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On July 25, 2009, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) in Minneapolis held its first ever Book Art Biennial. Consisting of a speaker, two panels, several exhibitions, and the awarding of the inaugural MCBA Prize, the biennial brought together book artists and advocates in an intimate environment to share their ideas about the efficacy of artists’ books as agents of social change and tools of activism.
John Risseeuw opened the conference with a keynote address entitled “John Risseeuw: Making a Difference?” Well known for his socially and politically conscious artworks, including his Paper Landmine Print Project (2002), Risseeuw broadened the topic of the day and asked what singular artworks have made a difference. Citing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), and several other works, Risseeuw pointed out that while these pieces are famous for their political content they were created after the events had taken place and more closely resemble journalism and documentation rather than agents of change.
Risseeuw went on to state that the traditional channels through which art flows—museums, galleries, and in the case of artists’ books, special collections in libraries—is fairly bourgeois. If an artist or individual wants to be an activist, an artist book hardly seems to be the appropriate medium. Risseeuw declared, “If I were an activist, I would be out in the streets, but I’m not an activist when I print [the words], ‘Total Fucking Idiots,’” referring to the title of his 2002 artist’s book.
Does this mean we should abandon all hope of affecting change with our book works? Not according to Risseeuw. Rather, we need to reassess what kind of change we are hoping to make. If our message is urgent, we must explore real-time mediums like the internet, the radio, the newspaper, and good old-fashioned protest. But the artist’s role as documentarian is still critical, and the community of book artists that exists is inherently excited to share information. There is a network that can be taken advantage of to share not only technical skills through workshops and communal print shops but also ideas. Risseeuw explained that part of the activism of his Landmine project is not just the work but the concept itself. Each time one tells the story of how the artist came to make this work, its message is spread beyond the work itself.
Risseeuw referenced an idea he attributed to Marshall Weber—that artists’ books are capable of a personal, emotional activism, as has been achieved by Susan King’s Treading the Maze (1997), Tatana Kellner’s 50 Years of Silence (1992), and Karen Switzer’s letterpressed zine Ker-Bloom! (1996–present). This quiet activism is action, and as long as book artists take action and make books, they will make change. He closed his talk with a call to arms, asking the audience to “document something, collaborate on something, advocate for something, and commit yourself (go do it). . . . The time has arrived. I’ll see you in the streets and at the press.”
This inspiring keynote address was followed by two panel discussions that addressed the realities of making and displaying socially conscious artists’ books and book-like objects. The first panel, led by moderator Scott McCarney, was entitled “Artists’ Books as Agents of Social Change: A Tool Kit.” McCarney began by sharing a number of books from his own collection that supported the panel’s theme. He echoed Weber’s sentiment, claiming artists’ books “are more like a quiet protest.” The panel explored the works of three artists: Mike Elko, a printmaker; Susan Hensel, an installation artist and gallery owner; and Jennifer Hibbard, a sculptor.
While they create strikingly different work, each artist employs appropriation. Elko collects halftone advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s and reassembles them into brightly colored and humorous images that he pairs with politically conscious text, including a twenty-four-page guide to home surgery. Hensel prefers to juxtapose the common with the unexpected, such as pairing the familiar nursery rhyme that begins, “One, two, buckle my shoe,” with images of destruction and war to create an uncomfortable and provocative reader experience. Hibbard does not bring objects, imagery, or text together as the others do, but rather takes books apart, slicing into and removing great masses of text until only a single word or phrase remains, leaving the artist’s opinion of the book’s author or content for the viewer to discern.
All three panelists and the moderator agreed that despite a strong conceptual toolbox there is still the issue of disseminating one’s work. While editioned works and more democratic multiples can reach a broad audience, there need to be other options for one-of-a-kind book works or installations. And when considering issues of display, the question remains: why choose artists’ books as a tool for social change?
The second panel, entitled “Book: The Object,” rounded out the day’s discussion. Moderated by book artist Paulette Myers-Rich, the panel brought together Wellesley Special Collections Librarian Ruth Rogers, Minneapolis College of Art and Design fine arts chair and book artist Karen Wirth, and University of Minnesota art professor and sculptor Tom Rose to consider the unique attributes of an artwork that takes the form of the book. Revisiting Risseeuw’s suggestion earlier in the day that social activism can have a more widespread and immediate response when using the internet as a tool, Wirth pointed out the important differences between the two mediums, equating artists’ books to the contemporary idea of “slow food.” Calling them “slow art,” Wirth pointed out the ways in which a book demands the viewer or reader slow down and be present with the work. An artist creates a deliberate interaction between artist and viewer, addressing her or him directly, controlling the pace with which one turns the page, receives information, and digests the object and its message.
Rogers echoed this idea, stating, “Good artist books can speak louder and have a broader influence than anything I can say.” She proceeded to discuss several pieces in her collection that she brings into the classroom. Not limited to art or literature courses, Rogers uses her collection to elaborate on a broad range of topics for the students at Wellesley. She spoke specifically about several one-of-a-kind books on the Holocaust created by Aileen Bassis, collage works that systematically “bury” the images of people and villages that disappeared during World War II, symbolically interring them and bringing a small bit of peace to the terrible events that occurred. As a physical object, the artifact of the artist’s action, this book offers a unique learning experience in the classroom.
The evening came to an end with the announcement of the MCBA prize, described by the organizers as “the first in the United States to recognize book art from across the field and around the world.” From 110 submissions, 5 finalists were chosen and their work put on display during the biennial, including Julie Chen’s Panorama (2008), Clifton Meador’s Avalanche (2007), Jan Owen’s Requiem (2009), Simon Redington’s Bomb (2008), and Veronika Schäpers’s Durs Grünbein: 26˚57,3’N, 142˚16,8’E (2007), with Schäpers as the recipient of the award. All five of the nominated artists’ books reflected the theme of the day, addressing political, social, and environmental issues in their own way. The title of Schäpers book corresponds to the coordinates where Tsunemi Kubodera, a Japanese marine biologist, took the first images of a living giant squid in its natural environment only a few years ago. The text of the book consists of three poems by German poet Durs Grünbein, one written as a reaction to an article about Kubodera’s discovery, a previously published poem about deep sea creatures, and a third poem written specially for this project. Gradients of deep blue and gray printed on transparent spreads are interwoven with nautical charts and scientific data, bringing the reader deep down into the space where Kubodera found this previously mythicized creature.
The Book Arts Biennial was an engaging and lively day of discussion that invigorated and inspired its participants. Though brief, it left a lasting message of encouragement and action, of incitement to go out into the world, to document, collaborate, advocate, commit, make a book, and find an audience.