads to, in Adamson’s opinion, “The craft world [that] often seems like a ghetto of technique, [with] the art world as an arena of the free play of ideas shockingly divorced from knowledge about process and materials.”

With these words, Adamson summarizes the contentious climate in higher education today in which many of the educators among us must operate, gamely trying to balance concept to craft, or perhaps simply lining up with one approach or the other. Is it possible to achieve a balance, or is that even a preferred option? Is it possible to study letterpress at the collegiate level (or for that matter, at a community arts organization) without time spent with an experienced printer at the press, learning the craft? Is it possible to make good art without craft? How does diy translate into letterpress?

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.

Assumptions About Craft

What does craft mean to you? What artists and books come to mind? In letterpress, do you think back to William Morris's Chaucer (1896), below on the left?

Or do you think of books by Harry Duncan, such as, Four Early Stories by James Agee (1964), and, The Naming of the Beasts and Other Poems by Gerald Stern (1973), pictured above on the right?

You might think of printers such as Claire Van Vliet and Walter Hamady, whose influence has extended in this country over several decades. Or, you might think of next-generation printers such as Carolee Campbell, Harry and Sandra Reese, Robin Price, Julie Chen, you add the next name. Read on to my preceding post, below. In it, I'm thinking about craft that not only encompasses works and artists such as these, but I also wonder whether an involvement with craft should be narrowly assigned, or opened up to a wide range of interpretations.

What names would be high on your list?

The Meaning/s of Craft

For me, craft happens at the intersection of the haptic and the object, as it expresses an artist’s investment in process and response to materials and medium, as well as a response to tradition (or not), and to daily use (or not). The complexity of that response is carried through to the reader. The final piece to this is a sensual engagement that to me is undeniably enhanced when content and intent are carried through with skill in a process and with materials and finally in the object that emerges.

What do you think, printers and book art folk among us? What does craft mean to you? Is it about pace, about engaging the body in process, about trace-making? it irrelevant, a distraction, a non-starter?

As I have more consciously begun to read about and talk with artists and others about craft, I’ve encountered a range of opinion, much of it emotional, about the role of craft in this field. Much of this is déja-vu, We are schizophrenic about craft. Consider this. Earlier this year, Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts sent out a postcard announcing the exhibition: "Makeready, Choke, Bleed, and Knockout." The first line of the description began: "High speed rotary offset printing requires a significant degree of craft." Craft in offset printing? The idea might surprise some letterpress artists, especially if they have picked up on an attitude still held by some passionate offset aficionados--that two-step of, “if it’s letterpress, it is only about craft” (read: not conceptual and not content-driven). However blatantly wrong this assumption is, the bias still surfaces today. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, as it is echoed in the larger art world too.

So when others who work with offset adopt the term, craft, to indicate a level of skill and care in printing, it stands out. Personally, the idea of craft in offset doesn’t surprise me at all. Offset printing has its own aesthetic and technical demands, and, for a small number of printer-devotees who have mastered the process, the enormous demands of the medium can be directed toward nuances in effect that could be characterized as craft. (For those of you interested in offset printing, let me recommend an excellent catalogue from 2007, Production not Reproduction, curated by Tony White, Head of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, for the Center for Book Arts in New York. The catalogue includes an essay by White—in which I find the statement, “High quality offset printing requires a significant degree of craft at multiple levels”—along with family trees of printers that include where and with whom they studied.)

My research this year has focused on letterpress, but a discussion of craft in related media such as offset, or in other kinds of printmaking, as well as papermaking and bookbinding, or for that matter in sculptural and installation work, would be of equal interest. Does the meaning of craft change depending on the medium or object created? What is your response when asked by a student, or a collector, or a friend: 

What is craft and how is it embodied in your work?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The picture at left shows some of the people in the standing-room-only crowd that came to hear our panel called, Risk & Renewal in Letterpress, at the inaugural conference of the College Book Art Association (CBAA), at the University of Iowa-Iowa City in January 2009. Inge Bruggeman (partially viewed at left, in front), Harry Reese and I talked about the changes that we see happening in letterpress today. I led off, describing historical influences that have affected letterpress since 1980. Inge followed, and then Harry. Each spoke eloquently about how their work in letterpress has developed throughout their careers. But the reason that I've started my blog off with this picture and this conference, is because, before things got started, the three of us had wondered just who would show up. There were plenty of people in at the conference--240 attendees, to the excitement of the planners--but with three panels running concurrently on very different topics, we had no idea what would be the interest level in our letterpress panel. We couldn't believe it when people kept coming in, and we were only disappointed that the discussion period at the end was too short to allow comments by only a few of those who wanted to speak. Clearly, we had hit a nerve. Letterpress--that bastion of tradition, so many would have us believe--was generating a lot of interest among artists of all ages. Clearly, it was going to continue its role as a lightning rod for discussion and debate in the book art field.