Bookworks Revisited

by Ulises Carrión

Over ninety examples of artists' bookworks show the creative re-invention of the book form of communication. Narrated by archivist Ulises Carrión, he says artist's books are an artform in their own right and they embody the uses of many media. Transcription ©1992 Bill H. Ritchie. This videotape is $50 plus $9 handling and postage and may be ordered on-line with PayPal or by using your e-mail.


Ulises Carrión died in 1989. Several years before, he visited the U.S. with a stop in Washington State where Bill Ritchie arrangements to talk with students and faculty at The Evergreen State College, Olympia. Here is the soundtrack from the videotape slide show he prepared ahead and let Bill distribute the video in the US. Ulises Carrión was influential in defining the nature of artist-made books.

Videotape sound track

Following are the opening titles on the screen as the tape begins:

"A selection, both limited in scope and quite arbitrary but nevertheless of great significance of bookworks from Ulises Carrión's Other Books and So Archive"

Above text is that of Ulises Carrión on his video of Other Books and So Archive. On screen the viewer sees wooden card file boxes, for storing index cards, and the speaker's hands. He opens each box and you see that they are full of cards.

Carrión Speaks

In alphabetical order: "People I've Met; Artists; Non-Artists; My best Friends - People I Love; People I Admire; There Has Been A Change in Our Relationship of Late."

This book of mine is partly real facts, and partly fantasy. The real fact is that I love lists of names. Card indexes, retrieval information systems - that sort of thing. No wonder I have an archive at home, The Other Books and So Archive, which includes a collection of artists' books.

I am not a book collector. The books in the Archive are those I've been given by the makers. The collection has grown because I've met personally quite a number of artists, and printers, here, or while traveling abroad. And also because in the mid-seventies, I opened in Amsterdam the first gallery ever specialized in Artists' Books, the Other Books and So, later to become the Other Books and So Archive.

In March, 1975, three weeks after opening Other books and So, I sent more than one thousand letters asking artists, writers, and publishers to send books. I didn't include any precise definition of the works I was interested in. I only said I wanted, quote "The sort of books you make," end of quote. A few days later, packages started arriving. From North and South America, from Western and Eastern Europe, from Japan and from Australia.

Not every book I receive becomes part of the Archive. Only real artists' books, or documents related to artists' books, are kept here. Artists also produce catalogs and books which are completely traditional. But this archive is not the place for them. Unless these books represent specific and discernable comment on books in general - like Andy Warhol's novel - or like some exceptional catalogs that function as authentic artists' books.

Among the many sorts of publications by artists, the only genre implying an essential renewal for art and for books is the so-called bookworks. For an artists' book to be a bookwork, it is essential that it looks and functions like an ordinary book. That means: No unusual size, no extravagant materials, no eccentric context.

The very ordinariness of bookworks guarantees their place in the general context of culture, that is, of art. A specialized art context becomes then, irrelevant; or, at most, anecdotic. The most direct way of achieving ordinariness is to mimic any well-known genre of ordinary book - in form and content. TV Guides, elementary school manuals, intimate diaries, telephone books, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

People often ask, "If an artist's book must look like an ordinary book in order to reach the supreme status of 'bookwork', how can you then tell the difference between ordinary books and bookworks?" Well, bookworks only look ordinary; they are not. They are intended to create regions of looking, specific conditions of reading. And here is where the old sanctuaries of art, like galleries and museums, etcetera, have a role to play.

There's no real place for bookworks in bookshops. There's no real place for bookworks in libraries. Not because booksellers and librarians are reactionary, are they? But because of all sorts of reasons: One book may be too small, another may be too giant, may be too expensive, or even too cheap. Another may be too hard to find or too poorly bound, or it could have a text in an unknown language.

Another book could be suspected of pornography, or nonsense, or could be badly printed. Or maybe the artist stinks. Really, I don't want to dramatize the point. The fact is that, whereas bookshops and libraries remain firmly closed, galleries, museums and the like, sometimes open their doors.

Some artists, including some of those who produce bookworks, never set foot in a bookshop. This might be a healthy attitude. But they are all aware - they must be all aware of books - and they refer to them in their works. This happens in all sorts of ways, from recycling mass-produced paperbacks to exploiting to the extreme the possibilities offered by various reproduction techniques.

Artists' publishing activities include more than simply bookworks. I don't mean so-called object books or linguistic multiples. They don't necessarily imply any particular printing technique. What I mean is that, artists, besides publishing bookworks, also make newspapers, postcard wallets playing cards sets, magazines, assemblies, collections of essays, etcetera. A selection, which only includes bookworks, like this one, is both limited in scope and quite arbitrary.

A selection which only includes bookworks, may at first seem limited in scope; but in reality it has great significance. Because in order to present only bookworks, we have been forced to exclude a lot of artists' books which don't embody a statement on books in general. And that was the point of the exercise: the reason for books to be made by artists in the first place.

I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books.

Why should an artist open a gallery? Why should he keep an archive? Because I believe art - as a practice - has been superseded by a more complex, more rigorous and richer practice: Culture. We've reached a privileged, historical moment when keeping an archive can be an artwork.


This 36-minute videotape is available for US$50.00, plus $9 postage and handling, directly from Ritchie's Video, a division of Emeralda Works, at 500 Aloha #105, Seattle, WA 98109 (206) 498-9208. All rights are reserved by Bill Ritchie. Requests for permission to reprint this transcription should also be sent by e-mail:

Bill Ritchie has spoken to many groups on artists' books, since discovering Carrión's essay, Bookworks in The Print Collector's Newsletter. Like Carrión, Ritchie relates new technologies to books, focusing on the artists' books' relation to hypermedia.