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Johanna Drucker Honored with the AIGA Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary

UCLA Distinguished Professor of Information Studies Johanna Drucker has won the 2021 Steven Heller Award for Cultural Commentary from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Drucker, the inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, received the award, named for Heller who is a former New York Times art director, instructor at the School of Visual Arts, and a prolific author of anthologies, criticism, and other publications on graphic design.

Drucker, whose own scholarship and artistic career encompasses the history of the book, alphabet historiography, modeling interpretation for electronic scholarship, digital aesthetics, and the design of information visualization, discusses the AIGA award, her interest in biblio-alterity, and how writing projects just seem to find her, instead of the other way around.

Ampersand: How does it feel to be recognized by AIGA? 

Johanna Drucker: AIGA is the big world. They are the people who participate in the communication and design industries in every area of contemporary life – entertainment, signage, everything that has to do with communications, and every field, from education to business. You’re talking Forbes and Fortune 500 and you’re talking networks and industries, magazines and journals, and the mainstream. 

I’m very honored, and especially because Steven Heller, for whom the award is named, initiated the award about five years ago. He has been the art director for the New York Times as part of his professional life, but he also taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I’ve known him for about 20 years. We met in the context of an AIGA conference, where I was invited to speak and we’ve had a nice rapport throughout all that time. He’s a very generous, very thoughtful, very educated person. 

He’s done a lot of writing and a lot of critical work anthologizing and collecting and criticizing graphic design. If you look up Steven Heller, you’ll see a list of titles that’s very, very long attached to his name as far as publishing goes in the field of graphic design history. So, he’s somebody for whom I have a great deal of respect as well.

&: What about your work do you consider “cultural commentary”?

Drucker: [AIGA defines] it fairly broadly, so it’s not graphic design history or theory or criticism. It’s really I think, an award that’s designed to recognize contributions that might take any number of forms. It could be somebody who’s doing advocacy work and really trying to create public awareness around an issue or an idea. Or, it could be somebody who’s had a blog and brought in historical materials as well as contemporary issues. Or, it could be an educator who’s published widely for the purposes of promoting pedagogy in the field. I think it was designed so that it could recognize a variety of contributions.

&: You have always been successful in bridging your work in academia with that “real world” consciousness of communication – of media, of advertising, of fine art and design. What are some of the challenges of meshing those two worlds?

Drucker: Time management. Time management is the challenge for all of us in all of our lives, whether you’re doing the work-life balance, or the work-work balance or the work-work-work-life balance. 

What’s interesting to me honestly, is I’ve done so much work that is esoteric and comes from a place of interior, theoretical thought. It’s work that doesn’t find an easy place in the world. And then I’ve done a lot of work that does speak more directly to a broader audience and a wider range of persons. I like to think, at least in my oral communication, that I’m very clear very direct, very communicative. But when I look at the history of my publications, “unpredictable” is a mild term for a range of things. 

The first book I ever published myself was printed in 1972 and it’s called “Dark the Bat Elf.” Now, this is about a little malevolent creature who lives inside of a tree and who captures these little children, he calls pupae and he takes them into the roots of the tree and bad things happen. The language is very, very dense and associative and poetic. But you know, I’m Dark the Bat Elf.

I printed 13 copies of it, it had stone lithography in it. And I gave it to my parents for Christmas. My father, who was a wise man, laughed, and my mother, who was a sensitive soul, cried. She said, “Why did you write this?” And so, when I get a prize like this, I think, do they know they’re giving a prize to Dark the Bat Elf?

I have had several different kinds of pathways that I’ve followed. One is artists’ books that I design, write, illustrate, and print myself. Over the years, I’ve printed and created almost four dozen of those works, and those are in collections all over North America and Europe. And that was part of what got me invited to the Beinecke (Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale) as their inaugural Distinguished Senior Humanities Fellow a few years ago, was that they had bought my archive of work around the artists’ books.

My work has been shown recently at the Getty. They have a unique book I made in 1987-88, a handmade work, and they featured it in a exhibit at the Getty Research Institute, called “Artists and Their Books.” So that’s been one whole area of my life, related to being a writer in the world of visual poetry and types of graphic experiment.

People know my work as a as a writer. For instance, I just wrote the introduction for a big anthology that a Canadian woman, Amanda Earl, has put together called “Judith,” a collection of works by women who are doing visual experiments and poetry. [I was] personally asked to write the intro because I’ve been doing that work for 40- some years.

When I decided to become an academic – though I’m interested in visual communication at the center of of what I do as a researcher – I did that work separately. All the academic work has always been academic – I haven’t tried to mix the genres. I always felt that if you’re going to do academic work, it should be on the terms of the academic world. It should be straight, it should be peer-reviewed and so forth. So, I’ve had these different careers, side by side. And again, it’s just always been a matter of … when other people went on vacations I went to the print shop.

&: What led you to pursuing an academic career, when you were so invested in art, poetry and bookmaking?

Drucker: It was a combination of things. One was, I felt lonely being an artist at home in my studio all the time and I felt like I needed some kind of context in which to work. So, I decided to see whether, if I got a master’s degree, if that would give [me] the opportunity for teaching. 

I started back to school up in Berkeley in 1980, at which point I was about 29. I had been traveling and making books and selling artwork and so forth. Once I got to Berkeley and started into this master’s degree I realized that the amount of amazing and interesting things I could pursue was inexhaustible. Like my eyes just opened – I just thought, wow, there will never be an end to the things I would want to research and know about and explore.

And that’s true, I still feel it.  I mean there’s so much amazing stuff to get to know, to explore, and then, to share. And the great thing about being a teacher is you get to go into the classroom and say, “Okay, here’s ten things you’ve never heard of, that are all amazing.” This quarter, I’m teaching a class on sustainability and I have to say that I don’t know that the students think that disaster recovery planning is completely amazing. But of course, learning about any specialized area of expertise is fascinating.

I’ve thought about doing something ahead on what I call biblio-alterity, which are ways to rethink our approach to the study of literacy technology that doesn’t start with a Western paradigm. And when I teach the history of the book and literacy technologies, I start with that notion. 

More and more in the last few years, interest in de-colonizing so much of what we do as received knowledge has increased, so there’s more people working in these areas and familiar with the concepts. I first wrote a piece on biblio-alterityabout ten years ago. It’s basically a coined term for a theoretical concept. The idea of “alterity” signals the existence and validity of “others.” It’s used in queer studies and post-colonial studies in order to decenter normative notions of of gender identity and sexual identity, of knowledge practices and so forth.

If we take the history of the book and we try to plug into traditions that are from outside of Western culture, then you’re always kind of just adding new units to an already existing intellectual framework. But if we start from the premise that forms of literacy are integral to all kinds of practices across traditions and cultures and historical moments and geographical domains, and then we let a concept of the history of literacy technologies emerge, then books fit into that but they don’t determine the intellectual shape of the field. When we look at the way in which our descriptive classification systems work, our metadata schemes – all of that – they tend to be very derived from the book as a form. So, a conference on biblio-alterity might really be fun to do.

&: You’ve managed to publish a lot of books in a pandemic year and now – what drives your writing? 

Drucker: Yes, I’ve had a whole bunch of new books come out this year. There’s “Visualization and Interpretation,” that came out from MIT, and “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist.” And then “The Digital Humanities Coursebook: An Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship,” which just came out from Routledge.  And this just came out – “Off-World Fairy Tales,” a collaboration with my friend Susan Bee, who is an artist. It’s fairy tales that have these really funny names like, “Inertia and the Princess,” “The Boy and the Galaxy,” “Meme Streams and Moonbeams.” We’ve done other collaborations in the past, and I saw some paintings in her studio when I was on the East Coast two years ago, and I said, these need some fun fantasy stories to go with them, so we we worked it out together.

And now, I have a book in press with the University of Chicago called “Inventing the Alphabet,” that will come out next year. I’m still in the midst of that, and I’m doing articles on various things.

This week, I’ve been working on a little essay, partly out of a conversation with my step-mom, who is 94. She is my best reader, she reads everything for me. We were having this conversation, and I said something about how the address book in my Filofax is kind of my own private cemetery. I said, it’s filled with dead people, but I don’t want to get rid of them. And we started talking about how an address book serves this very complicated purpose … like a cemetery in a way, even though there’s also living contacts in it. 

There are all of these ways in which the graphic evidence has this record keeping quality about it. So, I’m writing this little piece for her called “My Private Cemetery,” about the way that the Filofax is sort of material that traces a kind of record history of your life and relationships to people. 

[Projects] have a way of coming on their own. My intellectual passion for the history of writing and inscription never diminishes. These days I am fascinated with forgery, a topic on which I also taught a seminar. The topic is very timely. New faked fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have flooded the market in the last few decades. A famous dubious document known only from 19century photographs and copies, the Shapira manuscript, has gotten a flurry of attention in the last months and it has a history that reads like a movie pitch. 

This all resonates with the recent mania for those high-priced objects called Non-Fungible Tokens, which are linked to methods of digital authentification that make them so alluring. So, as with so many topics, forgery is one of those areas where the more you read and get to know, the more interesting it becomes, with one extraordinary episode after another showing the capacity of human beings to make improbable leaps of faith in order to prove that something is fake—or real. These stories not only capture our imagination, they have much to tell us about the connections between knowledge and beliefs across cultural and historical moments.