Making notes this morning for the Al-Mutanabbi Street panel discussion this evening (scroll down for info). This is what I’ve ended up with:

I have never been to Al-Mutanabbi Street. We were not there. Most of us probably will never be there. How can we bear witness to an event that occurred so far away, so long ago? How can we make ourselves witnesses to what we never could have seen? Why is it important, in this time, and in this place, to continue to witness, to see? How do, or can, these broadsides actually make a difference? Or are we simply tossing pebbles into an ocean of tragedy?

I have lived my entire life on Al-Mutanabbi Street.

Every act of violence, every bomb, opens a wound in the world. It destroys everything near it, continuously, even well after the bomb has exploded, the dead have been gathered, and the rubble has been cleared. Even three years after it happened, the bomb, this bomb, our bomb, any bomb, continues to incinerate any action or any language that tries to get near it. These words you’re hearing now are dust before they’ve left my mouth.

If not for this bomb and for this project, I never would have heard of Al-Mutanabbi Street. 130 people were killed or wounded in the attack. There are now 130 different broadsides in the world: produced, producing, embodied, and embodying. Broadsides can not protect anyone from a piece of shrapnel, can never heal a wound, or “right” a wrong. They are, at best, shrouds, or photographs of the lost, creased and worn.

130 acts of creation, laid over this wound in the world. 130 moments of remembrance, burying the dead. 130 pieces of shrapnel, continuously opening and reopening the wound. 130 broadsides, by more than 130 artists and writers, who have chosen to try to see, to feel, to make.

I have come to no conclusions.

We will live our entire lives on Al-Mutanabbi Street.



If you haven’t seen the show of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadsides yet, or if you’d like to learn more about Al-Mutanabbi Street, the project, and its future, you should come to the panel discussion “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” on Friday, April 30th. Along with the panel discussion there will be a screening of the short film "A Candle For The Shabandar Cafe," which is about a cafĂ© that was destroyed in the bombing. All 130 letterpress broadsides are still on display, but the show comes down on May 2, so this may be the last good chance to see them. I will be a member of the panel, as well as:

Grendl Lofkvist (printer)
Celeste Smeland (artist/printmaker)
Tom Ingalls (Graphic Artist)
Felicia Rice (printer)
Beau Beausoleil (poet)

And this is all taking place at the San Francisco Zen Center. I hope to see you there.

Al-Mutanabbi Street Broadside Exhibition
April 2 – May 2
Panel discussion on April 30th at 7:30 PM
300 Page St.
San Francisco



I want to elaborate on the facilities post, particularly in regard to the idea of having a Book Arts program that teaches students how to use production presses: both high-speed letterpress and offset lithography. Why is it important to have this equipment? How is it beneficial for the students?

There are a few reasons why I think it is important to teach this equipment. The first is very practical: learning to use these presses will help students in finding a job after they graduate from school, because these presses are still used commercially (in small studios, generally). With the number of small, commercial letterpress studios still growing, more and more of these jobs will be available. And as I know from experience, being a letterpress printer at a small commercial studio is not a bad way to make a living, especially for someone just out of school. And commercial printing is an education all of its own.

Offset is a bit trickier, as small run shops are moving toward digital presses (should the program have a good digital press as well?). There are a few Book/Print programs that teach offset printing (University of the Arts and Columbia College in Chicago come immediately to mind) and the number of artists who print their own offset books is extremely small (see JAB 25). If offset is going to mean something as a medium, it needs to be used by artists and designers who fully understand its unique capabilities—it needs to be used for more than 4 color reproduction.

Which I think brings us to the more “abstract” reason for integrating this equipment into a Book Arts curriculum: that the use of this equipment enlarges the field of possibilities for artists, and for the art as a whole. It changes the terms of production—quantity and reach expand, without sacrificing the elements of finely tuned control that we expect and demand from “analog” processes. When the terms of production change, the discourse within and around a particular medium changes as well. Letterpress no longer has to be precious, and offset no longer has to be mechanical to the point of absolute transparency. What the processes could mean grows. How they mean becomes observable in a different way. The discourse groans and expands.

Of course, we are basing this whole premise on the larger idea that an educational program in the Book Arts should expand the field. Some might argue (more in the way that they teach and less in what they say) that the job of academic institutions is not to expand the field, but to maintain the (or establish a new) status quo. How can a program be continually expansive? Just by having some fancy equipment?



“Let us now perform the work of daylight.”

Piet Mondrian, from The New Art—The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. and trans. by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, Boston, 1986.



Now that we have the general setting of our Book Arts program figured out, we can move on to the really fun stuff: studio equipment and classes. Today’s post is on equipment, guided by the following questions: what specific equipment does a book arts program need? Are there types of equipment not commonly found in schools that could be used to broaden the program in interesting and valuable ways? (We are, after all, trying to build a new, distinct program.) And remember, in our perfect world, money is not a problem. But we will only ask for what we really need.

As mentioned in the last post, the Book Arts department would or could share a building with the Printmaking department. It makes sense to me to share, because there’s no need for multiple studios dedicated to one technique, and having everything in the same building will make the combination of techniques (which we want to encourage) much easier. So the Printmaking department would have its usual run of studios: intaglio/relief, litho, screenprinting, and digital. And what studios would Book Arts have? First a list:

Offset Lithography

Then some brief descriptions:

Letterpress: The letterpress studio would have all of the traditional components: 3 or so Vandercooks of a few different makes/sizes, a small proofing press, and one hand-fed platen press. It would have a generous selection of lead and wood type, and part of the budget set aside to replenish worn faces. There would be equipment for making photopolymer plates—a nice A2 size platemaker, and maybe even an Imagesetter for making film. The thing(s) that would make this letterpress studio a little different from the rest is the inclusion of some serious production presses: A Heidelberg “Windmill” Platen, and a Heidelberg Flatbed Cylinder. Why these presses? Because they change the terms of production for letterpress: suddenly it becomes reasonable to print an edition of 500 or 1000 or more of multiple colors and a fair amount of complexity. The problem (and an interesting pedagogical problem) with these presses is their complexity: you can’t really teach a class to use them efficiently and/or safely by giving one demo to a group of 10+ people. They require individual training and a lot of time on press to gain proficiency. They would perhaps come in later, as independent studies for advanced students (already the equipment shapes the program).

Bindery: All the standard bindery equipment: book presses, nipping presses, lying presses, etc. Tools for leather binding as well. A foil stamping machine and type for it. Generous table space. A small hand guillotine for trimming books, and a large (30” wide) electric guillotine for cutting paper. Board shears too.

Papermaking: One or two 1-2 pound Reina and/or Valley beaters. A hydraulic press, vats, and moulds large enough to comfortably accommodate 22” x 30” sheets. Vats and moulds for Japanese papermaking. A forced air drying system. Some brilliant solution for drying felts with ease. Drains in the floor (though we will teach the students to be neat).

Offset Lithography: This is equipment that I do not know at all. But I think it could be an exciting part of a program, for the same reasons that the production letterpresses would be. But offset is even faster, and it opens up possibilities for photographic work. 1 or 2 small, Heidelberg offset presses, and all of the darkroom equipment necessary for making plates. Maybe the offset studio would have its own guillotine. I’m not really sure what else an ideal offset studio would have—suggestions are welcome.

& of course suggestions are welcome for all of the other parts of this thought experiment as well.

To be continued…



So that first “Curriculating” post (just scroll down to see it) was kind of a mess. But it got this thing started. Let’s review the premise of this investigation, and begin to lay the groundwork for the rest.

The “Curriculating” posts are (or will be) a thought experiment, an attempt to imagine what a dedicated Book Arts curriculum, or major, would look like. At this point, I have no idea what shape the entire experiment will take, or when and where it will end. But that’s the end, and we need to begin at the beginning.

(At this point I am having trouble deciding what to write about next—do we begin with a foundational philosophy for the program, or do we jump right in with a description of the program itself, establishing its parameters and context? Although it makes a certain sense to begin by trying to establish some overarching principle(s), I think such things will have to emerge as the thing is worked out. In fact, perhaps the goal of the entire experiment is to yield such a philosophy.)

As the program is built and refined, it is important to note that this will be the imagining of an “ideal” situation—for me. (Or perhaps it is a way for me to realize my “ideal” teaching situation.) And so there will probably some big, real world problems that I will skip over or simply not see. For example: we are going to assume that money is not an issue—that the resources to make the program its ideal size and breadth are there. This is often not the case in the real world, especially now, when it seems like every department in every school is constantly under the threat of having its funding cut down or completely taken away.

Our Book Arts Department will be one department at a small school focused on the visual arts and design. A general listing of the other available programs: Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture, Ceramics, Fibers, General Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Illustration, Digital Media, and Intermedia. And since we’re talking about ideals there would also be an Art History/Criticism/Theory major as well. The overall goal of the school is to produce professional working artists, whether they are designers with full-time employment, or studio artists depending on the sales of individual pieces for their income. There would be BFA and MFA programs in all, or most, disciplines. Our focus, for now, is on the BFA program(s).

Book Arts would be its own autonomous department, connected to, but not a part of, any of the others. As such it would have its own core faculty and its own classroom/studio space (perhaps in the same building as Printmaking). The ideal number of faculty members is hard to determine at this point, but let’s say 5 or 6, with a broad range of approaches and areas of expertise in the field, both in the studio and in theory/history. There would be other faculty as well, perhaps adjunct or perhaps culled from other departments to provide more in-depth coverage of subjects not usually found in Fine Arts programs. Example: a studio class about concrete and visual poetry.

A studio class about Concrete and Visual Poetry? Can you imagine such a thing?



Picking up some momentum on printing again. The images that follow are a series of set-up sheets from What You Will. “Set-up sheets” are the sheets of paper that are run through the press to test feeding, impression, registration and print quality. They are often fed through multiple times, resulting in layered, haphazard compositions. Each of the set-up sheets below have been “tagged” and will be released (inserted randomly) back into the main pile of set-up sheets. And after every week I will pull them again, scan them, and post them here. So it will be yet another way for us to track the process, the growth in complexity of the book. The sheets that you are looking at are the result of printing 11 different plates. (Note: the images got cropped a bit: the real sheets are slightly taller (about a half inch) than the bed on my scanner.)

This last image is a close-up of a section of text, so that you can get a sense of the layers of transparent ink. Eight of the eleven plates printed so far have been printed directly on top of each other to build up images like this.



Trying to be organized. Trying to have goals. Trying to achieve them. Trying to stop trying, get on to the doing.

MONDAY: Write, Work, Print (Books), Read
TUESDAY: Write, Work, Prep for class, Read
WEDNESDAY: Write, Teach, Read
THURSDAY: Write, Work, Cut/Peel Broadsides, Read
FRIDAY: Write, Work, Cut/Peel Broadsides, Read
SATURDAY: Read, Print (Books), Other*
SUNDAY: Read, Print (Books), Other*


* Could include one or more of the following: Prep for class, Grading, Writing emails, Watching movies, Reading, etc.



When we say we we may mean us. & by us we may mean &. & by its nature will never fall apart, therefore it is not an adequate representation of us, we, or, and. Perhaps this & nothing more.



At most colleges and universities, there is not a degree specifically in Book Arts. Usually any Book Arts classes fall inside the Printmaking department, or exist in some other strange extension, like the library or the English department. Sometimes, students can cobble together a pretty thorough Book Arts education by taking classes from a series of departments. But usually they just get a sample. So a thought exercise: what would a Book Arts curriculum look like? What classes would it entail? How would it be structured? How would it relate to other departments? Is there a Foundations program specific to Book Arts?

(I don’t foresee this being a simple task, so this subject will probably occupy the IDE(A/O)(B)LOG(Y/UE) for a little while, for the week, or longer. Perhaps with interruptions. Almost certainly with interruptions.)

This is a fun exercise for me, a way to think through and visualize what an “ideal” teaching situation (for me) looks like. So in keeping with that ideal, we’re going to place this program at the kind of school that I understand best (and think I want to teach at, ultimately)—a small school focused on visual art. (& I suppose that we can expect this “program” to reflect my other biases as well.)

One of the first problems that we run into is the radical inclusiveness of the book. How can we define a curriculum for a field that has been notoriously hard to define? Most academic art programs are defined by media: the Painting program, the Photography program, etc. But books are not a medium, they are a form, an entire cultural paradigm that can easily include all of the media, together or one at a time. (Note: it could be argued that any medium can contain any of the other media (ex: a painting containing photographic images, photographic images deployed across a 3D form) but the difference is this: when media are combined the boundaries of those media are stretched and/or dissolved; all of a sudden a painting is no longer just a painting, it’s a sculpture. But a book can contain both painting and photography and printing and drawing and always has sculptural qualities, and still be, easily and recognizably, traditionally, a book.) So then a Book Arts program stands with other hard to define or perpetually changing academic programs, like Intermedia/New Media, or Digital Arts. Could we base our program on such structures already in existence?

Possibly. But we may need to go further, because the production of artists’ books extends out into fields normally outside the direct purview of the Fine Arts (Department). What about classes in Graphic Design, Typography? What about classes in Writing? Creative, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and/or critical? All of the above? How would a writing program change when bent toward the visual/material nature of language and books? (Aside: what if the Book Arts program was sub-divided into Concentrations, like a BFA in Book Arts with a concentration in Bookbinding or Visual Poetry? That seems like a frightening amount of specialization, the kind we want to avoid, the kind that could negate the expansive, critical potential of the program that we’re outlining.)


A brief break from writing this post, and now I can see that this subject is very complex, and my handling of it is going to be very disorganized. But for now, let’s end on this idea: One of the most compelling and fertile aspects of the book-as-art is the questions it asks of the other “art media” and other areas of culture, that it asks of how art and art objects are made, distributed, and received in this culture. The book has enormous critical potential, the book is potential. How can a Book Arts curriculum communicate that? How can the curriculum be positioned critically, in order to ask questions of how art and art objects are made, distributed, and received in this culture?

Or are we asking too much already? Better to try and fail. Oh, to be drawn out and continued.