I’m hoping to use this year’s Kickstarter Make 100 challenge as a spur to get me making artists’ books again. While I’ve been familiar with (and a fan of) Kickstarter for several years now, I’ve never had the gumption to try a project of my own. I’m in the early stages, still, so I’m awash in that all-too-familiar emotional mix: excitement, nervousness, creative intimidation. But mostly excitement! I’m taking that as a good sign.
Part of the preparatory work for posting a project on Kickstarter is making a video to explain it, but it’s no secret that it has to be a certain kind of video, right? Engaging, genuine, and fun, but most importantly not too long! Two or three minutes at most. So, I made an animated intro (which was fun in itself) to serve that purpose, but I wanted to have a longer, meatier exploration of the project here.
Actually, I’m going to use this Medium piece to touch on all the things Kickstarter recommended: Why this project? What are my qualifications / interests / bona fides? Why should you back it? What should you expect to receive? I figured it made more sense to have my Kickstarter video focus on the project specifics since that is what I’m asking the backers to buy. In this essay, I can expand a bit on all those other questions (for those people who still like to read such things!).
First, a bit of a shameful disclaimer. I’m going to talk about the projects I made during my college days but, sadly, neither the works themselves nor the too-small, too-low-resolution, circa 1990s images I had of them have survived. There is a lot of sadness and regret around all that, so I won’t go into it here, but just know I wish I had some cool images to show you. (I’ve decided to add some digital drawings for added information but I know they are a poor substitute.)
However, I did try to find a good online introduction to artists’ books in general. The one I’ve chosen is on the Smithsonian Library website; check it out if you are unfamiliar with the concept of artists’ books or simply want to see some of the wonderful pieces that are part of their collection.
Let’s start with the somewhat dry, historical stuff. Despite having a lifelong love of art, I didn’t go to college until after I’d done a couple stints in the military. I was 30 when I started at Colorado State University and somewhat stunned that my dreams of higher education were coming true! I initially wanted to study language and become a writer, but since the VA was guiding my program they politely asked me for my second choice. When I said “Art!” they metaphorically rolled their eyes and calmly suggested Graphic Design (the whole idea of the program, after all, was for me to end up with a job). So, I eventually ended up with a BFA and an MFA in Graphic Design, taught for five years at three different universities, then decided I wanted to be a full-time web designer and left teaching to explore the internets. And I’ve been doing just that ever since.
OK, rewind to my college days. Colorado State University has a great Fine Arts program and as an avid arts lover I made it my mission to explore as far and as wide as my Graphic Design curriculum would allow. I tried every studio discipline but one during my time there and loved them all. Turns out, Graphic Design was the perfect pick for me, because I came to see that it welcomed all other art forms with gleefully open arms. A designer can be influenced by, and bring aspects of, virtually any other discipline to their work. There is a wonderful interconnectedness in creative endeavors of any kind (I like to think of it as a kind of artistic quantum entanglement) and those connections clearly manifest themselves in the ongoing conversation that is visual design.
At any rate, it was here, in the gloriously productive and mind-expanding period of my undergraduate studies, that I was introduced to artists’ books. I took a continuing education course led by a very talented and charismatic photography instructor, and I was hooked. Because the instructor knew me and my work (I was also taking photography classes with him in my degree program) he actually let me lead that same artists’ books class myself the following year. It was a wonderful experience, and introduced me to the comprehensive library of Keith A. Smith as well as the then growing academic examination of artists’ books by such authors as Johanna Drucker.
About that time, I also did a research paper on the zine phenomenon (in full flower back in the 90s) which I came to see as the logical outgrowth of the rise of desktop publishing as implemented by creative, DIY types. Looking back, I see that artists were embracing newly available technologies of all kinds as a way to reconfigure, or subvert, or simply explore well established and well recognized forms of mainstream communication. I was fascinated by all of it, in all its permutations. There was so much artistic overlap, and my mind struggled to place it all in some sort of structure or containing framework. It didn’t help that, for my degree program, I was also dipping a toe into postmodernist theory, semiotics, and other deep, revelatory subjects. I was struggling to reach a kind of cognitive crescendo, an extended epiphany, as it were, which would meld all my interests and research and art endeavors into some kind of unified whole. Because books were the original obsessive object in my life, it was natural that much of my energy would coalesce around them, around that format.
That is the bedrock, foundational appeal of artists’ books for me. Books have been such a touchstone for me, and the intimacy, familiarity, wonder, and conceptual challenge they represent is such fertile soil in which to incubate and grow my artistic ideas.
I was so invigorated by the creative potential of artists’ books that I decided to make them the concentration area for my MFA degree. During my graduate studies I pushed my experimentation with the art form in as many interesting ways as I could. This three year period is when I put the most focus and effort into making artists’ books.
Early on, I created several small, lightweight versions (more zine like, in a way, or perhaps prototypes of potential ideas) and I made lots of notes. But I also made some fully formed, more ambitious pieces.
I made one that addressed my military service as a boardgame. (“How is that a book?” you might ask. Good question! Er, because I put it in a giant clamshell ‘binding’..?) Games have been another long-standing influence on my design sensibility, and the resonance between the memories of my military service and the aspects of a board game — highly ordered, sometimes rigid, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes unintentionally humorous — was simply too good to pass up. While this was probably the least book-like of any of my works it was tremendously empowering for me to realize that I could address any material, no matter how emotionally freighted, with this new art approach.
For another incarnation, I found an old typewriter case at a flea market and used it to house black cloth ‘pages’ on wire frames. On those pages, I sewed pieces of a man’s suit: a piece of a jacket on one page, a back pocket from the slacks on another, etc. Inside the pockets, for those willing to explore, were a wallet, keys, scraps of cryptic paper…all of which I hoped evoked a kind of secret, cryptic narrative.
I also became intrigued by the idea of the multiple edition. Did an artist’s book need to be a one-of-a-kind object, or could it be one of a larger, identical set of books? (Later, during my time as a teacher in Philadelphia, I would have the pleasure of discovering Printed Matter in New York and attending a lecture which made the case for an minimum edition of 100, an idea which has stuck with me over the years.) So, I created thirty copies of a book with vellum pages and pop rivets as a binding which explored social conventions around communication and speech.
I have to say here that my best friend during those years was a sculptor, and I was deeply influenced by his work. Graphic Design is essentially a computer-based endeavor (though it yields tangible, printed objects, of course) and I found myself becoming strongly attracted to the materiality of his sculptural pieces. While I was growing and honing my capabilities with digital tools, I yearned to create substantial, tangible objects. Physicality and interaction have continued to be areas of interest to me.
Midway through my graduate studies, I was given a small show within one of the student exhibition spaces in the CSU Fine Art Department, and I adapted my ideas into three sculptural pieces which emphasized a greater level of interaction with the work. Each one encouraged the viewer to handle, play with, or otherwise actively interact with the piece. I loved that sense of taboo: sculptures in a gallery that you could actually touch! Of course, they all included textual or language elements, as well.
So, you know that I love artists’ books, and you know a little about how I’ve approached my work in the (all-too-distant) past. What about this new project? What can I tell you about how I see this new piece shaping up?
I love the idea of a sizable, but limited, print run. I mentioned previously the “edition of 100” idea, and I think that is in large part why the Kickstarter campaign caught my eye. I want this book (and potentially future books, if all goes well) to be an edition of 100. Each one will be entirely hand made by me, and will be signed and numbered.
I started collecting old 78 records many years ago; like many artists I’m constantly on the prowl for potentially interesting assemblage materials, and I’ve always wanted to do something with those old records. I love how thick and heavy they are, and the fact that they contain dormant, latent data in their grooves. So, the theme of this book is Music, and I will be cutting and using those old 78s to create my front and back covers.
The books will be square in format, most likely 4 or 5 inches square.
The book will have ten pages total, in an accordion binding. I like the accordion binding approach because it allows for wonderful flexibility of presentation. It can be read very much like a traditional book, that is, two-page spread by two-page spread, paging through. But it can also be opened out and laid flat, providing a view of the pages as a continuous ribbon of content. Also, by flipping the book over, you have a second side which can be read in the same way.* So, just as a record album has two sides with a set number of tracks, this book will have two sides with the same number of pages. The echo of that parallel appeals greatly to me!
*[This is similar to, but not quite the same as, what’s known as a dos-à-dos binding, but I have never understood that spelling. It’s pronounced do-si-do, y’know, square dance style: “Swing your partner, do-si-do!” which is a great analogy for the structure of the book. Read it, turn it, read the other side. Repeat as desired until dizzy and/or nauseated.]
Each page will consist of multiple pieces of content: two visual elements, one written prose element, and one large single word. This is an outgrowth of my fascination with modularity. How can items be combined (and recombined) to reveal different experiences, different juxtapositions? I want to create something that you can reorder and reconfigure as you see fit. I want to feel like we are collaborating to a certain extent.
I feel like I’ve neglected to say that a sense of story will be at work in this piece. I’ve given so much emphasis to the visual aspects that I want to also state that I will be including some writing, too. Just as the tracks of a record album can provide a broader context, I want each of the prose pieces to combine to create a larger conceptual world for the piece as a whole.
It will be interactive and modular. Those page elements I mentioned above are going to be freestanding pieces which you can remove, reconfigure, and recombine. Another of the aspects of books that drew me to them as an art form is that you actually get to handle them. They are tactile, weighty, comfortable in your hands. Even though I am crossing into the realm of conceptual art, I want this to be an intimate experience akin to reading. Beyond that, I want you to be able to reconfigure this book to your liking based on mood, moment, or whim.
I want you to provide me with custom content. If you become a backer, I will be asking you to provide me with a single word — something which represents an aspect of music to you (however you wish to interpret that idea). I will then create a custom page just for you using that information; one of the pages in your book will be truly yours and yours alone. While the edition of 100 will consist of very similar books, no two will be exactly alike.
I want to provide an “out-of-book” option, too. One area where art and books do not overlap is that the contents of a book remain bound within in it (generally speaking), while a piece of visual art can be hung or placed where it can be seen and enjoyed on a more accessible basis. I would love nothing better than having a page of this book become a fixture on your desk, or bedside table, or mantel, along with your other figurines, 3D printouts, postcards, vinyl toys, etc. Because I have chosen to make the pages modular, I can easily make that happen by providing every backer an “ectopic page” — a frame which will allow you to transfer the contents of a page to a free-standing unit which can be displayed somewhere outside the book.
I want the packaging to feel special. For me, this project won’t end when I have all the book pieces designed, created, and assembled. Because I will be shipping these out to everyone, I want you all to have an “unboxing” moment, too. I want the containing box to be an integrated part of the piece. Like many designers, I have an odd strain of low-grade, work-specific OCD. For me, often what makes for the most delightful aesthetic experience is the small touches. The “fit and finish.” The attention to detail. I promise that I will be bringing my near mania in that regard to every book in this project.
There you have it. These are the chalk outlines of the playing field I have set up for myself. If it sounds a bit complicated, it actually is! Having made a career as a designer, I love challenges, especially system-based ones. Part of the success of this piece will depend on the elegance of the approach I come up with for modular pages. This will be, hands-down, my most ambitious work to date. Because of that, I’m tremendously excited to get started. I hope you will join me in creating this project. Thanks for your time!