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The Art of Booklyn

Riding to Greenpoint on the G train, I confess, I was expecting something different. Aside from knowing Booklyn’s address and the fact that it was some sort of artist’s co-op that made books, I was aware that its members embraced performance art as well as artist bookmaking. While on the train, images of the avant-garde performance artists I had studied during my college years as an Art History major flashed before me; the most prominent being one of Chris Burden, who once had himself shot in the arm on stage in front of an unsuspecting audience to explore the degree to which a theater setting would affect audiences’ reactions. My imagination going about the speed of the train, I anticipated that at the end of the line I would encounter a group of crazy conceptual artists, full of facial hair and rhetoric, who, no matter how fascinating, might be far too “out there” to fully comprehend. what I found instead, after spending a serene morning in Booklyn’s sunny Greenpoint studio sipping coffee and leafing through exquisite books – art objects in and of themselves – was, in co-founder Mark Wagner’s words, “ a bunch of people making nice books.” No goatees. No post-modern diatribes. Just a fun mix of really passionate people, dedicated to their art form.


Born out of shared passion for artist bookmaking and a mutual frustration with bureaucratic book dealers, Brooklyn-based Booklyn became a not-for-profit organization in 1999 and just this year, received sponsored from the New York Foundation for the Arts. The artist alliance’s three-pronged mission is to assist artistic bookmakers to produce, exhibit, and distribute their work; bolster a network of artists, collectors, and curators who focus on that work; and expand the field of artist bookmaking through offering lectures, workshops, and educational programs.


For the non-bibliophiles in the crowd, artist bookmaking entails, simply put, constructing a book from start to finish. The process therefore requires that the artists decide on everything from the concept to the method to the number of editions. They, in turn, must possess the vast range of skills necessary to actualize each one of those decisions from designing pages to writing text – if any – to stitching bindings. Considering that during the production of just one book, the artist bookmaker might play the role of writer, designer, illustrator, printer, binder, and publisher, it is no wonder that Booklyn’s members chose to create a space where they could support one another in practicing their craft.


The loftlike studio, located at the northern most tip of Greenpoint, is furnished with stencil cutters and corner rounders acquired from flea markets, hundreds of tubes of ink, and 70 drawers filled with tiny lead letters used in conjunction with their prized possession, a Vandercook letterpress. Within that space, Wagner explains that, “the person who comes up with the words might be making the book or be standing right beside the person who is printing and binding the book.”


There are currently eight core members who attend weekly meetings and roughly forty additional artist associates who collaborate creatively, delegate specific production roles to one another, and/or work on their own projects with the option of soliciting feedback from one of their many colleagues. “It’s a diverse community,” comments Booklyn member Marshall Weber, perhaps best known for his 72-hour long December 1999 reading of the Bible at the temple Shul, one of New York’s active synagogues. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye,” he says of the group. But as Weber’s very presence supports, it is these differences that of opinion, be they over politics, philosophy, or personality, which ensure that such an innovative collective portfolio continues to thrive.


What binds Booklyn’s distinct members together is the choice of the book form as a means of expression. “We are all seriously engaged in the form,” points out Booklyn director Christopher Wilde. “The book form is so inclusive. It can encompass any medium; it contains writing and artwork; it’s sculptural and flat at the same time; it’s tactile. I could go on and on,” explains Wagner.


It is the survey of Booklyn’s work, on exhibit through April 2nd at the Center for Book Arts in Chelsea, that serves as a testimonial to the diversity of the organization and the freedom of the book form. Each book is as individual as the individual vision that it represents. In one of the wooden display cases, Robert The’s Bookbrush, the entire piece shaped in the form of a house paintbrush, rests next to Emily K. Larned’s Syntax Machine, propped open to reveal the sparkling text created by her hand picking and placing each separate piece of type within the process of letterpress printing. Nearby, Scott Teplin’s Burn, is composed of white pages seared with impressions of a very, very hot spatula being pressed against the paper. On the other side of the room, Weber sells a few of the 150 copies that Sarah Parkel made of her book, Even the Birds Were on Fire, a beautifully delicate piece documenting the harrowing events of September 11th.


And those are just four of the forty books on display. There are one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces, printed limited editions, mass producible pamphlet-like zines, and audiozines recorded on CDs or tape cassettes. Every book comes in a different shape or size; their pages, with or without text, are printed, silkscreened, made using collage; their content addresses issues ranging from American imperialism abroad to quitting smoking at home.


Ultimately, it is the unique personality of each one of these books and the pages in between that expresses the depth and diversity of the Booklyn community. Going home on the G, what I found most striking was the Center for the Book Arts’ program director Ranid Jawad’s reply when I asked her for her view of the group: “They seem like they really like what they do.”


Cricket Heinze

Cricket Heinze researches issues in education at the Center for Children and Technology, and is an art aficionado.


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