MEDFORD — When we think of books, we think of their texts: Stories, poems, histories, polemics. The Mexican conceptual artist Ulises Carrión (1941-89) thought differently. His 1975 manifesto, “The New Art of Making Books,” reads like a poem. It begins:
“A book is a sequence of spaces.
“. . . Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time.
“A book is a space-time sequence.”
With “The New Art of Making Books,” Carrión codified the genre of artists’ books, which experiment with form as well as language, stories, and images.
In “Bookworks,” a rich exhibition at Tufts University Art Galleries, artists push at books’ edges. Those of us who cherish holding a book in our hands and imbibing its gifts can visit this exhibition and newly awaken to the conceptual possibilities of space-time sequences between two covers.
The exhibition has melancholy resonance in a digital world. For more than a millennium, since books were first produced in China during the ninth century, printed media was the principal means of distributing information. The Internet has inherited some DNA from print, but its format is quicker, more changeable, and more user-driven. Like books, it shapes the way we think. The Internet has breadth; a book has depth.
Print is still the most popular format for reading books, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Hooray for that. Books are meant to be long, dallying detours into other worlds. In my mind, for all the convenience of eBooks, text on a screen invites multitasking. I can’t retreat into an eBook. Holding a real one on my lap, turning the pages, I can be gone for hours.
We can’t seem to give up that treasure. It’s why we still read analog books, and why artists make them.
Artists’ books often hinge on the tactile experience of reading. Following Carrión’s lead, “Bookworks” breaks down books into four themes: material, sequence, language, and gathering and community. Exhibition organizer Dina Deitsch, the director and chief curator at Tufts, working with research curator Chiara Pidatella and several graduate fellows, draws mostly from collections in Tufts libraries for a show that numbers nearly 90 objects.
These include specimens from the Wild West of bookmaking in the Western world, when bookmakers were still finding their way. A medieval choir book, or antiphonary, is printed on parchment at a large size (maybe 18 inches long), likely so all the singers could read from the one score.
Is it an artist’s book? It’s handmade, though by many hands, including bookbinders and scribes. Deitsch positions a different progenitor of the genre: William Blake, who invented a technique called relief etching that enabled him to print images and text on one page. He wrote text backward on a copper plate and added illustrations. There’s a copy here of a handful of pages from his poem “Jerusalem,” crawling with spidery text and flashy, proto-comic-book illustrations.
Most of “Bookworks” features art of the last 60 years. Certain fantastical objects extend the idea of books in metaphor. Jen Bervin, whose “Silk Poems” is in the section devoted to materials, spent time at Tufts’s Silk Lab, where silk is liquefied to use in surgeries. Her poem, inscribed on a silk biosensor intended for implantation, can be viewed through a microscope. Written in a code that represents the silkworm’s DNA, the sinuous, murmuring poem might be placed in the folds of someone’s brain, a message from silkworm to human, and a literalization of reading’s whispers in the mind.
Carolina Caycedo’s “Serpent River Book,” a lush example of sequential inventiveness, can be unfolded in many ways, and it contains many perspectives (poems, maps, satellite photos) on how rivers in South America are privatized and industrialized. Like the Internet, you can enter it anywhere. Several games also appear in this section, because a deck of cards is akin to a book that can be shuffled.
Several artists play with text. Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff e-mailed text from Bret Easton Ellis’s serial-killer novel “American Psycho” back and forth via Gmail to see what Google ads it would generate, then printed their own version, replacing the book’s text with footnoted ads. The first page in the chapter “Tries to Cook and Eat Girl” features ads for a mattress and a chiropractor. It’s a chillingly comic extension of a book about capitalism’s poisons.
Books are compendiums of ideas and breeding grounds for conversations. “Bookworks” heartily concludes on that note, with Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus’s reading room installation, “Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet.” The title calls out to theorist, artist, and rapper Rammellzee’s position that the alphabet is a bet — a social contract that can be rewritten.
Jemison and Cyrus display photocopies of African-American periodicals published between 1915 and 1922. I picked up an issue of “The Crisis — A Record of the Darker Races,” and read an essay about how “the little mothers of tomorrow” are being brought up to nurture, and not neglect or abuse, their children.
In 1920, nearly a third of the black population was illiterate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Reading is nourishment and power. Sharing printed matter builds communities.
The marvelous intimacy of reading drives us to learn, reach out, and grow. “Bookworks,” with its fervent exploration of the form, is at times mind-bending and at times sweet. It sometimes takes you where you don’t expect. That’s fine; as in a good book, the ride matters more than the destination.
At Tufts University Art Galleries, Aidekman Arts Center, Tufts University, through Dec. 15. 40 Talbot Ave., Medford. 617-627-3518, artgalleries.tufts.eduCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.