JAB magazine takes a whack at popularizing artists' books.
Brad Freeman is painfully aware that the world of artists’ books is small, and is therefore subject to tempests in a well-designed teapot. In fact, he wants to instigate them. On the phone from Berkeley, California, where a book fair named “The Fate of the Art: The Hand Made Book in the 21st Century” has just ended, it’s not long before he’s questioning the very title of the fair.
“It’s a marketing issue,” he says. “You make a claim that a book is handmade so you can limit editions, and the price goes up because the object becomes more rarefied. I like to say we’re more interested in brain-made books.”
The “we” in that last sentence stands for Freeman and JAB (Journal of Artists’ Books) magazine, his broadsheet critique of artists’ books. Freeman arrived at Columbia College in May 2006 to work as the studio coordinator for the school’s Center for Book & Paper Arts and to rejuvenate the magazine he’d started in 1994. March 1 will see the arrival of the mag’s first edition since 2003. Freeman had worked at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s press, printing the magazine during off hours. But when the press shut down and he was out of a job, publication became more difficult. After a brief stay at the State University of New York, Freeman was hired by Columbia prof Clif Meador to serve as the CBPA’s studio coordinator with the idea that he’d bring the magazine with him.
“Primarily it gets our grad students thinking more critically about their work,” says Meador, discussing his desire to revive JAB at Columbia. “I hope it has something for anyone interested in art, but we’re also using it as a creative vehicle; we want it to be an art object in and of itself. It is art, in addition to talking about art.”
Artists’ books, of course, come in various forms. Audrey Niffenegger—best-selling author of The Time-Traveler’s Wife-- and CBPA faculty member—has published numerous editions of her art. Photographers publish narrative series as books and artists play with typography and paper to create work that looks less like books and more like installations.
It’s primarily the specimen that functions as a book—that is to say, features some sort of narrative or sequence—that interests Freeman and Meador, and consequently JAB. Perhaps as part of their desire to democratize the artist book (Meador has an article called “The Small Pond” on the “ghettoization” of art books in the forthcoming issue of JAB) the two are less interested in books that function as art you can’t touch. Freeman talks about the sculptural books of Anselm Kiefer—large books displayed in art galleries—as the sort of project that often gets misunderstood.
“The curators [of a Kiefer exhibit] had set it up so that if you walked around the book, the alarm would go off,” he says. “They saw them as sculptures, not as books. But I think of books as movable sculptures.”
Though the magazine will likely appeal largely to artists and collectors of artists’ books, Freeman hopes that the more the form is critiqued and discussed, the more the work will ripple out into the general public. The launch party for the magazine coincides with the opening of “Pass It On! Connecting Contemporary DIY Culture,” an art exhibition that attempts to connect zines, citizen journalism and various other forms of on-your-own aesthetics. JAB, for all intents and purposes, has been a DIY venture for Freeman until Columbia put its institutional weight behind it. And listening to Freeman and Meador talk about their desire to bring more attention to artists’ books, it’s hard not to take them for populists.
“I think [a high price] distances people from what’s exciting about the book,” says Meador. “It makes me very anxious to handle it as a book if it costs $5,000, it eats away at the pleasure of handling the book. There’s a piece of that that is interesting, but a book is about the experience of reading it.”
JAB relaunches Thursday 1. See listings for details.