Many examples of experimental literature seek to take the standard codex form of text and transform the content of that text in an unconventional way that conveys the author’s message. While artist books are experimental in their own right, the basis of their message is in the artistic qualities of the project. These qualities are given to a particular project in order to evoke a strong sense of uniqueness. Johanna Drucker explains in The Century of Artists’ Books that_,_ “Many of these books have an auratic quality an often inexplicable air of power, attraction, or uniqueness.” Compared to an experimental book, artistic books are more heavily reliant on aesthetics and interactivity with the reader in order to elicit a response.

A major example of an Artist Book is Gretchen Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité, which is a textual simulation of exploring an art gallery. The book utilizes a combination of exhibits and representations of written letters as options for the “Subscriber” to explore. There is interactivity presented throughout the text as it prompts the subscriber to choose a variety of pages/exhibits to turn to. The first example of this can be found after the Pre-Face (Pg. 4) where the subscriber can choose either: “To start deforming, turn to page 229,” or “To read another preface, turn to page 14.” The fact that each reading of the text can present a different combination of page selections makes it a more personal experience for the audience. The non-linear progression creates a lasting value for the book because as pointed out by Henderson:

“One misstep may curtail your visit… but a well-chosen path may lead to unexpected: Pleasure! Palpitation! Puzzlement! Penetration! Predestination! Prevarication! Peregrination! Etc…” (Pg. 16)

The book’s presentation to the subscribers encourages them to explore different paths and sets them up to critically analyze what differentiates one path from another in terms of the experience.

A major crux of what makes Galerie de Difformité an artist book is Henderson’s insistence to “break the rules” and deform the book through different prompts such as “To tie this story even tighter, get a rope or ribbon & bind up this book,” (Pg. 167) or Exhibit U on page 242 where it leaves it entirely blank for the subscriber to fill in their own words or pictures. This book goes against the traditional rules of novels that prohibit manipulating the book in an attempt to alter the message or eliminate past work. Henderson’s encouragement of the subscribers to take her original concept and create their own exhibits from it is exactly what differentiates an artist book from a traditional novel. Drucker even notes that “a book may be transformed from an appropriated or found original through physical or conceptual means – or parts of a work can be cut out and used to make a new work.” The emphasis on deformation in Henderson’s artist book allow for the subscriber to physically create their own unique version of an artist book in the same way that the non-linear format allows for the content to evoke a unique aura. As Drucker notes, “Physical and material transformations often produce a resonance through the changes wrought on the substance of paper itself.” The ability to alter and transfer creates a connection between the reader and the book that can’t be replicated by neither a traditional novel nor an experimental book.

Another common theme amongst some other artist books is the use of other mediums/technologies as a companion or supplemental piece of the work. Located all throughout the book are QR codes which lead to digital forms of exhibits and provides perspective that might not be found in print form. By allowing the reader to interact with the book in a way beyond reading the text itself, Henderson makes the works that she has written/selected become accessible in ways that they might not have been previously.

Possible Exam 2 Questions:

  1. What is the most important quality of an artist book?
  2. Does an artist book have to have a textual story/background in order to convey a message? Why or why not?
  3. What is the benefit of making an artist book more easily accessible?