artist's book, Book Reviews, Conferences

Notes on the CBAA Conference 2009

I’m finally recording some notes (some short, some long) from sessions I attended at Art, Fact, and Artifact: The Book in Time and Place, the first-ever College Book Art Association conference. Sessions ran concurrently so it was unfortunately impossible to see and hear everything and I’m sure I missed all sorts of interesting talks (hopefully others will be posting notes about the conference as well), but let me start with my telegraph summary that I hope captures the experience shared by all:


Now if you attended John McVey’s CBAA talk,  Codex/Code : Book and Procedure at the Center of Telegraphic Reading and Writing, you might immediately wonder about the true meaning of my telegraph above.  Indeed, you would be right to do so for if you were to pull out your trusty Adam’s Cable Codex you would quickly discover that what I really said was “Please name and reserve berths for four gentlemen everywhere we can think of.  Will write soon. No prospect of higher prices at present.  Sell at once, even at a loss.  Keep me well informed. There is an uneasy feeling in commercial circles. What do you intend to do–Reply by wire. –12Midnight”

McVey’s talk explored the world of the codes and code books used during the heyday of the telegraph to convert common phrases and sentences into less expensive single  words that would then, in turn, be decoded by the receiver. His talk was a fascinating overview of a topic I knew nothing about and as soon as I got home from the conference I investigated the code book holdings of my library. The books themselves are typographic delights (especially for those of us who have a thing for columnar typography), but they are even more fascinating for the sociological evidence they provide of that society’s concerns and communication needs. Some of these code books are 4-5 inches thick, many of the them devoted to a specific commercial sphere – mining, cotton, finance – codes to buy and sell and promise any amount of any thing at any price. Other of the code books were for common inter-personal communication.  The codes for birth telegrams speak volumes about the harsh realities of the time—a code word for every possible variation: “Confined to-day. Baby and Mother well” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother fairly well” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother weak” “Confined to-day, Baby dead, Mother very weak” and so on.  A glimpse into the common occurrences of the era and the need for fine-grained distinctions in the vocabulary of communication from a distance.

Zebra Code. From McVey’s specimen pages

Mastering the codes must have been quite a feat since the organizational structure of these books was often  opaque.  I could not help but wonder at the economy in which it was cheaper to pay to employ coders to encode, decode, and correct messages than it was to send a couple extra words.  Many codices seem to have grouped codes/phrases together by topic, but headwords were not always used to identify the beginning of each new topic. Others seemed simply to arrange the phrases alphabetically (e.g. all phrases using the word uneasy or uneasiness falling under U). Typographically and design-wise, these are a instructive specimens of information organization (or non-organization, as the case may be). McVey showed an example of the decoding of a telegram whose translation had been heavily corrected and re-decoded.  Looking at my Adam’s Cable Codex I imagine mistaking ‘keynote’  for ‘keyhole (the code word one line up) and the major miscommunication that could ensue. The former means “Buy what you think best without loss” while the latter means “Buy what you think best without limit.” Image the havoc that could be wrecked with one wrong word.  [Hmm, perhaps this is what’s gone wrong in our current economy!]

It is hard not to imagine that at least some people took a certain delight in trying to compose coded telegrams that were meaningful both in code and in translation  (as I attempted above). It makes me want to track down telegraphs between artists and writers.  Meanwhile, I’ve discovered that McVey maintains a web site which includes scans of specimen pages from various code books that can give you a more concrete glimpse into this topic.

SciFi Fanzines

New Worlds Fanzines

Another genre-specific talk was Gregory Prickman’s Social Networking and the Books Arts: A Futuristic Pre-History, which discussed the history of the sci-fi fanzine and their role as a precursor not just to the social networking of today, but also as examples of interesting printing endeavors. Prickman traced the development of fanzines and showed their relationship to book art movements, such as DIY and amateur printing associations.

One of the features of these fanzines was that while production was extremely low-tech (mimeograph and hectograph pages stapled together), there was often a fair amount of interest in the design of the zine and Prickman showed a lot of examples of the influence of contemporary artistic movements on the layout of the issues. Neither were they amateurish in their content—some of the luminaries of science fiction writing were regular contributers (Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, etc.).  Prickman also discussed the way in which the zines branched out beyond their obstensible topic to become mediums for simply connecting people together.  As a nascent blogger, I was fascinated to hear more about the history of one of its predecessor mediums. Prickman’s talk was significant because it of the way he looked beyond the specifics of the medium to the significance of the endeavor and so began to draw a theoretical map of the social networking space that is much broader than that commonly discussed today.

Reading the Digital Artist’s Book

There were several talks that delved into the role and use of online reproductions of artists books.  Michelle Strizever, walked through her experience reading Johanna Drucker’s From A to Z in both digital and physical form. Her conclusion was that each experience had its advantages and that the two really complemented each other.  For her, the physical copy was only available within special collections and this raised some lively discussion afterwards about the barriers that readers can experience in a special collections reading room, both psychological as well as physical.  The ubiquitous presence of the digital version – a great boon when doing extended research on a book as Strizever had been doing- was only one of the features she mentioned.  Also important was the ability to zoom in to see aspects of the text that were not so easy to read in real space.  The question was raised of whether this is problematic to be able to ‘see’ more than what can easily be seen with the naked eye – which presumably is what the artist was designing for – but I for one, as an artist, love the idea of people being able to uncover hidden treasures in my work. I think often artists pay attention to all sorts of minute details that get lost in the totality of the work.  Perhaps it is not just he mechanical aid to our sight that a digital version can offer, but more the focus that it forces upon us that changes our reading.

Manuel Portela in his Codex Codes: The Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics of Bookscapes, began to outline a methodology for understanding the experience of reading in a digital archive.  Given the audience, he focused on Artists’ Books Online, but I spoke with him afterwards about some of the major literary digital archives as well (e.g. the Blake archive and Rosetti Archive).  Portela talked not just about the particulars of how a book is translated into a digital display(e.g. images presented as single pages or as page spreads), but also about the entire framing mechanism that the archive provides and how it affects your reading of a book.  An approach very much in line with the work of scholars like Jerome McGann who studies the material conditions of textuality. As a digital librarian myself, the discussion afterwards was especially interesting in raising some of the frustrations that users of such archives can feel.  While I know full well how easy it is to criticize and how hard it is to actually pull together the staff and money and time to build anything – let alone something that works the way we want it to – in the end it is the user’s experience that matters and that keep us striving – not our explanations for why something got built the way it did or what compromises we had to make.  But to create some methodological structure for talking about this experience, as Portela is doing, takes this discussion to a whole new level.

Ok, this is enough for now.  I’ll write up some more conference notes in my next post