Tag Archives: books & objects


Makers Tile Game

"Makers Tile Game" by IdiotsBooks

One of the reasons I started this blog was to champion alternative ways of making and selling strong art apart from the traditional gallery track. So I wanted to mention an outfit called IdiotsBooks that I recently came across. IdiotBooks is a front for the team of artist Robbi Behr and writer Matthew Swanson, who produce and sell artist’s books online along with posters and prints, as well as some simple clothing.

The Ansel Adams card by Mike Mandel

The Ansel Adams card from Mike Mandel's photographers-as-baseball-players card set

What I found particularly appealing, though, was their subscription service—you can sign up to get 6 handmade artist’s books a year. The field of art would be even more perverse than it is if there weren’t a long history of people (‘patrons’) backing artists through thick and thin—the thin mattering much more to artists than the thick. (Finding a patron is one of the major ways that luck plays a role in who succeeds and who doesn’t, but without patronage, the history of Western art would be even more a story about artists of independent means than it already is.) I know that for my part, once I decide an artist is interesting, I no longer care whether individual projects are masterpieces or failures—what I want is to follow the trajectory of their thought over time. A subscription approach allows for just this kind of investment in the person more than the product.

Frederick Sommer, "The Box"

Frederick Sommer, "The Box"

Behr and Swanson are working in a rich tradition of artist’s books and illustrated books that, sadly, is relatively little known to the general public. I’m not just speaking at random here—when I take my students to see UC Irvine’s excellent collection of artist’s books, it’s always something of a revelation to them. A great website for learning about (but not buying) illustrated books is BibliOdyssey, while Printed Matter remains the go-to source for artist’s books of all kinds at a wide price range.

Some of the techniques Behr and Swanson are using with elan are beloved of artists but not often seen in retail bookstores. Their Makers Tile Game project (based on a Cory Doctorow novel) belongs to a long history of ‘stack’ books, loose-leaf portfolios, and artist’s card sets, all of which are made up of unbound sheets that can be endlessly shuffled into new sequences and arrangements. Two of my own favorites here (among a myriad examples) are the Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards that artist Mike Mandel made in 1975; and a boxed set of loose prints that photographer Frederick Sommer published in 1994. I’m deliberately referencing these rather than more recent collectible card sets because from where I sit, Behr and Swanson at their best have more in common with Mandel and Sommer’s strangeness than with something like Magic: The Gathering. Of course, they might disagree with my assessment.

One evident difference is that the individual tiles of Makers Tile Game are set up to be borderless, so that a seamless (if surreal) image is created no matter how the tiles are reorganized. This Exquisite-Corpse-like effect also appears in several other Behr and Swanson projects, notably those taking the form of split-page books—for example, Ten Thousand Stories and After Everafter.

page strips from Raymond Queneau's "One hundred million million poems" (photo by 8mobili on Flickr

Split-page books have been around for quite awhile but have never really taken off as a form outside of children’s “mix-and-match” books, experimental writing, and artist’s projects. For instance, back in 1961, the Oulipian writer Raymond Queneau published One hundred million million poems, a split-page book with 14 strips per page, each of which could flipped to change the individual lines of a sonnet. Anyone who’s been through a graduate writing program in the last three decades or thought about aleatory art probably knows this work, but I hardly ever see it referenced in more general contexts.

In short, I’m happy to see some of the thousand forms of the artist’s book finding their way to the public through a site as appealing as IdiotsBooks. I’m hoping that at some point Behr and Swanson will tackle some of the other intriguing forms that books take: the accordian book, the fan book, the dos-à-dos book—all of which seem as if they’d be well matched to this team’s playful approach.

Historical note: Speaking of artist’s books and alternative means of distribution: When the artist Ed Ruscha published his first book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), he distributed it in gasoline stations rather than bookstores.

Full disclosure: I don’t know Behr and Swanson, and I’ve never bought one of their books, so I’m not writing this just to enhance the value of my ‘collection.’ I do own 29 of the photographer trading cards because years ago I slightly knew Larry Sultan who knew Mike Mandel, but I keep them loose in a box and if I ever took them to Antiques Road Show I’d be scolded soundly and told they were worth a fraction of what they’d have gotten if they’d fallen into the hands of a real Collector.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , |

list of lists


page from Rabelais' <i>Gargantua</i>

page from Rabelais' "Gargantua."

Even as a novice blogger, I’m aware that I’m expected to make lists. The more the better. I admit that I’ve been ambivalent about this. On the one hand, lists do often seem like a lazy substitute for actual thought. And they tend to be especially overused for promising more than can be delivered (“10 easy ways to X”).

On the other hand, I have been fond of lists ever since I encountered the nutty lists that populate Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel novels. Herewith I offer a short list of some of those Rabelaisian lists (taken from the Penguin Classics paperback edition, J.M. Cohen translation—I realize there are newer editions, but this is the one that happened my way many years ago):

  • games Gargantua played (“Flushes” “Madge-owlet” “Next Man Speak”, etc.)
  • types of “ball-bags” (dainty, stumpy, scarlet-dyed, etc.)
  • particularization of the anatomy of King Lent (“pineal gland like a bagpipe” “eardrums like a whirligig”, etc.)
  • the names of cooks who went inside a “great sow” modeled on the Trojan Horse (“Soursauce” “Lostbread” etc.)
  • things that Eusthenes’s spittle will not harm on a certain day (“Asps” “Basilisks” “Ammobati”, etc.)
  • types of fools (“a so-and-so fool” “a migratory fool” “an andiron fool”)

It’s worth checking out the original novels. They’re huge, shaggy monsters and a lot of people find them unreadable, but there’s nothing else quite like them in European literature. That kind of originality is something I value a lot.

I set out to write up a list of artists who have influenced me, but then I got derailed into RabelaisWorld. I ended up putting the other list up on my Facebook page.

Note: I found the image above on this Stanford University website.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , |

books & maps

aerial photo urban-farmland transition

aerial photo urban-farmland transition

Like a lot of other diehard lovers of Long Beach’s late great used bookstore Acres of Books, I made a pilgrimage down to the cavernous space on Broadway about a week ago for what was announced to be the really-truly last-ever going-out-of-business final final FINAL book sale. This after at least two other final book sales in the last couple years, one of which I also attended (insert rant about Long Beach wantonly destroying one of its most well-known cultural landmarks here). But this sale probably was the last, because even if they gave another no one would come. What was left was pretty much the orphans of the book world: outdated travel guides, self-help texts, software manuals, and the like. Novels by authors you’ve never heard of mixed with novels by authors you long ago decided you’d never read at any price. And the price here was pretty low: for $25 you got an old wooden fruit crate, which you were free to pack to overflowing with all the books you could carry.

I finally left, not because I felt I’d completely run out of possibilities, but because of the depressing nature of the hunt through some 15,000 unwanted books, mostly shabby and all dusty. Once each volume represented springs of hope and excitement for its author, a satisfaction of achievement, an offering to a shared culture. But those few that still seemed to hold a spark of potential for some future reader (generally not me) were bracketed by dozens more that struck me as the purest of exercises in Sisyphean futility.

I spent about 2 hours browsing and still struggled to fill my crate. And the result was something of a miscellany: Richard Reeves’ Passage to Peshawar, Richard Hall’s Lovers on the Nile: The incredible African journeys of Sam and Florence Baker, Luigi Barzini’s O America: When You and I Were Young, Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life, Studs Terkel’s Working, Joan C. Harvey’s If I’m So Successful Why Do I Feel Like a Fake: The Impostor Phenomenon (the latter grabbed as research for a book I’m working on).

I did best, oddly enough, in the nature-writing section, picking up quite a selection in a genre I seldom read. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (Terry Tempest Williams, 1991)—To Whom the Wilderness Speaks (Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, 1980)—The Winter Beach (Charlton Ogburn, Jr., 1971)—The Open Heart (Edward Weeks, 1955)—Home Country (Richard Mabey, 1990), and a few others. Of these the only one I’ve yet cracked is Mabey’s book, largely because it’s about England, where I once lived. Inside, I came across this:

In parts of East Anglia the landscape itself had become little more than a map, a shadow of what it had once been. The field oaks on the ancient boundary banks had been felled, the ditches turned road…. There were no breathing spaces, no margins where things could happen, no white land. Except along the coast and a few islands of ancient wood and heath, the landscape had been stripped down to its skeletal parts.

What struck me about this is how it inverted the way I tend to think about maps. Over the centuries, maps have gotten increasingly detailed (even as they excised certain kinds of details), and their scale has shifted correspondingly. One way of looking at this development is that maps are on a trajectory to becoming coterminous with the terrain they map— a point Jorge Luis Borges makes in his one-paragraph story “On Exactitude of Science“:

…these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire.

But the converse of this expansionary view of maps must be a contractionary view of terrain, as Mabey points out. Postindustrial modifications of the landscape, usually following rationalist principles of some kind, have tended to strip out the vagaries of terrain through a process of simplification and schematization. This is perhaps not quite what Lewis Carroll meant when he wrote, in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded:

…we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.

Both Borges and Carroll point to the curious situation that arises when map is no longer the antithesis of terrain but becomes terrain, and vice versa. Among the contemporary proliferation of map forms—Google maps, GPS apps, datascapes of various kinds — can be found the one our bodies now inhabit: what one might call the dirt map.

Note: Aerial photo found here.


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , , |