Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 14 - Feb 15th, 2019
The Artist Book as Feminist Artefact

As I begin to think about the upcoming research paper or media report and artefact, I somehow find myself thinking of the final artefact and working backwards. I began thinking back to an exploration I did last year in Artist Books. I find Artists Books compelling because they are often conceptual in form and push the boundaries of what constitutes a 'book.' They can be more like surreal and personal puzzles which create intimate relationships between the ‘reader’ and the artist. They are also interactive and were so long before computational art!

The process of crafting Artist Books is detailed, personal, and to me, a celebration of skills traditionally attributed to women. Perhaps it is not inherently feminist to engage in this type of work but a predominantly high number of Artist Books have been created by women. Many of those books describe the experience of women, both from the personal standpoint of the artist and frequently the broader experience of women in a patriarchal society.

The National Gallery of Women in the Arts in Washington DC has one of the largest collections of original, limited edition Artist’s Books in the world. To coincide with the institution’s twentieth anniversary celebration in 2006, curator Krystyna Wasserman (somewhat in collaboration with distinguished book arts scholar Johanna Drucker) wrote, The Book as Art: Artists' Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This illustrated volume which presents over 100 artists books held in the permanent collection, also includes fascinating artist biographies.

Wasserman believes that women have been pioneers in the field of book arts, crafting personal and insightful works that combine word, image, and media together in meaningful and unique ways. She states, “the space of the book is intimate and public and at the same time; it mediates between private reflection and broad communication in a way that matches many women’s lived experience. Women create authority in the world by structuring a relation between enclosure and exposure. To find the reasons why woman artists are drawn to the book form – a complex format that is difficult to exhibit and laborious to produce – one must consider the power of books to confer authority upon their masters. The cultural icon of the book remains a potent sign, even in this era of new technology. At the same time, the experience of making and reading books occurs a private and meditative space, amounting to immersion in a virtual world.” (Wasserman)

Sometimes feminism itself is the subject of artists’ books, such as in Carolee Schneeman’s Vulva Morphia. Schneeman describes it as “a visceral sequence of photographs and text in which a Vulvic personification presents an ironic analysis juxtaposing slides and text to undermine Lacanian semiotics, gender issues, Marxism, the male art establishment, religious and cultural taboos.”

The main character is a Vulva who recounts her experiences as she meets philosophers, theorists, artists, writers, and sometimes just the theories themselves. Vulva "reads biology and understands she is an amalgam of proteins and oxytocin hormones which govern all her desires." A fast learner, Vulva soon "deciphers Lacan and Baudrillard and discovers she is only a sign, a signification of the void." Other instructive encounters take place with "feminist constructivist semiotics," the ghosts of the habitués of the Cedar Bar, and Masters and Johnson.” (Princenthal)

Vulva Morphia by Carolee Schneeman, 1985.
One of my all-time favorite book artists is Berkeley, CA based Julie Chen. Many of her Artist books such as Evidence of Compression, World Without End, and Chrysalis, reimagine the form of the book and could easily be classified as sculpture. I had the remarkable opportunity to explore Chrysalis at the UC Davis Library 2016. Chrysalis consists of a book object housed in a box that must be opened by a mechanism resembling a door. It is held together by magnets and can be opened by the viewer until all the panels are flat, revealing an inner book with circular pages that can be held and read. Chen states that, “the fact that the full content of a piece can only be revealed over time with the turning of the page, or an equivalent action, on the part of the reader/viewer, is an enduring fascination for me, and is, I believe, one of the book form’s most singular features.”

Chrysalis by Julie Chen.
Her book, Personal Paradigms: A Game of Human Experience is in the form of a box which has hidden compartments that hold crafted treasures. Paradigms is a game that focuses on the player’s life experience and perceptions at the moment that the game is being played. The box form appeals to me and I wonder if I can combine an aspect of Computational Art and the theories we have been exploring for the multimedia report in some way which results in a box-shaped Artist Book.

This week I went to the Goldsmiths Library Special Collections room to explore this idea and to see the books in the collection. The artists books at Goldsmiths are stored in archival boxes which each box containing related material. I only had half an hour before class so I will need to go back next week. I need to do a lot more thinking and preliminary research for this multimedia research project as well as try to get a better grasp of the theories we are exploring.

Images of the Goldsmiths Special Collections Artists Books
Photos from the CODEX Book Fair in Richmond, CA, 2017.
On another note - the first time I heard Carolee Schneeman's name was in Hot Topic, a song by Le Tigre. Hot Topic is a tribute to inspirational visual artists, performance artists, musicians, writers, and feminists. It was written in 1999 (NINETEENNINETYNINE!!!!) by the incomparable Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman. I dare you to listen and not love this song! Impossible.

The rad people mentioned in Hot Topic (I couldn't find info on some of them):

References & Links:

Wasserman, Krystyna, et al. The Book as Art: Artists' Books from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

A short film about Julie Chen

Vulva Morphia by Carolee Schneeman at the V&A

Me on NPR talking about Hot Topic and other songs I was listening to. I was very nervous.
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