What did we learn from attending the NY Art Book Fair talks? For one, 26-year-old digital media artist Petra Cortright hates paper and 75-year-old art historian Lucy Lippard loves it.
At the fair, Cortright read from her new e-book, published through Paul Chan’s Badlands Press, and Lippard gave a keynote on the history of artists’ books from the 1960s through today. The old and new generations were rarely on the same page. But Cortright and Lippard’s talks did form an unlikely duo, both highlighting that pressing issue concerning the future of artists’ books: How do publications stave off becoming coffee table books?
Lippard made clear in her keynote that she is not happy with how many artists’ books have become so pricey, glossy, and pretty. Zooming in on the history of artists’ books as she lived it—from Xeroxed leaflets to her days at Printed Matter—Lippard described an ethos of the 60s and 70s that saw artists’ books as “cheap and mass-produced.” It was a time when bookmaking carved out a niche for artistic activity, outside the typical art market.
Look no further than the NY Art Book Fair for evidence of how jumbled the terrain of artists’ books has become. The first generations’ goals have turned into a sea of booths filled with artists and dealers selling wares for as much as a used car or as little as a stick of gum.
Still, digital books can be produced and sold at very low price points and are arguably more democratic than, you know, a pricey coffee table book. Lippard briefly touched on the advent of e-books, and it was awkward. A low point in the presentation occurred when she talked about “CD-ROMs” as if they were new technology and then asked the audience if artists made video games. Someone in the audience piped in with “Yes.”
Cut to Petra Cortright reading from HELL_TREE. Published as an unlimited e-book edition, for just $1.99 download, Cortright’s book seems to match Lippard’s interests in the bookmaking community. Lippard, of course, is clearly unaware of this, which is too bad, though perhaps unsurprising given her age and her current, self-imposed level of participation in the arts (she told the crowd that for the past few decades, she has lived in a small city in New Mexico where her main editorial interest lies with her community newsletter).
As Cortright read aloud from her iPad, she showed audiences the layout of her book. Each page showed a desktop with multiple open windows, a common motif in the artist’s work. She read from each of these windows, including the file extensions like “dot text” and sometimes, she manipulated her voice to sound robotic. This gave the book a little more life, an added layer to the book’s on-screen layout which is downright chaotic, juxtaposing text with the same space as Lara Croft-in-paradise desktop imagery (Cortright’s description).
It’s worth noting that Cortright’s work is still an outlier at a fair where, for the most part, people still purchase real, honest-to-goodness sheets of paper with a thick piece of leather on top. And what she’s doing is closer to what Lippard wanted for the future of artists’ books: something that can’t be mistaken for a coffee table book.