Jen Smith

Who reads artefact books?

Who reads artefact books?

In order to consider making an audience, one must first consider the making of books.  Since the 1960s, increasing numbers of artists and writers have created artists’ books.  Artefact books are a particular type of artists’ books that I have identified as appropriate for study in both literary and artistic contexts.  These artefact books lie a t the intersection of informed attention to materials and artistic interpretation of content; they transmit information in a unique way that cannot be replicated by other media; and they have a distinctive relationship with the text they contain.

Artefact books self-consciously employ the apparatus of production – typography, paper, layout, design, illustration, and promotion in addition to content – in a way that requires more attention by those who deal with both material and textual culture. The quality of reading offered and demanded by artefact books is vital for paper publishing in the face of digital and multimedia competition.

This will be demonstrated through case studies of two artefact books by Heather Weston: Read: Past, Tense (2000) and Borges and I (2001) .  Read: Past, Tense, with its red cover and red paper, is ostensibly about embarrassment and blushing.  However, while the reader interacts with the work by turning the heat-sensitive pages, he recreates the very problem the narrator is attempting to escape.  This reveals a new text that can only be seen during the process of violation that makes it difficult for a reader to get past his tenseness.  Borges and I is based on a short piece written by Jorge Luis Borges after he went completely blind in the late 1950s.  The book is blind embossed with black ink on black paper, which forces the would-be reader to find new ways to apprehend the text.

So, to return to the issue at hand: who reads artefact books?  Unfortunately, too few people.  Weston’s work is held by archives and galleries all over the world, but the circulation of artefact books is disproportionately limited.  The difficulty for reader studies is how to engage with current material and contemporary materials.  Surveys taken of readers at the Small Publishers Fair (October 2006) and the London Artists Book Fair (November 2006) will be analysed to address this issue, as Weston’s work is on display and for sale at both of these events.  Ultimately, this paper will address the question of audience through an examination of works and readers that will demonstrate the unique position of artefact books in contemporary literature.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.