The Sheffield International Artist's Book Prize and definition
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What it's not

This is a post from the archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
This week, Bank Street Arts in Sheffield announces the jury and student winners of the 4th Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize, which OCA is supporting. There were 455 entries, a ten-fold increase on the number received for the inaugural prize five years ago.
Entries came from 35 countries, more than half from outside the UK.  Among them were 120 student entries, including the winning entry from Isla Millar, featured below.  Bank Street Arts’ creative director John Clark ponders the logistics of dealing with artists’ work on such a scale in the current issue of ‘Book Arts Newsletter’ (pages 14 and 15).

Isla Millar's 'The Fires of Eylar', the winner of the Student Prize in the 4th Sheffield International Artist's Book Prize
Isla Millar’s ‘The Fires of Eylar’, the winner of the Student Prize in the 4th Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize

In October, every one of the 455 entries will be on public display at Bank Street Arts in ‘Opening up the Book’, a free exhibition and programme of events running until the end of November.
Artists’ books defy definition, so much so that the judges of the Prize, who include Elizabeth James, Senior Librarian, National Art Library Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and OCA’s Visual Communications course leader Christian Lloyd, do not provide one, either for entrants or for visitors to ‘Opening up the book’.  They tell us only that the prize is for books as art, not for books about art.
Expressed differently, the genre of artists’ books is essentially democratic. So is the prize, as there is no entry fee and entrants have equal status with one another, whether the artist’s book they enter is their first foray into the form or whether, like one one entrant, they are a nominee for this year’s Turner Prize. In its democracy lies the attraction of the Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize for OCA. As Chief Executive Gareth Dent says in the introduction to the catalogue for ‘Open up the book’:
‘….the genre’s boundaries stretch in the direction of the anarchic, as often artists’ books are books without words and therefore without language.’
Through the Prize, there are other outlets for stating what an artist’s book is and what it’s not. A programme of artists’ book-related events is taking place at Bank Street Arts and the University of Sheffield to coincide with the exhibition. It includes a miniature theatre show for children made of paper and light; a workshop led by composer Stephen Chase which considers the possibilities of musical notation; and an experiment in turning pages into sculpture under the guidance of Katherine Johnson, who won the inaugural Sheffield International Artist’s Book Prize in 2008.
Sheffield’s ‘Off the Shelf’ festival will be showcasing artist’s books in city centre hotels, shop windows and local libraries throughout October and November.  Further afield, in Scotland and Portugal, exhibitions of books from the collection built up from prize entries are planned for 2014.
This year, there have been entries in all shapes and sizes – books made from wool, cloth, metal, wood, plastic, porcelain and every type of paper imaginable. There are books that light up when opened, elaborate paper sculptures, an eight-volume illustrated novel that was ten years in the making, pop-up books, cut-out books and sculptural books. Their variety strikes a warning note against the impulse to definition which marks people just as it does artefacts, drawing – or tricking – creative artists into labelling themselves as ‘photographer’ rather than ‘writer’, ‘painter’ but not ‘sculptor’.
Books.  455 of them. But are they books? What about those without a single sentence? The ones made without paper?  If they are not books, are they something else?  Visitors to ‘Opening up the book’ can use their public vote as one way of stating their opinion, then wait until the winner is announced at the beginning of December to find out whether their approach to definition is shared by others.
So to the bigger question.  What place does definition have in the creative arts more widely?  That’s a debate for OCA.

Posted by author: Elizabeth Underwood
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10 thoughts on “What it's not

  • This does look fascinating. I also love the democratic qualities of artist’s book. Photography monographs are something I have essentially discovered through OCA studies and value greatly. I love that for not too much money I can own an original Mark Power (for example) when I could never think of owning a print.
    The books I own are generally mass-produced but I am also attracted to those made by hand. My big worry about such work is that there is a very fine borderline between something that is original and beautiful and something that is just slightly naff. It’s hard to put into words but some artist’s books I see definitely feel like they belong in a category with crochet or woodwork – valuable and interesting in themselves but not what I think of as art (another term that is very difficult to define). I wonder if others have that experience also, and if the judges, or those more used to seeing artist’s books, have their own yardsticks for valuing them.

  • A copy of my Speak My Language will be in there somewhere… I’ll be off to see it when the exhibition opens in a couple of weeks.
    Beside the potential “high” of seeing my own work in there, I’m really looking forward to seeing what other people see as possible. It can only open my eyes further.

  • “What place does definition have in the creative arts more widely”
    It doesn’t do art any good at all – the spaces between things can be more interesting.

  • As problematic as it is, I do think “definition” is a useful thing in the creative arts. By this I don’t mean we should be using definitions in a prescriptive and restricting sense, but rather I think it is rather useful that there is such a thing as a general preconceived idea of what a viewer might expect, for example, of a book. Meeting or not meeting such expectations is then an opportunity for being creative. I agree with losingfaithinwords that the spaces between things can be very interesting – but knowing (roughly) what the things are helps us to find the spaces between them.

    • Oh… you’ve put it better than I did! I think my initial quick response was in reaction to my recollections of discussions about what is or is not acceptable as being thing “X” based on seemingly arbitrary constructs that were too fixed to be questioned by the likes of me! 🙂

  • This is an interesting discussion and I am inclined to agree with Eileen re the potential for very self indulgent naff -ness in handmade books, and with Alet Roux re the necessity for a brief and widely accepted definition – otherwise every time I talk about what I do I have to fish around for something quickly enough to stop their eyes glazing over. There is no reason why an acceptably broad definition should inhibit the exciting creativity that people bring to book making.

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