Sunday, February 27, 2011

Appropriate(d) Behavior in Art

I suppose I have a preference when it comes to using other people's work in my own: I try not to do it. I'm not against all art that incorporates material appropriated from other sources, but I feel that both the challenge and the reward are greater when one works with one's own original writing and art.

Some reasons you might want to use someone else's material might come from the urge to produce a social commentary like a satire or a parody. Whether this will be deemed art is another question. For Barbara Kruger, for example, it is considered conceptual art and placed in an art context. If not done thoughtfully, appropriated imagery or text can appear lightweight, like there isn't much there. To pull it off, to really work the magic, it takes more skill than one might think. There must be an underlying criticism and social or political or psychological context in addition to the humor. There's that old subtext again.

Some terms to think about:
Satire is a social criticism meant to call attention to our vices or follies and alert us to and shame us into better behavior.
Parody is a satirical imitation of a literary or artistic work that already exists.
Irony presents a contradiction between what is said and what is meant, often in a sarcastic (mocking) or sardonic (disdainful or skeptical) manner.

Additionally, if one is to use appropriated material, fair use copyright issues should be studied. This list is simplified from a link on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website. I urge you to read the original.

  • The purpose and character of the use: have you transformed the work or is it a copy? will you be profiting from it commercially?
  • The nature of the work: factual or creative?
  • The amount and nature of amount used: how much used? and how used? rules for parodies may be slightly different.
  • The effect: does it compete with something already out there even if that thing is free?

While I don't use appropriated material in my books, I occasionally using quoted work when I produce letterpress cards or free keepsakes. Often this happens because something ironic or delightful appears in a newspaper article and I can't top it, I just want to share it.

For the most part, though, I feel that one can look to other works for inspiration, but respond to them in one's own original voice.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

100+ Copies: the Democratic Multiple

Recently an article in the New York Times about artist Luis Camnitzer reminded me about the phrase that used to ricochet off of bookshelves around the small press community, the "democratic multiple." It was attributed to Clive Phillpot who headed the Franklin Furnace collection, a collection of artists books produced after 1960 that was eventually integrated into a collection at MoMA Library. The website says it will "accept any multiple published by an artist as a work of art" and now lists more than 7,700 titles. When I submitted work, decades ago, the policy was that a multiple must be in an edition of 100 or more copies, which was relevant for only one of my books, A Sad Story About Chocolate. 

Lucy R. Lippard goes into a more detailed discussion about multiples in her essay, "Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists' Books," as does Clive Phillpot in his, "Some Contemporary Artists and Their Books" which may be found in the book Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook  edited by Joan Lyons (1987. Unfortunately, out of print).

Johanna Drucker, in The Century of Artists' Books, devotes Chapter 4 (pp. 69-91) to "The Artist's Book as a Democratic Multiple." Drucker writes that artist's books could be "an alternative artform, one which was able to exist outside of gallery or museum structures" (70). She explores the idea of the artist's book as a possibly democratic artform; the existence of many copies could mean a cheaper price for the buyer, therefore more people could afford them. She also points out that there is no guarantee that the content is accessible to everyone (thus, not democratic). In this vein of economy Drucker also takes on the notion that single copies might be inexpensive to the buyer, but that a large offset print run might be expensive to the maker.

Now we have print-on-demand services such as Blurb, Lulu, and CreateSpace where you can design your book, upload it for free, then print it out and pay for it only when you want it. It's quite astonishing to think about it in contrast to the previous form of photocopying, mimeographing, or offset printing huge editions and being stuck with the inventory. Keith Smith uses the on-demand service as a printer only; he designs a book that will be taken apart, reassembled, and hand sewn into the final work.

When you create multiples by hand you get really good at printing and/or binding. You also get to keep a copy for yourself and give away a few to friends. Additionally, you could join the thriving and enthusiastic zine community where artists and writers are still making (mostly) photocopied or laserprinted booklets and stapling them together, then converging for sales and festivals. The aesthetic for these booklets by choice, I think, is somewhat homey, but they always have soul.

Latin America has a really interesting history with multiples. In northeast Brazil, for example, there is the tradition of cordel, a little booklet that was carried from place to place to provide information to those remote regions. The texts were news stories, morality tales, or popular folk stories written in verse and included woodcuts on the covers. They were strung on a line outside markets (cordel/cord) and occasionally the writer/artist would also sing the contents as advertising. The little booklets are still being made today, mostly as amusements and entertainment, but still as one trusted news source for some poor and illiterate. Though well-known as a cordel artist, José Francisco Borges also contributed his woodcuts to illustrate the book Walking Words by Eduardo Galeano, a publication mass-produced in a completely different way.

It is much easier to produce larger editions when you are working with a collaborator, an assistant, or a group, something I have done only rarely. A fantastic group in Cuba, Ediciones Vigia continues to make wonderful handmade books in editions of 200, which they have done since 1985. A few images are here. And an exhibit here.

Artnoose has been producing her stapled pamphlet publication Ker-bloom! in an edition of more than 300 since 1996, and it always has a colorful letterpress printed cover and thoughtful writing as well as an affordable price. (It should be noted that she has a C&P press which can print much faster than those of us with Vandercooks or Vanderclones.)

I believe that the mass-produced artist's book still has the potential to reach out and touch people, many more people than a single copy can. As with some of the publications listed above, I think that the books can still retain craftsmanship and exhibit attention to aesthetic details, can contain art while still being affordable to both maker and buyer. Perhaps it is time again to think about what kinds of texts, amusements, entertainments, satires, or information to appropriately highlight and enhance through a mass-produced physical form—a form that can inspire collaborations, new ideas, or link in to the community building that is happening in many parts of the art world today.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Minding a Writer's Sentence

In one section of her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about the importance of the sentence, citing in one instance, "Compressed into a single sentence is an entire way of life" (48). It's impressive to think that you can write a single sentence that contains a world. Prose suggests that this is done "through word choice, rhythm, and syntax" (51) and "first and most obviously clarity" (39). Rhythm and melody are nice, but they should all be harnessed toward the meaning. Being mindful when constructing sentences can have an overall impact on the success of the story.

Peter Orner echoed these sentiments when talking about the work of Andre Dubus (pronounced Duh-BYOOSE) II and pointing them out in the short story, "Leslie in California" from the collection, Selected Stories. Peter said that Dubus agonized over each sentence, wanting to make it perfect, and as the class looked at that particular short story, we could see the evidence. The last line paints a heartrending picture.
 "Soon the road will warm, and I think of rattlesnakes sleeping on it, and I shut the screen and look around the lawn where nothing moves."
Dubus could have chosen to break up the line into several sentences, but the cumulative effect, with all the commas, is much more powerful as we imagine the character taking in not just a few thoughts, but a lonely panoramic view. Like a camera, he zooms in and back from the road to the snakes, to the screen, to the woman looking back out at the lawn all in one sentence.

Dubus not only crafts each sentence, but gets to the deep emotional core of all of his characters, which is not always easy for the reader. He communicates the feeling of longing perfectly in several stories, such as in "The Fat Girl" and "A Father's Story." In "The Fat Girl" he does it in two sentences. The second sentence reveals several emotions and complicated relationships.
"In the summer before their senior year, Carrie fell in love. She wrote to Louise about him, but did not write much, and this hurt Louise more than if Carrie had shown the joy her writing tried to conceal."
The last part, "the joy her writing tried to conceal" lands squarely in the gut. Louise would rather share Carrie's happiness and be trusted to deal with her own emotions rather than be shielded because she doesn't have a love of her own. The reader also feels shielded, left out, which is one reason why Dubus's sentence works so well.

Prose writes that a sentence should be "economical," that all the words matter and that in a good sentence you neither should be able to take any out nor add in any (39). A sentence from Dubus that perfectly illustrates economy is from "The Fat Girl" (also in the same collection as "Leslie"), "Richard was a lean, tall, energetic man with the metabolism of a pencil sharpener." Dubus just could have said Richard was as tall and thin as a pencil, but that would not nearly be as funny, vivid, or clear. You can imagine lean Richard plowing through his food, grinding it up methodically.

Each sentence can paint a picture, provide suspense, present a mood, or show movement. From Dubus's "A Father's Story," here is a picture and a shifting distance, "Sometimes a rabbit comes out of the treeline, or is already there, invisible till the light finds him." The treeline is the background, the rabbit is the figure, the light is the movement our eyes share, the process of searching the area and finding that figure. There is a little jump between "comes out" and "already there" and "invisible" as we try to picture where the rabbit really is or if s/he is still hopping.

In Prose's illuminating book, she opens the reader's eyes to the details of reading and writing and the connections between them. She believes that good writing is the kind of writing that we want to take apart to see how it is constructed, "much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine" (36). Dubus's writing lends itself to that examination, and by doing so demonstrates his interest in the perfect sentence. Yes, all the words matter.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pivoting Panels: Pivotal Moments

At the Codex bookfair, held in Pauley Ballroom on the UC Berkeley campus February 6-9, I saw three versions by three different artists of what I would call the "new" Hedi Kyle structure, which she calls "Pivoting Panels."

I remember two: Julie Chen showed her exquisitely printed book, Invented Landscape, and
Alice Austin displayed an original work as well.

Here is a model of the structure. It is a variation (yes, I always have to mess with it), made with a circle accordion (MHB, 119) and gessoed panels that stick out when the book is closed. I like that this book has the potential for two interwoven stories, possibly about pivotal moments; you can flip the panels discreetly without completely turning over the book. Hedi's version, it should be noted, closes with all panels hidden inside, protected.

I'll be teaching a class on how to make the structure this June. Watch the class listings for further information.

You might try this creative process exercise before making a pivoting panel book: think about a pivotal moment such as when you had a sudden realization or when an outside event changed your life. Maybe it was meeting someone, finding something or someone you thought you'd lost, a natural or historical event, or some kind of a coincidence. Then think about the life of that thing or person before the change. Write two parallel pieces from different points of view or create two strikingly different visual pieces.

Attending the bookfair always provides a pivotal moment for me. This time it was getting to examine a new book structure. 

Watch the Codex Foundation page for the next event in 2013.

Monday, February 14, 2011

In the Heart of the Story

William H. Gass wrote an inspiring modular short story called, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," which faithfully squeezes the hands, so to speak, of emotion, concept, connected themes, and beautiful writing. Three of us fellow students concurred that the piece itself had "heart." I'm not sure where the term came from, but we started wondering about heart in fiction. We wondered how to achieve this emotional depth, warmth, or whatever it is in our own work.

Gass uses "heart of the country" to mean the town "B" in Indiana, the heartland. The "in the heart" itself refers to the narrator's heart. The narrator speaks with both warmth and despair, (and possibly bitterness) about his town and also about his past love, the concept of the heart doubles back on itself, folded silkily. The reader learns to care about the town, to care about the characters.

How to do this? How does one create characters or places the reader can connect with? Even trickier, how to create characters with beliefs you don't agree with whom you can still empathize?

One thought might be to create a character that is vulnerable in some way. Gass's narrator seems to suffer a loss of his love. He doesn't get all teary-eyed over it, he just describes the situation. We don't feel he is feeling sorry for himself, but we feel sorry for him, perhaps injecting our own experiences of lost love,
"…for I'm the sort now in the fool's position of having love left over which I'd like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?"
From the next comment we can tell that the narrator feels strongly about things, "These wires offend me." But the telephone wires are not alive, they are just wires. A few pages later he reinforces his passion and makes his intention clearer and more understandable,
"Really, wires are voices in thin strips. They are words wound in cables. Bars of connection."
He makes the connection between wires and humans, and thus the connection to our humanity. Gass also writes of the "headless maples" that were cut off so as not to interfere with the power lines, and with his use of the word "headless" we feel the life cut short in those trees. These particular examples suggest that having a character care for something is an entry point. A character with no loves or hates may read as cold. If the reader somehow identifies with the character, and the character loves something, it is possible the reader may also care.

Gass also describes, with feeling, other fictional objects that correspond to tangible, real things with which we can identify. He chooses his words carefully with attention to the images they conjure. The language that Gass uses points to a cozy relationship with the place that "always puts its best side to the highway."

By showing a character's own strong feelings and vulnerability, by using a particular kind of language which reveals his thought process, Gass tugs us in. The story, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" was written in 1967, but it still resonates with us emotionally because of the heart held within it.
"The heart, don't they always say, keeps the true time."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Restart with a Single Signature

It can be hard to find that first word, hard to choose that first piece of paper for a project, just alarmingly difficult to begin anything. Over time I have noticed that creative blocks spring up for at least three possible reasons: whenever I feel obligated to make something; internal pressure that whatever I do has to be good; or I'm dealing with something emotionally challenging in my life and I'm trying to push it away.

The first two cases really require turning off my internal editor, calming down, and figuring out what I want to say right at that moment. They may require I take a long walk to get to that place. I start asking myself questions like what subjects feel important to me right now, what stories do I want to tell?

Instead of pushing away the hard stuff, try running toward it. Use it. Exploit it. It has the power to stop creativity, so it might as well be used to restart it. Make things for yourself to get through difficulties. Destroy them if you must, but they may well be the strongest work you do.

Here is a beginning project to get your hands going and your unconscious working. It's about process, not product, so any kind of paper or thread can be used for this very basic single signature (also called pamphlet stitch) book. You can find it and its variations in Making Handmade Books on page 95.

To begin, choose a color. Gather 3-5 papers that contain this color. Plan to fold each paper with the grain, or the easiest way it will fold. Tear the papers, cut them, or shape them however you like to roughly the same height. Fold them all in half. Write or type on them whatever you are thinking about.

Stack the papers so they nest, one inside the next.

With an awl or needle, poke three equidistant holes from the inside, along the fold, through all the papers.

Take a length of thread that is three times the height of your book (top to bottom, head to tail along the folded spine) and thread your needle.

Start sewing into the center hole. If your thread is thin, start from the inside (you will eventually have loose thread ends in the center of your book). If your thread is thick, start from the outside (the threads will be on the outside and you can attach small beads or objects to them later, if you like).

Sew to one of the other holes.

Skip the center hole and go back into the remaining hole.

Now sew into the center hole again. Arrange the two tails so that one thread is on either side of the sewn thread. Remove the needle.

Tie the two threads in a square knot. Trim the ends, if desired.

Make many of these pamphlets in different colors. Attack the book with a hole punch, if you like.

By keeping your hands busy you may think of new ideas for other books.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Giving and Taking Assignments

I was not an obedient student. I rebelled at assignments, declaiming against them as busy work and irrelevant. School didn't fit me, or so I thought. I learned early on to just change the assignments and do what I wanted, which usually got me praise for creativity, but it was unclear if I learned what I was "supposed" to. The first example I can remember occured in fourth grade with a particularly strict teacher who informed us squirming pupils that we were going to make Christmas tree stitchery for the holidays. (Stitchery was big at the time: yarn embroidery on burlap.) When I told the teacher I didn't want to make a tree because I didn't have a tree she ordered me to follow the assignment. I made a menorah instead. When she saw my completed work she gushed over it and wanted to keep it for an example. My nine-year-old self saw this as a mixed message.

As a teacher, I am reluctant to give assignments, both remembering how irritated I got and wanting to provide a comfortable environment to explore the artmaking process. I don't want to squish anybody's spirit. I agree it is hard to pull ideas out of the air sometimes, and more and more I've learned that people crave some kind of structure. When I teach my bookmaking classes I try to explain that the assignment is a framework, but work shouldn't be done to fulfill the assignment, work should be done to fulfill themselves.

One particular two-part assignment I like involves creating multiples of a folded book. Students make enough copies for everyone in the class (in our case, usually fifteen). This assignment provides a lesson on: design and planning; production and printmaking; experimentation with materials; and a forum to think about who the audience is for the book. After they complete this edition and exchange books, they are to pick one of their classmates' works and make a book in response to it, this time only three copies: one for them, one for the classmate whose book they responded to, and one for me.

When responding to a book, a few interesting things happen. I have seen students choose a book they admire so they can see how it was made. I have seen them choose a book with a topic or form they would never have chosen themselves, which pushes them outside their comfort zone. And I have seen how they get a new idea sparked by something they saw.

I've found that by working in this very focused way, the assignment encourages students to think about what they like and what they want for themselves after all.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Design Changes

As I mentioned in the post, "Lessons from The Snake Book," I had been preparing a session on one-page folded books with one printed side for my Bookmaking class at California College of the Arts. In order to test the books, I came up with the phrase to print, "Each unique structure opens unique reading possibilities." What I hadn't counted on was that the design for each page needed to be adjusted, depending on where it fell in the book. Sometimes what I thought were two-page spreads, or openings, got separated when folded in a different manner.

For example, the X Book (MHB, 32) showed the word "each" on the cover, with "unique" and "structure" facing each other.

The T-Cut Book (47) shared the same opening of "unique" and "structure" as the X book (but left white spaces so should be printed on two sides for a better effect). The last two words had to share a page to fit.

When I folded the Pants Book (36), however, "each" and "unique" shared the space. The two words looked too heavy together, so I chose a lighter typeface for "unique."

X Book:   Each     unique structure     opens unique     reading possibilities
T-Cut:   Each    unique structure (blank)(blank)(blank)(blank)   opens unique         reading/possibilities
Pants Books:   Each unique     structure opens     unique reading     possibilities

X Book, T-Cut Book, Pants Book (bottom)
This exercise illuminates the view that book pages must be designed for a particular structure. The structure drives the book design, the layout, and the placement of the type and information.

Friday, February 4, 2011

When Is It Art?

A question came up on another blog that touched me, one that I wanted to look at: "How do you know if it will be art when you're through?" While I don't believe there is one answer, I'm interested in the kinds of answers one might give (and I'm interested in your reactions).

First, I think you have to look at what you want when you view a work deemed "art." I want: to be moved emotionally by the content and really feel something; inspired intellectually by the concept and made to think; or to be awed by the skill and technique it took to make the work. I don't expect to get all of those conditions from one piece, but I'm thrilled and completely blown away when I do. I always hope that seeing a work will make me want to go home and create something myself.

How would you achieve these qualities in your work?

Moved Emotionally. If it doesn't move you when you make it, it probably isn't going to move anyone else. What has to happen? You have to feel a strong emotion and work from that place, keeping that emotion in mind as you make marks or string words together. Inhabit the feeling like an actor and project your intentions through your choices.

Inspired Intellectually. Try starting with an underlying theme, a concept that will unify the piece. Investigate, learn something about the world as you work, something that you feel compelled to share with an audience. Sometimes you have to take a risk to do that. By manipulating objects and juxtaposing ideas think about how you can present a new way of thinking, seeing, or reading.

Skill, Technique, Materials. This is practice. This is studying other artwork. This is reading books about technique, taking classes, learning the basics and then the advanced details. Learn about what different materials do best and how to manipulate them so they do what you want them to do.

You may find that you are compelled to keep making work because you can't not make it. You have a message you want to communicate. And you feel the need to share it. This, I believe, is the artmaking process.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Superbook Sunday Signing: Pegasus Downtown

I will be at local independent bookstore, Pegasus Books Downtown on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, CA this Sunday, February 6th, at 4:00 p.m. What will I do there? I will sign your copy of Making Handmade Books, if you like. I will demonstrate some quick folded books, and I will show some of my own artist's books that were included as photos in the instructional book.

I hope to see you there!

You might like to visit the Codex Book Fair before you come. Books from all over the world are on display. Donna Seager Gallery and Vamp and Tramp will be there as well as many other vendors and book artists.