Skip to main content


By Christene Drewe | 15 April 2016

Siganto Foundation Research Fellow Dr Lyn Ashby’s investigation into the telling of stories by artists in books has resulted in an interesting & thoughtful discussion reflecting on the significance of historical foundations and ways of reading artists’ books and the parallels observed in our contemporary digital society.

I sit down to write this blog. I open my computer, and on the way to writing, I check some internet news websites where I skim-read some text, glance at some images, watch a few seconds of videos, click on some links. There is a cluster of words that are used to try to describe this relatively modern, digital screen literacy. We might say that they are polymodal, multi-sensorial, post-textual or multimedia literacies. The current buzzword for the Art Book world (a category that spans experimental literature to comix and graphic novels) is Multimodal. These are considered to be our contemporary reading modalities.

But when we look into the archives, we find that the makers of artists' books – those wayward, occasionally weird works in book form – have been quietly experimenting, one way or another, with reading possibilities for more than two centuries. Their hybrid nature, which is often an interleaving of textual, typographic, photographic, painted or graphic material (a mix that poet and printer Dick Higgins, termed "intermedia") is a multimodal form that tends to challenge normal reading. A classic example of one of these experiments, in the SLQ collection, is FT Marinetti's Les mots en liberté futuristes, a collection of Italian Futurist visual texts and poems from 1919, that attempt to create "words-in-freedom" by abandoning the normal rules of syntax. With these "liberated words," now emphasising the visual and sonic (often onomatopoeic) nature of letterforms, these poet artists helped to fuel the exploration of possible visual grammars of all marks on paper. Even today, this is a rich inventive obsession with many contemporary book artists. Since "normal" reading was, for the centuries of our more widespread literacy, mainly a matter of understanding the standard alphabet, these experiments guaranteed that artists' books would, for a very long time, remain a difficult, marginal and undervalued art form.

Page opening from "Les mots en liberté futuristes"

Page opening from "Les mots en liberté futuristes"

But the advent of digital and screen artefacts has slowly woken the world to what artists' books had been unfolding and foretelling for centuries. By the last decades of the twentieth century those experiments were finally making a lot of sense, which partly explains why artists' books are actually such a contemporary art form. There is a credible argument that the artists' book is the postmodern book, the natural evolutionary inheritor of millennia of book development and history. (For more on that argument, watch this space!)

While they might activate contemporary reading sensibilities, most artists' books are still real-world, hardcopy objects. This is one of their celebrated core qualities and many makers want to accentuate the sensory materiality of their work. This permits the interplay of the best of two worlds: a creative, open, liberated reading process AND a tactile, sensory reinvention of the material book. The reading of a real, material book is, in the end, a physical, bodily act which often feels like a grounding, therapeutic relief from our virtual screen lives. Very different regions of our brains, otherwise usually strangers to each other, seem to mutually spark to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. This seems to be the happy synthesis of the conceptual (mental) parts of ourselves and our perceptual (sensory-bodily) dimension.

What does this hybrid, multimodal quality look like in the real, material pages of the artists' book? It might be many, and different things. Its unpredictability is part of its joyful mystery. But other buzzwords describe some possibilities: we could say that there are "mosaic" or "field" forms in the book that require a level of lateral pattern-recognition from the reader, overuling or augmenting linear, sequential comprehension. As readers we must join the significant dots to arrive at a pattern of meaning (of our choosing).

A non-linear layering of elements, for example, might allow a more direct experiential approach to a topic or theme. Helen Douglas and Zoe Irvine's Illiers Combray (2004), for example (both a book and audio recording in the SLQ collection) presents itself as a photographic panorama (printed on both sides of a concertina book form) of the village of Illiers Combray in France and some surrounding countryside. When we look more closely, however, we see that subtle layers of imagery from various times and sources are woven seamlessly into this rolling landscape, sometimes inset in tiny sequences into the spaces of the panorama. This work is a homage to the writer Marcel Proust and his classic work about memory, In Search of Lost Time (set in that town of his childhood). As such, this is a work partially about memory and it works by simulating an experience of the working of memory itself, reminding us directly of the strangeness of its movements. The layering and interweaving of the visual components of the book, which by subtle repetitions, seem to refer back and forth to versions of themselves, simulate some of the very qualities of recall. The looping accordion format also, with the reprising of first and last images (a woman reading a book) allows the panoramas to roll endlessly as a timeless moment without clear beginning or end.

"Illiers Comray"

"Illiers Comray"

Even when the message of a work is unequivocal and political, such as Eyewitness (2008) by Theo Strasser and Peter Lyssiotis, a beautifully brutal declaration against our endless appetite for war, a far more powerful statement is delivered with its collaged, layered and collaborating elements than by any of these elements individually or by linear argument or disquisition. The intermixing of Strasser's abstract, blotched and dribbled pages, proclaimed in the manner of a blood-spattered livre de peinture, and Lyssiotis's image and textual fragments (quotes from hapless soldiers, mangled extracts from newspaper reports) and pages of patterns of words ("weapons keep us free") extends and multiplies the inherent explosive power of political image collage. Even the physical, visceral nature of the book itself, with its partial leather binding (human flesh?) and raw spine stitching (detainee's lips?) embodies and forecasts its message wordlessly.



This hybrid quality is not only to patch different elements, modalities and spaces together, it is also often to patch together disparate times. Or more often it is to sidestep the tyranny of any singular time altogether. It is said that a story (like death) needs time. To the degree that these books still tell stories, what kind of story is told with so little allegiance to time with its sequences and chronologies? Where does the story go from here?

Lyn Ashby April 2016



Your email address will not be published.

We welcome relevant, respectful comments.

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.
We also welcome direct feedback via Contact Us.
You may also want to ask our librarians.