Bookmaking as a form of artistic activity has a rich heritage and has played a significant if peripheral role within creative production for well over fifty years. In the last five years, however, a shift has occurred. Artists’ books and printed matter have gained a greater prominence, most noticeably through the sharp increase in artists’ book fairs. Yet with rapidly developing digital and online technologies, the demise of the book and publishing has been heralded. So what does this signal for artists’ self-publishing?
Evidence of an increased interest in book arts can be seen in the development of the annual Artists’ BookMarket at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, taking place this year on 20 April. Iain Morrison initiated the BookMarket three years ago, inspired by the limited edition publications stocked in the gallery’s bookshop. His vision was to develop a supportive network and sales opportunity for the creative community in Edinburgh and beyond, but also to provide a platform for public engagement with artists’ books and publishing: “[BookMarket] offers an opportunity for artists to network with each other,” he says. “That is one of the nice things – the exchange of views in a forum like this.”
This niche area of artistic practice seems very much about exchange and collaboration. Still in its infancy, the BookMarket is a growing venture that is part of a rapidly expanding network of like-minded projects including The London Art Book Fair, Handmade & Bound, Leeds International Contemporary Artists’ Book Fair and BABE: Bristol Artists’ Book Event. Programmed lectures, discussions, workshops and book launches complement the publishers’ stalls and are integral to the fairs’ democracy of knowledge.
Book fairs tend to be very inclusive events, where diverse forms of engagement with the book and printed matter happily co-exist. One organisation operating a more focused agenda is Publish And Be Damned. While content, format and context are not curated or managed, their fairs attract publishers and audiences with an interest in the exchange of ideas and criticism through publication.
“The fair came out of a recognition back in 2004 that a lot of artists were self-publishing,” says Kate Phillimore, one of the project’s organisers. “Lots of artists were on their own making these publications and there weren’t a lot of outlets for distribution.” Publish And Be Damned now hold an extensive international archive of artists’ publications – important documentation of this niche area of practice.
An exchange of ideas
At the core of artists’ self-publishing is its relationship with control, dissemination and distribution of ideas. Following a clear historical precedent, self-publishing culture offers freedom from the editorial restrictions exerted by mainstream publishing and print distribution processes, whilst also circumventing gallery systems to reach new audiences. Publication is to make public. Authorship is entirely attributed to the artist, with ideas freely or affordably exchanged.
Banner Repeater, a successful artist-led project space and reading room, brings critical attention to the role of dissemination in artists’ self-publishing. Sited on a London railway platform, Banner Repeater facilitates the distribution of artists’ pamphlets, posters and printed material to the 4,000 commuters that pass through the station daily. “The technologies that can now be found easily online certainly contribute to a broader activity of what it means to ‘publish’,” says founder Ami Clarke. “Post-digital publishing makes use of all available technologies … interest in the conventions of printing on paper is certainly far from over.”
Clarke is one of the many who feel that technological advances offer unprecedented opportunities to the artist self-publisher. The Internet has not, after all, been the end of publishing. It is has simply transformed it as we know it, changing economies of scale, cost and access through print on demand services, online catalogues and social networks, as well as presenting new formats and tools such as e-publications and digital commons. Nicolas Frespech, AND publishing, Self Publish, Be Happy and Artists’ eBooks all demonstrate these new developments.
Digital technologies have also increased interest in the material values of publishing, as leading American book artist Barbara Tetenbaum describes: “There is a wonderful resurgence of interest in publishing word and image in book form, as a counter balance to the e-book explosion. There is a sensitivity to the reader through choice of paper, binding format and page layouts, for example.”
Arnaud Desjardin of The Everyday Press sums up publishing activity as a complex, collaborative chain of events incorporating numerous skills. “The industrial format of publishing is over,” he states. “Today, you need to pay attention to the materiality of the book.”
These, and other practical issues of artists’ self-publishing, were aired during the Cardiff symposium The Centre is Here / Self Publishing – another recent event signalling the current interest in the genre. Hosted by artist-run gallery g39 in collaboration with Chapter Arts Centre, the symposium offered insight into the various methods and models involved. During these discussions, Desjardin revealed a perhaps more crucial question. “Publishing is not just making books,” he said. “There is a question of context. What is it for? In the art world, most books are not published to be sold, so the function of the artists’ book is hugely complex. They are a liberating form for distributing artists’ ideas.”
Expanding notions of craft
Desjardin’s words demonstrate that within contemporary self-publishing as art practice, the notion of objecthood is not lost with physical realisation. Neither is the publisher’s potential to engage with craft abandoned; industrial, digital, alternative, lo-fi and fine print processes can all be utilised. There are simply a wider selection of tools and an expanded notion of craft.
This craft of self-publishing can be found internationally, through individual makers and small and large presses alike. It is particularly celebrated at Publication Studio where Desjardin’s series of books, Business As Usual, were produced. A socially-motivated publishing organisation based in eight locations across the USA, the studios are interested in the economies of desire relating to books, rather than consumerism. Books are handmade individually, on demand, yet digital technology complements this material processing; an online catalogue with free reading commons enables interactive participation in the margins of work and broad dissemination of practice.
When considering the impact of technology on artists’ self-publishing, Patricia No of the Portland Publication Studio acknowledges that material practice, including digital, has contributed to the rise of artists books. “There’s an apparent ‘turning in’ that’s happening, almost in response to the technology booming everywhere,” she says. “As the traditional publishing model is being turned on its head, I think the idea of making books just makes sense to artists.”
So what of the future of artists’ self-publishing? More and more organisations, HE courses, archives and research centres are emerging in support, alongside well-established models such as the specialist commissioning organisation Book Works in London. Perhaps the current Book Kernel project produced by iShed as part of their Books&Print Sandbox programme signals a more pronounced interactive and performative role that new technologies offer publishing; books created from live experiences are delivered before the events have ended.
What is clear is that artists’ published material will continue to thrive and engage with all tools and models of making in a post-digital climate. Digital and the handmade co-exist, operating as individual entities and in symbiosis. The Internet is inherently problematic when it comes to issues of control of content, editing and dissemination. However, artists’ self-publishing – embracing, exploiting and disrupting these very aspects – is in a dynamic position now more than ever. The plethora of book fairs that will be taking place between now and the end of the year are clear evidence of this.
Self-publishing events for your diary:
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 20 April
BABE: Bristol Artists’ Book Event
The Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, 20-21 April
Diffusion Publishing Fair
Part of Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 25-26 May
The London Art Book Fair
Whitechapel Gallery, 13–15 September
More on a-n.co.uk:
Publish and Be Damned: ICA hosts fair