Artisans and Artists Keep Print Alive
Two conferences these past months, the APHA Annual Conference in October and the New York Art Book Fair in November, cast contrasting views on art and the book. At the same time they shared common ground resting on a future with print. Going into the holiday season with the new year coming up full of uncertainties about their future, seasoned book industry people may wonder at the relevance of this topic.
Yet the plain fact is that despite the millions of Kindles, iPads, Nooks and Sony Readers out there—and a new generation of portable readers to come—with e-books flooding the lists to populate them, book titles proliferate in volume, and generations of artisans and artists continue to find the form an irresistible platform for expression.
At the 35th Annual Conference of the American Printing History Association, held at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., we saw a thriving and fully enrolled graphic arts program applying the traditional arts to new projects in prints and printing. A panel of private press letterpress printers from the Chesapeake Chapter discussed with enthusiasm the preservation and uses of old equipment such as Vandercooks and Chandler presses (Pembroke Press, BowerBox Press, Crooked Crow Press, Stoney Creek Press, Peregrinus Press).
A growing cohort of Book Arts centers is thriving around the country in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and elsewhere. I have visited most of these—and you will find fully equipped letterpress print shops, silk-screening binderies, print-making, paper-making, classrooms and bookshops. This is true also of printing and graphic arts courses lodging themselves in college art and design departments and attached to libraries. One of the largest collections of printing presses at a college campus will be found at U.C. Riverside.
Betty Bright, a noted book arts historian and author, keynoted the event on the issues raised as the book becomes a platform for craft and self-expression that transforms it from its function as a book and places it in the pantheon of objects that creative artisans use on which to build their vision or send their message.
She writes on her home page, "Artists' books transform the reading experience into a participatory interaction involving intellect and emotion, the body and the senses. When I write or talk about book art, I convey that immersive quality of an artist's book, as the reader experiences it, page by page, reading by reading." Bright's page is worth a visit as it opens to the world of book arts history and research (http://bettybrightbookart.com).
In complete contrast to this genre of artist's books were those artists books on exhibit by some 280 artisans and independent art book publishers at the Fifth Annual New York Art Book Fair held at MOMA's PS 1 exhibit center in Long Island City. Represented were an array of art book publishers from Scandinavia, Holland, England, Australia and Canada along with the U.S.
Here the term "Artist" applies to painters, illustrators, photographers, sculptors and mixed media expressionists, and the medium includes conventional books as well as "zines," handbills and tabloids—underground and social action messengers using the graphic and printed forum to rattle the cage or reach a nonconventional audience.
The event is sponsored by Printed Matter Inc. (http://printedmatter.org), "the world's largest non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of publications made by artists." It is best described as a global clearing house and bookshop for artists work intended to reach a popular market.
Printed Matter draws the distinction in its own words: "Printed Matter's mission is to foster the appreciation, dissemination and understanding of artists' publications, which we define as books or other editioned publications conceived by artists as art works, or, more succinctly, as 'artwork for the page.' Printed Matter specializes in publications produced in large, inexpensive editions and therefore does not deal in 'book arts' or 'book objects' which are often produced in smaller, more expensive editions due to the craft and labor involved in their fabrication."
A random survey revealed few users of toner-driven print on demand technologies at the Fair—although it is hard to imagine that the benefits of the process won't eventually prevail. As it is, these artist publishers invest their own money in limited editions of a few hundred to a few thousand and find audiences and sell them out.
Clearly the book arts artists and the artist book artists are not central to the survival of the book industry as we know it. On the other hand, in whatever shape the book industry survives, the book arts and artist books are following their own trajectory.
Coming up, higher education publishing will be the focus of a BISG Making Information Pay Conference on February 9. The college publishing business is a case study in the transitioning from a legacy print-bound and captive audience sector to a multiple platform, multi-media and open marketing model; a transition from selling product to marketing learning services. Highly recommended. Go to http://www.bisg.org/news.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.