Thinking about the title of this series of posts: what, exactly, does the word “return” mean here? If the “democratic multiple” is back, where did it go? Or was it never really gone at all? Somewhere implicit in this discussion, at least the one-sided one that I am enacting, there is the implicit idea of a “failure” of the democratic multiple—that at some point the idea was officially declared dead and the concept was abandoned, both in theory and practice. That at that point the idea became a historical curiosity, a “theme” to be discussed in art schools, but never practiced anymore by “serious” artists.

What is/was this “failure, and where did it come from?

Looking into my sources (Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, and The Century of Artists’ Books) I wonder if the failure is there, implicit in those discussions, or if I injected it in. Here is the slightly elegaic, slightly hopeful, author’s note preceding Lucy Lippard’s two essays in Artists’ Books:

The following two articles were written in late 1976 and in summer, 1983. The first is drenched in the enthusiasm that engendered Printed Matter that same year. The second reflects a certain disillusionment with the direction artists’ books took in the interim. The process continues, and were I writing yet another piece today (the end of 1984), I might produce yet another view, affected by the fact that I’m now making collaborative artists’ books myself.
The production of and market for artists’ books continue to grow and this is a good indication of the form’s ongoing vitality. As the second article suggests. I am still more interested in those books that sidestep internal vicissitudes in favor of fantasies and realities that reach further out. These are still plentiful and some of my favorites have emerged since both these articles were written. I could add an equally impressive new list of works with social and/or political content. Printed Matter and its colleagues struggle on against economic adversity and artworld trends. The audience grows as libraries become more receptive. We await some distribution genius, or godmother, to inflame the hearts of a broader public with the burning desire to own artists’ books. Until then, harsher criticism and deeper knowledge of the genre will have to suffice. [1]

All in all that note is pretty hopeful. Looking into her second essay, the “disillusioned” one, we see the first paragraph:

The artists’ book is/was a great idea whose time has either not come, or come and gone. As a longtime supporter of and proselytizer for the genre (and co-founder of Printed Matter, the major nonprofit distributor), it pains me to say this. But all is not lost, just misplaced. [2]

Critical, but still hopeful. On the next page though, there are two quotes from “practitioner” Mike Glier:

the next step for artists’ book was “to become politically effective and to communicate to a diverse audience.” A few years and no giant step later, Glier is saying, “We’re past the careful nurturing stage and into do or die competition with mass culture. If artists’ books remain a novelty in the art world, they are a failure.” [3]

Obviously, in those terms, the artists’ book (and I assume he’s talking about the democratic (mass-produced, affordable) artists’ book as the entire genre) did fail. But things like art (not democracy) are never “do or die.” There can always be a “return.” In fact, one might say that these “returns” continuously fuel the discourse/practice. The failure doesn’t really exist—not in actual events, not explicitly or implicitly within the main thrust of the discourse—and we can see that the “return” here is a re-examination of an idea that has never gone away:

Despite their general lack of visible effectiveness, [artists’ books] are part of a significant subcurrent beneath the artworld mainstream that threatens to introduce blood, sweat, and tears to the flow of liquitex, bronze, and bubbly. [4]

1. Lucy Lippard, “Author’s Note,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 44.

2. Lucy Lippard, “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 49.

3. Ibid., 50.

4. Ibid., 56.



Here are some images of, and info on, two broadsides done at the Press at Colorado College last semester. Both are still available. Click on the "more info" links below for price and ordering information.

Poetry Has Left The Poem...

Aphorism by Darren Wershler
Letterpress from photopolymer plates and lead type, delamination
11" x 17"
Variable edition of 20
More Info!

Poem by David Mason
Letterpress from lead and wood type, hand painted
10" x 13"
Variable edition of 30
More Info!



This is a shot of Pike's Peak, taken from around the corner of the building where the Press is.



But what about the accessibility of content? Is affordability enough to make an artwork “democratic?” Or does it need to be, as both Lippard and Drucker imply, also “accessible” in the sense of “easily understood or appreciated?” This is a difficult question—political, aesthetic, social, economic. But it is a question worth asking, and, of course, at least trying to answer. The following is from Craig Dworkin’s Reading the Illegible:

[…] The politics of literature, accordingly, is no less fraught. In the narrow sense of “politics,” poems are quite simply not efficacious. At best, they may present models from which readers can extrapolate modes of thought or behavior which can be translated into other contexts and systems. To the degree that poems affect a reader’s understanding of language, they have the potential to alter all of those extraliterary relationships that also involve language; but they do not directly influence electoral politics, or feed the hungry, or soften blows. […]
The very importance of political issues, in fact, demands a more sophisticated reading practice. Both Jed Rasula and Bruce Andrews have suggested the requirements for such readings […]. Following Rasula’s terminology […] one might differentiate between the politics through, the politics in, and the politics of the poem. The politics through the poem would, accordingly, be politics in the narrow sense [described above]: essentially false leads, though perhaps occasionally and collaterally achieved by certain rallying songs or the poetic ornaments accompanying speeches. The politics in the poem would indicate Pound’s discussion of Mussolini, say, or Adrienne Rich’s feminist thematics. […] the politics of the poem: what is signified by its form, enacted by its structures, implicit in its philosophy of language, how it positions its reader, and a range of questions relating to the poem as a material object—how it was produced, distributed, exchanged. Or in Bruce Andrews’s terms: “writing as politics, not writing about politics.” […] To extend one’s reading to the politics of the poem is a prerequisite for a more significantly and fully political or ethical reading, and to that end I want to insist throughout this book on a radical formalism. I adapt the term from Andrews’s definition of a “radical praxis,” which “involves the rigors of formal celebration, a playful infidelity, a certain illegibility within the legible: an infinitizing, a wide-open exuberance, a perpetual motion machine, a transgression.” A sufficiently radical formalism pursues the closest of close readings in the service of political questions, rather than to their exclusion. At the same time, it refuses to consider the poem as a realm separate from politics, even as it focuses on “the poem itself.” It is a matter, quite simply, of being true to form. As a ‘pataphysical investigation of minute particulars, radical formalisms hew to the concrete. Where “concrete” is what the street is made of. […] [1]

That idea, of a “radical formalism” frames where I want to begin with this question of content and accessibility, or of form and accessibility, as the case may be. I feel like this can be a productive discussion—more soon.

1. Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 4-5.



In the quotes used in the post below, both Johanna Drucker and Lucy Lippard point out that artists’ books “failed” as a democratic multiple not because they weren’t affordable, but because they weren’t accessible in terms of content. The “general public” could not understand the books. So then there are two kinds of accessibility we’re talking about here, and we need to be clear. We will call economic accessibility “affordability,” and we will call content accessibility just “accessibility.”

Affordability is definitely an issue, and though it can often be dealt with in concrete economic terms (this book cost this much money to make, so therefore the price is this much) those terms, strict as they are, don’t always give a result acceptable to the artist and/or the market. The books might end up costing more to make than people will pay for them, so the price has to be dropped in order to sell them. Or they might cost more to make than the artist/publisher wants to sell them for, and so the prices get lowered, oftentimes resulting in a non-existent or very low compensation for the time involved in making the book.

The NewLights low prices are a result of both those things. The books often circulate within a “literary” market, where small, handmade books are generally cheaper than trade books. Most people won’t buy them if they’re too expensive. So in order to get them to be bought by people (not just by collecting institutions) the price needs to be at a place that is easy to accept, that matches up with the audience’s idea of how much the books should cost. This is why I maintain a commitment to making books that will sell for $20 or less (not all the NewLights books, but most).

So if the artist/publisher wants to keep their work affordable they have two basic options: 1) figure out how to make making the work cheaper and less time-consuming. Depending on the kind of work this could compromise it considerably. 2) Subsidize production by having another job. This can compromise the work by placing serious drains on the artist’s time & energy. Having a second job (which one is the “real” job?) is probably the most common solution, the one that I have used since I finished my BFA. It is fairly effective—as long as one has lots of energy, determination, and focus. Most working artists do, because if they did not, the work just wouldn’t get made, whether they can afford it or not.

The trick is, I think, to make sure that the production-pricing-selling process doesn’t lock the artist into a cycle of diminishing returns, where each piece becomes more difficult to make than the last. Not only will that slowly bankrupt the artist, but it will also eat away at their spirit, causing them to burn out, pack it in, and sometimes stop making work period. That needs to be avoided, at all costs.



Success in art usually comes through tenacity. I will try not to flinch.

From the post 2 days ago:

[…] I wonder about the idea of “reception,” about democratic multiples, un-democratic multiples, and un-multiplied multiples. I wonder about accessibility, both economic and aesthetic/conceptual. What kind of accessibility, economic or aesthetic/conceptual, or both, qualifies a piece as “democratic?” I wonder about legibility, and if that is different from accessibility. […]

Of course everything is related, and the current re-evaluation of the NewLights Press is meshed with larger theoretical-aesthetic-social concerns about books and bookmaking in general. So we are back to the “democratic multiple,” we are back to the form-content-production-reception model. The articulation of “reception,” and how it is addressed, embodied, and activated through the work remains one of the most difficult (productive) problems. We will start by pulling at this term “democratic,” the words pulled along in its wake (“accessible” and “legible”) and some discussion from some of the canonical literature.

democracy n. a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives. A state governed in such a way. Control of a group by the majority of its members.
ORIGIN C16: from Fr. democratie, via late L. from Gk demokratia, from demos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’.

democratic adj. of, relating to, or supporting democracy. Egalitarian. [1]

[…] Artists’ books have existed since early in the century but as a named phenomenon they surfaced with conceptual art in the sixties, part of a broad, if na├»ve, quasi-political resistance to the extreme commodification of artwork and artists. Accessibility and some sort of function were an assumed part of their raison d’etre. Still, despite sincere avowals of populist intent, there was little understanding of the fact that the accessibility of the cheap, portable form did not carry over to that of the contents—a basic problem in all of the avant-garde’s tentative moves towards democratization in the sixties and early seventies. The New York art world was so locked into formal concerns (even those of us who spent a lot of time resisting them) that we failed to realize that, however neat the package, when the book was opened by a potential buyer from “the broader audience” and he or she was baffled, it went back on the rack. […] [2]

[…] Undeniably true as both the historical facts and critical conceptions expressed in these lines may be, they have given rise […] to certain misconceptions or myths about artists’ books. The first of these is that it is necessary for artists’ books to be inexpensive works in unnumbered or unlimited editions. The second is that they should be produced in a small format, through commercial means. The third is that this produces a democratic artform—one whose democracy resides in its affordability rather than in the accessibility of its content. […] [3]

access n. 1 the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place. The right or opportunity to use something or see someone. 2 retrieval of information stored in a computer’s memory. 3 an attack or outburst of an emotion: an access of rage. v. 1 gain access to; make accessible. Computing: obtain, examine, or retrieve (data). 2 approach or enter.
ORIGIN ME: from L. accessus, from accedere (see accede).

accessible adj. 1 able to be accessed. 2 friendly and easy to talk to; approachable. 3 easily understood or appreciated.

legible adj. (of handwriting or print) clear enough to read.
ORIGIN ME: from late L. legibilis, from legere ‘to read’. [4]

1. All definitions are from: Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 10th Edition, revised, ed. Judy Pearsall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

2. Lucy Lippard, “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 50.

3. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books, (New York: Granary Books, 1994), 72.

4. See footnote 1.



The crisis of confidence talked about in yesterday's post was and still is very real. I am working to sort everything out, to clear the channels, so that it can feel like NewLights is making progress again, is participating again.

I realized last night, hunched over my desk, with my face about an inch away from the broadside that I was cutting, that NewLights hadn't released in a book in two years. That's a hard thing to accept, considering how hard I've been working. Something has gotten short-circuited along the way.

At any rate, today was the first day of housecleaning. The Et Al journal, one of the big recent failures, is now gone. Perhaps it will return again another day. We shall see.

The other big thing is the broadside series. The end is in sight on those. They will be going off of pre-sale at the end of March, and then will reappear shortly after that at full price, $80 for a single broadside and $350 for the full set of 5.

Ultimately, moments of difficulty can and should lead to productive steps.



So another weekend spent thinking and re-evaluating the activities of the NewLights Press, re-evaluating the NewLights Press in general (and of course now these thoughts are always twinned with The Press at Colorado College). Thinking after CODEX. Reading the Robert Creeley-fest on the Mimeo Mimeo blog, and the “I-have-to-get-to-work” snake twisting in my stomach after I see and read about all of those books. Reading about art & economics in the Temporary Services Art Work paper. Re-reading and thinking about the “Return of the Democratic Multiple?” posts I had been doing, which I intend to continue, which are related, important somehow, in all of this. Reading submissions. Daydreaming. Figuring out a schedule. Cutting. Printing. Cleaning up. And sleeping.

The work of this press is so backed up that sometimes I feel like I’m drowning. Little by little, progress is being made. Broadsides are being cut, and soon books will be printed. I look in the IDE(A/O)LOG(Y/UE) and I see that DeCollage was begun three years ago. Other projects have been “on hold” for almost two. What happened? Where have I been?

2 weeks ago I had to declare an official moratorium on “outside” projects—projects that are not actual production of NewLights pieces. I’ve already had to turn down a few things that I would have really liked to do, that would have been good & fun to do, but hey, right now I need a few less things to do.

I want to make it clear that I am not complaining, or lamenting—I am, in many ways, thankful to be so busy. But I have not finished anything in a long time, the projects drag on, and it’s my fault. I know that I have been working, but what have I been doing? Just where is the Big Idea? Was there one to begin with?

CODEX makes me think. A fair like that, with so much work, so much good work, mostly geared towards a high-end market and library collections, is a strange place for the NewLights Press to be. I think, maybe. (That and there was nothing new to sell besides DeCollage, which is expensive and I can't sell expensive books yet.) But is it about selling? It feels that way in the thick of it. But is it really about selling? I wonder about the fine press world (all literally & beautifully laid out and mapped at that fair) and I wonder about the idea of “reception,” about democratic multiples, un-democratic multiples, and un-multiplied multiples. I wonder about accessibility, both economic and aesthetic/conceptual. What kind of accessibility, economic or aesthetic/conceptual, or both, qualifies a piece as “democratic?” I wonder about legibility, and if that is different from accessibility. I wonder if there’s anything to get excited about. I love fine press books. Why don’t I make them? Or do I, just badly? Or differently? What the hell kind of a press is NewLights anyway? Literary? Artists’ books? Academic? Private? Fine? Does it matter?

Usually I can push these questions to the background, and just do the work, thinking & feeling my way through the projects, letting the Press define its own parameters, project by project, as we go. But sometimes, like now, the questions bubble and clamor, and I need to ask them out loud. Usually things are fine and I am excited to get to work everyday. Sometimes a dark and vast Fear emerges and undermines that excitement. Fear is our ultimate enemy as we feel our way through this darkness, through this blinding light. Sometimes I forget that the space between us is so great. Sometimes I forget that we always move together. Often I forget that as an artist I should always act confident and sure of myself & my work. Honesty has always been my problem. So here’s the honest assessment of how and what the NewLights Press is doing: I’m struggling. I love it. I’m terrified. I love it. I can’t wait. I have to wait. I’m guilty. There’s so much work to do. Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day.



I just got back from the Codex Fair last night. It was really great. The question now is: has anything changed? Has everything changed? I guess we'll have to wait & see, I guess we'll have to work & see.

I should be back on the Blog Horse now, so we'll resume the regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday posting schedule.

More soon.



Guaranteed to blow your mind up. See you there. More info!



Yesterday I found the quote below at the beginning of The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (2nd Edition, Hartley & Marks, 1997). It's credited to Cesare Pavese, Dialoghi con Leuco, 1947. Here it is:
A true revelation, it seems to me, will only emerge from stubborn concentration on a solitary problem. I am not in league with inventors or adventurers, nor with travelers to exotic destinations. The surest—also the quickest—way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.