The nonprofit book arts organization Booklyn describes their 2018 book Freedom of the Presses: Artists’ Books in the Twenty-First Century as a “textbook and a toolbox.” Edited by Booklyn co-founder Marshall Weber, the collection gathers a rich variety of contributions—from historical and critical essays to excerpts of artists’ books—and ties them together with an emphasis on the medium’s potential to strengthen communities and promote social justice. By examining the production, reception, collection, and scholarship of artists’ books, Freedom of the Presses trades in-depth criticism of a single bookwork in favor of a holistic view of artists’ publishing. This is a welcome contribution to the discourse at a time when the term “publication” is often used as a convenient catchall for projects that aren’t quite books, without much consideration of the practice of publishing and the public it constructs.
As a collection, Freedom of the Presses differs from much of the book-length scholarship on artists’ books. Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books (1995), Clive Phillpot’s Booktrek: Selected Essays on Artists’ Books (2013), and Michael Hampton’s Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the Artists’ Book (2015) are just some of the tomes in which a single author writes about many artists’ books. Freedom of the Presses is a book by many authors, writing about relatively few books. It lacks the systematic taxonomies and replete bibliographies of works by Drucker or Keith Smith, for example, but is able, thanks to those earlier works, to wander further afield. Freedom of the Presses brings artists’ books into dialogue with socially engaged practice and activism in much the same way Drucker aligned them with twentieth-century avant-garde movements. The book’s multiple authors and diverse perspectives help account for the breadth and complexity of the contemporary situation. First-person accounts, manifestos, conversations, and interdisciplinary research methods combine for a well-rounded, contextualized presentation of the field.1
Tia Blassingame’s essay, “Dear Book Arts: African American artists and the book form” epitomizes this more holistic approach to artists’ books within their cultural context. Blassingame takes on the lack of diversity and representation in the field, and makes it clear from her very first sentence that she understands the way book artists’ books circulate through culture. She begins, “If you are an educator, librarian, artist, scholar, collector, curator, I am going to tell you things that you should already know and should be implementing” (5). Blassingame deploys these roles as the headers that structure her essay, in which she lays out what people in each position can do to appreciate and promote the significant contributions made by African American book artists, and to encourage more in the future. Her assessment is critical but fair, and her recommendations are modest and actionable—a toolbox, indeed.
Like Blassingame, Aaron Sinift approaches his piece, “Weaving Stories: Artists in collaboration with Gandhi Ashrams,” with a methodology more familiar to book history than art history. In describing his years-long, collaborative publishing project with Indian artists, weavers, and printers, Sinift gives a detailed account of dates and locations, collaborators and acquaintances, expenses, revenue, quantities of materials, and production timelines. The resulting artists’ book, 5 Year Plan (2010), remains on the narrative’s periphery. No doubt many readers will want to know more about the book as a reading experience, a haptic engagement with a sequence of text and image. In “Weaving Stories,” discussion of the book’s form, content, and meaning primarily serves to tell the reader more about the weaving and printing traditions of the Ashram, and thus furthers the project’s goal of distributed authorship and service. Book history is always concerned with the material details of a book’s inception, production, distribution, reception, and collection; art discourse turns to these matters when the writer (in this case the artist) is interested in the social relations engendered by the work.
It is therefore no surprise that Freedom of the Presses covers a number of socially engaged projects. In “Freedom of the Presses: Activating library resources through collaborative curating,” Bridget Elmer, Janelle Rebel, and Marshall Weber discuss their co-curated exhibition of the same name. Elmer’s desire to “showcase collaborative making and publishing as social practice” and consideration of paratextual activities like “curating, installing, experiencing the exhibit, and organizing the programming” are the closest thing to an editorial statement the reader may find (125). This chapter toward the end of the book is a welcome addition to a collection that may have benefitted from a foreword or introduction from the editor. It seems from Weber’s insights in this chapter that he could have successfully framed the collection without flattening the interesting, if sometimes jarring, differences in style and perspective. Their discussion of projects programmed to coincide with the exhibition, from Eleanor Eichenbaum’s use of LED road signs to publishing haikus from her poetry workshop, to Sheryl Oring’s social practice work, I Wish to Say: Postcards to the President (2004–present), shows the extent of the territory that can be surveyed through artists’ publishing as a nexus for social and environmental justice.
This perspective enables a fresh consideration of pieces that aren’t exclusively social practice, but benefit from examination under that lens. In his chapter, Xu Bing discusses his Book from the Sky (1991), Square Word Calligraphy Copy Book (2000), and Book from the Ground (2013), largely within a framework of participation and collaboration. In addition to detailed images of his invented writing system, Xu includes documentation of Square Word Calligraphy “interactive classroom installations” from around the world, in which participants copy characters into books with brush and ink like medieval scribes. Even the passive participation of reading Book from the Sky and Book from the Ground is theorized within a social context. He writes, “These two books, while completely different, do share one quality: regardless of what language you speak, regardless of whether you have received education, they treat every person in the world equally” (178). This presentation emphasizes social relations, rather than linguistics or the formal qualities of Xu’s work, which have occupied many scholars and critics.
Freedom of the Presses does make room for more conventional art-historical and art-critical writing, like Suzy Taraba’s chapter, “A Queer Community of Books.” Taraba examines a number of artists’ books to show how various forms and structures are especially suited to queer theory. Her analysis of concealing and revealing, double meanings, and binary oppositions shows just how much can be gained through this form of scholarship. The authors above focus on community and social relations by looking beyond the book; Taraba gets there through careful reading. Her readings are detailed without foreclosing interpretation. She posits no hard rules for what makes an artists’ book queer, but shows that their uneasy interdisciplinarity makes artists’ books an excellent vehicle for such explorations.
Karen Eliot’s essay, “The Root of the Matter: The artists’ book in the twenty-first century” also takes a more typical art-historical approach. Eliot does a good job relating artists’ books to other media and movements and highlighting how their democratized production makes them a global force with great critical potential. She outlines significant changes in pedagogy and librarianship around artists’ books, but her analysis skews toward distribution and collection to the detriment of production. Eliot writes, “Artists’ books are now free from serving other media, free from a fetishized craft practice, and free from the linearity of narrative text and typography. And they are free from publishers, editors, and most so-called ‘free’ market influence” (35). Blassingame and Sinift show that economic and social factors continue to impinge on artists’ book production more than Eliot acknowledges. Eliot may idealize artists’ book production, but her critique of bookselling, collecting, and pedagogy is astute. Having acknowledged the progress made from “antiquarian-driven acquisitions focused on bindings and printing samples to subject- and curriculum-based collecting of artists’ books and zines,” she finishes her essay with a warning for the future. She notes that mainstream acceptance of artists’ books is a double-edged sword, with “costly and spectacular artists’ books by celebrity artists and a massive injection of eye-candy photo-art books into the trade book market” as consequences. This is an important perspective in a book with universal praise for the artists’ book in the twenty-first century.
This sincere belief in the artists’ book as a social force in contemporary culture runs through every chapter of Freedom of the Presses, and it is clear that each contributor (including those not mentioned above) has a deep and personal relationship with the field. In fact, the book reveals that field to be a patchwork of smaller communities to which each of these artists and writers belong. What Blassingame does for African American artists’ books, Florencia San Martín does for Latin American artists’ books, and Taraba does for queer artists’ books. Freedom of the Presses reveals artists’ books to be intimate and global, specific yet relatable.