Book 91: Where a Text Ends and Begins

Keith Smith, Book 91 (The String Book). Space Heater Multiples, 1982. Rare Book and Special Collection Division, Library of Congress. Call Number: N7433.4.S65 A4 1982. Photo by Na’ama Zussman.

by Na’ama Zussman

The artist’s book is a specific instantiation of book culture, conveyed through self-reflexive and critical modes of exploration of both the concept and the form of the book. The artist’s book is critical and potential in its concept and materiality, and in its modes of operation and engagement. Book 91 by Keith Smith (New York, 1982), also known as The String Book, is an artist’s book with no text or image; a theatrical space for the evocation of experience. Bound to the codex form and its material syntax, multiple strings weave their way through varied-sized holes, exploring the boundaries of the book as idea and form. Book 91 continuously breaches constraints of production and reception that are inscribed in it (and in the history of the book) and by which it is informed: of content; of materiality, and of reception and engagement. As it ceaselessly broadens possibilities for observation and experimentation, Book 91 accentuates the dynamic participatory role of the reader/viewer and challenges one’s own preconceived expectations regarding what a text is and how meaning is extracted. In this paper I aim to deliberate on the dynamic reciprocity that the artist’s book establishes with the concept of ‘the book’ and map out some of the trajectories by which the artist’s book unfolds its critical aspects: the experiential, the cultural, and the institutional. This paper is based on a chapter in the author’s PhD thesis. 

Book 91 is housed, among other collections, in the Library of Congress and the NYPL.

Author’s bio:
Na’ama Zussman is an artist and a Ph.D. candidate in the Cultural Studies program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her doctoral thesis draws attention to the artist’s book as a site of experience, potentiality, and critique. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Science and Society in Colombia University and a researcher at The Center for Research in the Humanities in The New-York Public Library.
Zussman holds a Master’s degree in Book Arts from The George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. Her thesis essay, which received the Award for Graduate Critical Writing, discusses the coexistence of artists’ books as both map and territory. During her studies, she completed an internship at the Rare Book and Special Collections Division in the Library of Congress. Zussman is the recipient of numerous awards and scholarships for academic and artistic merits and a regular guest lecturer at various symposiums.

Registered attendees shared questions and comments below.

8 replies on “Book 91: Where a Text Ends and Begins”

Hi Na’ama, this is a fascinating talk. It draws attention to so many assumptions about what a book is that we have taken for granted. It also showcases how the absence of one element–words–can bring in sight a set of insights about the possibilities that visuality and materiality of books can afford. I would like to ask a question, just out of curiosity: how would you compare an artist’s book with an e-book, with the former having no texts and the latter consisting only of texts? Thanks again for your mind-blowing talk.

Hello Xin,

First, just a clarification. While Book 91 carries no text, many artists’ books do. I do not tend to compare between the artist’s book and the eBook, as they do not facilitate the same purposes. One does not replace the other but redefines it.
In “The Case for Books,” Robert Darnton argues that the first assumption was that eBooks were to replace any known ink-on-paper media, then came the realization that complete fulfillment of this utopia is impossible, followed by the understanding that traditional codex book and eBook would better coexist to fully explore the benefits each of them carries.
At the same time, as artists’ books foreground critical aspects of ‘the book’ and the semiotic function of its physical elements, they generate great interest within research on digital technology and information studies. I recommend Johanna Drucker’s article “The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space” :

Thank you for this wonderful talk, Na’ama. Your insights into the relationships between form, symbol, absence, and experience are fascinating. I was especially intrigued by McKenzie’s blank book game and its implication that form (even at its barest) precedes and dictates content. I’m wondering how the ideas you present here in relation to the artist book could be transposed into the study of other material or archival sources. How can scholars use the attention to form and structure which you demonstrate, and which Book 91 necessitates, to think about the front matter of books, for example, or the bindings of pamphlets in the archive? Thank you!

Absolutely yes, material features of books (or any materials found in the archive) no less transmit meaning than the text. It was McKenzie, notably in “Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts,” who accentuated the importance of the physical aspects of the book form and their effect on meaning. For McKenzie, this refocused attention is not merely on the technical, descriptive aspect, but on the social, cultural, and political processes of their transmission. I recommend David Pearson, Books as History, The importance of books beyond their texts.

I’m impressed by your extensive critical and theoretical framework. My question has to do with this genre of the “artist’s book” that you discuss. It seems that artists such as Keith Smith disappoint audience expectations in order to prompt their audience to think critically about those expectations; in this sense they might be described as defiant of genre conventions and the constraints they impose on the imaginations of both artists and audiences. But would you say that their work also belongs to a genre of its own, one for which the convention is to defy conventions? (I realize this is sort of a hackneyed question–the old problem of artworks whose only rule is to not follow rules–but it seems worth asking nevertheless.)

Hello Daniel,

I object to the use of the term “genre” regarding artists’ books. One of my arguments is that artists’ books cannot be referred to using terms such as genre or category. Indeed you, yourself, say that they are “defiant of genre conventions.”
Regarding your very-well-put question, I totally agree, but then again, I shall leave the word genre outside. Interestingly, artists’ books go against the very same grain from which they stem, as they are informed by the textual and material forces that shaped the concept of the book, while they challenge those very same conventions.

This is very interesting! I was curious to hear more about why the artist choose white strings and white paper–is the impact of light/dark part of the imagining of the book’s scope–moving outside the bounds of the material book itself. In what ways do the regular patterns interrupt or enrich a readers experience. I am very curious how visitors react to this book. Thank you

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