Books Without Borders

Handmade book by Bridget Elmer.

Handmade book by Bridget Elmer.

Combining her interests in handmade books, libraries, information exchange and social justice, Bridget Elmer produces works of art that go beyond the book — literally.

Born and raised in Kansas, Elmer, now 33, graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore., with a degree in Cultural Anthropology. She moved to New York City in 2002 and on a whim took a continuing-education class on self publishing through Cooper Union.

“I was a closet writer at the time,” says Elmer. “I expected that the class would be about the business of writing, but it turned out to be a whole different kind of class.” Here is where Elmer was introduced to “zines”— small-circulation publications that are usually photocopied. “Zines are all about taking media into your own hands. That whole do-it-yourself ethic has always been really appealing to me,” she says.

While still a student at Reed College, she’d been involved with theater and performing arts, but hadn’t yet explored a visual medium. Her class on zines, in conjunction with a visit to a MoMA exhibit of Russian avant-garde books, revealed an accessible aspect of the art world and confirmed her desire to create things. “It’s a 20th-century phenomenon to think about the book as art,” notes Elmer.

From there, she became active with the art-book nonprofit Booklyn Artists Alliance, though her role as administrator there became increasingly frustrating when she realized she had access to so many interesting artists and books, but no time to produce her own. Having been introduced to letterpress printing at The Center For Book Arts in New York, Elmer enrolled in bookmaking workshops at WNC’s Penland School of Crafts in 2005. Her connection with the area led her to relocate to Asheville to begin working with Blue Barnhouse Letterpress and BookWorks, a book-resource center in West Asheville.

Meanwhile, Elmer and her friend Emily Larned were establishing Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts, a union of artists who create experimental work through obsolete technologies.

Elmer refers to ILSSA as a “morale-based union” rather than an advocacy group. Currently 130 members — representing art forms including weaving, bookmaking and printmaking — are involved, but the open-ended group continues to grow. “It becomes interesting as to who actually considers themselves an artist of obsolete technology,” says Elmer, posing a rhetorical question: “Is someone who uses an outdated version of computer software using obsolete technology?”

These types of inquiries spurred the conceptual books that Elmer developed while enrolled in graduate school at the University of Alabama. Her thesis project, Fibre Libre, mirrors the way open-source technology is developed. To make paper for the book, Elmer brought together 10 people who each contributed to its production. Similarly, she had participants adjust Processing code to produce a variety of digital images for the book, demonstrating the fundamental ideas of collaboration and revision found in open-source technology.

Another project, We Can Go Beyond It, explores theories of neuroplasticity, the assertion that the human brain is capable of changing itself. Comprised of various maps of brain activity, the book detaches into “links” that can then be manipulated by the handler: a physical manifestation of the way a person might dismantle and resolve destructive ways of thinking.

Currently Elmer is finishing up a degree in Information and Library Studies, a field that fascinates her due to its continually evolving format. “The history of the library as an institutional identity — much like the identity of the book — is in flux right now,” she says. “It’s interesting, for example, to see how rare books can become more accessible to people now.”

She’s not worried about the rise of electronic book formats — in fact, Elmer believes that handmade books will continue to grow in value as digital forms becomes more available. Bound books are not endangered, she claims: “I once heard someone say, ‘After they invented elevators, people didn’t stop using stairs.’ That makes sense to me.”

Book It Bridget Elmer will perform a collaborative piece involving her printing press and artists R. Brooke Priddy, Matt Schnable and Nathanael Roney at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center {Re} HAPPENING event April 9. Visit rehappening.com for details.

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