Some Thoughts on Bookmarks 2017, Edinburgh

Bookmarks is fairly new to the book art scene. Running for its third year in 2017, it is a showcase not only of artist books and zines made across Scotland, but focuses on how artists books are ‘used, promoted and created in educational settings’. So it particularly peaked my interest!

Many of my thesis case studies involve the sharing of bookmaking skills, with artists normally running workshop style sessions to teach participants how to create different book forms. The ‘use’ of the book form, or its content, is often dependent on the project’s exploration. For example, in The Homeless Libraryartists Philip Davenport and Lois Blackburn ran sessions with homeless participants at various Manchester based centres around a set theme. When I observed one of their workshops, the theme involved group discussions on ‘bravery’, and books were made using text selection techniques and collages of old 1970s comics. In Feminist Feltartists Miriam Schaer and Melissa Potter taught women’s groups how to make book art in exchange for traditional Georgian felting techniques. Participants decided that the felt book art pieces would be sold to raise money for their local communities. These different projects highlight that although the skill of bookmaking may involve set techniques, the book form can be adapted to fulfill different criteria – from encouraging self-expression to the book as a commodity. I was therefore interested in ways that bookmaking as an artistic practice, and skill to be shared, might be discussed in the Bookmarks symposium.

Generally, the talks at Bookmarks revolved around what might be viewed as traditional forms of education in higher institutions – such as archive research, technician assistance, collaboration and commissions. These were all interesting, and brought some visual gems to the table – from Edwin Pickstone’s explorations of discarded letterpress to John Brown’s discussions of vintage, illustrated children’s books. However, there was one lecture that really stood out for me, and that was by Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) teaching fellow Astrid Jaekel. As an art practitioner, Jaekel encourages students to utilise the book form as a conduit for engaging with place. Groups of illustration students from ECA would be invited to spend time in Oban, Scotland, to sketch, record, narrate and experience ‘place’, which are then brought together in the book form. The outcome is a series of Risograph ‘beak books’, which reveal a tension in the students expectations of Oban (their ideals), in comparison to what they experienced when they arrived. The books, therefore, cover a multitude of themes – some explore a romanticised view of the landscape, for others it is a focus on the fish and chip shop, or conversations with a local resident. The book seemed to be an ideal form in which to ‘gather’ together the experiences of the trip, its physical ‘togetherness’ allowing a sifting through and sorting out of potential findings, into a type of narrative.

This project could also be seen to fit into a history of book art and education. I recently did some research on Chicago based organisation ‘Artists Book Works’ (1983-1993), established by Barbara Lazarus Metz and Robert Sennhauser. As advertised in the journal Umbrella (1983), from the outset, one of the main aims of the organisation was to form a community of ‘book-makers, critics, collectors, binders and printers’. The centre held regular classes, lectures and exhibitions, including Winter in Chicago a long running mail art exhibition, with many of the works held in the Newberry Library collection. The organisation also held workshops on a variety of different technical skills including, box making, bookmaking, calligraphy, rubberstamping, paper decorating and book repair. It was the first centre of its kind in Chicago and arose at a time when printing and artist books were beginning to emerge as popular practices. As well as a series of classes and exhibitions, Artists Book Works also had a strong focus on school education, which differed somewhat from other US book art institutions of the time. Although distribution and production became the main concerns of New York centres such as Printed Matter (established 1976) and Visual Studies Workshop (founded 1969), fuelled in part by Lucy Lippard’s (1993) ideals of the democratic multiple, there was also an increased desire for institutions to take on a more educational or community based role. Pyramid Atlanta, Washington (established 1981) and Artists Book Works, Chicago (established 1983), began offering regular community bookmaking workshops and develop increasing partnerships and programmes for schools. Their school programs were particularly concerned with encouraging bookmaking skills in the curriculum (through all levels of education), collaborative production and exhibition opportunities for students. This resulted in some fascinating projects, such as that reviewed in The Chicago Reader (1987). The article mentions a project run by artist Myra Herr’s with Lincoln Park’s Hawthorne School, in which students made autobiographical books with stories, visuals and poems in stitched codices. Artists Book Works also had an open call advertised in Umbrella (1985 & 1991) for book artists to send images of their works to form a slide registry for the use of curators, collectors, educators and museums.

This research into the use of book art within education is still in its infancy, and one I will no doubt be continuously pursuing! What my experience of Bookmarks has highlighted, is that there is clearly a continual use of book art as a form of educational and artistic practice. Although Bookmarks seemed focused primarily on the university setting as a site of learning and engagement with the book form, there are plenty of practices which are situated outside of traditional institutions. And where the practices differ, or relate, is always of interest!