“Dear Diary…” has been the start of many a naive confession to private pages. Divulging one’s innermost thoughts and feelings to a receptive blank page may bring relief or solace, but also by documenting an experience the record confirms the reality of it, creating a mark in time. The nearly 60 works on view in two exhibitions at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM) at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, all tell individual stories. These stories are offered in the form of intricate, textural artists’ books in “Hand, Voice, and Vision: Artists’ Books from Women’s Studio Workshop,” a traveling exhibition curated by Kathleen Walkup, professor and program director of book art at Mills College in Oakland, California, and as photographs, screen grabs, ephemera, a live stream of Earth Cam, and an artist’s book in Bourbon Street, a project by artist Courtney Asztalos curated by Staci Bu Shea, a graduate student at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College in upstate New York.
Asztalos includes an artist’s book in her exhibition at CEAM, but instead of being encased in the typical vitrine, this book has a slick plastic film cover that evokes the audacious culture (Bourbon Street) it revels in. In The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, Lucy Lippard describes how, within the context of identity politics, culture has come to stand for race and ethnic backgrounds, which runs the risk of being associated with stereotypes and prejudices.1 Asztalos’s work in Bourbon Street is a representation of various overlapping experiences intent on exploring the possibility of authenticity in the culture of this specific location. In an artist talk at the opening, Asztalos not only identified race and ethnicity but financial status, gender identity, and sexual orientation as nominal qualities of culture. She also considered how a transient population (tourists, a transplanted working class, and traveling performers) became the signifier of a culture, and how this dictates the location’s commercialization.
Asztalos developed this project while living in New Orleans. She engaged with people on the street, documenting them through photography, then she incorporated screen grabs of the publically accessible digital surveillance footage of her street interactions through the 24-hour Earth Cam that records public activity on Bourbon Street. Earth Cam enabled her to view the activities of her subjects both before and after she stopped them to take their photo. By observing and recording these Meta connections she is deepening her involvement with temporal encounters, filling in more details in search of a sense of place. Lippard’s text notes that place is “known or unknown histories, marks made in the land … human histories and memories … connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, [and] what will happen there.”2
In conversation, Asztalos said that she did not have a specific agenda when selecting subjects to photograph. She simply reacted to the moment, asked for permission, and took down their email addresses so she could later send them the photograph. In most cases this particular detail, a subject’s email address, was a telling yet enigmatic glance at someone’s digital personality, their chosen alias. Her project blends markers from both the digital and the physical, and her book, which sources myriad advertisements and graphic samples, reveals that the language of commodity in our culture may be the most unifying element. She jokes that there must be only one graphic designer for all of Bourbon Street. So, despite the diversity of activities and individuals who congregate there, Bourbon Street can be reduced to a cultural template. The demeanor of her subjects, set against the digital noise of Bourbon Street advertisements, however, build a strong case for authenticity and context.
The compendium of artists’ books in “Hand, Voice, and Vision” includes works by 36 artists created between 1981 and 2010, selected to illustrate the diverse range of projects that have been supported and produced by the Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW). The artist-run organization, cofounded in 1974 by Barbara Leoff Burge, Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, and Anita Wetzel, has overseen the creation of more than 180 editions of artists’ books.
In this exhibition, the books are all protected by vitrines that act as diary locks, preserving and making precious. Yet, this method of viewing hinders an intimate engagement with these noticeably rich and layered objects, and reinforces the standard of museum display, relying on case labels for summary information regarding the works. The narrative content of most of these personal, cultural, or abstract stories is interrupted by the limited viewing, with the exception of the more sculptural books. Their object-based construction, presentation, and positioning allows access to their content. Despite the display, these books are incredibly tempting artifacts that challenge categorical concepts of book structure, building quite beautiful, honest, and complex pages.
1Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in Multicentered Society, New York: New Press, 1997, p. 11.
2Lippard, p. 7.
“Hand, Voice, and Vision: Artists’ Books from Women’s Studio Workshop” and “Bourbon Street” are on view at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM) in St. Augustine, Florida through October 18.Lily Kuonen is an assistant professor of art at Jacksonville University in Florida. She is a native of Arkansas, where she was born in the kitchen of her parents’ house.