Book arts as political statement / Brian Dettmer, book-artist

Finally got around to making a project out of this book. Granted, it’s a modest attempt, but that’s the fun thing about making books– you can put them together from junk paper lying around the house. The cover of this one is an old sheet of watercolor paper that someone used to clean rubber stamps.

Uh oh, Esther Smith has another book, too. Look out, wallet.

There are a healthy number of institutions devoted to preserving and teaching book arts; many major cities in the United States have them, by way of example (Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, oh, there’s tons more). Google Live Search book arts in a town near you, there’s gonna be one there.

I bring this up because I am curious about this craft, in the context of print media’s often forecasted demise. I came across an interesting debate about this topic, which I highly recommend to those in the Luddosphere. The article discusses whether written words will ultimately have a useful and longer life on paper or in pixels: should all text be “searchable, discoverable, linkable, part of the conversation,” or is it true that the unedited, unprofessional digi-screeds of the masses (cough cough) are by definition etherial and destined for deletion?

I find this subject fascinating. Do you? It seems that book arts are more popular than ever before, as evidenced by the endless institutions devoted to the craft. I wonder if this bears any reactionary relation to the fact that the digital age seems hell-bent on removing tactile experience from all forms of media.

Kind of makes the typewriter journal a political statement. (Did you sign up yet?)

Changing the subject somewhat: Brian Dettmer, book artist

Probably a subject for a separate post: the typewriter is not the only 20th century icon of literature being eviscerated for museum display. Brian Dettmer creates sculptures (called “book autopsies” in the case of books) from all manner of fading communications media: records, tapes, books, maps. Of such media, he is quoted as saying “their intended role has decreased or deceased and they often exist simply as symbols of the ideas they represent rather than true conveyers of content.”

I have two reactions to this kind of increasingly popular transmogrification of media into symbol. My less sophisticated reaction: it’s grisly and some could argue disrespectful, like Bodies: the exhibition. It implies that language is entirely separate from the forms that carry and create it, and the latter has no lasting value save for irony.

A more nuanced reaction might be this: I love technology, and the fact that it makes possible the sharing of ideas like these with like-minded people. I don’t want to go back to pre-digital times. But I’d like to think digital communication can be used in the service of good: to preserve, cherish, and even further the use and enjoyment of iconic, fascinating, and useful creations like books and typewriters. Centers for book arts, like those I mentioned above, are exactly the kinds of places where the benefits of technology and tradition can intersect for the public good.

Center for the preservation and perserverence of the typewriter, anyone? Any venture capitalists out there with me?

Update: Brian Dettmer’s work is currently on display in Chicago, at the Packer Schopf gallery. The page I just linked to has an interesting analysis of “object-based media” in the digital age, and the meaning behind Dettmer’s work:

Books age like humans: they become discolored and stiff, and eventually their pages crumble into dust. Dettmer’s tactile book-sculptures are metaphors for the decline of natural, physical media in the face of the digital, which escapes the laws of nature through lacking any single physical form. At the same time, the sheer volume and solidity of these paper peaks and valleys suggest a sense of stability and soundness that digital information necessarily lacks. We see in Dettmer’s books the simultaneous vulnerability and resilience of material forms.

I do think this is a compelling topic to explore in art, but I can’t say I take any aesthetic pleasure in the destruction of books and typewriters to make a statement. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I universally denigrate the work of artists like Dettmer, however. I just wonder if there is a different way that art could explore this issue. Thoughts?


  1. Heeey, I made a book kind of like that. Book arts I’m not that into. I was, but now, it’s a hassle that I wouldn’t want to go through. I’ll just read/write them, thanks.

    I’ve heard that books are becoming popular again. Computers can’t be read when they’re not turned on. 😀 Besides, there are thousands of people like us that appreciate the tactile experience of picking up and reading books.

    And no, I haven’t signed up. Yet.

    Brian Dettmer makes me sad.

  2. Whoops, I lied. I have joined. DUH, how could I forget?

  3. I also find the subject fascinating. I’ve thought of similar classes that are closer to my home turf.

    The laser printer lets us self-publish – yet it’s often ominously placed beside that that publication’s real destiny – the shredder. I think some of us love the idea of creating something that’s worth keeping and will be kept.

  4. Peel away the institutional layers of print anything – books, newspapers, journals, you name it – and the gatekeepers are automatically out of a job. I think digitalization of the word is much larger than the closing of a few newpapers and publishing houses. It’s a whole new literary hierarchy.

    The first clue was when all my favorite things became *quaint* art forms or collectibles.

  5. I haven’t thought much about book art. I like holding a book in my hand and taking it wherever I go without worrying about the life of a battery or finding an outlet somewhere.

  6. Anonymous

    This is a quote from Louis L’Amour in “Education of a Wandering Man”.

    “Books as books must be preserved. There is an effort now to preserve everything by mechanical [digital] means, but of what use will they be to a man with no power? No means of reproducing the sounds or the words? A book can be carried away and read at leisure. It needs nothing but an eye, a brain, and the ability to read.

    If in some distant future, someone should come upon the remains of a library of ours, even if he could not read, he could through illustrations rediscover much otherwise lost. He would have no machine with which to play a tape; he would have no source of power.”

    If there is even a slight resurgence of interest in books and the printed word, I find that encouraging. I do first drafts on a manual typewriter to be sure to have at least one copy that can’t be lost in the digital twilight zone and so I can create without relying on a power grid. (I also happen to think they are nifty.)

    I don’t object to technology or its advancements. But the changes are so rapid and constant, they render everything ephemeral, all for the moment with no consideration for the future or past.


  7. I work all day in front of a computer. And when I get home, I spend a few more hours in front of another computer. Making books makes me feel like things aren’t quite as ephemeral and transitory as they are on my screen, and I can take pride in the fact that I’ve made something — however clumsy and awkward — with my own two hands: a different kind of interaction with an object that didn’t exist only a few hours before.

  8. Monda said: “I think digitalization of the word is much larger than the closing of a few newpapers and publishing houses.”

    Yup. Any commodity that can be digitized is instantly mobile and can be manufactured or purchased by anyone anyplace in the world. When on-demand book printing becomes the norm, those books are going to be coming down the wire from somewhere else.

    Heck, the traditional bookstore might become little more than a kiosk, with RFID readers instantly sending credit card information to a bank server in NYC, which deposits the funds into an account for someone in London.

    Books themselves might remain tangible at the consumer end, but the entire rest of the process, from author creation to publisher distribution, is going to happen electronically.

  9. i love Dettmer’s work — it baffles me when people have negative reactions.

    the reactionary impulse usually derives from a purist viewpoint which aligns Dettmer’s creative process to a destructive act & that view only serves to reveal a fetishizing drive to deify cultural artifacts to near-holy status where anything that may be deemed transgressive is cast to the equivalent of heresy.

    the real heresy is how rare book dealers gouge bibliophiles!

    the real heresy is Olivetti’s Valentine seen as design object instead of tool!

    the real heresy is antique typewriter keys sold on ebay for housewives scrapbook decorations!

    here’s another example of bookart heresy, the brilliant classic work by Dieter Roth:

  10. Aw shucks! The city slickers done gone and crashed our hayride! But seriously—as surely you know, art appreciation is not about uniformity of viewpoint. I am sure Dettmer appreciates his critics as much as his fanboys—any good artist is looking to provoke a debate.

    Dettmer’s artistic skill isn’t in question, at least by me. I do believe, however, that the ironic/symbolic destruction/reassembly of 20th century objects is threatening to become an art cliché. Books aren’t exactly in short supply, but I don’t need to see one destroyed to convey that information is moving in a non-corporeal direction.

    But that isn’t even what bugged me about your post. It was a small thing really: the use of “housewife” as a pejorative. You sound young. I’m guessing you are unaware that women who stay at home to raise children work harder than you—no question. If they want to spend their nanosecond of spare time putting pictures of their children into albums for families to enjoy for decades, that’s OK by me. I stayed home with my child for six months, and that six months was harder than my entire ten years in the software industry. So, ‘housewives’ as pejorative—THAT’S the real hersey.

  11. 1st:
    i apologize for the use of antiquated patriarchal terminology, it was vulgar on my part & quite inexcuseable in this day & age, thanx for callin’ me out onnit.

    what about yer use of the colloquialism “aw shucks” combined w/ “city slicker” to denote a decidely “anti-intellectual” stance & attempt to proclaim some humanistic folksy superiority?

    what isn’t a cliché? hellfire, in this post-info saturated environment it doesn’t take long for any creative practice to become an overnight cliché inna nanosecond — esp moreso when everybody jumps on the bandwagon & pummels into the overcommercialized ground! — so, i do not take your posit pointing to cliché as a valid critique.

    i think perhaps you may be “misreading” the artwork, it isn’t “destroyed”, it’s preserved, mummified so to speak, & is much more likely to survive for future generations to enjoy compared to other copies of the book that become fodder for the recycling bin or large profit for the exclusionary rare-book dealer.

    again, i apologize if you’ve interpreted my comment as hostile, i was actually trying to be nice & i’m sorry if you read it as lofty intellectualism.

    here’s something of possible interest, a topic i post’d onna visual poetry forum:
    favorite typewriter

    i like yer idea of the typewriter journal, i’m willing to contribute concrete typewriter poetry if you’d be interest’d, i also might be wrangled into writing a small essay about the history & importance typewriter poetry, as it has a long & interesting history.

    also, pardon my intrusion, if my presence unsettles you, i will gladly refrain from commenting in the future — i enjoy yer blog very much & often visit for reading, this was the first comment i’ve left because i am indeed a “fanboy” of Dettmer.

  12. Rad-tastic, I am glad you are signed up!

    Troy, point #2, heh. Perhaps. Yes, we could use some typewriter poetry in the journal.

    Jeff, I do tend to always factor in the event of their being no power for an extended period of time, due to general post-apocalyptic paranoia.

    Olivander, that is an interesting thought, the kiosk. There is this vending machine at the Seattle Center that sells paperbacks, which although is not what you’re describing, is kind of the picture I am getting.

    Monda, What do your students think of this whole demise of the book thing? I read this article the other day that enrollment in journalism programs is actually way up (!) which I thought interesting in relation to your comment that perhaps creative writers are in a better position for internet writing jobs than journalists.

  13. yes, i’d be glad to contribute, when/if the theme is announced, i can do specific poems relating to the theme — as well as trying to come up w/ typophilic examples that typewriter enthusiasts would enjoy…

    concrete typewriter poetry is kind of a small niche thing, alotta ppl don’t “get” it & i understand that it’s not everyone’s cuppa tea — for me, typocrete is a celebration of the machine & i’m in awe seeing all the possibilities…

    here are a few examples of my typocrete poetry if you’d like to have a looksee:

    (pardon the big long list, i was having fun making a list of all the typocrete i’ve post’d b/c i’ve never group’d them together inna bundle before)

    Ничто (за нуль бытия)


    ( & a small write-up about the above link)
    Link text


    alephs & arcades


    readyrumble frontstrike


    re: ubbing raser
    (using opaquing film)




    the only problem is the problem


    noddy nummyskull


    pome for Cavan McCarthy


    lowErcasE uppcumming


    end w/ an embryo
    (typewriter related)


    wrymouth & pissen paira breeches


    OMstone as only arms


    improv’d autotypist
    (not typocrete, but involves twriters)


    space of displacement
    (the small dots were made onna typewriter)


    death of the author


    typeriders in the sky
    (something cool an Australian reader sent me)

    . . .