07: Weida

Born from Books: Digital Spaces of Adolescent Art and Echoes of Artists’ Books

Courtney Lee Weida

Cite this article (APA): Weida, C.L. (2011). Born from Books: Digital Spaces of Adolescent Art and Echoes of Artists’ Books. Media : Culture : Pedagogy, 15(2). Retrieved from http://mcp.educ.ubc.ca/v15n02DigitalGeneration_Article07_Weida



Many adolescents interact with text in a digital fashion via Kindle, the Gutenberg Project, and/or Google Books with greater frequency than traditional books. This article explores artists' books and bookwork as structural and conceptual metaphors for digital spaces of art created and/or utilized by teenagers. Artists’ books can be categorized as art and artifact—as materials of historical record, commentary, and personal expression. While book arts often engage in self-conscious reconceptualizations of text and image, digital media such as wikis, blogs, and online social networks dovetail, extend and/or reflect/are reflected by questionings of the book format as well. This article examines digital spaces (places?) of youth culture and artistic expression such as Myspace, Facebook, deviantART, and others. Artists' books often challenge traditional forms of publishing and codex, addressing questions of media and message parallel to ongoing issues of technology in our digital age. Digital spaces of art utilized by adolescents take on a similar autonomy, marginality, and liminality to limited edition and/or self-published artists' books. At the same time, both artists’ books and young artists’ websites contain a certain element of awareness of the viewer/spectator within narratives and documentary structures, serving as uniquely interactively engaging contexts of art education.


So we made our own computer
Out of macaroni pieces
And it did our thinking
While we lived our lives

—Musician Regina Spektor, in “The Calculation”


Introduction: Digital Disconnects and Yearning (Learning) to Read

I recently asked a group of high school students during a writing workshop to create collaborative poems by hand that described works of public art they had visited, with careful choices of typography, font color, and text size. I was both perplexed and pleased when some students asked if they could type up their poems, photograph the artworks on their cell phones, and post images and texts online, rather than publicly exhibit and perform a hand-written poem afterward (as I had intended). As I teach, I am increasingly aware that I am what futurist writer Marc Prensky (2001) refers to as a “digital immigrant” (np). I am one of those liminal individuals raised with card catalogues, and yet reasonably fluent in ever-emerging digital collections. I remember being given the choice to hand-write or type my papers in school, and I continue to be torn between the computer and off-line tools as an educator and an artist.

Students may have a different experience of reading, viewing, and creating through the machine than they do manually, with their own hands. Books may exist as frames for our thinking and learning, but they do not always persist in the same formats and functions as they once did. In fact, scientist Mike O’Dell noted in The Unified Theory of the Web (2002) that an equivalence of 30,000 books is in transit over the Internet at any given moment. Blending technology and craft, Regina Spektor’s lyrics (quoted above) evocatively and problematically call to mind the sort of borrowing, crafting, and referencing that takes place within the intertextuality of artists’ books and digital spaces. As educators weave between physical and web-based media on the book, they may find that digital resources often do both more and less than they anticipate. Education researchers Liz Campbell and Kerry Ballast (2011) assert, “when a teacher imagines the vastness of information and the sea of people who are accessible literally at the fingertips of digital natives, possibilities are endless” (18)."

Perhaps the most well-known digital forum and resource for bookmaking with young people is Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord’s website, Making Books with Children. Like the sites of the Center for Book Arts in New York and Brooklyn’s Booklyn, Susan’s digital presence includes educational resources such as tutorials and diagrams, which are best understood in physical practices of folding and cutting. Her site also features a detailed bibliography of resources, specialized information for teachers, parents, and students, as well as additional interactive and timely content delivered through a listserv and Facebook page. Susan’s personal artwork meaningfully encompasses diverse reconsiderations of the book. She approaches the book as an aesthetic object (where blank pages are part of larger sculptures), as well as through digitally-abstracted designs of the photographs and hand-lettering of Emily Dickinson poems. As a sidebar, this series of works could be viewed as part of a class project around poetry, history, and artist books. Other related content for such a project might include book-arts theorist and artist Johanna Drucker’s (2004) claim that the artistically inscribed early notebooks of Emily Dickinson are prototypes of today’s book arts. Similarly, Robert Warner commemorated Dickinson’s words and images with an artist book.

Figure 1
Figure 1: "The Wondrous Nearer Drew" (Emily Dickinson Series) by Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord (2010). Reproduced with permission from the artist.

These processes and symbols of book-making and literacy are replete with the possibilities and problems of the book as an archaic object, and the book re-envisioned digitally—predicaments that I believe are of use to the inquiries and explorations of the classroom. The artist book is a rather antiquated artifact among ever-changing digital documentation, generating a parallel creative process of historical inquiry and contemporary innovation. For the purposes of this article, I will focus upon web classifications relating to artists books within descriptive contexts from traditional print media, including the following: (1) digital personal diaries, (2) online artistic portfolios, (3) scrapbooks and/or yearbooks on the web, and (4) digital contexts of artists books. It may be noted that these categories were formed with attention to artistic expression and adolescent development, but that other classifications and sub-categories are entirely possible (and encouraged) for other educators.

Livejournals and the Online diary

I will confess that I am a Livejournal devotee. Livejournal is a blogging tool created in 1999, through which users can create a reverse-chronological series of entries about their lives. Livejournalers can select friends to read their journals, or parts of their journals, or may make entries only viewable to themselves. In my years of using Livejournal, with one for making an account of my personal life and poetry, and another devoted to documenting my research from graduate school years to becoming a professor, I have been impressed with complementary qualities of organized archives and the formatting capabilities of the site. One of the more delightful experiences of using Livejournal is altering its given formats: creating one’s own backgrounds, fonts, or styles in a way that echoes scrapbooking or journaling by hand. This customization is also possible on Myspace.

Livejournal and other blogging resources use the web’s unique function to share artistic and/or personal expression with a selected audience almost immediately. I am reminded of Anaïs Nin’s journals and her choices over the course of her life regarding if and when to share them with friends, colleagues and, finally, the general public through publishing. If, as Audrey Niffenegger (2007) writes in the National Women’s Museum for the Arts’ text on book arts, “to make books is to time travel, to magically acquire the ability to be in many places at once" (13), then books may be temporally linked to the Internet in terms of simultaneous connectivity and shared community. Livejournal enables a more immediate and selectively different kind of publishing than is possible with print—one in which some material is public and other passages may be obscured. While I prefer paper zines as a confessional diary format because of the preciousness of the paper page, spaces like Livejournal can organize and concretize the process of journaling for students while still leaving a lot of artistic choices open-ended.

Further, Livejournal is also a site for communities, centered and searchable by interest. Users might explore artists’ books through a community of the same name, or a related community that centers on the overlap of comics and artists’ books. I recently found a gem-like community of “pretty books” on Livejournal, which serves to catalogue any book that is seen by community members as particularly beautiful in its design. Entries from users are often both linked to and embedded with a wealth of images pertaining to artists’ books. We might view these communities as digital bookshelves, shared personal collections in an age in which city dwellers (and professors and/or anyone unable to afford all the books they may wish to own or store) can share and exchange memories, reflections, and other traces of books.

Although my interests and affiliations as an artist and educator are primarily focused upon visual and print literacy, there are additional educative benefits of engagement with digital communities that bear mention. Specifically, Carol Brydolf (2007) has written of the struggles of schools to negotiate issues of safety, privacy, and free expression when our students are increasingly spending leisure time on Livejournal, along with Facebook, Myspace, and Xanga. We may begin to examine our own informal and formal manifestos as educators in terms of our online presence and those of our students. How can social networking enhance our content-area teaching? How will we help guide our students in the important task of critically examining content online? What guidelines can we provide our students to be compassionate, thoughtful readers and contributors in these communities? A closer examination of identity, community, and web journaling is especially useful in the often anonymous, disembodied web.

Digital Portfolios and Scrapbooks

In addition to journals, I would like to call attention to issues of expression through deviantART —the name of which alone suggests a subversive, teen-friendly space for artistic alternatives. Sites like deviantART enable artists to upload images of their own art, or to download works by other artists free of charge. Interestingly, by viewing and rating the work of others, one can also create personal collections or galleries of work. This is a flexible and personal archive that demonstrates the usefulness of the web in terms of aesthetic thinking and artistic connoisseurship.

Online art galleries often enable great interactivity; users can comment on your artwork, generate new galleries of their own favorites, ask questions about techniques, and so on. DeviantART may also be useful for planning lessons not only because educators can build sub-galleries of particular ideas or themes, but also because students can engage with criticality through actual critiques.

On Etsy, one can also “curate” a gallery comprised of many different works of craft within a self-selected theme. Beyond curating craft, the web may also engage issues of consuming it, for students may buy and sell art on Etsy.com. It is interesting to consider the look, feel, and phrasing of various sites where artwork is exhibited and sold. For example, deviantART features the word “art” along with categories that suggest the fine arts. Meanwhile, Etsy may be seen as more of a craft community, with an emphasis on the handmade.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Silk Rumpelstiltskin Shawl, featured on etsy.com, by Emily McNeil (2011). Reproduced with permission from the artist.

As with deviantArt, Livejournal, and Etsy, Facebook also contains hundreds of communities relating to art, including the content of book arts and artists’ books. It is not only the ways in which we document and sell our creative expressions, but also our very creative processes that are impacted by digital resources. “Back in my day,” I have told my students, photographs were not as readily taken or shared. The advent of digital cameras along with digital exhibition or family photo spaces like Flickr, Picasa and others, has radically changed personal photography practices. We photograph group outings and other life events more frequently than we used to, and we can almost instantly share these photographs with others through Facebook or similar sites, in the form of digital albums. Both physical photo albums and digital ones share learning possibilities in classification and arrangement. Further, photo albums can become more like scrapbooks or yearbooks when online users post comments or “tags.” However, physical scrapbooks encourage artists to make decisions regarding print size, page formatting, and further personalization and aesthetic discernments around the codex. For example, if your students created a year’s worth of Facebook photo albums, which photos would they select to edit, print, and mount into a scrapbook? Issues of representation and craft can be engaged in this way.

Although Facebook started as a purely academic community, where sign-ups were limited to those with a “.edu” email address, art educators have also recently begun exploring the possibilities of imaginary identities in pedagogy. Veteran middle school art teacher Amber Ward (2010) has used so-called Fantasy Facebook so that her students can create idealized, imagined profiles. By constructing identities rather than representing their actual selves, students can create their appearance, beliefs, and goals imaginatively and choose to be “friends” with deceased and living figures. In my view, inviting students to exercise such freedoms from realistic portrayals of identity in a space they are accustomed to enables them to be creative storytellers and generate worlds and characters that are meaningful, creative, and empowering. Further, it playfully teaches about the possibilities and problems of the Internet as a space for anonymity, authenticity, and a blurring of representations.

Book Arts Listservs and Digital Reading

Figure 3
Figure 3: "Altered Encyclopedia ('"E" is for Eve") by Courtney Lee Weida (2010). Reproduced with permission from the artist.

Beyond Facebook, one of the most representative digital resources within youth culture outside of the classroom includes the Grrl Zine Network, a Yahoo! group that frequently lists opportunities for both young zinesters and book artists. There are also a variety of book arts listservs and communities that may call attention to the meta-process of reading about reading artists’ books. Digital Humanities scholar and English professor Steven Jones (2006) has asked some useful questions pertaining to digital reading:

What if we problematize some of the basic terms we casually use, like email or Web? For example, what is email like in terms of its experience, its perception? Is it text only or graphical? Is it fast, slow, easy to read, hard to understand? What does it mean to its users? (xiii).

These inquiries draw attention to the unique visual culture of email as well as the literacy habits we may employ as readers/audience. Stephens and Ballast (2011) have observed that students “are heavily embedded in a tech-rich world” and yet “do not believe that communication over the Internet . . . is writing” (8). This perception underscores the importance of examining our digital habits of reading and writing, in combination with defining images and text we peruse and create online.

Not all considerations for reading and writing of digital texts are positive. Jaron Lanier’s (2010) manifesto about the web cautions that some approaches to digital culture threaten to “turn all the world’s books into one book” (46). Certainly, cultures of remixing, mash-ups, and endless cutting and pasting may confuse the boundaries of borrowing with creating for young students who are just learning about artistic production and authorship. However, Ralf Klamma, Yiei Cao, and Mattias Jarke (2009) have observed that collaborative digital efforts like Wikipedia can also create empowered “prosumers,” those creators that navigate roles of both producer and consumer. As educators, we can help to build a participatory digital culture that enables young people to engage communally as well as critically while they create. As Ellen Lupton (2006) notes, "the ability to publish is one of the key privileges of a free society” (16). We may begin to emphasize for our students how and why web publication is unique, and balance encouragement with healthy skepticism.

Digital Qualities in Artists’ Books

Existing printed artists’ books illuminate digital cultures and youth cultures as they illustrate the importance of the book arts as well as digital literacy. Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee’s A Girl’s Life (2002) is an unusual and wonderfully perplexing artistic book, comprised of collaged clippings that echo children’s primers of the past, along with teen magazine imagery, and several references to popular and digital culture. The plot of this somewhat disjointed collaged work entails a “plague of passionate data streamed through the flesh connection” (np) of its characters, within various forms of media, including: beepers, tabloids, webcasts, television, movies, and even alternate realities. Further, this work also references “tender buttons,” perhaps in homage to the poetic phrase by Gertrude Stein, as well as the literary criticism surrounding it by the late book artist and literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. An examination of this sort of intertexuality reveals its function as a kind of hypertext, with a discursive flair that echoes the digital realm. Certainly, this work parallels the mixing of different formats of digital storytelling as defined by Klamma et al (2009), combining “narrative with digital content such as photos, streaming videos, and recorded sounds” (630) in non-linear possibilities. Meanwhile, the variety of narrative features of text and image in creating books engages unique frameworks of looking, reading, and thinking, all of which are appropriate to the digital realm.

The Internet may be the most accessible way for many art historians and students to encounter artists’ books. Consider the work of Henry Darger, for example, which was viewable in museums and galleries as individual pieces, but was originally conceived of by the artist as a narrative. Students can explore Darger’s art in various ways through related webpages that address sequencing and his artistic intentions. Additionally, many works of art encourage students to examine the roles of books in contemporary society and digital cultures. As I write this, Tim Tate’s 2008 Memories of Reading series is on view in the Fuller Museum of Craft. These works are composed of tiny video monitors that show books whose pages are turning and burning, with the monitors encased in blown glass globes, evoking perhaps snow globes as well as scientific or museum specimens. I cannot help but think of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and his predictions about technology and the screen in opposition with books, and knowledge itself. These works are particularly curious and layered source material for students to begin to investigate the histories and futures of books.

Figure 4
Figure 4: "Memories of Reading") by Tim Tate (2008). Reproduced with permission from the artist.

Conclusion: Borrowing From Books

Although we no longer need to create books by hand in contemporary times, perhaps one of the most valuable insights bookmaking offers blogging, twittering, and other forms of Internet publishing is the importance of creating a thoughtful and finished artistic product. Book artist educator Paul Johnson (1998) has written “the book form is meaningless without serious attention given to what goes inside it” (1). If we consider digital formats as frames for narrative and artistic content, we may begin to help students to distinguish between micro-blogging as a practice or exercise, and the process of developing a polished book or blog. For example, one art project called PostSecret (linked to Facebook and other sites popular among teens and young adults) combined postcard-sized submissions of secrets and confessions from anonymous individuals into a collaborative book and blog. The acts of collecting and making meaning from these individual scraps might be understood as the kind of cognitive constellation we may form in collecting and contemplating the bits of data available online.

Meanwhile, works like Tom Phillips’ Humument are long-term book projects in which the same original text may be altered creatively for years. Phillips’ bookwork is interesting in a temporal sense because it is inspired by an 1892 text, A Human Document, and because Phillips began altering this source material in the 1960s, long before the advent of the public Internet. Since that time, Phillips has continued to paint and alter this Victorian book in different versions, and the web enables readers to explore various iterations through slideshows, digital images, and related essays on the Humument website. There is a lot of exciting conceptual interplay that is possible between digital cultures and creative practices of the bookarts that is yet to be fully realized. For example, Craig Detwelier (2010) has noted “narratologists see games as the next stage of storytelling, tracing the continuity from campfires to theatres to arcades” (10). I propose that teachers seek out such unusual connections and compose unconventional histories and futures, as they explore the different formats of literary and artistic expression that students are revising and re-creating online.

As educators and fellow learners, we may simultaneously desire and need what Sherry Turkle (1995) refers to as the “dynamic, layered thinking space” (29) of the computer along with some sort of handmade or handcrafted product of our own. Web researcher Kirsten Foot (2006) has observed that “we can view the Web as both a 'site and surface' for communicative action" (88). This revelation underscores the artistic dimension of online publishing I have attempted to examine in this article, for we may approach websites as a sort of canvas, back-drop, and/or scrapbooking page for images and creative expressions. Ellen Gates Starr (2010) has coined the term “digital artisans,” which I find useful in describing the technological context of the Internet in relation with the craft impulse of creators that remains and coexists. While the notions of canvas and artisans bring to mind tactile, hands-on possibilities that are not directly possible with the computer, we may find conceptual and social links in cyberculture that become the context for the work we do with our hands elsewhere. As technologist David Weinberger (2002) has noted, the web paradoxically is bodiless and yet often references bodies. Similarly, Niffenegger (2007) has emphasized, "to make books is to create physical forms for ideas . . . the book has been the body of human thought for many centuries, and when we make unusual books, artists' books, we are messing with that body" (13). By creating actual books and extending their forms and functions to digital displays and literacies, we may begin the messy, corporeal work of rediscovering and redefining our identities and visions.


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