ART IS BOOKS
History in a nutshell : art today is what it is thanks to the historic avant-garde of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. In this rupture-period, with a multitude of artistic experiments, the concept of art itself was questioned. "Tin" books were made by the futurists; etc. Much later in the sixties, the technical innovations (photocopy- and offset-machines) opened new perspectives for the rapid printings of the neo-avant-garde of Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, Gutai, etc. Yet the seventies and especially the eighties became a flourishing period for the production of artists'books. Other influences upon the evolution of artists'books were the book-illustrators and above all the concrete and visual poets, when their semiotic analyses developed into a position where the text was leaving the pages of the book.
A multiplicity of terms has been used to indicate this artistic phenomenon: artists'books, artists'bookworks, books by artists, books as artwork, artists' publications, bookworks, bookism, book art, object books, book objects, etc. The boundaries among the different used terms are not always clear. In general a distinction has been made between a) "bookworks" (or "artists'books"): to denote books as containers (of ideas) (performance books, visual poetry books, etc.) and b) "book objects": to denote those books that must be considered as an art object in a spatial context. But the term "artists'books" is also being used to indicate a) and b). Anyway, all artists'books are produced by artists and regarded as works of art. To the advantage of the artists, I prefer to employ a wide and flexible interpretation of the notion "artists'book", going from book objects, to bookworks and periodicals in a limited edition. At the end, it is not important if a work becomes classified under the heading "artists'books". Not the classification, but the artist and his/her art are important.
Without injuring the decorative value of a "binding de luxe" or "de luxe limited edition", an artists'book may not be confused with it. An artists'book is always an original, not a reproduction. Although it can be a single item or a multiple artwork.
Artists'books operate within a formal book-structure, but without being hooked on the traditional requirements of texts and illustrations. For that reason artists'books demand a new way of reading, that takes into account the logical structure and the dialogical experience of the work. So, every bookwork is an invitation to explore the different levels of it. Or after Roland Barthes: "Le plaisir du livre d'artiste".
Although artists'books form an autonomous art discipline, there is a close relation with the Mail-Art Network. Mail-Art is a body with many hearts and the artists'book is one of them. Most mail-artists (or networkers/communicationists/media-artists) are more or less involved in creating bookworks and the greater part of all artists'books is gained by post. The idea of dividing Mail-Art from artists'books is typical for the art-critic, not for the artist. Peculiar to the artist of today is the easiness of crossing borders of different media or genres.
As already said, artists'books are books made by artists. The book is used as an art-medium, like the painter uses the canvas. These books can rather be called "exploring-books" than "reading-books". For a certain purpose, as to inventory, a classification can be useful. Therefore I mention some terms of the comprehensive arsenal of bookworks : sculptural books, hole books, accordion books, transparent books, braided books, chapbooks (folkbooks), note-books, flipbooks, sketchbooks, copy art books, recycling books, performance books, project books, concrete books, photograph albums, shade books, marbled books, microfilmbooks, etc. Moreover a multiplicity of techniques exists: (unica or multiple editions) handmade books (scrolled booksworks, (leather) bindings, rubber stamp books, folded bookforms, ...); printed books (self-publishing, prototypes, small presses, ...); microfiche publications; xerox; photographs; lithography books; etc. Further the pages can be made of felt, glass, clay, steel, vinyl, leather, handmade paper, etc. The sending of all these book-forms has also contributed to the development of the Mail-Art Network.
In plastic arts books receive a special place. After all, what remains of an exhibition when it comes to an end? Nostalgia, a vague recollection and some photographs? But especially the "book", the catalogue of the show. Books are the genuine and tangible memory. This reminds me of the L.H.F.S.-Mail-Art show I curated at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels in 1981. The idea was to hold the whole exhibition in your hand. All together 17 micro-fiches, including more than thousand Mail-Art works, were housed in a booklet. Hence it appears that the epistemological problem "if a book can reproduce reality" was out of question. The problem was : can the exhibition replace the book?
What is a book ? "An instrument of communication; to convey meaning; a publication for tangible circulation" (Britannica); "24 pages of which 22 are printed" (U.S. Postal Service); "A number of printed or written sheets of paper, etc. fastened together, usually between protective covers" (Webster). A book can be a) a reflection of reality; b) the carrier of an idea or message; c) a new reality, the message itself. An artists'book is a book, not because it fulfils the essential characteristics of it, but on account of the fact that the artist says so. Furthermore, an artists'book can also be a sculpture or an installation, etc.
It is conspicious that poets and novelists survive by living in symbiosis with paper and books. They remain loyal to the Gutenberg medium and use books as containers of poems or novels, not as art-objects. On the other hand plastic artists create or transform books by giving them a formal function or placing them in a unusual artistic context. They interchange the utilitarian with the aesthetic function. No books as "vehicles" of art, but as art itself. The book is completed with new meanings.
An artists'book is not an anti-book, but an apologia for the widening of the idea "book". For the artist the book is a challenge to interpret in a new way the classic dichotomy of form and content. (S)he attacks the essence of the book to reconcile the text, its structure and the matter holding the text, by transforming them into images.
In comparison with rather immaterial media as radio or television, books have the advantage to be more tangible. This palpability becomes unreal and celestial when you have the strange experience of holding a book in your hands, that was written a thousand years ago or more - and have the impression of defying the notion of time. This aesthetical experience is characteristic for the artists'book. It is made to be touched and to give a tactile pleasure. This portable art-form provokes a personal contact, demands to be cherised and to be smelled at. An artists'book is an intimate work and covers a one-to-one relation. It transcends the alienating position of the book today, the mass production of pocket- and paperback editions or the very expensive slick-books that swallow the enchantment of the book and make it worthless.
"Most books are primarly about something outside themselves; most book-art books are primarily about themselves." (Richard Kostelanetz)
A photograph or an illustration of an artists'book is always an impoverishment. One can not reproduce a 3-dimensional object in a 2-dimensional plane. The spatial aspect of the book becomes neglected. The same difficulty appears with sculptures. The experience to touch or walk about them becomes omitted. A book about artists'books is a contradiction. It can be handled, but the art-works, represented in it, can not.
Books are not evident. They are not necessary. Some cultures functioned and function well without them. A book is a small unit of order in the big Chaos. It links separated things, not connected before. Without books, history wouldn't be the same. Today, the position of books is threatened by other media. Politicians play their wargames via telecommunication media. However, books can still have an enormous impact. One of the most discussed books of the last years is undoubtedly Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses". The belief in books as "carriers" of ideas has not ended yet. Most religions are still based on the existence of (revelations in) books. And some of these books are not mythical or containers of myths, but myths itself.
Since the rise of electronic reproduction methods, everybody has the opportunity to be a publisher of books. We live in an age of "communicationism". The communication is more important than the art-objects. The ephemeral character is neglectable. (Meta-)communication is the art. The dialogue is not only more useful than the conflict, but even more necessary on a global level. Art is an attitude.