Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
I am a supporter—a collector and fan—of “little” books. I love pamphlets, chapbooks, handmade books, collective assemblings . . . and artist books.
How can we make sense of the artist book? Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artist Books (Granary, 1995) remains the first full-length study dedicated to the artform. A talented book artist, as well as recognized scholar, Drucker offers both a theoretical foundation and historical sketch of the genre, also admitting that these “unique” works are so diverse in structure, form, and concept that they elude any specific or definition. And this is what I like about them . . . how they blur boundaries, and how they “intersect,” to use Drucker’s word, disciplines, fields, and ideas. Their history is a rich one: present in various groups and movements including the Lettrism, the Situationists, Dada & French surrealism, and Fluxus.
My own interest in artist books is grounded in two realms. First, they help raise key questions for my research in the book studies—literary, historical, and bibliographical—especially in relation to my own problems and investigations in what the book means in the digital age. While I am certainly interested and encouraged by the alternatives, opportunities, and new questions raised by digital publishing, I will always be a lover and defender of print. (I am often disappointed with the assumption that being engaging in new media means I somehow support the “death of print”.) And I think there’s a unique relationship a reader has to a little book—where it is handmade or not. The small book offers something special: it is portable and self-contained, yet it floats between forms, exists on the brink of change. Its own “limited” space allows it, almost forces the work, to be more pointed, political, jarring. And we are living in an era of transition(s), of “polluted” forms, that propels us, pinching from Baudrillard now, to escape velocity or denaturalize knowledge itself.
Interest also stems in the process of artist book production: the added pressures and responsibilities to places on artists and the questions it forces us to ask. Anyone truly invested in a project understands the emotional and obsessive nature of the process—the desire to “get it right”. But the roads can get dark and narrowed, to the point where we can only see the vision of the final product, that is, one possibility. The artist book encourages—no, requires—us to ask to questions to imagine alternate approaches, to dream new dreams instead of allowing one vision to transform into a nightmare. Writers and artists live in an ever-present world of revision, and I think the artist book offers re-envision.
I first learned of artist books and started playing with forms and materials while studying Creative Writing and the Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore. I’ve worked with flash cards & playing cards, created printed prayer flags, built a triptych box, created a number of flutter and folded pamphlets, and explored a number of stitch, stab, and comb bindings. These are all one-of-a-kind works, many of which still exist, boxed in an attic that’s begun to resemble a cabinet of curiosities from another era.
Two works produced in limited quantity are posted on this site. This spring, I am beginning work on another book: a poetic treatise on miniatures, modeling, and maps. Hope to share it soon!