I wonder how many artists make things because they are angry? That was certainly the impetus behind my first altered book.
The first altered book (well, a photograph of it) I ever encountered was Literaturwurst by German artist Dieter Roth. I was shown it while studying Fine Art at the University of Toronto in the late 1960s. In 1961 he had taken a book by an author he disliked and made a sausage, substituting the shredded text block for the meat. I thought it was funny and promptly forgot about it.
About a decade later I saw images of Tom Phillips’ A Humument, probably the longest ongoing book alteration ever. I was intrigued by his combination of page decoration with ‘found’ text, but once again didn’t really think about it afterwards.
Early in 2002 I noticed a paperback instruction book called Altered Books in the craft section of a local book store. I thought that most of the projects were crude and unattractive, and although they seemed to be descended from Tom Phillip’s experiments, the works appeared to display no real comprehension of what he was doing.
Then in 2004, I encountered the results of that instruction book (or one very like it) in person. Groups of people were getting together and, following some pre-set guidelines, each member bought a copy of their ‘favourite’ book. The participants then altered pages in rotation. The results were mostly appalling, and a desecration of perfectly good new books.
I grew up thinking that books were precious and not to be harmed. I later developed a more flexible opinion as to the value of individual books after working in a library and then at a charity book sale. Books can have limited lifespans for a number of reasons: they can be damaged through wear and tear or accident, or they can simply outlive their usefulness. But the books being altered were new books, favourite books. The alterations had nothing to do with the content. A blank journal would have been a better choice.
I went home very angry.
Later I looked at a bookshelf in our basement. The shelf held a number of volumes of the Life Nature Library that my parents had purchased for me when I was growing up. They were destined for recycling as nobody wanted them. Newer books with more up-to-date information and better colour reproduction had rendered them superfluous. I picked up a volume from the set: The Universe, a book on astronomy and space exploration. I’ll show you an altered book, I thought.
My self-imposed rules were simple:
- The book to be altered must otherwise be destined for recycling.
- The form of the book after alteration must reflect the book’s subject matter.
I spent months cutting the text block into strips and folding them into Froebel stars while watching television in the evening.
The piece wasn’t finished until early 2006 when I made a case for it.
Eventually I altered seven copies of The Universe. Through variations in the way the pages were cut, different choices in the selection of which strips to combine, different pages used for the linings, different covering materials and different formats for the cases, I was able to make each copy unique. Here are a couple of images:
There was an eighth iteration of the book: with a small number of stars left from each copy of the book, I made a final, smaller version.
Other books have been altered since that first one. I have also moved on to folding other kinds of stars. (Check out the menu link to The Wishing Star Project.)
I am glad I got angry. I might never have had the opportunity to include paper folding and paper sculpture in my repertoire of artist’s tools.