Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, USA,
for the Southern Graphics Council Printmaking Conference

Making Histories: Revolution and Representation
April 2003

The artist's contributions are all available to download and print from this website by clicking on the link below

Click here to view gallery of images

The History Book That Never Was

History (n.) Continuous methodical record, in order of time, of important or public events:
            study of formation and growth of communities and narrations; whole train of events connected
            with particular country, person, thing etc. past events in general, course of human affairs.

For this project:
The History Book That Never Was, twenty-seven artists who work within the field of artists' books were invited to contribute an artwork on paper, creating a visual description of a book that was never made. The premise of this project was not for the artists to physically create a book, but to describe its essence and any alternative historical impact it would have made if it had existed.

Allowing for a contribution in either text or image format, each artist was asked to use only one sheet of letter size paper to depict their imaginary book. The events described had to be fictitious, but could be based on any aspect of history (large or small) that the artist cared to invent or re-present from an alternative perspective.

The artists' contributions ranged from descriptions of ancient mythical gardens and codices to the discovery of lost appendices or publications by famous historical characters, some took a more personal view of their own history whilst others considered the political state of current world affairs.

World conflict, in particular the onset of the Iraq crisis during the turn of 2003 has influenced some of the artists to imagine an alternative to current and past political situations as their contribution. Fixing Things;
A Memoir of World Revolution by Marshall Weber has a plot worthy of Jack Bauer from the television series 24. Colonel Bradford Devol is recorded as leading the assassination team that despatched both Yasser Arafat and Tony Blair before going 'native' and leading four members of his team back to the USA for a campaign of "fixing things" (the term used by special forces when covering up covert operations and mistakes). In Weber's text, the year 2004 brought about the uncovering by Devol of a worldwide war crimes conspiracy involving major international figures and the unsolved disappearance of the Bush family.

Chris Taylor's World War II alternative, Hitler's campaign for the domination of Europe never materialised. Lebensraum has the young Adolph Schickelgrüber passing an entrance exam to the Vienna Academy of Art, pursuing his interest in interior design and going on to invent a revolutionary system of mobile housing units - based on a democratic distribution of land with a social policy of housing for all. The mobile unit's capability for relocation according to transient work opportunities allowed Europeans to move around freely, thus negating the reasoning behind any empire building.

The interweaving of historical fact and fiction in some novels can offer the reader an alternative interpretation of the lives of recognisable characters;
Ned Kelly in Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang 2 or the Brothers Grimm in Grimm's Last Fairytales by Haydn Middleton 3. The characters assume the identity presented by the author and the reader is left with a new perspective on the subject's life and the reasons for their actions (whether historically correct or not) which influence the way in which we, as receivers of this alternative viewpoint, re-examine opinions that were previously taken for granted as the true 'story.'

Conor Lucey's Marco Polo: Description of the World Appendix 1 has Polo visiting the Bamiyan River valley to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan (which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001). The passage offers a poetic description of the Buddhas and their former adornments of painted robes and balas rubies, with the largest containing a system of ladders and stairways that reach the top of the statue, affording a view of the whole valley. Later, the "niche of the great statue is lit by candles made from butter, creating an effect of a vast apparition in the clear night skies." Also referred to in the appendix, a third figure "in a somnolent pose, is also said to have been fashioned at the same time, but no trace of it exists." Lucey's text places Polo as travelling to the plateau region in Afghanistan and encountering the Vedic mathematicians, which we accept as historical fact, but now there is a creeping doubt, were there really only two Buddhas, or were there three as detailed in this passage?

In Foucault's
Pendulum 4 Bembo describes the Manutius Publishing Company's brilliant swindle to fleece the unsuspecting SFA's (self-financing authors) by leading them to believe that their book is actually printed in a large run before they later succumb to buying up the 'remaindered' stock to save it from pulping. Of course, as the reader knows, the book has only been printed in a tiny run, has not been bound and therefore cannot occupy any valuable storage space in the non-existent warehouse. In a similar conundrum of 'Catch 22' proportions. The Book (Kirsten Lavers / Cris Cheek) cannot exist until every other book in time has existed, as it is the book that consists of one page from every book that ever existed "THE BOOK that makes all other books immortal." But if the future is still to come and more books are yet to be made, then it can never be bound until all the other books have been bound, and if it has not been bound then it cannot become the book that it purports to be. It is impossible for the book to exist unless time stops, but if this happens it will not get the chance to be bound as a book in order to exist.

Library records provided an inspiration for two of the artists involved in this project.
Andrew Eason wrote a letter describing a catalogue entry for a 'lost' book that had possibly been produced by a local historical forger and poet called Chatterton. The entry in the catalogue of special items details the book as a recording of a fifteenth Century garden that included a maze representing a map of the world and its inhabitants. The topiary has been sculpted into figures portraying "Europe, Africa, Asia and the two Americas," but most curious of all is the last statue:

" The figure's arm is outstretched, and in his hand there is a detailed model of a city of concentric plan…The model includes several distinct buildings in a fanciful architectural style unknown to me…it has been suggested to me that this figure as described in the original work, represents the land and people of the island of Atlantis, which I would dismiss out of hand were it not for the equally baffling inclusion of the Americas…"

Carinna Parraman's piece takes the form of an account 'overheard in a London café' where a registrar at the British Library has found extra, un-catalogued items after the library has been relocated to the new building near St Pancras Station. The extra item was boxed and sealed, with any cracks or holes taped over and contained a treatise on the subject of shadows from 1870-1900, along with several photographs and a series of sealed envelopes. The footnotes refer to notes by Dr Clare Obscura on the clinical removal of shadows from those who had cast them:

"After removal of shadows, many of the patients showed signs of mental instability, cats and dogs were observed to spend many hours chasing tails and human subjects could be observed walking on cracks in the pavement, jumping out at street corners or suddenly twisting round. Many were delivered to the asylum."

Other contributions included
Sue Doggett's correspondence between Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn which uncovers Fanny's musical genius, and Alec Finlay's book cover for Ludwig Wittgenstein's Norway Notebooks, which has Wittgenstein making the trip to Norway and writing the last of his manuscripts there. All of the individual contributions from this project have been loaded onto this website here so they can printed out to allow you to assemble your own choice of history book.

The authors who deliver their books to the un-named custodian in
Richard Brautigan's novel The Abortion (1970) know that whatever their creations are, they will be accepted into the library. It is enough for the authors to know that their books are held there, even though they will never be published or read by a wider audience. The "books" depicted for this project may not exist in a traditional sense but they give the viewer a chance to imagine the difference that a little event in book history can make.

Sarah Bodman April 2003

1. Definition taken from The Reader's Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary, 1964, Oxford.
2. The True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey, Faber and Faber, 2000, London.
3. Grimm's Last Fairytales, Haydn Middleton, Abacus, 1999, London.
4. Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco, 1988, Phaidon, London

Participating artists:
Joan Lyons (USA) Joanna Hoffmann (Poland)
Andrew Eason (UK) Sue Doggett (UK)
Carrie Galbraith (Italy) John Bently (UK)
Susan Johanknecht (UK) Conor Lucey (Ireland)
Andrew Atkinson (UK) Guy Begbie (UK)
Ulrike Stoltz (Germany) Paul Laidler (UK)
David Kirby (UK) Alec Finlay (UK)
Emily Puthoff (USA) Paul Coldwell (UK)
Sarah Bodman (UK) Chris Taylor (UK)
Marshall Weber (USA) Carinna Parraman (UK)
Frans Baake (The Netherlands) Deirdre Kelly (UK)
Kirsten Lavers / Cris Cheek (UK) Tom Sowden (UK)
Johanna Drucker (USA) Miriam Schaer (USA)
Danny Flynn and Andrew Gossett (UK) Miriam Schaer (USA)

For more information on this, or any of the Artists Book Events at CFPR, please contact:

Sarah Bodman
Research Associate for Artists' Books
Centre for Fine Print Research UWE, Bristol
Faculty of Art, Media and Design
Kennel Lodge Road

Tel: +44 (0)117 344 4747
Fax: +44 (0)117 344 4824