Whether telling stories, making social commentary or developing aesthetic ideas, all the artists whose Southern-made books are explored here looked to participate what Levi Sherman has called Book Thinking and what Johanna Drucker described as “a shared language to maintain a conversation.” These works cover many forms and media: calligraphy, scrolls, and sculptural objects. Equally important is their conceptual nature, wherein artists explore ideas using visual and textual innovation.
The selections come from the more than 250 Southern-made books in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections, and are the product of a Dean’s Fellowship taken on by undergraduate art history major Haley Brown during Fall semester 2015. Brown encoded a dataset representing these books, their makers, and the networks that bind the book arts community using a Neo4j graph database. In creating this exhibition, we extended and repurposed this data, hoping to curate in a new way by calling on Neo4j’s query language, Cypher, to help us draw conclusions. We posed questions for the dataset about book artists and their artistic genealogy, but also found previously unseen connections about the collection itself. Answers to these questions taught us which books in the collection are the oldest, what people are most representative and in what ways, and which themes we tend to collect most frequently. These findings built on those from the Dean’s Fellow project such as links between artists, schools, and mentors in the book arts community. Taking the abstract data and recreating it with books in an exhibition form allows viewers to see these works and their connections conceptually, which theorist Lucy Lippard said means “the idea is paramount and the material form secondary…”