A few thoughts on book art and the London Underground


What is socially engaged book art? This is the question that I know will haunt me for many months to come. Is my position like the met office warning I read today? Snowed in by the circle of possible names for book art. If it should be called book art at all.

Artists’ books, bookworks, biblio-objets, book objects, artist’s publishing, the-not-book, are just a small selection of the terms used to describe a set of practices where the book and art converge. This flurry of possibilities on the one hand is exciting, it encourages new works by allowing artists to push boundaries outside of the limits of definition and set practices. But for critics, one has to choose a position, a point of entry into certain works to situate their writing and engagement with the practices that are taking place. I am going to have to choose.

Or do I? For the book art world, practice often falls into a ‘zone of activity’ rather than a fixed definition, first propounded by Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books (1994), then later by Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden in A Manifesto for the Book. This proposed zone tries to reveal the many intersections that are involved in the creation of book art, to highlight that a fixed statement or a rigid diagram doesn’t quite reveal the complexities and interdisciplinary nature of this mutable form.

But, perhaps this zone is not as free as it first seems. Imagine each author’s proposed zone is a zone on the London Underground.  Zone 1 is Drucker’s zone and represents artists’ books. The stations in her zone are features that she feels represent that classification or practice of making artists’ books – generally they are multiples, self-published, experimental and inexpensive. Zone 2 (and by no means lesser, just in case you were considering the housing prices around the stations of the London Underground) is Bodman & Sowden and represents book art. Coming later to the underground map (2010), their stations are perhaps more diverse and wider reaching, encompassing stickers, zines, podcasts and new digital experiments. But each has its boundaries. Drucker would not consider livres d’artistes in the zone of artists’ books although recognises their historical impact, but Bodman & Sowden happily include livres de luxe. Drucker’s artist book examples are generally editioned and often explore the traditional codex form and an interplay of text and image. Whereas, Bodman and Sowden’s examples can extend to one off sculptural works or a mobile phone novel sent over texts, with no ‘physical’ body.

However, both Drucker and Bodman & Sowden have chosen their zones for different purposes, and are admittedly subjective. Drucker was establishing a critical foundation for artists’ books to pave the way for further analysis. Drucker wanted to establish the artist book as ‘the quintessential 20th-century artform’, therefore focusing on examples that fitted with a history of conceptual, performative, avant-garde practice. For Bodman and Sowden, the zone was a way of focusing more on practice rather than historical lineage, and therefore presented a less specific zone, encompassing  a wider variety of artistic modes of engagement.

‘It has become apparent that Book Arts is the most inclusive term. It includes ‘book’ which is of great concern to many of the practitioners we spoke with; it helps them to place their work, identifies their realm of practice, and is the most generous title through the sum of “arts” + “book”. This allows the genre to extend its previous limits; if you can add arts to book it implies all works surrounding and related to the subject – ‘art’ adds an extension to the definition of a book.’ Bodman & Sowden

So I suppose I have to ask myself what is the purpose of my zone that is called socially engaged book art, before I can embark on a definition. What stations does it stop at and how are they linked? And then of course what is socially engaged art? And is book art being produced in a socially engaged approach? Back to the drawing board.