Research Project

Reading Socially Engaged Book Art: Establishing New Dialogues


To construct a critical framework in which to read socially engaged book art, with reference to selected case studies, through the mapping of connections between production methods, themes and book forms.


  • Review the current theorising/literature of book art and its historical context.
  • Formulate an appropriate terminology to describe a variety of socially engaged book art practices through critiquing the terms ‘book art’ and ‘socially engaged art’, which will contribute towards a definition of socially engaged book art.
  • In line with this definition, select appropriate case studies.
  • Engage in a range of research practices in relation to the case studies: interview artists/organisers/participants, observe workshops/events, and consult examples of book-art and related documentation.
  • Use online web tools such as ‘Tagboard’ as an archive of socially engaged book art projects.
  • Develop and employ a method of reading book art, by exploring a range of literary, art historical, education and socially engaged art theories.


In the last fifteen years there has been increased activity from artists using book art as a mode of socially engaged art practice. Yet, little documentation and critical analysis exists on these new modes of engagement, to posit them historically or challenge how book art in these contexts is to be read. Part of this lack of visibility relates to the continual struggle to define or even name book art, which is often hailed as a ‘zone of activity’ (Bodman & Sowden 2010 and Drucker 2004) rather than a given definition, and is cited in many forms including ‘artists’ books’, ‘bookworks’, ‘biblio-objets’, ‘book objects’ and even ‘the-not-book’. The constant stretching of the zone of book art through new electronic experiments, book structures and socially engaged practices often means critical analysis lags behind artistic practice. Furthermore, critical readings of book art often focus solely on the book form, in eagerness to posit artists’ books in the ‘canon’ of art history. Johanna Drucker led this trend in The Century of Artists Books (2004), which categorises common themes in the artist book field. This seminal text set precedence for future writings, by understanding book art’s context and meaning as something resident predominantly in the formal properties of examples of the books themselves. The aim of this study will be to consider what examples/practices have been included/excluded from book art history due to the popularity of formalist readings, and the impact this has on analysis of socially engaged book art practices.

This project aims to argue that a focus solely on the book’s form as proposed by Drucker, fails to encapsulate the various strands of meaning produced through socially engaged book art practice. To expand the ‘zone of activity’, the project will examine book art that is participatory and collaborative, involving particular social groups and various agents in the production process. This cooperative way of working is often a means of challenging perceptions and to improve the social and artistic lives of individuals and groups involved. Rather than dismiss the importance of the form of the book as a site of meaning, the aim is to extend readings to include dialogical exchange, creative processes, collaborative participation and physical interaction that occur through and around the spaces of socially engaged book art.


Socially engaged book art practices can vary, from the creation of a history of the homeless through book art with Arthur & Martha and homeless participants (2014 & 2015), to book art as a visual space for sharing ideas between educators by TT Activist Arts (2013). This variation requires a selection of appropriate case studies to highlight key themes, practices and book forms. This selection will emerge through research on case studies, developed through interviews with artists/participants, attending workshops/events and conducting observations. Using the website ‘Tagboard’ to post socially engaged book art under a collective hashtag (such as #SEABookArt), will enable the collation and mapping of connections between different projects on a tabular visual pin board. This will draw out key themes, methods and practices within socially engaged book art, assisting with definition and selection of case studies. The focus will be on case studies particularly from the United States, Australia, and Europe due to their accessibility and the secure foundations of book art networking in these areas.

To include processes of production, haptic handlings, social collaboration and formal elements of book art within analysis, requires the construction of a new critical framework in which to ‘read’ socially engaged book art projects within chosen case studies. This framework will require a literature review of the terms ‘book art’ and ‘socially engaged art’ and a positioning of my own critical stance within the two fields. Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made (2013) draws awareness of the diversity of socially cooperative art practices, by interviewing various practitioners, and foregrounds the complications of definition and approaches to critical analysis of projects. Finkelpearl’s book also continues debates on whether a project’s social intervention and collaboration is deemed more integral to its critique than the art object produced. By entering the debates on the role of art criticism and relevant readings of socially engaged art, I aim to conceive an alternative approach and position to building a framework for critically analysing socially engaged book art projects.

Rather than dismiss the form of the book entirely in investigations of socially engaged book art or treat it as the only point of analysis, I aim to encompass alternative sites of meaning alongside formal readings. These may be found in the emphasis on the body of the reader and codex materiality by literary theorist Karen Littau (2006). The dialogical approach of Grant Kester (2004) also presents a re-focus on communication as the space of meaning making through moments and impacts of interaction, and generally abandons discussions of form. Ulises Carrión’s writing on ‘The New Art of Making Books’ (1993) is also useful in theorising reading as a tactile and time based mode of engagement. These texts will be the starting point of the formulation of a new critical reading method for book art to enlarge the discussion outside of form. This approach will be supported by research into socially engaged book art projects and context of western reading habits, community print presses and exhibition and distribution strategies.

Works Cited

Bodman, Sarah and Tom Sowden (2010) A Manifesto for the Book. Bristol: Impact Press

Carrión, Ulises (1993) ‘The New Art of Making Books’ in Lyons, Joan (ed) Artists’ Books A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, pp.31-44

Drucker, Johanna (2004) The Century of Artists’ Books, New York City: Granary Books

Finkelpearl, Tom (2013) What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, London: Duke University Press

Kester, Grant (2004) Conversation Pieces Community + Communication in Modern Art, London: University of California Press

Littau, Karin (2006) Theories of Reading Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, Cambridge: Polity