The Creative Codex and Its VariantsBy Johanna Drucker (Inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA)
Why are so many books being produced in such fine form and variety of expression by women working in Canada in the recent decades? No doubt many factors account for this abundance — strong women writers, the influence of regional clusters of activity, a recognition of the poetic and artistic range of the book in the face of many cultural threats to its existence. But we can also sense, looking at this rich array of creative work, that artists are working in an active network of exchange where ideas and approaches to intellectual and technical issues are all fomenting excitement about this conventional but oh so mutable form. The artist’s book is an almost inexhaustible format, capable of being stretched and challenged nearly past recognition, or of being engaged in the most traditional way and still tweaking its identity out of the norm to take us by surprise with its structures and complex orchestration of constituent parts.
The books on exhibit have sprung up in every region of Canada: Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, the provinces of Newfoundland and Quebec. Interestingly, the book arts seem to be flourishing independent of institutionalized programs in art colleges or universities. The impact of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild is clear, however, as one force for mentorship and training through which skills, thought, and crafts are passed in a chain of peer relationships.
But why is it that the intimate authority of the artist’s book has attracted so many competent women to this format? Perhaps because it is a non-heroic form, and one never included in the gendered legacy of modernist gestures that marked painting and sculpture as battlegrounds for debate. Books, like video and performance, have come of artistic age in the generations that followed struggles over the basic power structures and gendered values embodied in modernist hierarchies. But books have also gained their status from the literary world where strong women have had considerable acclaim in the Canadian scene. Unique voices and powerful personalities are evident in these books, and clearly the women involved in book production grasp the emotional and intellectual force of this codex as an art form. Books are still objects of cultural authority and status — all changes and challenges from new media notwithstanding.
But perhaps another crucial appeal of books for women artists is the ability of the codex to take the private activity of expression into a forum for public exposure within a range of modalities. The curious tension of public and private revelations does seem to have a particular attraction for women, whose affinity for this burgeoning art form can be seen in every turn and opening of these remarkable works. Powerful and energetic, subtle and carefully paced, meandering or flamboyant, flashy or modest — the choices are inexhaustible, but the mode of exposure allows for a gradual unfolding of the complex events that comprise a codex book. The creative energy can be orchestrated across a long sequence of openings or be immediately clearly visible and sustained.
The codex book is capable of holding grand themes, as well as delicately nuanced, personal observation and allows individual thought the possibility of expression in a non-declamatory mode. Books offer their experience according to the pace of the reader, rather than thrusting their contents upon a viewer in a single gesture of exposure. The process of reading and viewing a book is gradual, desultory or eager by whim, and unfolds the relations of image and words, lines and graphical expression across the continua of spatial and temporal domains. The useful distinction between the collecting function of a book and the weaving activity of inter-textual elements gets much support from these pieces, which draw on the traditions of textiles and printmaking, as well as the fine arts of painting, photography, and graphic arts. Some are collections, compendia, using the book as a site for record and memory, jottings, notes, observations held in a bounded space. Others are actively knitting that web of relations among elements of text and image, page and margin, color, format, texture, and design that comprise the articulate spaces of a book. But each of these works is a world, a complete expression of some viewed or imagined experience of life, and the wealth of talent on display is nothing short of remarkable.
These books express interests and intensities of all kinds. Some show clear engagement with the natural and cultural landscape, and with regional concerns. But an equal number are focused on the poetics of personal life and its expression, the processing of experience into form that is at the foundation of creative activity. The variety of approaches and formats, echoed in the range of tones of voice and viewpoint, creates a profound resonance across the exhibition. One senses the play of responses and reactions, individual talent and collective interest, the occasional lone voice and the rich context of reception that stimulates high level production. Critical conversation among peers is a key element of the development of an art form, and that seems to be in evidence, weaving vectors and productive tensions among and across the many artists engaged with the creative potential of the codex book.Back