The first provisional solution to the books-in-gallery problem is to set up the gallery like a reading room or library. (This is an option that many of us have seen, participated in, and one that NewLights has used (and may very well again.)) The premise is simple—allow the books to be handled and read. Break the traditional “look but don’t touch” rule of the gallery, which has been done with various forms of experimental, interactive art since the 1960s. The gallery has become a kind of generic framing device that tells the public that whatever is inside, being it a series of paintings, a person living their daily life, or a bunch of flies and rotten meat, is art. So if anything else goes in the gallery, why can’t we just read books in there and be satisfied with that?

The gallery-as-library has many advantages. I think first and foremost is the fact that galleries are spaces that are open to the public, and shows often last for at least a month. So that is a large amount of time for people to come in, sit down, and read the books (and even a completely visual book with no words needs to be read). A show in a gallery will provide more time for engaged interaction than most other commonly available experiences with artists’ books—book fairs and library special collections. (Private ownership allows for a great deal of time to spend with the work, but inherently excludes the idea of public access.)

But books are often an awkward fit within the gallery. Artists’ books shows that are meant to be handled are often littered with tiny signs that encourage visitors to do so. Often shows will have a mix of work, some to be handled, some in glass cases, some out on shelves or pedestals and NOT to be touched, all of which can get confusing. Another danger of the “mixed show” is how display cases affect the work that is inside as well as outside. The case lends the books inside of it an aura (in the Benjaminian sense) of preciousness and authority. The book under glass is positioned, posed, preserved and unknowable, a mannequin and/or an image, glowing with the soft light of monetary value on display. The display case functions as a sort of auratic lens, gathering and focusing that discursive glow on the objects inside of it and rendering the books outside of it, radical in their denial and dismantling of the preciousness/untouchability of art, as decidedly ordinary objects. Books—we all are familiar with them. And indeed it is in that very familiarity and ordinariness, that common touchability, that makes the book form an excellent vehicle for the perpetual circulation of meaning, power, and authority. Which is why we love it so much. Which is why we believe that there is something at stake in the form.


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