The first “Altered Book” art project I remember seeing was at the Outsider Art Fair around 20 years ago, when it was in the magnificent Puck Building on Houston Street. Back then, the artist was present and you could actually talk to them about their art and being an outsider artist. I remember asking the artist about her books, which had a lot of glue in them and all over them. I don’t remember much else about them. I guess I first saw an altered book not at a museum but as an art work that got made organically, that had a life of its own the way altered book projects can have.
The Altered Book is not just a piece of art. It’s a living, breathing creature. You start out with a basic body, the book as it was published, that looks just like all the other ones of the same title and author, and the artist puts it through a “Kali” like birthing process that involves a lot of destruction in the service of creating this new living being. Kali is a Hindu Goddess, from the Sanskrit word “Kali”, translated as “time”. She is described as a destroyer of “unreality”, a liberator. I’m no expert on Hindu gods, but I do associate Kali with the process of altering books and how one has to destroy and use up in order to create anything. A pencil that never gets sharpened is not involved in any kind of creation. The book even has a skin, whether it’s the book jacket that covers a hard cover book, or just the outside of the covers and the actual covers, with the pages within as the innards. The process of altering books brings up all kinds of weird processes like alchemy, dissection, and autopsy, but that may just be the beginning stage, cutting open the body. With an altered book, you kidnd of do the opposite of an autopsy; you cut open and expose internal organs for the purpose of repurposing them and making something new, more like the way an organ gets donated and incorporated into the new person’s body. Now that kidney no longer belongs to the donor and the donor is erased, though an integral part of the process, just as the creator of the original book must be killed off for a new peice of art to emerge.
I love paper, making works on paper, drawing, and then even becoming very physically involved in the process with the materials. even just using pens and pencils on paper, I like to see the grooves a pen or pencil can make, how it changes the paper.
Unlike the experience of looking at a published book or even writing/making one, making an altered book happens in a chaotic disordered way. You don’t have to start with the cover and go in time order page by page. You can start anywhere and the pages in the middle of the book might get cut up and put in the front of the book or anywhere else. Each time you come back to work on the book, you are in a different state of mind, and, unlike with writing a book, you don’t have to get back into whatever you’re doing. It doesn’t have to make sense. It changes each time you interact with it. At the same time, it evokes soemthing different from making a painting with many layers. Books are loaded with meaning and the concept of time passing. You may go anywhere in the book to work, but you still end up with a product that looks like a book, unless you are altering the book to the point of making sculpture out of it, but to me, that gets out of the realm of the Altered Book. The Altered Book I think of and make and witness the makign of, is still a book at the end, finished or not. There are traces of what it was, like the original book is the parent and the art piece is the child. There may be resemblances and reminders of the parent, but the altered book has become a totally new being, one that has never existed before.
The idea of the altered book as being a reallly physical process is what I am interested in. And the process. The process can feel like a fight; very violent and visceral; you get in there at the beginning and attack the book, to subjugate it and get it to really become yours to do what you want with. There has to be that initial struggle, very physical, involving cutting, ripping, tearing, sanding, poking, doing very active things to the very body of the book. Most of the time the spine is very affected by the making of an altered book. You have a choice of letting the book spill open, or cutting open the spine and adding more cardboard to extend it so it can be closed. To do that, you have to cut the book into at least two pieces and add to it. A lot of altered book making in terms of the body of the book and undoing it feels like surgery.
I am reminded of reading about Leonardo Da Vinci and his dream of doing a book of all of human anatomy. He made friends with doctors/medical professors and “borrowed” corpses from them . He would go at night and dissect this human body and scribble in his notebook as fast as he could, drawing what he saw and sometimes more what he felt because there was no formaldehyde to preserve the body, so it was a race against time and probably really smelly too. It was really messy, and not like messing around with paints. I was fascinated with his process, and his hyperfocus and obsession. He didn’t finish his book of anatomy, but you can see his drawings and writings about the internal organs.
I can’t imagine what it would be like sneaking into a place to cut open a dead body and draw the organs late at ngiht or at any time of day, but making an altered book has that kind of feel to it. Once you get into it, this “thing” you are interacting with can take over and there can be a really exciting obsessive quality to it.