Artists' Books: Interviews with Artists

Jackie Batey, Sarah Bodman, John Dilnot, Susan Johanknecht, Angela Lorenz and Marshall Weber talk about their work.

Jackie Batey

'Running a Secret Society No.20', artist`s book by Jackie Batey, published by Damp Flat Productions, Brighton, Sussex, UK, 2004. Pressmark 801.AG.0059

'Running a Secret Society No.20', artist`s book by Jackie Batey, published by Damp Flat Productions, Brighton, Sussex, UK, 2004. Pressmark 801.AG.0059

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
I would consider myself someone who wants to share ideas with other people. This means I would call myself an artist, but my main means of communication for the last ten years has been through handmade books and multiples - Damp Flat Books.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
I went to college to study BA Illustration and then MA in Editorial Design/Illustration. After this I taught myself how to use computers (interactive multimedia and graphics packages) and to book bind. I began teaching at the University of Portsmouth as a lecturer in Illustration. The University enabled me to study my Ph.D., which was practice-based. I explored images of reassurance in American Advertising from the 'fifties, and my practical element was a series of nine artists' books and multiples that responded to themes within my research - often humorous or satirical. I now make and sell my books to museums/libraries and collectors around the world via my website (www.dampflat.com) and in shops such as the bookartbookshop in London. I also run a 'bookworks' unit and a 'Multiples' unit on the Illustration degree course.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
Themes tend to be based around anxiety and humour. I am interested in social/cultural issues such as advertising pressure, etiquette, apathy - is modern life really rubbish? Why are vending machines usually out of order? Can the right consumer product make everyone happy? I enjoy the relationship between big business and the disinterested individual. I often look at serious themes but output them in a satirical or ironic way often taking on the persona of the company or individual I'm lampooning. I often tend to look at Englishness and I do enjoy playing with words. Another theme is the idea of being conned or gulled, the relationship we enter into when we knowingly buy something useless, but are prepared to do so in order to experience the warmth of consuming. I have invented many products and companies along with my own bogus online museum to house spurious items. I enjoy creating my own bizarre world in which my narratives and characters can cause trouble - which is a twisted version of what's all around us.

Materials tend to be found and readily available, I have a passion for stationery (it can make your life better) and often use office products such as square cut files, sticker paper, rubber stamps, punches, cartridge paper and card. I use a Mac to scan and compile my artwork, digital photos and text into my book layout - although I always start with a regular sketchbook and felt pen.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artiste in the early 20th century; follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (e.g. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s; or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects; or cross all these categories, or fit into none?
Although there are crossovers I think I tend to be more in the 'reacting against the establishment' camp. I have recently made my first zine, and in talking to zine librarians it is interesting to note that they are seeing zines as the one of the only truly uncensored forms of expression. Desktop publishing has liberated publishing from publishers, in terms of people with something to say being able to say it, via limited edition press. I do find the book object fascinating but for me it's about getting my ideas into the hands of another person - who might tell another, etc. I am a big fan of Fluxus - the notion of affordable multiples that give an alternative perspective on life, using art and humour, is inspirational. Artists' books are a fantastic (and portable) way of dropping a thought into another person's lap. They have a different quality from mass-produced books because they are directly from the artist - a lovely crossover between book and art.

How do you see artists' books and the book arts in general sitting in relation to the contemporary art world?
Tricky question. Artists' Books are still a niche market and I think they suffer slightly from the notion that 'craft' is somehow second to 'art' (there is a whole argument in there). Bookarts are also widely varied, I'm not sure satirical 'zines sit well with books made by designers or book objects made by sculptors. I think the key is looking at bookworks in themes, they tend to fit much better into thematic shows - I always have some problems with collections arranged by format rather than subject. The relatively low price of some bookworks makes them not attractive to galleries for commercial reasons. However, I think the internet has revolutionised bookarts in terms of putting people in contact with each other. There are many collections, forums, conferences that promote artists' books. Specialist shops such as the bookartbookshop tend to be much better at promoting books than galleries. This does seem to be an expanding area for artists, which is great.

To someone who doesn't know what artists' books are, which artists, or particular books would you advise them to look at?
Fluxus- the games, multiples but above all the concept that art can be funny. Joseph Beuys' Multiples, Marcel Duchamp's Green Box. Generally the web is a great reference tool for bookarts.
The UWE website: www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk
My website: www.dampflat.com


'Livia's garden', artist's book by Sarah Bodman, UK, 1997. NAL pressmark: X970051

'Livia's garden', artist's book by Sarah Bodman, UK, 1997. NAL pressmark: X970051

Sarah Bodman

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
A book artist I guess! Whatever work I make I only think about it in the book format, the idea will come along, but it always looks like a book in my head before I have started. Working in this format allows me to think about the whole process, how it will be put together; I can picture it finished well before I start so it is just a case of making it fit that image when it is finished. The way I work is to try to make the book as appealing to pick up as possible even though it contains things you might not want to read or see; there is always a surprise inside, like normal books you never know what will happen until you have read or looked all through them. I like the fact that you can always have artists' books around; they don't need huge galleries to be seen.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
Yes and no - I initially did fine art: printmaking and painting for my BA Hons, and it didn't involve artists' books as a module or area of study, I made books anyway because it was what I wanted to do, so, no I didn't have any specific training at undergraduate level. I discovered artists' books by accident during my BA - I have always loved books and used a lot of text in my paintings and prints. One day I was browsing the shelves in the college library and found a book by the artist Susan Hiller - Sisters of Menon - it looked like a 'normal' book but there was something else about it; so I decided to find out more and realised there was this whole world of art just waiting. It just suited the way I worked perfectly, and I have continued to work that way ever since. I was then lucky enough to go to UWE Bristol and do my own research into artists' book production for an M.Phil, and was subsequently employed there, the Centre for Fine Print Research. Artists' books are now my full time job and my creative output.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
Techniques vary. I used to work mostly with screenprint, letterpress and watercolour paints. Now that digital print has taken off, I have made my last three books using only digital output, and inkjet printing from photographs I have taken and manipulated. I often include the object or objects that inspired the book, for Cuttings, I included a rusty gardening tool in each box; others have included glass sugar crushers. I recently finished a book Against Nature using paper pulped from clothes and pulp-printing in Australia, which was a new process for me.

My inspiration is always the darker side of nature, human nature and history. The Collector was inspired by the John Fowles' novel of the same title, about a man who thinks it acceptable to collect a human being. All my books use images that lure the viewer in by making the subject look attractive. The Collector used a set of botanical slides that a friend found in a skip and gave to me. The slides were from c. 1920 and were obviously an amateur botanist's personal set. The more I delved into the box, the more unusual they were, slides of human skin and hair, so they were perfect for this book. Each of The Collector boxes has one of the slides in. Other books are based on poisoners - and as all poison derives from nature, the two work well together.

Other works have included Pace Bend a foldout, map-based book, inspired by the film Dead Calm but translated into a dead-end cliff walk near Austin, Texas, USA and Flowers in Hotel Rooms an ongoing series of literary tributes with flowers placed in hotel rooms I have stayed in, inspired by Richard Braughtigan's novel The Abortion.

Time Itself, was based on the life and work of Edward Jenner and his vaccine for smallpox, and The Marsh Test, was a fictionalised account of the first public trial of James Marsh's test for the presence of arsenic in the human body.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artiste in the early 20th century; follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (eg. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s; or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects; or cross all these categories, or fit into none?
Yes to all of the above, depending on the subject matter, the books I make have ranged from large editions of 200 to one-off book objects. I cannot say my work is reactionary, I like the fact that it can be viewed or left anywhere, library, bookshelf, bus stop, but I do exhibit in galleries and museums too, so I haven't bucked against the system altogether. Some of the books I make follow the livre d'artiste tradition, and purposely look precious: velvet covers, ribbons, roses, etc. but this is to lure the viewer into opening and engaging with the book, and they are often based on historical events from c. 1800s. I cross the categories above as I will make the book to suit the subject matter, so it could be small and stapled, or hand-painted and boxed with an individual object.

How do you see artists' books and the book arts in general sitting in relation to the contemporary art world?
As an important part of it - okay they will never be as huge as painting or sculpture, but I am not sure they should be, the idea is that you can hold and engage with a book on a personal basis. It is a bit like being in a secret society sometimes - maybe an artworld version of Fight Club! - where we all know each other and make and buy work, but are a smaller part of society. Although, this has changed in the last few years: many artists' books are text-based and now also produced as podcasts, and in web and DVD formats, so there is a kind of crossover between the field and other contemporary artforms where artists use text, video and paper in their work. The subject is gaining a larger audience and artists' books overall are becoming more mainstream, the subject is taught more in colleges, and places like bookartbookshop, Booklyn, Printed Matter, Art Metropole and Book Works in London have done lots to promote the subject.

To someone who doesn't know what artists' books are, which artists, or particular books would you advise them to look at?
Websites are really useful places to find out about artists' books; Book Works website has lots of useful information; the wonderful Booklyn Artists' Alliance, features artists' books, exhibitions, artists and educational programmes, with free info. downloads on bookmaking. Angie Waller's couchprojects is a brilliant website, and David Shrigley's wonderful books and drawings also Jackie Batey's website is a great way to see the artist's thinking process, with working visuals from her books so you can see how they evolved; and Keith Smith's Books for manuals on how to make artists' books. Our own website, www.bookarts.uwe.ac.uk has been designed as a resource for finding out about artists' books and has lots of information, with free downloads of catalogues, newsletters, books and essays, and a vast gallery archive of images from exhibitions for some idea of the types of artists' books out there.


'Out of the trees and into the wood', artist's book by John Dilnot, published by Fifty Fingers, London, England, UK, 1985. NAL pressmark: X890147

'Out of the trees and into the wood', artist's book by John Dilnot, published by Fifty Fingers, London, England, UK, 1985. NAL pressmark: X890147

John Dilnot

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
I am an artist who makes books as part of my activity. I also make prints and boxworks which I think of as three dimensional prints.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
I have not had any formal education in book arts. I studied Graphic Design at Canterbury and went on to study Fine Art at Camberwell. I made my first book at Camberwell in 1983. I was barely aware of artists books, I wanted to make a screen print of a series of drawings and it evolved into an accordion book.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
I have always been particularly interested in the activity of printmaking and I consider that to be my main drive and the thread that connects all my work. I have explored all methods of printmaking that are available to me from potato to digital.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artiste in the early 20th century; follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (eg. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s; or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects; or cross all these categories, or fit into none?
My work is more aligned to Surrealism, Pop and Fluxus, rather than the tradition of livres d'artiste.


'Emissions', artists' book by Katharine Meynell and Susan Johanknecht, Gefn Press, London, UK, 1992. NAL pressmark: X930145

'Emissions', artists' book by Katharine Meynell and Susan Johanknecht, Gefn Press, London, UK, 1992. NAL pressmark: X930145

Susan Johanknecht

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
I would use the term book artist as the work I make in other media is intrinsically informed by my engagement with the book.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
A BA in English Literature, a BA in Fine Art/Printmaking, and an apprenticeship with Claire Van Vliet at the Janus Press, Vermont.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
Projects from the last decade have explored relationships between digital sequences, photo-animations and hypertext outputted onto CD-ROM or DVD, and the physical book. Earlier pieces used relief and intaglio printmaking techniques alongside letterpress. I try to use materials and techniques appropriate to the themes of a particular project, acknowledging a relationship between the physicality of a book and how it is read. Turning 'Emissions' cool transparent pages and seeing your hands through them is a different experience from feeling embossed paper ('Hermetic Waste'), or unfurling an accordion structure like 'Modern (Laundry) Production'. In recent books I have been working with appropriated technical languages to explore themes of natural and industrially initiated change.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artiste in the early 20th century; follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (eg. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s; or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects; or cross all these categories, or fit into none?
My interest in a textual space that moves across the book as a whole and beyond a contained page space falls within the tradition of Mallarmé. The use of artists' books as a site for group projects as in 'Volumes (of vulnerability)' 2000, 'Here are my Instructions' 2004, and the forthcoming 'Cunning Chapters' continues a tradition of collaborative practice employed by the Surrealists, Fluxus, and Conceptual artists.

How do you see artists' books and the book arts in general sitting in relation to the contemporary art world?
Artists' books are a core medium for contemporary fine art practice.

To someone who doesn't know what artists' books are, which artists, or particular books would you advise them to look at?
I recommend looking at bodies of work to understand not just individual artists' books but publishing itself as a process for the development of ideas. Start with works by: Colin Sackett, Heather Weston, Sharon Kivland, Weproductions, and Sara Ranchouse Publishing.


'Paper plates: she's a dish', artist's book by Angela Lorenz, Bologna, Italy, 1993. NAL pressmark: X930215

'Paper plates: she's a dish', artist's book by Angela Lorenz, Bologna, Italy, 1993. NAL pressmark: X930215

Angela Lorenz

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
I consider myself an artist. I primarily make artists' books and multiples, but artists' books are part of contemporary art in any case. I don't have a problem with the term book artist, but it doesn't define my entire production, which also involves performances with food and soap, printmaking or watercolour painting, and wholly sculptural pieces.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
I was trained in printmaking in secondary school, and binding first in Italy on a university year abroad in the bindery of an Italian artisan. In my last year at Brown University, I took a papermaking course, worked for the binder in a university library, took private lessons from him and took two courses at Rhode Island School of Design in letterpress books and conceptual books. I actually started making books in secondary school before I knew it was a genre, and later had the opportunity to make about 7 editions while still an undergraduate, at Brown and RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. I love words and language, but I think printmaking intuitively conducted me to books, through methods of reproduction and sequence.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
My parameters are broad in all three categories. I don't believe in limiting myself - as a result, I do not have an identifiable style. What is consistent in my work is the non-fiction, research-based content, usually grounded in history or social-anthropology, and the drive to imbue every aspect of each work with information relating conceptually to the content. Information hidden in the number of the edition, the name of the typeface, the binding and printing techniques and materials, functions as set of mnemonic devices to help me, and whoever might be interested, remember the content communicated in each work. I am known for using unusual materials, like gum, soap, ice, latex rubber, spaghetti, coffee, chocolate and herbs, but I consistently use acid-free and archival materials, and traditional techniques like printmaking, painting and photography. Some important themes in my work: textiles, recycling, nomads, art history and biography.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artistes in the early 20th century; follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (eg. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s; or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects; or cross all these categories, or fit into none?
All my works have a conceptual starting point, but not with the idea necessarily to become an object. I am very hesitant about making altered-books. In my books, the reader/viewer must interact, as information is gradually revealed in a careful sequence. Any format, traditional or reactionary, may be utilized to communicate my research-derived ideas. I generally write my own text, often in the form of rhyming verse, whereas livres d'artistes usually combine authors with artists, and are commissioned and put together by a publisher. It is more of an orchestrated collaboration. In my own work, the text and the art and the binding format grow and develop together. While I certainly try to be inventive and humorous, as these are effective ways to solicit curiosity and allow for the reader/viewer to remember what they see and read, I don't feel I am reacting against anything. I am just thoroughly interested in learning and conveying what I learn in the most effective, if whimsical, way possible.

How do you see artists' books and the book arts in general sitting in relation to the contemporary art world?
I often say to people that artists' books are sort of a step-child of contemporary art. They are highly respected for the most part, but as gallerists fear not being able to sell them, they have much more limited channels of circulation, and consequently, less viability economically. Also, they are generally more work for less money, as the artwork needs to be bound and packaged and protected. I have observed non-book artists sort of relaxing when someone is introduced to them as a book artist; they don't feel threatened at all! And I have heard artists comment to gallerists, "Imagine! Some artists just make books!" (How curious. Or foolish?). But I am not concerned with categories, genres or trends. Each artist should explore freely, and not worry about the labels. The goal is to have a good relationship with your own work, and to be true to yourself, not calculated. It is nice when you can look back ten or twenty years later and still like the "old" work. I think artists will make artists' books because it is not a choice…they can't help themselves. Sculpture was considered a craft, along with textiles, for a long time, and both printmaking and photography were merely considered means of reproduction, as opposed to art, for many decades as well.

To someone who doesn't know what artists' books are, which artists, or particular books would you advise them to look at?
It is really a matter of personal taste - all forms of contemporary art or music or performance will appeal to very different people. I would advise people to approach a book dealer or special collections/art librarian, and mention some of their own tastes, likes, and dislikes in art. I think the only way to get a full grasp of artists' books is to see a very broad range. Art critics, librarians, curators and dealers often have more knowledge than artists themselves. It is their job to be informed about artists' books, whereas artists must dedicate most of their time to making them, not just learning about what's out there. A good idea would be to attend a book fair or visit a dealer/bookstore and view a few books. Having gathered a little information and artist's names, a visit(with an appointment) to a good art library, university special collections or public library would be much easier in terms of knowing a few things to access or suggest. There is a lot to be gained from the Web, but people must see the works in person to grasp them fully.


'The Catalog', artist's book by Marshall Weber, published by AYP, New York, USA, about 1987. Pressmark: 804.AA.0024

'The Catalog', artist's book by Marshall Weber, published by AYP, New York, USA, about 1987. Pressmark: 804.AA.0024

Marshall Weber

Do you consider yourself specifically a 'book artist' or just an 'artist'?
An artist.

Do you have any formal education or training in the book arts? If not, what was your route into making artists' books?
Books and literature were a significant component of both the formal and informal curriculum of the San Francisco Art Institute of the 1980's. The beat poetry scene and the Punk DIY publishing scene (zines, posters) were always [a] crucial part of my art education. In a formative sense Mad magazine and Zap comix were the first artists books I read as a young child and greatly influenced my arts practice. I started creating artists books consciously in that specific context when Christopher Wilde, a student of mine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told me in 1995 that, after making books as part of my arts practice for 2 decades, I was making artists books.

What materials, techniques and themes do you use in your work?
All of them, as a practicing artist for 3 decades I have dozens of discrete bodies of works and themes. I tend to now work in performance, works on paper, books, performance/lectures, rubbing, drawing, ink and graphite. My themes explore politics, theology, philosophy, ecology, since I have close allegiances with the anti-war movement in the state many of my works address issues of conflict, trauma and recovery as well as resolution. As an American Jew who opposes the aparteid Zionist movement both in the USA and Israel that topic pops up in my work at times.

Do your books continue in the tradition of the livre d'artiste of the early 20th century?
Yes. Also more importantly the Soviet Constructivist popular press, (Lissitzky, Rodchenko, Malevich) and the 1960's poster movement that was heavily influenced by that.

... follow in the footsteps of those reacting against the establishment (eg. Ed Ruscha) in the 1960s
Yes

... or use the book as a conceptual starting point to create book objects
Yes

... or cross all these categories
Yes, and as an extension of pop publishing culture, DIY, comix, and the highly politicized text/image movement of the USA artwork in the 1980's. AND DON"T FORGET GRAFFITI!!! a primary text/image influence

How do you see artists' books and the book arts in general sitting in relation to the contemporary art world?
Artists' books are part of the palette of contemporary artists just like performance, prints, or video etc. etc.

The book arts are a craft/guild movement and related to the folk, fine and commercial and mass publications industry, they have little relation to recent contemporary art practice.

To someone who doesn't know what artists' books are, which artists, or particular books would you advise them to look at?
Go to Booklyn.org look at all the artists pages there.

Peace

Marshall

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London, You're Beautiful: An Artist's Year (Paperback)

London, You're Beautiful: An Artist's Year (Paperback)

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