ten two zero zero five
Thinking Machines v The Big Swap
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
To read too many books is harmful.
Getting your fair share is all about exchange. The relationship between the reader and the read is a tender one that requires an acute account of critical complicity, a measure of the type that might be normally associated with students and exams. This activity however is not compulsory, and for many of us, takes place in what may be termed free time.
As a form of visual art practice, the artists book has been kicking around for rather a long time. Livres dartiste, or Künstlerbuch, is generally a very limited-edition, handmade book or folio constructed by an artist in response to an existing text; Picasso, Miró, Chagall and Rouault all made them. This was, and indeed still is, a regular mechanism of production for many practitioners, who want to retain a small and large audience at the same time, in the form of a profitable package. The term livres dartiste when translated into English however artists book has a very different connotation, more suggestive of a mass-produced, less expensive publication that flits between the bookshop, the gallery, and the bed. Between the covers, this mongrel has a saponaceous character, for it looks, stacks and smells like a regular book but is, in fact, a meta-critical operation, that is to say, it calls attention to the very conceits and conventions of its own form. A simple descriptor then, is that an artists book is a piece of work authored in one sense or another by an artist, which can only be realised in book form. Marcel Duchamp has simply said that an artists book is a book made by an artist, and again, more importantly, that a book is an artists book if the artist himself says so. Clive Phillpot observed in Artist/Author: Contemporary Artists Books that, What really characterises artists books is that they reflect and emerge from the preoccupations and sensibilities of artists as makers and as citizens.
The inventor of the contemporary artists book is generally nominated as Ed Ruscha, who stated that he wanted his own publishing efforts to have, ...a professional polish, a clear cut machine finish... I am not trying to create a precious limited edition book, but a mass-produced product of high order.... And so in 1963, Twentysix Gasoline Stations steamed out of Ruschas studio practice of paintings, prints and drawings, the first in a series of small, cheap paperbacks that seem even now to kick-start their own model of production. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a filmic succession of dispassionate, black and white photographs documenting the gas stations on US Route 40, beginning in Los Angeles, (where the artist worked) through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and into Oklahoma City (where he grew up), it has no text, except for functional captions that outline the name and situation of each station. Its a steady, compelling narrative, slow to start and even slower to finish.
There are two significant aspects of Ruschas early publishing here, that we can continue to refer to as persistently contemporary. The first, his emulation of common book trade rather than that of fine art publishers, both in terms of the books basic production qualities cheaply printed rather than hand-rendered and bound and the print run initially four hundred. It is interesting to note that the first production of Twentysix Gasoline Stations was large by then current artists book standards but, that Ruscha still retained some conventions of more exclusive limited editions: each of the four-hundred copies were numbered and the first fifty of them were signed. This is a clear indication that old habits die hard and that the journey from gallery to bookshelf is often a sticky one. Ruscha later realised that this disciplinary ownership ran contrary to the work: One of the purposes of my book[s] has to do with making... mass produced object[s]... The final product has a very commercial, professional feel to it. I am not in sympathy with the whole area of hand-printed publications, however sincere. One mistake I made in Twenty-Six [sic] Gasoline Stations was in numbering the books. I was testing at that time that each copy a person might buy would have an individual place in the edition. I dont want that now. A subsequent edition, identical in form, rectified this, signalling that each book was singular in its place as an independent artwork. The second key aspect is Ruschas method of distribution: for the books were sold, amongst other places, in the very gas stations featured in their pages. This urge to multiply, this need to belong, this search for an audience, is an active legacy; its feasible today to sell artists publications in bookshops, hotels, lifestyle stores and airports, even if there is only a handful, just now.
If as Walter J Ong suggests in Orality and Literacy: Thought requires some sort of continuity. Writing establishes in the text a line of continuity outside the mind. If distraction confuses or obliterates from the mind the context out of which emerges the material I am now reading, the context can be retrieved by glancing back over the text selectively. Back-looping can be entirely occasional, purely ad hoc. Well then, dear reader, we can together deftly advance towards an examination of a small, non-representative sample of contemporary examples of visual arts publishing, examples that are actively creating new methodologies and continuities within their pages.
A Magnificent Gift
Oddly cohesive in the realm of compound meaning, Slimvolume Poster Publication, organised by Andrew Hunt, is a loose-bound edition of works rolling thirty artists together into a tube. An annual event since 2001, its method of distribution as an alternative economy is a key facet of the project, operating through the nomination, by contributors, of copies of the publication to an international range of individuals and collections, meaning that at the moment, you cant buy one, you must be given one. Each edition is also accompanied by an exposition of some sort, allowing more than just the tubes recipients to see the work. The constitutional framework here is solid enough, for by building a network of associations, Slimvolume is creating its own party of friendly users albeit a deliberately leaky one, remaining open to gatecrashers.
With a nod towards Michel de Certeaus assertion that, The means of diffusion are now dominating the ideas they diffuse, Slimvolume traverses the cracks and tracks in average visual art production, by persuading participants to represent and self-fund 150 A3 copies of their work. Hunt says, I dont fund the artists production costs (although sometimes there is a small nominal fee for artists). The idea is that this works because the publication is given away to recipients of the artists and the artists all receive a copy each as well, so its like a big swap... Another important thing is that the lack of money means that each artists work reflects the economy of his/her situation at the time they make whatever they can afford to and this usually makes for an exciting and unusual result. This action swiftly both challenges and reaffirms the position and role of the artist within the publication as a whole, allowing the producer to make as they are able, although perhaps not quite as they wish. In addition, the A3 format can be succinct or expandable, so in 2004s production, there is a musical score from Johanna Billing that folds up into an A3 book, Simon Morris double-sided A2 poster which folds down to A3, or John Russells poster that sprinkles glitter through the publication.
This years edition is a particularly self-reflexive activity, with thirty artists responding to ideas outlined in the work of Adorno and Deleuze around the idea of the utopian blink a compression or peep at a transformed reality that sits at once inside and outside of received notions about current socio-political possibilities. As the publications corpus is essentially constructed of posters, which in a display context usually signal or advertise something that is forthcoming, 2005 Slimvolume Poster Publication is already moving ahead of its own time, signalling that what you are about to read is as much about the communication of information as the information it communicates.
The meaningful surface of Stellar is hard to ignore. The anthropic in its authorial output and handmade in its outlook, each edition of this irregular gazetteer is dedicated to the stuff that surrounds the production of a different artist each time, ranging from Nick Crowe in the first edition, through Raymond Pettibon and Olaf Breuning to Jane and Louise Wilson in the latest one.
The visible history of recent culture is persistently punctual here, as The Stellar Editor, aka David Osbaldeston, physically re-scribes a selection of publicity and marketing materials from the chosen artists archives, over a six-week period into a cohesive black and white whole; thereby normalising and at the same time commemorating its very own contents. Familiar in a fanzine-like way, each Stellar is photocopied in an A3 edition of around 300, this vacillation in edition size is important, signifying that this is no fixed enterprise, for even though it inhabits an existing recognisable formal structure, its production represents a disturbance more akin to Guerrilla or irregular fighting than a surrender to a more standard application of collectability doomed to the showcase. Each issue is free on initial release, dispersed by mail and up for grabs in a tight selection of galleries and bookshops.
Writing of the work of Roman Jakobson in The Rustle of Language, Roland Barthes stated that ...he realized that the authentic scientific phenomenon of modernity was not about fact but relationship... a decisive opening gesture of classifications, castes, disciplines... there are no more owners (of Literature of Linguistics), the watchdogs are sent back to their pens. One can recognise this opening gesture amidst the pages of Stellar, which only link together as a series or meaningful whole when as Osbaldeston puts it, ...the featured content is in some way codified as belonging to some part of a perceived or recognised greater structure which is temporal in nature and thus usually always under subtle shift. For this reason any such links are formulated by the reader themselves, be they based on certain thematic, social, or even disciplinary issues. In a world where the moment is always now, any relationship between this and the redundant evidence of pre-existing work, which forms the bulk of the project is constantly open to re-investment. In this way, the publications use-value can be read as more about the way in which the material is manipulated rather than what has been chosen, suggesting at the very least a vital discussion about the act of making and who really owns what.
The Metropolitan Complex is a project by Sarah Pierce, that emerged as a way of considering informal lines of inquiry that artists and others employ to consider production. An ongoing series of papers, based on round-table discussions between practitioners, these publications stake the claim that such unofficial activities are just as valid and valuable critical activity in their own right as their official counterparts, the symposium or seminar. The papers are produced in a tabloid-sized format in editions that can run between 450 and 1,000 and are distributed free as part of, or in the margins of, exhibitions a handbook of sorts.
Key here is the investigation of shared circumstances that affect and represent a critical idiolect, to declare a local scene. Marshall McLuhan has written in The Medium is the Massage that, Professional is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the ground rules of society. The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and specialise, to accept uncritically the ground rules of the environment. If then, as is sometimes asserted that writing restructures consciousness, The Metropolitan Complex presents an interesting reappraisal of the convergences and divergences between the official and the unofficial, the professional and the amateur, the policeman and the artist; by editing together a system of exchanges that are, in theory, marked by their frank nature and mediated in some loose form by their editor.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this marginal media, is its obvious reliance on the spoken word, the transformation of orality into the written and thereby the visual, not simply as re-presentation of the dynamic into the quiescent, but rather embodying, in part, Maurice Blanchots statement in The Writing of the Disaster, ...speaking separate from and outside of anything spoken, the sheer saying of writing whereby this effacement, far from effacing itself in its turn, perpetuates itself without end, even in the interruption of its mark.
As a nomenclature for publications such as Slimvolume Poster Publication, Stellar and The Metropolitan Complex, I can safely say that the term artists books or rather artists books has had too tight, or insufficient a collar, around such delicate, yet strategic, aggregates of cultural and economic tethers.
Best then, to remark on their shared experiences as generous, flexible, sensitive structures which combine to propagate and secure artwork to its audience, both already known and as yet to come.
Maria Fusco is a Belfast born writer based in London. She is currently a senior lecturer at University of East London and in 2004, edited Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing produced by Book Works.
First published: a-n Collections October 2005
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