The new art of making books
On the “books”.
The ubiquity of the book as a marketable artifact led Mexican author and artist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989) to write rebelliously in 1975: “A book can be the accidental container of a text, whose structure has nothing to do with the book: these are the books of bookstores and libraries. We have to imagine a long pause where this colon articulates the sentence – a heavy one of sarcasm.
Carrión’s ironic investigation of the book as a commercial artifact reflects the separation of form and content he perceived in the writing and publishing of his time. Carrión was not completely opposed to bookstores and even founded one himself, Other Books and So, in Amsterdam the same year. Specializing in artists’ books and multiples, the shop was also an exhibition and event space run by artists who disseminated the kind of works he wanted to see more of in the world: books designed as a whole , rather than “texts” granted by the author to a publisher for distribution to a reading public. In an advertisement for space, he called them “non-books, anti-books, pseudo-books, quasi-books, concrete books, visual books, concept books, structural books, project books, statement books, instructions”, an evocative list of his controversial relationship with the market. Ultimately, he would coin a new term to describe the kind of artist publications he championed: works of books. In part, Carrión was a clear call for authors to be more mindful of the book’s materiality and impact on meaning, but it was also a demand for the collapse of the system that privileged writing as work. intellectual and denigrated the physicality of book production.
Carrión perceived a crisis in literature, and for him this crisis arose from his place in the editorial system. He knew this system firsthand, having achieved early success by winning the State Prize for Short Stories in 1960, publishing work in periodicals, and eventually publishing two collections of success stories, in 1966 and 1970. Carrión had studied literature and philosophy at UNAM, and he achieved enough success to receive postgraduate scholarships in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. While in England, he began to consider a different approach to books and publishing, thanks to Mexican artists Felipe Ehrenberg and Martha Hellion, whose Beau Geste Press (founded in 1970) introduced him to books mimeographed by members of Fluxus, a free collective of artists interested in random operations, ephemeral performances, conceptual practice and participatory works that blur the line between art and life. When he moved to Amsterdam in 1972, Carrión began producing his own artists’ books, the first of which, “Sonnets”, provided 44 iterations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Heart’s Compass”. Like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), Carrión plays with his source text, rewriting it in different styles for amusing purposes. It was in this context of experimenting with poetry and moving from narrative to conceptual art that Carrión began to formulate the notion of the book.
Demanding that writers take a more active part in conceptualizing their books, he published “The New Art of Making Books” (1975), a manifesto whose polemical tone served as a provocation that still irritates some readers today. Originally written in Spanish and published in Plural, the magazine founded by Octavio Paz, it was aimed at a literary audience that Carrión felt the need for a boost. Disavowing the novel as “a book where nothing happens”, and proclaiming “there is not and will be no more new literature”, he clearly hoped to ruffle feathers. The novel, of course, is not dead, and it still serves an important expressive purpose, but Carrión’s reinterpretation of the book’s capabilities shows us much about how artists’ books have helped multiply its possibilities by dealing the book as an intermediate space. .
Like Stéphane Mallarmé before him, Carrión saw the spatial potential of the page. Its manifesto opens with “A book is a sequence of spaces”, a definition so porous that it allows for any number of objects or artefacts that we might think of as books: a bound codex, a set of cards or a series of coins. But his definition goes even further:
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments.
• • • •
A book is not a box of words, nor a bag of words, nor a carrier of words.
• • • •
… A book is a space-time sequence.
If a book is a space-time sequence, it is also a kind of film. It can be animated rather than static. At the time Carrión wrote this statement, the creators of flip-books and their precursor, the nickelodeon, had harnessed this aspect of the book’s sequential potential for just over a century (the flip-book having been patented in 1868 by John Barnes Linnett as the kineographer). This notion, however, that the page is more than just a “bag of words” suggests that writers need to stop treating language as transparent, utilitarian, and direct. It was only in ancient art that one could believe that “the meanings of words carry the intentions of the author”. Clearly, Carrión’s thought bears the hallmarks of poststructural theory, which at this stage had shaken the notions of meaning and authorship.
Instead of these “boring” books “of 500 pages, or 100, even 25 where all the pages are similar”, Carrión called for books “conceived as an expressive unit”, as he will write in a catalog exhibition of 1978. . Although calling pages of justified prose “boring” seems deliberately bombastic, we must consider the role that page numbers and reading heads play in making a work easier to read and revise. These panels help us navigate through text that looks the same from page to page, even though its words may vary. “In a book”, according to Carrión’s definition, “the message is the sum of all the material and formal elements”. The book thus engages in a critique of the book and an exploration of its affordances. He takes nothing at face value and asks the reader to remain attentive not only to the text but also to its physicality. As researcher Garrett Stewart writes, a book is “not for normal reading, but for thinking about.” It represents a conceptual approach to bookmaking, which relies on the viewer’s interaction with the object to provide meaning. For this reason, Carrión has called these works “anti-books” — because they deny the function of the book while questioning its form, separating the idea of the book from the object.
In a 1986 video recorded in Olympia, Washington, where Carrión was to speak at Evergreen State College, he professes a common perspective today: “I firmly believe that every book that exists now will eventually disappear. And true to form, he expresses little sadness over the loss: “And I see no reason to lament here. Like any other living organism, books grow, multiply, change color and eventually die. At present, the books represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books.
Sounding the death knell for books that have since become a chorus, Carrión suggests that books take on more importance when the codex itself seems in jeopardy. This is especially true today, when publishers are taking more and more risks with art publications and conceptually inventive books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-to-shape erasure “Tree of Codes” (Visual Editions , 2010), Mark Danielewski’s intricate “House of Leaves” typography. (Pantheon, 2000), Anne Carson’s accordion “Nox” (New Directions, 2010), and Jen Bervin’s collection of envelope fragments by Emily Dickinson, “Gorgeous Nothings” (New Directions, 2013 ), a volume that resembles a coffee-table book. As the material form of the codex threatens to disintegrate into the digital, works highly sensitive to materiality give us the opportunity to think about and savor the physical artifact, precisely by asking us to ponder the very “idea”. immaterial of the book.
Amaranth Borsuk is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, where she also teaches MFA in creative and poetic writing. She is the author of “The Book”, from which this article is excerpted, “Between Page and Screen”, a digital pop-up poetry book, and other print/digital hybrid books.