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KATARZYNA BAZARNIK - Some comments on liberature



Some comments on liberature

and the artists' books

Article written for the Project


When in July 2009 Zenon Fajfer and I arrived at the conference on development of artists' book in the 21st century, held at the University of the West of England in Bristol1, we were greeted with a huge board filled with colourful plates containing schemata of relations in the field of artistic activity broadly referred to as “book art”. That was intended to make the participants (many of whom were in fact the authors of the presented diagrams) aware how vast and diverse the area of “book art” is, and how it is related to its subfield, “the artist's book”. Especially the latter term appeared ambiguous, evoked rich connotations; besides its scope was obviously related to the profession of those who provided its definitions. So there were as many definitions as there were artists, curators, critics, art historians and librarians. Finally, no uniform definition was offered at the conference, which, incidentally, did not worry its organisers, Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden. Their ambition was rather to document, catalogue and inform about activities of particular people, publishers and centres than leading purely academic discussions

This diversity was also noticed by Gwendolyn J. Miller, the author of an on-line publication Discovering Artists Books. The art, the artist and the issues2. To illustrate her observation, in “The blind men and the artists book: Seeking a definition”, the first chapter of her thesis, she quotes over a dozen definitions, remarking that, essentially, they can be divided into two categories. One stresses artists and their intentions, which implies that the artist's book is what the artist chooses to call it. The other emphasises “the book” as a material thing that must be characterised by an original shape and structure if a book aspires to be an “artistic object”. But it has to be able to fulfil the function traditionally ascribed to the book, that is, it

1 “Traditional and emerging formats of artists’ books: Where do we go from here?”See conference website at:

Link to our presentation “Liberature: Literature in the Form of the Book”:

2 Gwendolyn J. Miller, Discovering Artists Books. The art, the artist and the issues, BA thesis, Goshen College website, Indiana , USA. 20.10.2009. <>.


has to be a carrier of a message. A wide range of definitions quoted in Miller's thesis strikes me with one telling detail: they include opinions of artists, printers, bookbinders, curators, publishers, art historians and even librarians (unlike in Poland, in the West many prestigious libraries have departments of “artists' books” as rightful components of their collections, and not “old curiosity shops”). However, there is no one there who has signed his or her statement as a writer or a poet. But Miller does not reflect on the fact that among her broad sample of definitions there is not a single opinion expressed by writers and poets, that is, those people who, in common understanding, are considered to be creators of books. Thus, she confirms a view expressed some time ago by Clive Phillpot,an American art critic and curator at the MOMA in New York that “the artist's book” is in fact a branch of fine or visual arts and uses the form of the book as it uses other solids. Consequently, it produces objects that are exciting in visual, architectonic or conceptual terms, but which are primarily intended to be looked at and contemplated, and not read, that is to be interpreted as sequences of graphic symbols expressing linguistic items. Phillpot states unequivocally that:

[t]he phrase "artists'' books" has been criticized enough, but it is impossible to deny that among the possible alternatives it has the greatest currency. One objection to this designation has been that it defines books exclusively in relation to the profession of the visual artist. While this may annoy writers who experiment with the form of he book, alternatives like "writers'' books"(?), or "musicians'' books" can still be swept up into the all-embracing category of book art: art dependent upon the book form. In any case, it is clear that visual artists have contributed to most to the revitalization of the books as art over the last twenty -five years, and to the development of visual and verbi-visual languages articulated within the book form3.

Even if artists' books exhibitions feature works in the form of the traditional codex and their pages are filled with texts, as is the case with, e.g., Karen Reimer's Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love. Eye Rhymer, they are usually pieces whose message can be grasped without reading them, but merely by flipping or browsing through them, that is, perceiving them more as pieces of visual arts rather than literature, which requires in-depth reading. This aspect is, in fact, implied by the subtitle of Reimer's book: Eye Rhymer. Words function in it as signs meant to invoke a concrete image; “love” repeated continually over the space of several pages refers the readers to a stereotype of romantic love, just as a red heart would do. The words do not form any syntactic strings, i.e. articulated sentences, but resemble graphic symbols whose “narrative” functions as in a comic strip, and their sequence forms itself into an idyllic image

3 Phillpot, Clive. “Artists’ Booklet”. From Printed Matter 1986/87 Catalog. Printed Matter, Inc. Essays. 25 Feb. 2005 <>


of “love”. Unfortunately, it is outside the scope of the present essay to analyse differences between perception of such books and typical literary work (for the sake of the present discussion, suffice it to call them “concept-books”, that is works of conceptual art, which are also associated with visual and graphic arts rather than with literature).

Johanna Drucker, the author of The Century of Artists Books, one of the classics of book art criticism, represent a view close to Phillpot's. She opens her book by saying that in the 20th century the artist's book became a distinct and independent artform, indicating clearly that she means so-called fine arts. Further she states that she excludes from her discussion books of literary provenance, and even those “concept-books”, since they are too little self-reflexive as far as the structure of the book goes. She announces that she considers only some works classified as concrete poetry, but she stresses that:

[n]ot every concrete poet is a book artist, and not every concrete work is an artist's book, but there are works which demonstrate the ways in which concrete poets have been able to extend the parameters of what a book does as a verbal field in a manner which also extends the possibilities of the way an artist's book can function as a poetic text.4

Her comment on the exclusion of writers (including concrete poets whose works could be just as well counted as fine art) from her discussion is made in passing, and tellingly, in a footnote. Such a placement indicates clearly that any bonds between “artists' books” and “literary” books are marginal for her. She shrugs off a creative engagement of writers with the material aspect of the book by one sentence in which she states that if she wanted to take notice of their activities, she would have to mention every poet who has ever used unconventional typography. Those interested in the area are directed to the works of Jerome McGann, Michael Davidson, Marjorie Perloff, Jerome Rothenberg, Emmett Williams, Mary Ellen Solt and Dick Higgins.5

That omission is the bone of contention between Johanna Drucker and Richard Kostelanetz, an American writer, poet, a well-known literary critic and scholar working on avant-garde writers and artists, the author of A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1993). He is convinced that one cannot conscientiously discuss book art without referring to achievements of the above mentioned authors6 (as well as others whom he mentions copiously). This

4 Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books, chapter 1 “The Artist's Books as Idea and Form”, New York: Granary Books, 1997, par. 15. 28.10.2009.<>

5 Drucker, op.cit., footnote 23. 28.10.2009.<>

6 Richard Kostelanetz, “Sloppy Scholarship (1997, 2006)”, R. Kostelanetz's website. 28.10.2009.


controversy highlights tensions and ambiguities evoked by the term “artists' book”, especially among people associated with arts or with literature. For Kostelanetz the term clearly implies that artists' books are contraposed to “writers' books” and form a separate category to which, however, he does not want to belong since he does not define himself as an artist (by implication, a visual artists or a kind of a graphic designer). In fact, argues Kostelanetz, the term indicates the author's background associated with the education obtained at the fine arts academy or college, and not any fundamental, generic features of the work that would account for its unconventional, innovative nature. But “[t]he art at hand is books” - it is the book, just as painting and sculpture that constitutes the sphere of creative activity (and becomes an outcome of this activity), so critics and theoreticians should focus on differences between particular works and not on the person of the creator (see Kostelanetz's original words in the footnote7). Writing about his own pieces, which Drucker describes as concrete poetry, Kostelanetz identifies them as “book art” (i.e. “sztuka książki” in Polish), and not “artists book”, the term which obviously irritates him. Moreover, he understands “book art” more broadly than Drucker does “artists' books”, thereby implicating that some crucial innovations and discoveries in the field have also been made by writers and poets exploring the material aspects of the book.

Kostelanetz also pays attention to another important factor, that is, to the means of production and distribution of those two types of works. Artists' books are usually one-of-the-kind or are made in a very limited number of copies, whereas “book art” products are, or at least, strive to be mass produced in order to reach the greatest number of readers. He regrets that editors and book distributors are not really interested in book art, and prefer to sell standard literature or “artists' books” designed by famous artists (e.g. Andy Warhol).

Kostelanetz's reflection on artists' books and book art overlap to a great extent with those of Zenon Fajfer and the present author. We believe, however, that the bulky set called “book art” also contains a subset in which an innovative treatment of the material aspect of the book is subordinated to literary goals. We have suggested to call it “liberature”, as derived from Latin “liber” (i.e. book, free, and scales). It is worth mentioning that when Kostelanetz learnt


7 “One trouble with the current term “artists’ books” is that it defines a work of art by the initial profession (or education) of its author, rather than by qualities of the work itself. Since genuine critical categories are meant to define art of a particular kind, it is a false term. The art at hand is books, no matter who did them; and it is differences among them, rather than in their authorship, that should comprise the stuff of critical discourse.

Indeed, the term “artists’ books” incorporates the suggestion that such work should be set aside in a space separate from writers’ books—that, by implication, they constitute a minor league apart from the big league of real books. One wish I make for my own books is that they never belonged to any considered minor league.” (podkreślenie KB).

Richard Kostelanetz, “Book Art (1985)”, akapit 9-10, strona autorska R. Kostelanetza. 28.10.2009. <>


about our proposition in 2003, he sent us a brief e-mail message: “Yes, the concept of LIBERATURE is useful”8. Indeed, we are convinced that it is useful. On one hand, it clearly indicates literary derivation of the term, and, consequently, the whole phenomenon covered by it. On the other, it draws upon rich connotations of the book and grants the writer the right to shape freely also the material shape of the book. We are also convinced that liberature can be defined as a literary genre in which one of its constitutive features would be the use of non-verbal means of expression. However, their use would always be dictated by literary discourse, and their choice would be made by the author who would call himself or herself a writer or poet. Zenon Fajfer, who coined the term, continually stresses this point, adding that his search for form has always had literary, and not visual, inspirations. Consequently, he shuns the label of “the artist” as being definitely associated with working in the field of fine arts. In this respect he resembles an English novelist B.S. Johnsnon, who explained to the doubtful that for all means of expression he used, including those non-verbal ones, “there is a literary rationale and a technical justification”. “Whenever I depart from conventional forms, it is because the conventional form failed me”, he says, “because it is inadequate for conveying what I have to say”9.

When we invented an unconventional shape for Oka-leczenie, a book we have written together, we did not consider what artistic or spatial form would render our concept best, but how to join three separate texts referring to three different yet interdependent events interrelated to one another in a hidden layer10. Finally, we came to a conclusion that the most satisfactory solution would be to show the connection through the structure of the book. Hence, it consists of three separate codices joined by their covers and forming a kind of triple-concertina-book. This enables the reader to start reading it from any part, which both empasises the autonomy of each part, and suggests circularity of the narrative that symbolises a continual spinning of the circle of incarnations.

8 From private correspondence of the author. The message was quoted in Ha!art no 15/2003 devoted to liberature, but alas, we did not mention the date of the correspondence. Later a breakdown of our computer made it impossible to recover the details, which makes us prone to believe that written sources are much more durable, after all.

The quoted articles by Kostelanetz come from the time before “liberature” was coined. Their dates are given in brackets following the titles.

9 B.S. Johnson, “Introduction” in: Aren't You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoires?” (London: Hutchinson, 1973): 19-20.

10 Zenon Fajfer, Katarzyna Bazarnik Oka-leczenie. Prototype edition of 9 copies (Kraków 2000), 1st edition was published as vol. 8 in “Liberatura line” by Korporacji Ha!art, in the print run of 1001 copies (Kraków 2009).


[Fig 1. Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik Oka-leczenie, prototype edition, Kraków, 2000]

In order to achieve similar circularity of their texts, other writer have used more typographic devices, and did not abandon the traditional codex form. For example, in Finnegans Wake Joyce uses a mathematically meaningful number of pages: 628, which implies the formula for the perimeter of the circle: 2Πr, where r = 100 (one hundred is highly symbolical in this book; e.g. it features in one-hundred-letter words of a divine language that imitate thunders). Moreover, Joyce finished the novel with a broken sentence, stopping after the definite article “the”, which points out to some continuation. The opening sentence of the book, in turn, begins in mid-sentence with a lower-case letter, which encourages the reader to interpret the text as a circular structure that can be read “round the clock”11.

11 This is also associated with the difficult multilingual idiom invented by Joyce, who joked that it would keep professors busy for at least three hundred years.


[Fig 2. The first edition of Finnegans Wake, 1939; note the design of the dustjacket with identical lettering on the front and back, prepared in collaboration with the author of the book according to his suggestions; this also implies the identity of the beginning and the end, thereby stressing circularity of the text]

Of course, these are not the only examples of using structure and typography of the book for literary ends. Suffice it mention Laurence Sterne and his Tristram Shandy, that story about writing a novel, so full of typographic tricks, or the above mentioned B.S. Johnson, who invented for each of his novels a specific form of the book iconic in relation to the structure of the narration. The devices used in these books do not serve to make the author's vision more visually attractive, but just as in architecture, they are derivative of the function: they are meant to reflect a concept that forms the content of the story12. Hence, if Johnson wants to show chaos and free associations that underlie the working of memory, its discontinuity and fragmentariness, he designs the novel in the form of a bunch of loose sheets placed in a box (hat looks like the covers of traditional book). In House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski, in turn, creates an analogy of a maze by using a Chinese-box narration and connecting different parts of the story with an elaborate network of footnotes that force the reader to manually manipulate the bulky volume: to browse through it, leaf it, mark the pages, look up information in the index. All these activities confront her with the materiality of the book containing a story about a mysterious house that sucks its inhabitants into an underground abyss. On the other

12 Cf. B.S. Johnson, “Introduction”


hand, this triggers off anxiety and a feeling of helplessness in the face of a seemingly ungraspable material. The footnotes send one again and again to the same place in the text, bibliographic information turns out unreliable, and typography misleads one off the page. While reading, the reader begins to feel that she is circulating in a dark maze in which there is some unspecified danger looming behind every corner (every turning of a page). What is even more confusing, there are different variants of the book. The colophon gives us information about an incomplete edition (lacking certain items in the index and appendices, and coloured words), black-and-white edition, two coloured edition (in which the words “Minotaur” and “house” as well as deleted phrases are printed in red and blue respectively) and “full” edition which allegedly features Braille print and colourful photographs. However, after several years of hunting the full edition (if it exists at all) to purchase it for the Krakow Liberature Reading Room Collection my attempts have come to nothing. I only managed to buy a full-colour edition but with no raised dots (the Braille symbols are simply printed on a flat surface). The elusive Minotaur is still lurking in the shadows of second-hand bookshops.

[Fig 3. Nieszczęśni, the Polish edition of B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, vol. 5 of “Liberatura” publishing series, Korporacja Ha!art, Kraków, 2008]

All the above mentioned books (and many similar ones) have never been discussed in the context of artists' books. However, unlike Kostelanetz, who was surprised that Drucker had omitted them in her discussion, this appears quite understandable to us. This is because they


belong to literature. Admittedly, they have been described as “experimental”, “eccentric”, “trespassing” and “breaking literary conventions”, or “avant-garde” and “postmodernist”. They are disturbing for scholars due to their generic impurity, the presence of the Other, that is, the non-verbal devices described above. Sometimes they are praised for linguistic innovations, for their extreme “defamiliarisation”13. However, few critics have dealt with those aspects that transcend the purely linguistic means of expression. Literary studies have usually ignored them even if these non-verbal devices feature in some texts under discussion. In those rare cases when they are commented upon, the authors are accused of shocking the reader with (typo)graphic gimmicks, unsuitable in literature proper, which, naturally, should use only words. Alternatively, the authors are praised for their sense of humour, while the non-verbal devices are interpreted as jokes without any serious intent. As Carl Darryl Malmgren puts it (he is, incidentally, one of those few scholars who considers them in his analyses), this attitude stems from the fact that:

fictions that capitalise on the materiality of the discourse, by exploring aspects of textuality, violate some of the strongest and most honoured textual conventions and [therefore] are often dismissed as “gimmicky”.

What may be overlooked from this perspective is the fact that experimentation with ICONIC SPACE has as much validity as experimentation with other aspects of discourse and constitutes an attempt to multiply the types of space available for signification.14

Malmgren's reflection stemmed from his studies of postmodernist American fiction whose authors often deliberately design spaces of their novels, so it is virtually impossible to deliberately ignore this. These books cannot be properly understood or interpreted without considering their spatio-typographical dimension. Hence, the friendly critic strives to work out appropriate tools to analyse them, trying to describe reality as it is rather than reproach writers for breaking traditional norms.

These writers have also been accused of excess of form. It has been overlooked that in their case content is also expressed through form, through typography and spatial arrangement, and through the material shape of the book. Simply, these writers are conscious of a fact that scholars and critics have noticed only recently, namely, that the visual qualities of writing are also meaningful and that, just as language, they can be used as means of expression to create a literary work of art, no longer in the form of the sonnet, prose poem or novel, but in the form of

13 Por. Wiktor Szkłowski, “Sztuka jako technika. Tristram Shandy Sterne'a: komentarz stylistyczny”.

14 C. D. Malmgren, Fictional Spaces in the Modernist and Postmodernist American Novel, (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1985 46 Przestrzenią ikoniczną nazywa Malmgren tę przestrzeń utworu literackiego, w którą wpisana jest relacja podobieństwa między materialnym znaczącym a znaczonym – może to być przestrzeń litery, słowa, pojedynczej kartki, wreszcie całego tomu. Szerzej jego koncepcję omawiam w artykule “Liberatura: ikoniczne oka-leczenie literatury” opublikowanym w zbiorze Tekst-tura pod red. M. Dawidek Gryglickiej, Kraków 2005.


the book. And this is, in fact, the shortest definition of liberature: that it is literature in the form of the book.

A few years after we had proposed to consider liberature as a distinct literary genre, its existence was acknowledged by an appropriate body. Namely, an academic journal Zagadnienia Rodzajów Literackich (The Problems of Literary Genres) published an entry on liberature prepared by Agnieszka Przybyszewska in “Materials for The Dictionary of Literary Genres”15 . She defines liberature as:

(…) all kinds of creative writing, in which the function of words and their spatial, material and graphic arrangement are similar. Unlike in artists' books, in the liberary work the visual-material layer does not have an interpretative, illustrative or decorative function. In such a work meaning is constructed by both content and form, which is, however, conceived of more broadly than in traditional literature. In liberature in most cases a modification of the physical-spatial structure leads to a change of meaning or sometimes even hinders a proper interpretation of the work. (…) The term proposed by Fajfer prompts literary scholars to redefine such notions as form, matter, literary work, and book. Not only words but also their visual form (the typeface, colour, and layout), their arrangement on the page (or some other, actual space), the texture of paper (or some other material used for writing) become literary material; they turn into significant components of the literary work contributing to the meaning of the work. The book does not have to be the traditional codex either, and first of all, it should not be designed according to universal conventions. It can take on the form of three codices joined with their covers (…), a bottle (…), or a poem inscribed on 48 stone pillars arranged in open space (…). Form is tantamount with an arrangement and reworking of material (…). But for liberatic writers material means much more than merely “language in its formal-semantic complexity”.16

I let myself quote the above entry so extensively to point out that it does not differ much from definitions offered by myself and Fajfer at various occasions. It seems that, unlike “artists' books”, liberature raises less controversy as far as the coherence of its definitions goes, besides, a set of its defining features is more or less precisely stated.

Perhaps the process of acknowledging liberature has been fostered to some extent by previous emergence and dissemination of artists' books. Our proposition is neither the first nor the only response to classifying all of writer's creative work as literature proper in which the visual qualities of writing are disregarded. That classification has prompted many writers to

15 Słownik Rodzajów Literackich (The Dictionary of Literary Genres) edited by Grzegorz Gazda and Słowinia Tyniecka-Makowska was published in 2006 by “Universitas”. Further, additional entries have been published in the above mentioned section of Zagadnień Rodzajów Literackich and will be included in a second revised edition of the dictionary.

16 Agnieszka Przybyszewska, “Liberatura” in: “Materiały do słownika rodzajów literackich”, Zagadnienia Rodzajów Literackich, vol. 50, no 1-2/2007: 255-258 (the quote transl. by K. Bazarnik). Cf. also “E-liberatura” by the same author, pp. 247.


self-reflection. As already mentioned, Kostelanetz suggested that all innovative books should be categorised as “book art”. In Poland Radosław Nowakowski called himself “bookmaker”, and his artistic activities “bookmaking”. To our surprise, we also had to explain to the first audience of Oka-leczenie that they were not dealing with an artist's book but with literature, though admittedly unconventional one17, literature which annexes the material aspect of the book into its fictional universe. I have deliberately used the word “audience” rather than readers, since those people were so convinced that they were dealing with artists' book that they even did not attempt to read Oka-leczenie. Here is a model example how terminology can influence or even distort reception. That is why terminological questions are not trivial, and getting terminology straight would enhance a fuller, more conscious perception and more adequate analysis of all unconventional literary pieces.

Therefore, I would like to propose a map of “book art” and similar creative activities, taking Kostelanetz's term as a point of departure and basing it to some extent on Monika Polak's schema included in her article “Nie do czytania – dywagacje wokół definicji książki artystycznej” (Not for reading – some reflections on the definition of the artist's book)18. But I have modified it in some points. Firstly, I have removed the following subsets: “illustration”, “typography”, “decorative art”, and “ bookbinding”, as these are not types of books but aspects of bookmaking, sometimes creatively explored by authors, sometimes by printers and bookbinders. Besides, I have stretched “performance”, “installation”, and “object” beyond the boundaries of the “book art” set, just as Polak does with “music”, “literature” and “technology”, since performance and installation exist as independent art forms. I have also merged two categories: “object” and “thing”, as their separation in Polak's schema is not clear to me. Also, I have added the category of “bibliophile book” (beautiful book) as an area where literature and book art overlap. Then, I have located fine printing (or artistic printing) in the area defined as artistic elaboration of the layout of the literary text that does not originally have such a form. Consequently, artists-printers create a stylish form for someone else's literary works. I have also added another set where I placed concrete poetry and conceptual books, without separating them clearly into distinct sets since the limits between them tend to be fluid.

17 In fact, we used “unconventional” in the title of the exhibition which was a stimulus for Fajfer to write the essay: “Liberatura. Aneks do słownika terminów literackich” (Liberature. Appendix to a dictionary of literary terms) (Dekada Literacka, no 5/6 (153/154), 30 June 1999, Kraków: 8-9.

The electronic version of the article available at <>, English translation: Reprinted in: Tekst-tura, ed. Małgorzata Dawidek Gryglicka, Kraków: Ha!art 2005.

18 Monika Polak, “Nie do czytania – dywagacje wokół definicji książki artystycznej” in: Violetta Trella (ed.) Druga rewolucja książki. Wystawa Sztuki Książki. Ogólnopolska Konferencja Naukowa, Gdynia, 7-25 stycznia 2008. Zeszyty Miejskiej Biblioteki Publicznej w Gdyni, no 2, 2008: 35-42. Her schema features on page 36 (cf. Fig. 4 below).


In some cases they may be identified as artists' books, liberature and literature, but concrete poetry may also be quite independent from book art.

[Fig. 4. Monika Polak's proposal for the scope of book art and its relations with other arts, in: “Nie do czytania – dywagacje wokół definicji książki artystycznej”, p. 36.]


[Fig. 5. Katarzyna Bazarnik's schema showing the scope of book art and its relations with other arts]

The above schemata put in order complex relationships between various fields of arts, including literature, thereby demonstrating that the artist's book should be considered as a separate field of art (akin to painting and sculpture), and liberature as a kind of literature. They also allow one to notice that there are various hybrid (polymedial or intermedial, as Higgins called them) works and genres as well as transitional works that can be located at the fringes of the suggested sets or at their points of intersection. Both diagrams indicate clearly the autonomy of liberature, though it partly overlaps with some of the area of Phillpot's and Drucker's “artists' books”. But an assertion that there are works which belong both to liberature and to the artists' books results in their reinstatement as literature so they are as if “won back” for readers and literary scholars. The former, if they are sensitive enough, have always appreciated the paraliterary or paratextual qualities of books (do we still remember how we loved reading books in particular editions, and we could not recognise them in another bibliographic code?). The latter, in turn, may notice that they should use interdisciplinary tools to analyse and describe Blake, Sterne, Joyce, Federman, Nowakowski and Fajfer. This also applies to art critics who attempt at interpreting artists' books that have a substantial literary component. All types of scholars would also benefit from using sociological and even economic analyses of production and distribution of works under discussion, as well as the way they are collected, archived and displayed. In the case of literary works such analyses are beginning to appear; suffice it to mention Maurice Couturier's Textual Communication. A Print-based Theory of the Novel (London: Routledge, 1991), which argues that the novel is primarily the literature of print, overwhelmingly dependent on the development of printing technology. Couturier demonstrates how authors-writers made use of visual qualities of typography for enhancing literary means of expression and how they consciously exploited the architecture of the codex to the extent allowed to them by publishers and booksellers.

Both above mentioned schemata would easily find their place on the board at the Bristol conference described in the opening of the article. And we, though initially sceptical, quickly found common ground with poets, artists, curators, printers, bookbinders, professors and librarians attending the panels. Sarah and Tom knew well that among that crowd we were bound to meet some who felt equally uncomfortable with the label “artists' book makers” and who would happily recognise themselves as liberatic authors (for example, a poet and graphic designer Philip Kuhn and a poet and performer hiding under the nickname of “seekers of lice”; after the conference both sent us their books for Liberature Reading Room). Since, contrary to


all appearances, Bodman and Sowden are not indifferent to how artists and authors define themselves, to those people whose work they collect in the university library, exhibit and catalogue – according to descriptions provided to them by the authors. This rare respect for artists' and writers' intentions is not that obvious among typographers, editors, desktop designers and publishers (suffice it to mention typographically bizarre Polish editions of Sterne's Tristram Shandy distorting the author's message, and Stéphane Mallarmé's Un Coup de Des, whose typographically correct Polish edition was published only in 2005 in “Liberatura” series19). Thanks to a long-term research project the centre in Bristol has created an excellent platform of communication for all dealing with a broadly conceived book art. Its activities include regular exhibitions, conferences, and documentation of its work on the webpage: This provides space for visual artists, poets who publish their collections of poems in small presses and in low print-runs, creative typographers and printers who cultivatd old printing technologies and who can make real wonders, as well as liberatic writers who, beside their own work, also publish classics in translations in formats originally planned for them by their authors.

In Bristol this platform was called “book art”, as it embraces all creative activities in the field. Further divisions are possible only within it, always, however, respecting the idiosyncrasy of a given work and the intention of its author. Perhaps a similar classification could be applied for a Collection of Polish Book Art? Thus called it would enable jurors to include in the collection those works that are now excluded from it since they do not fall under a category of the artists' book. And the Collection of Polish Artists' Books can form an excellent basis for a future project of this kind, a project that could finally embrace unique, single copies of artists' books, limited editions of artistic-liberatic works, pure liberature and even beautiful editions of bibliophile books or simply beautiful, though “conventional” books praised for their exquisite typography and design.

19 Stéphane Mallarmé, Rzut kośćmi, trans. T. Różycki, vol. 3 “Liberatura” series, (Kraków: Ha!art, 2005).

ZENON FAJFER - How liberature redefines the artist's book


How liberature redefines the artist's book

Some Notes to Accompany the Project



In June 1999 during the Exhibition of Unconventional Books organised and curated by Radosław Nowakowski, Katarzyna Bazarnik and myself in the respectable interiors of the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow, I was approached by a couple of students of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. I do not remember now if it was he who was talking and she was frowning meaningfully, or the other way round, but at any rate I was given to understand that except for some cases “there's very little going on here as far as the form goes”. They let me know they made much more exciting things at their academy in the Department of Book Design. I was curious to hear that reproof concerning disregard or mediocrity of form, especially, that it referred to books displayed at the exhibition that was a part of the third Krakow Bloomsday festival, an event dedicated to James Joyce, i.e. the writer who is considered one of the greatest reformers of the form of the novel in the 20th century. Beside Joyce's books, and those published, say, in a traditional form as well as those quite distant in shape from stereotypical publications1, the exhibition hosted works of other writers, various fine, bibliophile editions, as well as artist's books, including those closer to installation and sculpture than literature. Most artists' books came from Ireland in one magic suitcase accommodating exhibits from the Wexford Artists’ Book Centre Exhibition. The rest were books by Polish authors, including those by Academy of Fine Arts professors, and those met with the greatest approval of the above mentioned couple. Our discussion quickly revealed a conceptual difference in our attitudes to books. Communication was thwarted exactly because each party understood the “form” differently. For them it was lines of solids and rhythm of colourful patches, excluding, however, rhythm of words, a pattern of rhymes and a linear or non-linear narration. What mattered for them was the format of a book and the nature of material used, but not unnaturalness or realism of characters in a story. And yet we were talking about books, object used mostly for reading! I 1 There was, for example, Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle published by Wydawnictwo Literackie in the form of a letter in an envelope instead of a traditional cover. had comparable (but reverse) conversations with literally-disposed individuals. Using a naïve, but still quite handy distinction into “content” and “form”, we, the organisers, were often given to understand that most of those “books” had little in common with real books, and that it was simply an “excess of form”. So on one hand (that more artistically-oriented one), there was a reproof concerning a lack or banality of form, on the other (the one disposed exclusively to literature) there were voices objecting to form dominating the message. The disagreement resulted from a fundamentally different approach to form and its function. Besides, both parties lacked openness to a more tolerant, more inclusive view of the book. Insofar as the the former limited the form of the book to the questions of typography and editing, the latter's reaction revealed a telling discrepancy in the perception of the literary work by so-called “ordinary” readers and the perception officially represented by literary studies. The accusation of the excess of form, its domination over content, implicated that the material shape of the volume does, in fact, matter when one thinks of “the literary form”, which would be considered utter heresy in officially accepted views within the field of literary studies. Since, in fact, for the majority of scholars the literary work is a transparent thing, and the material aspect of the book does not constitute a part of the literary work as such. The concept of liberature attempts to change this state of affairs. So liberature is understood as total literature in which the text and the form of a book (Latin “liber”) constitute an integral whole. My essay “Liberatura. Aneks do słownika terminów literackich” (“Liberature. Appendix to the dictionary of literary terms”), which with time has turned into a kind of manifesto of a new literary trend, was written for Dekada Literacka (Literary Decade). However, the schedule of the monthly was responsible for the fact that before it was actually published, its theses had been presented at the above mentioned exhibition. Their subversiveness also consisted in my proposal to critically examine some basic, and seemingly well-founded categories of the critical discourse,which nearly completely ignored the material and spatial aspect of literature, that is the book and writing. I postulated that beside “form”, notions such as “material”, “the literary work”, “time and space of the literary work”, as well as “the book” needed to be revised. The interested reader is expected to refer to that article; at this point I would only like to mention that my major, essential conclusion was a proposal to recognise a distinct type or genre of literature, the eponymous liberature. It would embrace those works whose message is not exclusively limited to their verbal sphere, a plot or metaphors used in a poem. So liberature would be represented by those works that reach beyond bare text, that “communicate” with the whole book, including its format, shape, type of writing, all graphic elements as well as kind of paper or other material the book is made of. Such books could take any form (which draws on the other meaning of Latin “liber”). This would, however, result from an independent decision of the WRITER. The form would be embedded in the logic of the work and not dependent on age old conventions. The point would be not in book designer's ingenuity nor in a display of fine printing, since in liberature everything is subordinated to a LITERARY vision. To return to our critical couple: after a while I managed to explain to them that our understandings of form are diametrically opposed and that which appears insufficiently bold to a graphic artist, may appear a radical innovation to a reader and a literary critic. Later I have frequently experienced a comparable a feeling of clash with surprisingly different sensitivities and viewpoints. In fact, I felt whenever it was someone from the artists' world looking at a liberatic book, someone who focused exclusively on the artistic value of the book and the art of fine printing. Or, conversely, when it was someone expecting only a readerly experience of text. It has turned out that liberature requires an unapparent thing: willingness and ability to read the WHOLE book in all its dimensions. It must be remembered, however, that it is text that is the most important in liberature, as it subordinates all other aspects of a given work to the literary component. That is why liberature is referred to as a new literary genre, and not a new discipline of art, but a genre whose hybrid character can be compared to the opera in the field of music.


The Exhibition of Unconventional Books hosted only few liberatic exhibits. Beside Oka-leczenie by Katarzyna Bazarnik and myself, the books on display were not written deliberately with liberature in mind, yet they possessed some liberatic features. Their authors were artists who had been active in the field of artists' books so far: Andrzej Bednarczyk (with his Świątynia kamienia; The Temple of Stone) and Radosław Nowakowski (Nieopisanie świata – część trzecia; A Nondescription of the World. Part Three). With hindsight, it seems that especially for Nowakowski, the appearance of liberature became a turning point of a sort. Since then he began to identify himself with the new trend and actively co-create it, including under the new term his earlier work, and even renaming his “one-person publishing company Ogon Słonia” (The Elephant's Tail) into “Liberatorium”. In retrospect, it is worth noticing that even the Irish patron of the exhibition himself was responsible for books that displayed liberatic features. Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have very precise structures that also include their material aspect, which, despite their codex forms, turns them into quite spectacular examples of total literature.

The concept of liberature originated from a long-term work of Katarzyna and myself on the triple-codex-book, Oka-leczenie, consisting of three codices joined by common covers, and telling a story about transitional states: death, birth, and the sphere In-Between. Technological difficulties proved to be an impassable obstacle in 1999 (at that time we still could not find a bookbinder brave enough to make a prototype according to our design), hence only the middle part, entitled Zenkasi, was put on display, while my article in Dekada Literacka was accompanied by a graphic motif from the planned cover of the future book. Proper prototypes were printed a year later. An actual mass publication with the ISBN was possible only in 2009, when the concept of total literature and the publishing series of Korporacja Ha!art called “Liberature” have become better known to readers and critics. (When I am typing these words, Algraf printing house in Biskupiec near Olsztyn is commencing hand-made binding of the whole print run of Oka-leczenie. The manual binding of all one-thousand-and-one copies will have lasted by the end of January 2010, which nearly amounts to eternity in the reality of the present-day, already “traditional” machine bookbinding technologies. However, considering those many years of waiting for a possibility to publish it, these four months ahead of us seem like a twinkling of the eye). The ten-years delay of the mass edition (i.e. since the time when the concept was born) clearly demonstrates difficulties facing authors of such books. Our book has not been unknown. Literary magazines and critical collections contained favourable reviews, and even more extensive analyses of the book, but this has not increased its chances for a mass edition considerably. For many years it has been available only in Liberature Reading Room, founded in 2002 (in Małopolski Instytut Kultury, in ul. Karmelicka 27), where one of the nine prototype copies is deposited. Other copies have been circulating among critics and friends in Poland, or have been sold. However, despite its obvious deviation from editorial norms, we have been interested only in a standard edition and in distribution of the book through normal channels, i.e. bookshops. However, we could have sought other channels, too, for example, we could have tried to reach potential audience through book art exhibitions, but we have avoided that from the start as we did not want anybody to classify Oka-leczenie as an artist's book. Despite all superficial similarities between the two, a fundamental difference between liberature and the artist's book is easy to grasp. In order for the artist's book to exist, it is sufficient to have the form of the book itself, sometimes artistically modified or conceptually metaphorised; but the text is not a prerequisite here. Whereas for liberature to exist, one needs precisely ...literature; here the final outcome of a creative process also assumes the form of the book, but all components are subordinated to the word. It is the word – language – which constitutes a supreme and required element. Despite their intersection, i.e. treating the book as an element of the work, and not a semantically neutral carrier of information, both the artists' books and liberature belong to totally different generic orders: the former is a discipline of the (visual, plastic) arts, while the latter belongs to the domain of literature.


The situation described in the opening demonstrates well how important are a context in which a given work functions and the audience to which the work is addressed. The same object (not to say a “bookject”) will be differently apprehended on display in a gallery, and differently in a bookshelf. The work will be differently perceived when the audience is referred to as “spectators” or “collectors”, or when they are defined as “readers”. Expectations differ when the author is called “a prose writer”, and his work “a novel”, and when the work is made by “an artist” (alas, the word “artist” is less and less frequently understood as broadly as in the days of Joyce, who entitled his autobiographic novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and nobody had any doubts the the artist in question was an aspiring writer). Last but not least, the artist's book means something else than liberature.

In view of the above reflections my possible participation in a cycle of exhibitions held as a part of the project “Collection of POLISH ARTIST'S BOOK AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY” would be hardly understandable to say the least. So when I got a proposal to participate in it I had to refuse. Should other authors regarded as liberatic writers have done the same (I mean Radosław Nowakowski in particular)? I believe that it would have been better, indeed, especially if one takes into consideration the reception of his work as well as clarity of the message about liberature; though I do understand his reasons for participating as an artist in the project. I presume they can be accounted for by to factors. Firstly, despite his strong identification with liberature Nowakowski has never limited his activities in the circles of artists and collectors of artists' books. By regularly participating in Polish and international exhibitions and artists' book fairs he has signalled that this sphere of art is still dear to him, and that he has not quit it. Secondly, Nowakowski understands liberature differently than I do, at least in one point, that is in its relation to the good, old literature. For me, and this is the point I have frequently underlined (also in this article), liberature is simply a distinct literary genre or type of literature, or, to put it still differently, it constitutes a separate kind of or trend in literature, the trend whose generic distinctness is established by an organic bond between text and its material book form. And despite the fact that the first book deliberately referred to as liberature was Oka-leczenie, I have always stressed a (paradoxically) very rich tradition to which liberature belongs, which goes back to antiquity and which can boast of such masterpieces as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Stéphen Mallarmé's A Throw of the Dice. Whereas Nowakowski in his Traktat Kartograficzny (Treatise on Pageography) does not approach liberature from a genealogical perspective, but deals with it in terms of means of expression (voice, writing, book) and a morphology of the book. In his approach “literature” would be amount to texts, and “liberature” would correspond to a set of books containing these texts along other components, i.e. a lesser set would be included in a larger set. So Nowakowski perceives literature simply as a constituent part of liberature, just as its other constituents would be drawings and kinds of paper.

Such a fresh, commonsensical attitude seemed interesting to me at some point. However, it can consequently lead to a trap of identifying liberature with the already existing “book art”, and that was not my intention when I coined the new term (and I am not sure if that was possibly Nowakowski's intention, either). If I had wanted to suggest a smart synonym to book art, I would not have proposed liberature. The raison-d'être of new terms consists exclusively in their ability to contribute to a discussion, and throw new light on some aspect of reality. I was not preoccupied with the “art of bookmaking”, unlike in Traktat Kartograficzny , where it constitutes the major issue at stake. I believe it is important in the artists' books but not in liberature. Since the latter is, both metaphorically and literally speaking, the art of WRITING A BOOK. Writing, that is imagining. It entails imagining not only text but also the book. But the question of the writer's direct, personal involvement in the physical process of book production (no matter what shape it would assume) is of little importance. Just as the architect, the writer does not have to build his bookish towers himself; what counts is his vision, and who realises it in its material shape is of absolutely secondary importance. I have devoted so much space to Nowakowski since I would not like anybody to draw too hasty conclusions from his stance. He cultivates one of the most spectacular kinds of liberature, but he is not fully representative of the trend since his work belongs to this peculiar set that constitutes an intersection of liberature and the artist's book (now I see it more clearly than a few years ago). In this respect he resembles William Blake since both of them manage to keep a relative balance between the literary and pictorial visions (curiously, both have created their own private mythologies or ideological systems, highly critical towards society and its official beliefs). However, I would not like these words to be taken as my evaluation of Nowakowski's work. They refer exclusively to his attitude and to generic features of his books, which should be considered as limitary cases of both liberature and the artist's book. I hasten to refute a potential objection – let me do an about-face now – things are quite different when it comes to my bottle-book. I am saying this because I have encountered opinions that my poem in the bottle But Eyeing Like Ozone Whole can be also counted as both liberature and the artist's book. Well, if one really insists to see it as such, I cannot forbid them to do that, but several arguments can be raised against this: 1) against all appearances this work does not trespass the borders of literature; it constitutes an example of a text that requires a different form of material realisation and it has found one in the shape of a bottle; beside its text printed on transparent foil, there are no graphic elements in it, unless one looks at the bottle in terms of a Duchampian ready-made, but a difference would consist in the fact that Marcel selected objects from his surrounding reality and turned them into pieces of art, whereas the undersigned annexes the glass object into the sphere of literature, thereby making it stand in stead of the traditional paper-made codex; 2) my bottle-book is not a unique piece, intended for galleries or private collections, but a piece addressed to readers, available in bookshops, priced as an average book, having an ISBN and published in a relatively large print run (the first edition counted 200 copies, the second edition 500 copies, and its English translation 100 copies); 3) reviews and notes on the book are addressed to the literary audience (even with a suggestion of introducing it to schools, cf. a journal for teachers of Polish, “Polonistyka. Czasopismo dla Nauczycieli” no 2/2009); 4) last but not least, I have not coined the term “liberature” for nothing, so I should not be forced to explain the obvious now. Thus, I would like to close the first part of my article with this personal note, so that, after a moment of relaxation, I could move on to part II in which I will try to explain why, having refused to participate in the project, I have nevertheless agreed to be a member of the jury.


Most likely all who have taken part in the sessions of the Respectable Jury debating validity and principles of the Collection of Polish Artists' Books at the Turn of the Century have sometimes experienced a feeling of dealing with something unspecified, though definitely very material. Some felt irritated by that so they started discussion, others were less vexed, if at all. That feeling resulted from an objective difficulty in defining the phenomenon of the artists' books, but also partly from a highly pluralistic composition of the jury and conditions of selection. 

Our discussions were heated, though inconclusive, unless one would consider as a conclusion the fact that some books have been ultimately selected for the collection. However, it is hard to judge definitely to what extent the selection is representative, and to what extent chance played a part in our choice. Certainly, the way of presenting books as well as the kind of jurors' and readers' contact with a given title (the readers' verdict was also taken into account) did influence the final choice: it must have mattered whether books were on display in glass cases at exhibitions or whether they were available only through photographs on the project website. Perhaps in the case of artists' books such limited access to a given work is sufficient in order to evaluate it, but in the case of liberature it would not work since it is hard to imagine how quality of the text can be assessed on the basis of the shape of the book or the appearance of the cover. Admittedly, I cannot envisage any other, more convenient form of contact with such a great number of unique works beside a utopian dream of having them all in one's private library. So one should give the organisers their due since they have made every possible effort to fight against the busy jurors' schedule multiplied by their lack of time and squared by distance. Beside creating an opportunity for gathering an original, valuable collection, what I especially value is exactly creating an opportunity for discussions and a creative exchange of thoughts. Admittedly, there were ups and downs as far as creativity in our discussions was concerned, but undoubtedly, we have been offered an excellent opportunity to discuss some crucial, yet contentious, issues and simultaneously create a forum for future, not less inspiring disputes. 

First of all, we had a chance to introduce some order in terminology, at least by providing a basic distinction between “the artist's book” and “book art”. From the point of view of liberature it is a crucial difference. While I do not see any possibility of presenting liberature within the framework of “the artist's book” (I have explained the case of Nowakowski above), within a larger framework of “book art” many of the objections I have raised above simply disappear. “Book art” refers to all forms of expression pertaining to the book: it embraces aesthetic qualities of an “ordinary” book, bibliophile editions and the art of fine print as well as fully autonomous works in which the book constitutes an integral component of the literary work (liberature) and those belonging to a separate discipline of plastic arts (the artists' books). Katarzyna Bazarnik writes about it more extensively in her article “Some comments on liberature and the artists' books”. I would only like to mention now that such a limited understanding of the artist's book, i.e. treating it as a manifestation of an autonomous, visual expression in a given form that draws on the shape of the book or he symbolism of the book, would consequently exclude a considerable number of works already selected to the Collection but not meeting the criterion of autonomy of the work, fundamental to the phenomenon of the artist's book. In order to meet this requirement, one must be able to point out unequivocally the author or authors of a given work. Otherwise, we will have to do with a heteronomous work, with a kind of arrangement or edition of some else's text (which was not, however, written with such an editing and redesigning in mid), in a word, with a “staging” of someone else's utterance, analogous to staging a text in the theatre.That is why I believe, for example, that very interesting, sophisticated work of the masters of fine print, Jadwiga and Janusz Tryzno, practised at the highest possible level of the printing craft in Correspondance Des Arts Foundation, should not, in fact, be classified as “the artists' book”. But I see their place in a slightly wider framework: in the field of book art, where they can come across as artistic or creative printing. But I would not mind counting as the artist's books (or even perhaps, liberature) their potential work that, however, would matchthe criterion of the author's autonomy. What is more, I am convinced that if such a work came to being, it could be an event of high importance. This demonstrates how fundamental were the problems faced by the jurors, and in fact, by anybody confronted with works classified as the artists' books. The jurors' task consisted in clever separating good things from even better ones. But how can one possibly do that if everybody has a different taste? That is why I cannot really agree with Piotr Rypson's suggestion that the initial precondition for the jury's work should be “quality”, even before the jury would establish what, in fact, the artist's book is. This will be possible only when criteria of quality are determined, which in turn will be possible only after an elementary recognition and definition of the phenomenon. With the present terminological chaos, when the artist's book functions as an umbrella term for any work that problematises print, typography and illustrations, and sometimes even the literary merits of the text in a book (which is of primary importance to me), it is impossible to work out clear, unequivocal, and fair criteria of evaluation, which is crucial in the context of the jurors' task. First, it is necessary to at least roughly establish which aspects of the work are assessed (or perhaps whether the ability to skilfully combine all its elements into a persuasive whole is exactly that which should be assessed). There is as much kitsch and banality in the field as in any other discipline of art; the artist's book is not privileged in this respect at all.


Finally, to sum up, I will move on to the redefinition announced in the title of this article. So, just as it is indispensable to distinguish as precisely as possible between “book art” and “the artist's book”, it seems equally fundamental to reexamine the term “the artist'sbook” in the context of changes brought about by the appearance of liberature. Before the term was coined, the artist's book had embraced, rightly or wrongly, nearly everything that deviated from the editorial norms, no matter whether is had smacked of literature, visual arts or conceptual art. It seems to me that introducing liberature can bring the chaos under some control. Excluding from the artist's book set works of more liberatic character, that is those in which literature plays a dominant part, and leaving in it only works with the dominant visual aspect would make life easier not only for the jurors. Besides, some intersection will always remain, where the artist's book and liberature meet and creatively interact.


1. I suggest to regard as the artist's book a fully autonomous piece of visual or conceptual art expressed in the form of the book or in another form that draws on the symbolism of the book, which however, does not have an important, literary component.

2. Works defined so far as “the artist's books” and containing the literary (fully authorial) component should be rather considered as liberature (since it is the literary aspect which is dominant) or as belonging to both fields (when the literary and the visual components are equally important).

3. However, I would not consider the books that are originally designed adaptations of someone else's texts as “the artist's book”, but rather as examples of artistic (fine) printing and book art in a wide sense of the term. Consequently, the collector of artist's books will be satisfied and the readers would get back some of their due.