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The trouble with artists’ books  

State Library of Queensland – May 4, 2013


The quote “artists’ books … as popular as tatoos” was an opening remark by gallerist Noreen Grahame


All great seminars, forums, conferences and meetings stir discussion and commentary; The trouble with artists’ books seminar was no exception. We approached a number of artists book people to contribute to this blog post responding to the stimulus created by the event – I have included their responses after my introductory comments.


In Volume 7 of the Bonefolder e-journal  I reported on the dual artists book events of the 2010 Artspace Mackay Focus on Artists Book V, event and the 3rd Libris Awards. In this report I commented on the speaker’s presentations and reviewed the artists book award. I then concluded that these events were integral to the development and maintenance of a community of practice for those who make artists books in this country.  Three years on the energy and enthusiasm for artists’ books remains however the Mackay Focus event has been abandoned and some awards events have slipped from their usual place in the yearly/bi-yearly calendar.

We are indeed indebted to the Siganto Foundation and the SLQ who in 2012 made possible the Keith Smith and Scott McCarney workshop and seminar, and this year the The trouble with artists’ books seminar. It seems to me that artists book community in this country has a great appetite for information, connecting with the heroes and heroines of the discipline, learning about methods and techniques as well as participating in camaraderie with their peers.  My concluding words in the Bonefolder report recognised the importance of events such as Artspace’s Focus on Artists Books and the Libris Awards as they invigorate the discipline and the art of artists books … The significant response to this seminar indicates that the pace and frequency of artists book events should not slacken – we want more!

The Bonefolder report concluding comments were:

Awareness of the origins of the discipline of artists’ books and the Australian context as well as issues of contemporary and emergent practice is a unique outcome for FOAB. Where else in Australia this year would one be able to experience, or participate in a program where issues as diverse as Avatars making books in their second life, the death of the book/author, wild books and zoo viewing of books, propositions for new perceptive literature, mail art and the products of psychometry being resolved as artists’ books? Perhaps attendees should be warned of the ride that they would encounter.

Central to need for the FOAB, as an event, is its ability to pull together artists’ book interested people and provide a forum for them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Artists’ bookmakers are individual artists, sometimes collaborators, librarians, academics, gallerists and collectors are isolated as islands of interest in their usual place of activity. But at FOAB they meet, greet, mingle, chat, discuss, argue and get down to the flensing-out of ideas, polemics and concerns about practice and the book as a work of art. This blend of interested parties forms the nucleus, the hub, of the discipline within this country – without it, there would only be individual soliloquies in the wilderness



Julie Barratt

Julie Barratt   –  Artist

I guess really briefly what I got from ‘the trouble with artist book ‘ talk if I was going to quote is ” it seems the trouble with artist books is that there are too many to love!!!” On a more serious note I guess for me it always comes down to how we talk about/define an artist book, as an ongoing discussion.

Almost on a daily basis when I had the gallery (I always had at lead a few artist books on display) people would ask what these books are! How to define them without quoting Johanna Drucker?  Should there be categories i.e. Sculptural, digital etc etc. How do we expect the audience to understand them if we as practitioners have difficulty talking about them? But how do we agree on a definition?

That’s what I imagined the forum to be about because ‘isn’t that the trouble with artist books’? Having said that I thoroughly enjoyed the forum and think there need to be many many more of them when in fact there seem to be less (Mackay forum? ) so that the discussion can continue….

Its always a pleasure to catch up with the artist book community, feels like a reunion every time!



Maureen Trainor portrait

Maureen Trainor

Maureen Trainor  –  Photographer and QCA Masters student

I found these presentations to be very informative and inspiring.

The content and sequence of the presentations were dynamic.

By breaking down the delivery into the three different viewpoints the three Keynote speakers were engaging and thought provoking.

Starting with Helen Cole presenting ‘the Librarian’s view’, Noreen Grahame presenting ‘the Gallerist’s view’, Jan Davis presenting ‘the Artist’s view’ and ending with an interactive audience time for ‘questions and answers’ was right on target with information.

The Hearsay team discussing their project was fantastic. Combined with humour and wit they certainly kept the attention of a diverse audience.

I truly enjoyed the afternoon and felt I could of stayed into the night with more speakers and presentations.




Monica Oppen

Monica Oppen  –  Artist and collector

The Trouble with Artists’ Books (and the Libris Awards)

Coming away from the SLQ seminar where the attendance was so strong and having attended the opening and announcement of the Libris Award at Artspace Mackay the conviction that has risen strongly in my mind is that there is a real need for events such as the SLQ Siganto Seminar. The strong attendance not only indicates a real interest in the topic but a desire of artists to reconnect with others working in the field. As Helen writes in her post about the Libris Awards, and I can vouch for it, there were very, very few artists there but also no other significant persons from the institutions who have an ongoing interest and involvement in artists’ books were there. The tyranny of distance and the associated costs of travel and accommodation will only be overcome by creating an event that is worth travelling for.

The topic The Trouble with Artists Books is pertinent and complex and was way too big to handle in one afternoon; a multi-day conference could have been structure around this topic. Time restrictions meant that Jan Davis and Noreen Grahame could only touch on, hint at and introduce the work/books from which a broader discussion could have expanded. The sense that there is a need for these seminars (judging from the attendance numbers) also hopefully indicates a need for more rigorous, mature critical discourse around the genre, a breadth of conversation and argument. Does the constant discussion of definition and the non-committal responses from ‘those who should know’ arise from this lack of discourse? I don’t consider the definition ‘if the artist calls it a book, it is a book’ to be an adequate, exciting nor empowering definition unless some force is allowed to work in opposition to it, that demands a justification, demands some critical analysis. The lines will always be blurry but this could be an energizing force and contribute a dynamism to the genre. By not taking a stand are we in fact leaving definitions to the gallery? Surely the gallery as a medium is the antithesis of the (artists’) book. The gallery is exposed and extraverted; the book is enclosed and introverted. Always it comes up, the problem with exhibiting artists books— this is because books are not meant to be exhibited, they are meant to be read. What are the implications for the genre if books are only viewed in the gallery, and more seriously if the gallery maintains a ‘no touch’ policy? Ironically, making a (artist’s) book was originally about abandoning the gallery; about the subversion of the commercialism of the art object. The book was meant to be a free-floating object in wider society. Where is that rebel spirit?

A hundred more questions could be asked. I hope the SLQ seminar is not a one-off but gives an impetus to more symposiums throughout the country.

Monica Oppen 14/5/13


Judy Barrass

Judy Barrass

Judy Barrass  –  Artist

THIS COMMENTARY COMES FROM JUDY’s BLOG – ‘Critical Mass’ http://www.criticalmassblog.net/2012/?p=2568

No one can agree on what they are, or even where the apostrophe should be placed, but a seminar on artists’ books at the State Library on Saturday drew a crowd.

It was a  rare get-together of artist book makers and officianados, with attendees travelling from other states and regional Queensland just to attend the two-and-a-half-hour seminar and catch up with old friends.

According to the speakers, librarian Helen Cole, gallerist Noreen Grahame, and artist book maker and academic Jan Davis, artist books are problematic. That’s not just because no one seems to be able to agree on a definition, but also because they are hard to store, hard to display, and are not usually included in mainstream collections or exhibitions. They attract mostly a smallish group of makers and collectors and don’t sell in large numbers. Despite this, artists’ books draw a passionate audience of makers and supporters whenever they are on show (or whenever there’s a seminar).

Queensland has been a leader in the artist book phenomenon. The Queensland State Library is a significant collector, and Grahame Galleries took an early leading role. Artspace Mackay and Noosa Regional Gallery added public gallery support to exhibitions and collecting.

Someone suggested that it’s an inbred audience made up almost entirely of artist book makers, but a show of hands in the crowd on Saturday debunked this myth since at least half the attendees were not makers. Still, as Noreen Grahame remarked, artist books are a sort of ‘underground’ movement outside the mainstream.

I can’t help wondering if this is merely a question of naming. By calling these artworks ‘books’ they are relegated to the collections of libraries rather than art galleries, or they exist in a no man’s land between library and gallery. Nonetheless I have seen many works in public art gallery collections that could (or perhaps should) be called artist books. The boundaries are thin and flexible, and this was evident at the seminar. The mantra seems to be that if the artist calls it a book then it is a book.

One of the more interesting questions on the day was about the growing number of artist books that exist only in digital format. Helen Cole said the library was considering how these books might be collected and preserved, but indicated it was extremely difficult, particularly as technology changes so rapidly and formats and software become obsolete. Noreen Grahame solved the problem by referring to digital books as ‘ephemera’, and Jan Davis thought the number of artists working in the digital realm was small.

Following the discussion, a very chatty audience enjoyed a scrumptious afternoon tea and the  launch of Hearsay, a large format collaborative artists’ book by artist Euan Macleod, printmaker Ron McBurnie, and writer Lloyd Jones. They apparently didn’t worry too much whether or not their work was or was not an artist book, but have sensibly hedged their bets by also producing the pages as a portfolio of unbound prints (in case anyone thought it wasn’t art, or more probably because the portfolio might be more saleable than an artist book ).

The seminar ‘The Trouble with Artist Books’ was sponsored by the Siganto Foundation through the Queensland Library Foundation.

The State Library artist book collection is part of the Australian Library of Art.

(Thank you Judy for allowing this re-posting in this blog)




Wim de Vos

Wim de Vos  –  Artist

‘The Trouble with Artists Books’

The lecture sponsored by the Siganto Foundation was very well attended by a large audience of art practitioners, administrators, and lovers of Artists Books, and was introduced by the new head of the State Library, Janette Wright. The speakers were Helen Cole, Senior Librarian of Special Collections at the Library; Noreen Grahame, Gallerist and long time respected promoter of the Artist Books within Australia and Internationally; and Jan Davis, Academic, and practitioner of Artists Books at Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Technically the lecture was informative, ran smoothly and was very well presented.

It was great to see so many practitioners (well over half the audience) and the general public, as this event facilitated a forum – to share, and some time to catch up with friends and colleagues. This has over the last few years become non-existent with the loss of the Art Space Mackay Artist Book Forum. Also the Noosa Regional Gallery’s ‘demise’ of the Artists Book annual exhibition was a sad occurrence. In addition, both venues offered successful workshops with renowned National and International Practitioners in the Visual Arts to nurture the visual arts and the book.

Many aspects of the development of Artists Books were addressed. Helen Cole addressed the ‘Trouble with Artists Books’ from a Librarian’s point of view, in that, because they were ‘Artists Books’ and diverse in so many ways, the logistics of preservation, cataloguing and storage were ‘Troublesome’. Furthermore, it was stated that the ‘Galleries’ had passed the Artists Books onto Libraries to display and make use of them, and by making Libraries the custodians of the ever-growing phenomenon of the Artists Book.

The concept of Artists Books is generally not an easy topic to present. It is in fact generally not understood at all. A friend recently pointed out, ‘I didn’t even know that an artist book existed, but as I have learnt through the language of art over time, I can say, I view this process as Book Works by Artists.’ A major exhibition of books of this nature: DAS BUCH was presented at the Queensland Art Gallery in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Goethe Institut in Germany during 1992. This was, I’m sure, a huge influence on art practitioners and the public. At the time, it placed an emphasis on the ‘Book as Object’ in a context never before experienced in the Antipodes. There has been no major exhibition of this type in a public gallery in this State, since.

As I am a practising artist and maker of prints, paintings, and sculpture, and work with a wide variety of materials, the book as object comes naturally as a medium to extend my practice. It has in fact tied together all my processes of making art, including text, giving me the freedom of story telling on many levels.

I observed, as the afternoon progressed, that in the presentation not all aspects of Artists Books practice was being fully covered and explored by the presenters. This became, indeed, troublesome. There is actually content within books, books with text, images and text, objects and materials, and so on. There was very little mentioned on the subject of the Sculptural Book or the Photo Book. A visual list WAS presented with images of the types of books that were in the collection of the Library. But no further elaboration was offered to those in the audience that were not already ‘in the know’. The State Library of Queensland has one of the largest collections of Creative & Historical books in the southern hemisphere.

Let it be said that we can be proud of a comprehensive, diverse, eclectic and public collection of books – particularly in the collection of Contemporary Art practice in Queensland and beyond. It is promoted that it ‘may be visited at any time, by appointment’.

I recognise that there is not time to cover everything fully. This made duplication and repetition even more irritating. Time may have been used more productively.

The lecture continued with the history of the Artists Book and it’s growth within Australia over the last 30 odd years. This painted an impressive picture of collections and practise over that time. Artists were mentioned who were instrumental in its development, but presenters did not go far enough on this issue, and failed to mention key motivators: artists both local and international. There was a ‘flow of words’ promoting a few artists over and over again. When the presentation of ‘Favourite Artists Books’ was introduced the theme of the lecture was totally abandoned. We were presented with a self-indulgent diversion as to what the book may mean only to the ‘literate Artists Book fans’ present.

It would have been more useful to give the audience an indication of how they may wish to learn more about Artist Books through the public and private system. There was enough talent and experience behind the microphone to impart this information. It seemed much of this lecture was preaching to the converted.

Afternoon tea on the terrace was followed by the launch of a collaboration of an Artist Book created by two well-known visual artists:  Ewan McCloud and Ron McBurnie, and the writer Lloyd Jones. This was a very good presentation chaired by Suzi Muddiman: Director of the Murwillumbah Regional Art Gallery in NSW. This gave the opportunity for the layperson to experience the processes of collaboration in art making.

As there are no indications of any follow-up lecture or activities relating to Artist Books, it would be worthwhile to plan something on the promotion and educational aspects of Artists Books. I am sure it would be a great success.

A ‘large bouquet’ to Helen Cole in particular, and the State Library, for organising this generally informative and pleasant afternoon. We look forward to a more expansive event in the future.

Wim de Vos




Peter Lyssiotis

Peter Lyssiotis  –  Artists book-maker and photomonteur


Peter’s letter


A vodcast for the event is available at  http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/audio-video/webcasts/recent-webcasts/siganto-seminar


Cheers  Doug+Victoria



© Of all texts resides with the authors

Photograph of the SLQ Theatre, Julie Barratt, Monica Oppen, Wim de Vos  © Doug Spowart 2013. Self-portrait of Maureen Trainor ©2013. Judy Barrass portrait supplied by Judy.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.




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