In his essay ‘The Book as Object’ (1964) the French novelist Michel Butor wrote that the singular advantage of the bound codex over other recording media (vinyl, tape or film) was ‘the simultaneous exposure to our eyes of what our ears can grasp only sequentially’. Paradoxically, it’s this simultaneity that means a book is never a unified whole but a fluid arrangement of data sets and coded strata. The chartered space of the page always threatens to dissolve along its borders into various types of textual ‘matter’: footnote, afterword, gloss and index. This is hardly a novel insight – as readers of, say, Laurence Sterne, Stéphane Mallarmé or B.S. Johnson will know – but it seems perpetually to recur, as though for the first time, in discussions of artists’ books and their apparent assault on the integrity of the object.
Quite why this repetition-compulsion reigns in debates about the present state of the artist’s book was partly answered at The Liquid Page, a joint symposium organized by Tate Britain and the University for the Creative Arts, Maidstone. The underlying assumption (surely now dated) seemed to be that something as amorphous as ‘new technology’ had disrupted and dispersed our notion of what a book might be, and it was the task of artists and theorists to respond by conceiving of the medium anew. D
espite her authoritative account of the expansion of the book at the hands of experimental artists and writers in the last century, keynote speaker Johanna Drucker’s description of an online interpretative and collaborative space, at present being modelled by colleagues at the University of Virginia, risked the worst kind of academic corralling of that expansion. The artist Emily Artinian offered a far more generous vision of the excitement and absurdity of the digitally elaborated book in her analysis of the Wikipedia page on artists’ books: a site of scholarship, confusion, endless revision and international animus.
Given the remit of the event to explore the frayed edge of the book as object in contemporary art, the artists canvassed for exemplary practice were regrettably reticent in their analyses of their own work. Veronica Bailey’s somewhat cutely austere photographs of books from the library of architect Ernö Goldfinger and his wife, Ursula Blackwell, or volumes from the archive of the venerable London bank Coutts, suggest a metaphoric and real (archival) depth that Bailey shrank from inexplicably. (Nor, oddly, did she seem to have read any of the books.) Julie Cockburn was similarly content to describe her collages of childhood books and drawings in terms of an unreflective, intuitive practice. In both cases it was as though ‘the book’ functioned only as private, talismanic artefact, hermetically protected from the kind of experiments in materials, scope, definition and modes of production and distribution that have exercised artists since, at least, Ed Ruscha’s first books.
Among the qualities of the book that attracted the early Conceptualists was the serial reproduction of text and image. As the Melbourne-based artist, poet and architect Alex Selenitsch reminded us, this was a relatively late technological development: his paper explored what it might mean for the book to become again a ‘unique copy’. The artist and writer Simon Morley effected a fanciful but seductive reading of the paintings of Mark Rothko as faded, almost blank books, while Maria Fusco, editor of the experimental art-writing journal The Happy Hypocrite, described the absurd over-production of meaning in Flann O’Brien’s prodigious footnotes to his novel The Third Policeman (1940).
In their glancing approaches to the theme of the symposium Selenitsch, Morley and Fusco suggested that the addenda to an already well-thumbed subject were still worth cracking the spine for.