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ARTISTS BOOKS+AUSTRALIA: Comment for CODEX Journal

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CODEX X Papers – Journal Cover+Text Page

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Early in 2019 Vicky and I received an email from Monica Oppen and Caren Florance inviting our contribution to a report commenting on news and updates on book arts activity in the Antipodes that they were preparing for the Codex Foundation‘s new journal The Codex Papers. They mentioned that they were asking for those involved with projects, conferences, workshops, collections and awards to send through their comments and plans so the local scene could be collated into the report.

Monica and Caren added that, Your commitment to the photo books and also to documenting events for the past years (or is it decades now?!) has lead us to decide that we must ask you what you see as the trends and key events of the past couple of years. Any feedback (your personal view) on the state of the book arts in Australia at the moment would also be of interest.

We were particularly excited to have been invited to contribute and over the days following the request we collaborated on a document that outlined our view of the scene. Photo documents that we had made were reviewed and prepared and forwarded, along with our text to Monica and Caren. The task of collating and blending the individual responses into a single report was completed and forwarded to the Codex Foundation.

Early this year the report was published and we received a contributor’s copy. We were impressed with the journal and the many interesting commentaries on the book arts from around the world. It was interesting to see the complete report and to read the individual contributor’s comments.

Published below is our text and some of the photographs we contributed in response to Monica and Caren’s invitation.

 

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Notes on the Antipodean book arts in the Antipodes for Caren + Monica

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Noreen Grahame in the exhibition Lessons in History Vol. II – Democracy 2012

 

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the world of the artists’ book in Australia was an exciting place. In Brisbane Noreen Grahame, through her Grahame Gallery, Numero Uno Publications, Editions and the Centre of the Artists’ Book championed the Australian artists’ book discipline. Grahame efforts were directed towards artists’ book exhibitions which started in 1991, art book fairs the first of which was held in 1994 and special invitation themed artists’ book exhibitions featuring clique of prominent national book makers.

Artspace Mackay under the directorship of Robert Heather hosted the first of 5 Focus on Artists’ Book (FOAB) Conferences in 2004. Over the years FOAB brought to Australia some of the world’s noteworthy practitioners and commentators on the discipline including Marshall Weber, Keith A Smith and Scott McCarney and juxtaposed them with local key practitioners. For the next 6 years those interested in artists’ books gathered to participate in lectures, workshops, fairs and a solid community of practice developed. In 2006 Artspace Mackay added the Libris Awards: The Australian Artists’ Book Prize that, with a few breaks, continues to be the premier curated artists’ book exhibition and award in Australia.

 

Noosa 08 Artists’ Book exhibition – Noosa Regional Gallery

Queensland also had 10 years of artists’ book exhibitions and 5 years of conferences from 1999-2008 at Noosa Regional Art Gallery. In many ways Queensland was the place to be if you were into artists’ books.

 

Southern Cross Artists’ Book Award 2007

In this period a few other artists’ book awards took place including the Southern Cross University’s Acquisitive Artists’ Book Award from 2005-2011.

 

Throughout the 1990s and until fairly recent times State Libraries and the National Library of Australia actively collected and built significant artists’ book collections. These included many forms of the artists’ book including: private press publications, significant book works by recognised international and Australian practitioners, books as object/sculpture, zines and the emergent photobook.

 

Now around the country major libraries are feeling the push by managers to move access to the library’s resources online thus the importance of the physical object and the tactile connection with items such as artists’ books is now not considered part of the service that the institution needs to provide. For example, the State Library of Queensland’s Australian Library of Art, which houses one of the largest artists’ book collections in the country, is now without a dedicated librarian. Research fellowships and seminars that were once administered by the Library and supported the Siganto Foundation are no longer available. Information and advice about the collection and other exhibitions or group viewings of artists’ books from their extensive collection have been significantly affected.

 

In recent years two Artists Book Brisbane Events coordinated by Dr Tim Mosely at Griffith University has facilitated a significant connection between the American and European scenes with guest speakers like Brad Freeman (Columbia University – Journal of Artists Books), Sarah Bodman (Centre for Fine Print Research – The University of the West of England), Ulrike Stoltz and Uta Schneider (USUS). The conferences also have included a place for discussion and review of the discipline by academics and emergent artist practitioners from Masters and Doctoral programs. These two ABBE conferences have provided a platform for academic discourse.

The artists’ book medium has been principally the realm of the printmaker as their artform easily enabled the production of printed multiples. Digital technologies, new double-sided inkjet papers as well as print-on-demand technologies have enabled the emergence of a range of new self-publishers – particularly photographers.

In 2011 I completed my PhD the title of which was Self-publishing in the digital age: the hybrid photobook. From my experiences in the artists’ book field as a practitioner and commentator and my lifelong activities in photography I saw a future for the photobook which could be informed by the freedoms and the possibilities for the presentation of narratives. While some aspects of this prophecy have been the case with some photographers, particularly those involved in academic study, the main thrust for the contemporary photobook has been towards the collaboration with graphic designers. These books take on various design and structure enhancements including special bindings, foldouts, mixed papers, page sizes, inclusions and loose components that can, at times, dilute the potential power of the simple photographic narrative sequence. The contemporary photobook has developed into its own discipline and through the universal communication possibilities of social media, conferences and awards a new tribe has emerged quite separate from and unaffected by the artists’ book community.

 

NGV Melbourne Art Book Fair 2017

Over the last 5 years the National Gallery of Victoria has presented the Melbourne Art Book Fair. In keeping with the art book fair worldwide movement participants man tables selling their publications. These can range from Institutional/gallery catalogues, trade art publications and monographs, artists’ books, photobooks and zines. The umbrella-like term and the spectacle of the ‘Art Book Fair’ as an event to witness and participate in has captured the individual disciplines and united the various tribes into one, not so homogeneous – community.

 

A quick review of the 2019 Melbourne Art Book Fair’s 86 table-holders there were only a handful of artists’ book-makers, perhaps a similar number of photobook publishers and a large contingent of zinesters and self-published magazines. The bulk of the tables were held by book distributors, bookshops, arts organisations, educational institutions and art galleries. The discipline of artists’ books was not significantly represented in this space. Was that due to the National Gallery of Victoria’s selection of table-holders or was it to do with artists’ book practitioners not considering the event as a relevant opportunity to show and sell their works?

 

Ultimately the question is – what is the status of the artists’ book in Australia at this time? My impression is that one of artists’ books key strengths was its closeness to the printmaking discipline and the cohesive bond of makers, critics and commentators, educators, journals, collectors and patrons. As many of these are connected to the tertiary academic environment and collecting libraries, both of which are fighting for their relevance in a changing education and library world, could it be considered that this is a defining moment in the history and the future of the artists’ book in this country?

 

Doug Spowart co-written with Victoria Cooper

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All photographs ©Doug Spowart

 

 

 

KEITH SMITH + SCOTT McCARNEY @ SLQ

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Please note: This post is derived from personal notes made at the event – They may contain some inconsistencies that are a result of my interpretation.

AUDIO NOW AVAILABLE @ http://enc.slq.qld.gov.au/audio/slq/pp/mp3/artdesign/Artistsbooks.mp3

In what looks like the one highlight in the Queensland artists’ book calendar for 2012 Keith Smith and Scott McCarney are visiting the State Library of Queensland to present a lecture about their work and to conduct a five-day workshop. Unable to attend the workshop due to teaching commitments I attended the talk at the SLQ today. I was not alone and the smaller SLQ auditorium was full of interested attendees — including some notables like Sarah Bowen, Adele Outteridge, Madonna Staunton, Wim deVos, Anne Marie Hunter and Lorelei Clark. The visit to SLQ by Scott and Keith is supported by the Siganto Foundation and members of the family were in attendance at the lecture.

‘HELLO’ Scott!

After and introduction by SLQ Artists’ Bookie Helen Cole, Scott began his presentation by talking about the nature of the book in the digital age. He seemed to lament that libraries were beginning to change into Wi-Fi coffee houses — that’s not a problem for him as he believes the book, as a physical thing, will go beyond the electronic age.

He sees a real discussion about the future of the book is all about ‘display’. This remains a contentious issue for the artists’ book as they are difficult to handle and read as in exhibitions they are usually displayed frozen and ‘under glass’. Some of Scott’s work has been about presenting books as sculptural forms (Hanging Index) so the viewer does not really need to turn the pages to engage with the work.

Scott spoke in detail about his Autobiography series. He described how he couldn’t throw anything away and that he makes collections from things like name badges, rejection letters from galleries and grant applications, to-do lists and mud maps. This body of work provides an insight into the trivia and ephemera of life that escapes disposal through its transformation into his art. Connecting with the Internet world Scott’s Google Vanitas begun on Christmas Day last year represents the search results for his own name.

Scott showed many examples of works with where he cut through various pages within books to subvert the content of the book.

In a homage to Ed Ruscha Scott has taken Ruscha’s 1964 book Various small fires and milk and made his own take on the subject  — Scott’s fires are those of riots and the curious inclusion of a glass of milk in Ruscha’s book is shortened to MLK, standing for Martin Luther King whose portrait appears in the book. l

A recent project by Scott was to participate in the al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition’s response to the car bombing of this street in Bagdad which was home to many of the city’s booksellers. Scott’s work Material Meditation on Mending Al Mutanabbi Street comprises fifteen two-sided loose-leaf prints made from collages made from remnants of found books, rubbings from bookbindings and photographs.

Keith Smith speaks

Scott then handed over to Keith who comments that he is now up into the 280s on his ever increasing list of books. He spoke of a number of book projects dealing with subjects like re-contextualisation of paintings of Saint Sebastian into Smith’s own painted backgrounds. Many variations on this theme have been created from an amassed collection of source paintings — he intimated that he was even working on a book as he was preparing to travel to Australia.

He spoke of his connection with the computer and digital book Bobby made as early as 1984 with an early Macintosh computer using MacPaint and MacWrite. In his latest work he has re-formatted the book and re-jigged the content. The new Bobby has been supersized to one of Smith’s biggest ever books.

One of Keith’s trademarks is the digitally created multi-layered photomontage and his rainbow borders and edges. He states that when using Photoshop he may be working with between 12 and 24 layers of colour. Pages for the book Seminal were shown as examples.

Book number 283 is Struggling to see deals with Smith’s continuing fascination with text and image. The book is dedicated to Nathan Lyons whose own books and image sequencing presents Smith with a constant source of challenge. Smith acknowledged Lyon’s mastery of organising images in a book in a way where the message of the book is spoken ‘between the pages’.

Question time yielded perennial questions to do with inkjet printers, papers, the ‘archivalness’ of the technology and editioning.

One questioner spoke of how books can be made by anyone via print on demand technologies …

Another question dealt with the montage …

Keith commented that the book tells him where to go …

A comment made by one participant was that they were coming to understand that with all the standardization of the book through language and form and that that is where the psychology of the artists’ book really kicks-in to say something else that we were not ready for…

A question about the eBook and where it fits in contemporary practice. Scott answered that with eBooks one must learn the tools and understand that they are about text in a multi-media platform and that translating work into digital form you need to recognise that it is married to the content.

Keith’s response was that was something for the younger generation, ‘I’m too old ….’ Perhaps it is, for him, that the eBook is not a tactile medium that you cut, fold, touch and be touched by — although it may be something else?

Doug Spowart  May 28, 2012

NOTE: The SLQ will be posting this lecture online in the near future

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