Presentation given at Livre d’Artistes: The Artist’s Book in Theory and Practice, University of Cardiff, December 2015
This presentation asks a series of questions about what it might mean to categorise an object as an artist’s book, given the proximity of other categories: ‘art-writing’, or ‘the artist’s novel’ for instance. Could an artist’s book also be literature? Can we categorise the difference between an object and a text? Can we categorise the relationships between them? Can object and text have a life in the arena of moving image and performance, whilst still belonging to the category of artist’s book? Is the quality of the haptic, the touchable, the handleable a prerequisite of the category of artist’s book? I need to emphasise that I am talking about the possibility of an artist’s book that is originated in or remediated by these other arenas, and not simply moved from one platform to another, which I would argue is the case with, for example, Tom Phillips’s transfer of A Humament from the page to an app.
Categories are very useful things. For artists and researchers they help us locate our practice within a lineage, and engage in discourses with others about our work and our interests. I’m here because a friend forwarded me the call-out for papers on the grounds that it contained the words ‘Artist’s Book’, and ‘theory and practice’, words which occur in the category discourse in which she and I, for convenience, locate my practice. But if we were to accept the Foucauldian proposition that categories are invented rather than discovered, and that such demarcation is subjective and fragile, breaking down when the distance between categories becomes too narrow, then the category of artist’s book might lose any solidity defined by its materiality. If we were to accept such a proposition, then, paradoxically, the haptic might well become the intangible.
On the left of the slide is a detail of the Edgelands matchbox published by Longbarrow Press. This object has been categorised by some as an artist’s book. Except it isn’t. Or it was never intended to be. It is a sequence of Tanka written by the poet Matthew Clegg. The Edgelands matchbox was not conceived or made by Clegg, but by the editor of Longbarrow Press, Brian Lewis. Longbarrow Press publishes contemporary poetry, and Lewis, in addition to publishing orthodox pamphlets and hardbacks (a version of the Edgelands sequence appears in this form as part of Clegg’s first collection West North East, seen top right of the slide), publishes and presents texts in multiple formats – including audio and moving image. Lewis is clear that none of these re-mediations are led by materiality; rather, their form follows the suggestions of the text. In his role as editor he is a publisher and mediator of words, and not a maker of artists’ books. He doesn’t argue with or object to these external categorisations, certainly not when they result in the matchbox and other items being bought for artist’s book collections, but neither does he see them as relevant to discourse around his editorial and publishing ethos. What we might ask ourselves then is this: what difference, if any, do object or concept categories make to the matchbox?
Stating that an artwork or text ‘defies categorisation’ is often a form of praise implying that it has an almost aggressive individuality. But a work could also possess a positive quality of inviting multiple categorisations. My book Lectolalia is first and foremost writing. Its materiality, hand stitched, available to order in different colour-ways, reflects the preoccupation of the text and the circumstances of its production, an immersion in the seductiveness of books – not artists’ books, but theoretical and philosophical books – during a residency earlier this year as part of the Leeds College of Art and Design Library Interventions programme. As its author, I would categorise Lectolalia, for convenience, as ‘art-writing’. But, it has been bought by the College for its Artist’s book collection, and more recently, bought by the Saison Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall. It was certainly not conceived as an artist’s book, and I am certainly not a poet… so what is the meaning of those categories in terms of discourse around Lectolalia? It means another £20 in my pocket for sure, and another line on my CV. So where an object or a practice lies, how we define its essence, the extent of the territory which it can claim as its own, is perhaps also an issue of kudos, status, economics and capital? To further complicate matters, Lectolalia was first conceived as a voiceover for Lectolalia the film. But at the editing stage it didn’t work, sounded too clever for what was intended as a visual meditation on the sensuality of reading.
On viewing Lectolalia the film, could we consider it to be an artist’s book, or a visual form of art-writing? Maybe both? What is the category of art-writing?
Let’s now briefly question the statement that the interests of art-writing diverge from those of literature.
Joanna Walsh’s Hotel (2015) is described on the dust jacket as part memoir and part meditation, but is described by the author herself as auto-fiction. Although Joanna is largely defined by others as a writer of literature, the book, according to the statements we have just read, could equally fall into a category of art-writing, and therefore asks questions about the intersections between these modes of practice. Hotel tells ambiguous stories, asks questions about both therapeutic and theoretical psychoanalysis, and plays with layout and typography, in order to articulate different voices and viewpoints. So, bearing in mind that Hotel is published by Bloomsbury, a literary imprint…
…here is A Case of Hysteria, by Sharon Kivland (1999), published by Bookworks, who describe themselves as a commissioning organisation specialising in artists’ books, spoken word and printed matter. Although very different and individually voiced books, like Hotel, A Case of Hysteria tells ambiguous stories, asks questions about both therapeutic and theoretical psychoanalysis, and plays with layout and typography in order to articulate different voices and viewpoints. Furthermore, Bookworks state that ‘in unlocking of a story of love and betrayal, Sharon Kivland has created a mystery novel’, thus blurring the categories of literature and artist’s book.
But back to Joanna Walsh. Her book Shklovsky’s Zoo relates the author’s inability to procure a copy of Zoo by Viktor Shklovsky – a novel based on real-life letters sent between Shklovsky and Elsa Triolet. Walsh’s text plays with the line between autobiography and fiction both in the use of her own story, and in the ways in which she proposes an untrustworthiness in Shklovsky’s presentation of his correspondence, again fulfilling the category requirements of art-writing. Shklovsky’s Zoo was published by Piece of Paper Press in an edition of 150, and printed on a single sheet of A4 paper which is then folded down to A7, and given away for free. The type size is so tiny that readings become performance as Walsh squints at the paper, turning it upside down and back again to follow the direction of the text. So is Shklovky’s Zoo an artist’s book?
And now another category: the Artist’s novel.
The Book Lovers is a research project led by David Maroto and Joanna Zielinska. They ask if the novel can be considered a medium in its own right within the visual arts and have compiled a bibliography of four hundred titles that they feel fit within their category of the artist’s novel dating from 1890 to 2015. Some of these are literary novels or prose works, some are art-writing, and some are part of an established canon of artist books – the ubiquitous A Humament is there of course, though in its commercially printed form; none of the latter category are short editions or hand made – so is The Book Lovers project simply proposing a hybrid of pre-existing categories? Where the research becomes more interesting to me is that they also propose that the artist’s novel may move narrative beyond the confinements of the page and take place in a body of artworks, and they suggest that it is the connections between works that are narrative, rather than the works themselves, and it is this proposition that may be important regarding a category shift of artist books.
Sharon Kivland’s 2015 exhibition, the German title of which loosely translates as The Natural Forms. The Women. The Foxes. The Readers, is concerned with a critique of capital, commodity, seduction, hysteria and the body; and intersection of psychoanalysis and Marxism, and its narrative might indeed be said to be constructed through the relationships between its constituent works.
In addition to the images of women taken from underwear catalogues of the mid 20thC and taxidermy foxes carrying off such underwear as is depicted, we have vitrines containing ermines (their little red caps referencing revolution and republic) engaged in close readings of Karl Marx. Might this be an example of an artist’s novel mediated through an exhibition?
I will finish with my short film Preface: What is a Book? In it I attempt to broker a relationship between, firstly, a quasi-academic presentation I gave at Impact8 which proposed the idea of book in relation to the author ego as a kind of Lacanian fetish, and secondly, the material, sculptural, haptic quality of book. The question I asked myself in the making of Preface was: is this a film, an artist’s book or a piece of art-writing? Or is it all three? And finally, does it matter?