This post is written by Jessica Holada, Director of Special Collections and Archives.
“Book artists invent the library by adding to it. They are inventors of new libraries and new readers.”
-Peter Rutledge Koch, opening remarks at CODEX V
It’s book fair season in California! The weekend before last I attended Printed Matter’s crushingly popular LA Art Book Fair in Los Angeles and an antiquarian book fair in Pasadena. And last week, I experienced several intensive days immersed in the subjects of book making, selling, and collecting. Between the raindrops in the San Francisco Bay Area, I attended the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) book fair in Oakland and CODEX V, a biennial international artists’ book symposium in Berkeley, which was accompanied by an epic, multi-day book fair held at the historic Ford Assembly Plant in bayside Richmond. Special Collections is always on the look out for San Luis Obispo County-related ephemera, as well as new artists’ books, which are regularly used by classes at Cal Poly. These huge events bring like-minded individuals together. They are places to make new friends, develop program ideas and collecting approaches, and find materials to add to our research and teaching collections. Artists I was most taken by were exploring maps (real and imagined), visualizing science data (population statistics, physics), and even doing their own data collection and presentation (weather reporting).
CODEX V: The Symposium, Day 1
In conjunction with the CODEX V book fair (four days of steady interaction with artists and small press publishers), an audience of nearly 300 convened for the symposium to hear absorbing talks focused on the research that goes into developing book projects, from seed concepts through production. These process-oriented talks promised to be practically minded but were really introspections on the imaginative leaps necessary to make their book craft so distinctive.
UK artist Sam Winston was the first to take the podium. He explained his meticulous process of “dissolving language” through the manipulation of digital type. Commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Winston created three symbolic scrolls as part of the ‘walk in book’ exhibition Memory Palace, acting as an illustrator for the text by author Hari Kunzru. For this project, he scientifically analyzed the elements and weights of three objects of ritual importance based on Kunzru’s future where the periodic table is held sacred. Winston selected a gold watch, a SIM card, and a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In a bit of meta-humor, Winston noted that for the last object he created “a dataset for a book about another book.”
Next, Carolee Campbell of Ninja Press showed us how she gathered and mined images, maps, and texts about the Amazon (and similar river bends in Utah) to create her accordion-fold masterwork The Real World of Manuel Cordova, a copy of which may be found in Special Collections. Campbell said the poem, written by W. S. Merwin, “does not impart information but something ineffable,” and her job was to “extend the reader’s perspective and communicate her own.” She made the insight that the book structure was ultimately “the artifact of her research”—the physical manifestation of her deep ruminations.
CODEX V: The Symposium, Day 2
Day two of CODEX started with a thoughtful talk by Professor Ken Botnick, who debuted his flawless Diderot Project (a copy will be coming to Cal Poly in July). This tour de force of graphic design and printing is based on the 18th-century illustrated Encyclopedia, a form of publishing that, as Botnick put it, is a casualty of the digital age. His book is an impressive, refined meditation on craft, mechanization, labor and leisure, memory, and the senses. The hand, the hammer, and the drawing compass become repeated visual characters in the book. Landmarks in 20th-century critical theory, along with the artist’s own 21st-century musings, are connected to the Enlightenment—a time when the objects and processes of human production were elegantly ranked and codified (and illustrated) for the first time.
Lastly, we heard from German book designer Ines von Ketelhodt, who discussed her captivating six-volume work Farbwechsel, containing invented, selected, merged, and manipulated texts and images that moved purposefully between resolution and ambiguity. The first volume, titled color change: white (a symbolic color of death and mourning throughout Asia), includes a year’s worth of images and reportage about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as gleaned by the artist from the Internet.
While Roberto Trujillo of Special Collections at Stanford University provided the keynote speech on day one—really a call for a more coordinated, comprehensive, collaborative, and international approach to artists’ book collecting by the “top 10-15 research libraries” with the responsibility to acquire and exhibit, and the capacity to lend (this prompted some defending responses from teaching universities in the audience)—the most memorable talk was the closing one delivered by Alberto Manguel, author of many books on reading and libraries. He spoke about dreams as “the most complex literary genre,” and how the texture, specific vocabulary, and fragmentary nature of dreams, and our feeble translations of them, may be apt metaphors for the limits of language, written or visual. Weaving quotes from Shakespeare, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Carroll, Kafka, Stevenson, and Borges, Manguel stated the humble fact: as artists, we create mere approximations of what we dream. During the Q&A, one commenter offered, “But if you didn’t do it [attempt to make the dreams concrete], you would never see it.” Perhaps it is this seeing that propels new storytelling and new art forms. I certainly saw vibrant evidence of this doing-to-see at the book fair. Cal Poly students will enjoy an influx of new artists’ books in the coming months to simulate (and stimulate!) more dreams and worthy approximations.