CODEX 2015 – A Report from the Warren Bibliographer
—Gregory Eow, Charles Warren Bibliographer for American History, Harvard Library
Printer and polymath Leonard Baskin remarked, “People like me who care about printing – the architecture of the page – constitute the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation.” Over the last decade, Peter Rutledge Koch and his co-conspirators behind the CODEX Foundation, Roberto Trujillo and Susan Filter among them, have ensured that when this lunatic fringe gets together every two years in the Bay Area, the result is, to use Koch’s words, “one helluva party.” The CODEX Book Fair and Symposium has become a signature event in the book world. It has grown such that it includes over 200 exhibitors drawn from the international book arts community, and plays host to thousands of visitors, ranging from hardcore private and institutional collectors to the merely curious. CODEX includes not only the fair itself, but also a symposium component, which gives attendees a chance to hear talks from accomplished artists, scholars, curators, and authors. This year, for instance, the CODEX Symposium featured talks by, among others, book artists Sam Winston (Arc Editions), Carolee Campbell (Ninja Press) and author/philosopher Alberto Manguel.
Before this year, I had never attended the CODEX Book Fair and Symposium, but I had heard enthusiastic accounts from those who had. So it was with genuine excitement that in February I traveled from Cambridge, MA to the Bay Area to participate in the 2015 CODEX events. And what I saw and experienced at CODEX was, quite frankly, a revelation. I traveled to California to take part in the inaugural Stanford/CODEX Collegium, held in Stanford University’s Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford on the two days preceding the opening of the CODEX International Book Fair and Symposium. Titled “Revealing the Handmade Book: Inventing the Library,” the Stanford/CODEX Collegium brought together an eclectic group of participants drawn from an invitation list drawn up by Peter Rutledge Koch, and Roberto Trujillo, Director of the Stanford Library’s Special Collections Department and Elaine Treharne, Professor of Literature at Stanford. In many ways, the Collegium was a microcosm of the larger CODEX Book Fair: it included book artists, librarians, philosophers and poets, scholars and even diplomats. Like the larger fair, the Collegium was notably international and inclusive.
Peter Koch delivered remarks to Collegium participants to kick off the event on the evening of Friday, February 6th. His message was one of fellowship and shared purpose. He reminded attendees of CODEX’s mission to further the appreciation of the art, beauty, and craft of the handmade book and our collective responsibility to ensure its future. You will learn a lot about the spirit and thinking behind the Collegium, and also a lot about Peter Koch himself, by noting the words and phrases he used in his remarks. From my notes, I have written down: “inclusiveness,” “internationalism,” “rendez-vous,” “a grand bazaar as antidote to isolation,” “us as a group,” “ideas thrive in a market,” and of course, “helluva party.” CODEX is not only about books and artifacts; it is about people, relationships and building an international community.
The collegium format featured panel discussions considering fine press and artists’ books from various perspectives: artists discussing their motivation for creation; faculty discussing how they incorporate artists’ books into their research and teaching; librarians discussing how they decide what to collect; other librarians discussing the challenges they face cataloging artists’ books to ensure their access and discovery; and private collectors describing their activities. My own talk discussed institutional collection budget allocations and how trends in this area could be advantageous – or disadvantageous – for institutional acquisitions of fine press and artists books. The common thread behind all of the talks was this: how could Collegium participants, with their multifaceted and collective experience and expertise, work together to ensure that the best fine press and artists books will be captured and preserved for posterity? Furthermore, how can we build and sustain a marketplace that serves as a patron for the creation of book arts? Our shared responsibility for the health of the book arts marketplace was a presupposition behind the Collegium, and throughout the proceedings Roberto Trujillo emphasized that “we are all in this together, and no one can do this by himself.”
The Collegium talks were uniformly thought provoking and oftentimes a good deal of fun. For instance, Canadian poet philosopher Robert Bringhurst delivered numinous reflections that urged attendees to create and protect books that have souls. According to Bringhurst, not all books have souls; a sentiment echoed by Peter Koch, who said that he cared not at all about the future of mass market books, but rather concerned himself exclusively with the fate of finely designed and crafted works. Tony White of the Maryland Institute College of Art discussed the limitations of the term “artists’ books” – persuasively arguing that current trends in production, and the desires of artists themselves, point to the need of more capacious and inclusive terminology – with White suggesting the term “independent publishing” (Timothy Young of Yale’s Beinecke Library suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that the terminology of choice among the students he works with is “cool books.”) Book artist Didier Mutel of France discussed how the artists’ book medium represented “freedom” and “escape,” and provided him a “safe geography” for his artistic expression. On a more playful note, Alberto Manguel wryly observed that he suspects that the books in his personal collection “reproduce at night” while private collector Marvin Sackner predicted that the typewriter is going to make a come back. At the Collegium’s conclusion, Peter Koch observed that “CODEX is a family,” and I can confirm that I came away from the event feeling energized by the talks, enlivened by the friendships I had made, and a sense of responsibility to do my part for the health of the book arts.
Turning to the CODEX Book Fair that followed the Collegium, I am reminded of arts writer Sarah Thornton’s reflections on why the world of contemporary art holds such fascination for her. In the introduction of her excellent Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton says that she is drawn to the art world because of the way “this sphere blurs the lines between work and play, local and international, the cultural and the economic.” The same could be said for the CODEX Book Fair – a sprawling event that turned the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, CA into a veritable hive of book arts activity and commerce from February 8 – 11. Experiencing the event, one cannot help but think that Peter Koch has realized his goal of creating a “grand bazaar” for the global book arts community.
Two observations about the CODEX Book Fair. First, it truly is a global event, with exhibitors and visitors representing a transnational independent publishing phenomenon. It would be difficult for me to even remember, let alone list, the countries represented by the people I met. But I can say that I purchased items from people who had traveled to the fair from Australia, Austria, Germany, England, Ireland, and all corners of the United States. This transnationalism is no accident. It is by design. CODEX creators Peter Koch, Susan Filter, and RobertoTrujillo wanted to create and foster a global books arts community, and they have succeeded.
Second, the CODEX has a palpable, youthful energy. CODEX was filled with luminaries from the book arts world, the stalwarts who have defined the field for decades and seen it through the profound challenges of the digital revolution. We owe much – no, we owe everything – to the work of these people, Peter Koch first among them. But the greatest thing these leaders have given the book world is not only CODEX, but the CODEX culture. This is no stodgy book affair – CODEX hums with the energy of a Silicon Valley startup: it’s a culture filled with enthusiasm, excitement, and discovery. It’s a thriving, growing, phenomenon, and there is more talk about the future – about where this thing can go – rather than with the past. Some of the most exciting encounters I had at the Fair, in fact, were with artists still at the dawn of their careers, including Jamie Murphy, of the Dublin based Salvage Press, as well as the artists of Arc Editions – Victoria Bean, Karen Blietz, Rick Myers, and Sam Winston. All of them are poised to shape the future of book arts in the years to come. Some, such as Winston and Myers, are even exploring the relationship between the analog and the digital, and are transcending the divide between the two formats in contemporary book arts. (Aside: I am delighted to report that following CODEX, I have made arrangements for the Harvard Library to build comprehensive collections from both the Salvage Press and Arc Editions.)
For all of the freewheeling fun of CODEX – and make no mistake, CODEX is great fun – behind it all sits a collective worry. The artists, scholars, librarians, administrators, and diplomats who participated in the Stanford/CODEX Collegium all shared, to one degree or another, concern about the future of the finely designed and crafted book. At heart, I believe CODEX constitutes a protest – a protest against mass production, a protest against inattentiveness, a protest against carelessness of taste and aesthetics. It is tempting here to compare CODEX with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, pointing out that both movements were a reaction to the ethos of corporatism, efficiency, and mass production. But the fact of the matter is that in important respects CODEX is not so much similar to the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, as it is part of the same, 130 year-long movement. CODEX may be swimming upstream against the current, and Baskin may be correct about those who care about printing being “the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation.” But CODEX persuasively demonstrates that when it gets together this fringe can make noise.
Since I was asked to share personal remarks, I will end on a personal note. I have never before met in such short a time a group of people who invoked in me such feelings of inspiration and delight. I came away from it all with a profound sense of responsibility. Now that I’ve born witness to CODEX, how do I, as an institutional collector, serve as a good patron to the book arts? How do I capture the artifacts of this activity so that it is preserved and documented in our great institutional collections? The basic proposition is this: artists bear the weight of creating great work, and as a curator I bear the weight of finding ways to collect it, interpret it, and share it with others. I can think of no other group of people with whom I would rather spend time or share a cause.