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?