- 2017 An Accumulation of Fictions vols 1-288 ISBN 978-0-9568575-4-5
- 2016 An Accumulation of Fictions vols 289-384 ISBN 978-0-9568575-3-8
- 2014 After Nature: Highlights ISBN 978-0-9568575-2-1
- 2013 Intersecting Words ISBN 978-0-9568575-1-4
- 2011 Drawn from the Inventory: The Notebooks of Elisabeth Faulhaber ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-7 (Colebrooke Publications in association with the Prinzhorn Institute, Heidelberg)
- 2011 Atrocious Books (with supplement by A. Singer) ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-5
- 2005 Deciphering Human Chromosome 16: from Fugu to Human ISBN 978-0-9568575-8-0
- 2003 Luxuriant Beauty Bears Witness: We are not Barbarians ISBN 978-0-9568575-5-9
- 2002 The Unknown Masterpiece Drawing Book ISBN 978-0-9568575-4-2
- 2001 After the Years of Misrule: Three variations on Nostromo ISBN 978-0-9568575-3-1
- 1998 A WA[Y]FARER ISBN 978-0-9568575-1-1
- 1996 Drawn from the Work in Progress ISBN 978-0-9568575-0-4
Both Christina Mitrenstse (Greece) and Emmanuel Dundic (Belgium), whose work forms the exhibition ‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ installed on two floors of Galerie Nadine Feront, Brussels, have opted inter alia to display book sculptures either shot by an air rifle, in the case of Mitrentse’s Wounded Book series, 2013, or perforated fastidiously as in Dundic’s pieces. To be confronted by the hard evidence of such unethical treatment serves as a reminder that the contemporary art gallery can be an unnerving post studio space closely related to the library, office and even department store, but one that allows a freer visualisation of ideas, functioning as an outpost of individual practice, sometimes generating a frisson of strange beauty. In short by granting Mitrentse and Dundic a kind of poetic licence in its smart town house interiors, Galerie Nadine Feront verifies its credentials as a risk taker, or promoter of “norm-defying artists”.
Spaced out flat on tables, the injured paperbacks in Wounded Books have the solemn air of bibliographic relics, ex-books laid to rest after their absolute removal from circulation, codexes whose yellowing pages support content that has become epistemologically outmoded and fossilised. Here a bullet hole is as telling as an ISBN or shelfmark. Their ‘deaths’ also indicate that the book be it fact or fiction, stitched or hot glued is a foot soldier in the never ending war of ideas by means of which humanity evolves. Such work certainly presents a challenge both in terms of content and scope. Indeed Wounded Books themselves have become the battleground for a critical skirmish between bloggers Anna McNay (art-corpus) who conceived the bullet holes as “stigmata”, and Stephen Alexander (Torpedo the Ark) who ridiculed this analysis, but likewise fell into the trap of anthropomorphising books, referring to them as “mortal things”, “as complicit with evil as any other assemblage of power-knowledge”. This is to grant too much influence to the printed page, for as discerning readers we can take or leave books, similarly choose when we do indulge to keep a distance from their intellectual content. So shooting holes in paperbacks under licensed conditions is just an off-hand way of registering this detachment, and freedom from any type of symbolic authority residing in books.
The other pieces in Mitrentse’s suite of works at Nadine Feront certainly provide any newcomer to her polymathic practice with a useful index as the installation features the building-blocks of her repertoire: drawing, screen print, book modification, skoob sculpture, and the trademark Googlespeak ‘Add To My Library’. Standing alone in a room all by itself Skoob Tower after John Latham, 2013, is a 200cm tall construction built entirely from books, dictionaries and maps that evokes British born artist John Latham’s guerilla towers from the mid 1960s. Mitrentse in effect is providing a variation on the theme of the original book hypocausts, perhaps lamenting our present day authoritarian culture of health & safety that would make Latham’s ceremonies at the Law Courts or Senate House, University of London hard to carry out, since there is little unregulated public space left in cities, or great appetite for literal re-enactments. Here her Skoob tower has an elegaic quality: a mobile, temporary structure.
Other elements in the subtly lit para library at Nadine Feront are the drawings on paper Palais de Tokyo, 2013, and Contemporary Brussels Museum, 2013, both of which employ pencil, graphite, and gold pastel. The former utilises the book cover strategically, in a way that only R. B. Kitaj in his In Our Time series has really done before now. The imagery derives from carefully selected jackets that add an interrogative gloss to the meaning of contemporary power house visitor attractions such as Palais de Tokyo, Stonehenge or Tate Modern (the latter being examples of from the same series). In Palais de Tokyo the Mona Lisa stares out from the cover of André Malraux’s Le Musée Imaginaire on one wing as if an anime witness to Bernini’s St Teresa off the front of Georges Bataille’s El Erotismo on the other, the former’s make-up free face slyly bemused by her baroque counterpart’s intense orgasmic state. Graphic quotation narrates a fresh enigma, suggesting that the art palace as a site is less a given than a subjectively constructed ziggurat of knowledge, and how here ‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ as the catalogue succinctly puts it achieves “a reflection on the forms of knowledge and the re-configuration of its modes of transmission”. This trope is continued in Contemporary Brussels Museum, 2013, a grimmer Le Corbusier type structure that acts as a reminder of the way museums are hubs of instrumental rationality, a state of affairs Mitrentse is trying hard to unsettle through esoteric research methods and a species of transgressive ‘librarianship’.
Bibliophile I & II, 2013, return us to the quieter waters of the scholar in their study, an emblem dating back to Jan van Eyck’s 15th century oil painting of St Jerome. With its gimmicky dog-eared corners the collage Bibliophile II references pre-Gutenberg manuscript culture, a historical epoch when there was still a premium attached to close reading, and the explosive impact of the printed word was yet to occur. This emblem has been adopted for the exhibition’s invite card, implying a parallel between the unstable logistics of both scriptorium and internet, where copying errors were and can be transmitted virally. For nearly 600 years in between though, the hallowed physical book has reigned supreme, monopolising academic and popular culture, only now assuming a different sort of role in response to digital literature. As if in response to the challenge of cyberspace, the history of the book has also emerged as a new discipline, the beginnings of a specialised and hugely fertile archival recapitulation of the phylum.
‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ as the catalogue asserts, is a visual arts platform by which “books suddenly appear in all their alterity”.
‘Metacognitive Artefacts’ was at Galerie Nadine Feront, Brussels, Belgium, 5 December 2013- 1 February 2014
In ‘Pinacographic Space’ his introductory essay to The Perverse Library (2010), Craig Dworkin makes the egregious claim that the fire of 48BC at Ptolemy’ XIII’s Alexandrian Library never took place, or at least was a minor incident rather than holocaust, one affecting infrastructure rather than contents. In taking this stance he treads in the footsteps of historian Edward Gibbon who was also sceptical of the story. Dworkin cites various authorities to make his case, ranging from Galen to Bertrand Hemmerdinger, which he proceeds to take in a startling new direction: actually reconceiving this fabled event as a generator of writing, the Musaeum site a huge house of post-structural text manufacture.
The accumulative imperative of the library, which put it in necessary competition with other libraries, encouraged hoaxes, fabrications, and plagiarisms. Entire bibliographies –pseudo-Platonic and pseudo-Aristotelian corpora –arise from the logic of the library.
Drawing mainly on Daniel Heller-Roazen’s article ‘Traditions of Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria’ (October #100, Spring 2002), the categorical tone of Dworkin’s claim must be treated with care as classical sources variously put the loss of scroll literature between 40,000 and 700,000, a landmark event according to Heller-Roazan:
Real or imagined, the conflagration remains the supreme emblem of the Alexandrian archive itself, which sheltered the works of the past in exposing them to disaster, constituting and conserving its history in threatening it with its own destruction. For the very life of the library, like that of the fire, was to nourish itself on what it consumed, to allow writing to live in outliving itself, bearing witness, in this way, to the catastrophe of the past in the present.
So ultimately the subject matter is fugitive. As Matthew Battles asks
What happened to the books of Alexandria? Many, many centuries happened to them — too many for their inevitable dispersal and disappearance to be staved off, no matter whose mobs rioted in the streets, no matter which emperors set fires.
Clearly bibliographic governance in paper-based libraries is both shaped and forever jeopardised by the possibility of irreparable damage, of failing to prevent the most virulent and unstoppable forces of nature in the form of fire or water, a real headache to librarians everywhere. So it is that every modern temperature-controlled library has foam filled fire extinguishers strategically placed in case of an electrical short circuit, their book wardens haunted by the knowledge that in a worst case scenario such as at the one at Herculaneum in 79AD, holdings can be carbonised by pyroclastic lava flows at a temperature of 300º, or destroyed by human agency as in the immoral act of vandalism perpetrated by invading German troops in 1914, one which gutted the great library of Louvain, Belgium. Writing in the TLS (Jan 30, 2008), Craig Gibson commented
At 11.30 pm, troops broke into the University Library, one of the most important collections in Europe. Using petrol and incendiary pastilles, they set fire to hundreds of thousands of volumes and manuscripts. Within hours, a priceless piece of European, indeed, world heritage had been reduced to smoking ashes.
A different kind of intentionality is at play in Bernard Aubertin’s Livre Brüler Et à Brüler (1962-1971), a book work valued at £6,000 by Sims Reed Rare Books, London, in 2009. Aubertin’s instructions contain a blend of lower and upper case letters inked in to accompany his overwriting of the host book’s title -a forlorn copy of Gaëtan Picon’s Panorama des Idées Contemporaines (1957)- redubbed as Livre Brüler Et à Brüler. This inscription is suggestive of a ham-fisted attempt by the Paris based Auto-Destructive artist and member of Group ZERO, to follow a self-imposed oulipean truc aimed to deceive the reader/co-conspirator that Aubertin himself might be semi-illiterate, at the very worst pigeonholable as a mad or outsider artist:
le spectateur est invitÉ À lire le livre, À continuer de BRÛLER les pages en enflammant les allumettes collÉes, À ajouter d’autres allumettes, À rÉduire le tout en cendres. IngrÉdients: allumettes ordinaires, allumettes dÉtonantes.
To follow the pyromaniac instructions would mean the incineration of the object too; an asset up in smoke. As with John Latham though, Aubertin’s attack is on the deep-seated symbolic power of ideas and superstructures of knowledge; a contemporary bonfire of the vanities highlighting the disposability of its matériel, for by his own admission throughout Brülé Aubertin attached “ordinary matches, detonating matches, snowy matches, sachets of fragrant smoke generating powder, sticks of fulminate and percussion caps” all of which gives any potential abuser the choice of either destroying the book piecemeal or in a violent blaze; a professional quandary for Bibliothèque Nationale de France Special Collections staff and a challenge to the universal bibliographic decorum which protects the bound page, for with its accession such a title is forever poised on the edge of its own cremation, a problematic brebis galeuse.
But when fire does breaks out as in the devastating holocaust that swept through The Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014, publisher Simon Cutts decided to make a virtue of a necessity by bringing out in 2015, a stapled booklet of digital photographs taken by librarian Duncan Chappell of aglio 6 olio (1983), a.k.a. ‘The Garlic Book’, a tribute to Elizabeth David, the only Coracle title to be affected amongst 81 books salvaged. Blackened and charred, the poignant images are a commemoration and ‘victory’ over the fickle and unpredictable nature of fire.
Damaging books is a controversial type of activity, one that generally fails to amuse librarians, who are forever on the look out for signs of wanton behaviour and naturally its perpetrators. A No Pens Policy as it is termed means no quills or ball points in the reading rooms at the British Library for instance. Back in 2003 Cambridge University library service published a series of explicit images online of unacceptable damage to library books, so called Class Z, including a volume used as a dog chew, while more recently University College Dublin library set up a webpage http://libguides.ucd.ie/bookcarecampaign/culprits dedicated to warning what it calls “culprits”, namely commentators, highlighters, doodlers, dreamers and of course the dreaded snipper not to abuse their library stock, particularly, as they claim, defacement interferes with the assistive software used by partially sighted students. In many respects this campaigning attitude is a hangover from the Victorian era when fouled pages from incunables were sometimes de-greased and bleached in hydrochloric acid or caustic potash baths to rid them of those irritating marginal annotations or adversaria made by early modern readers. In The Enemies of Books (1880), the inappropriately named William Blades listed some ever-present hazards: rainwater, fire, Greek worm, rats, house flies, bindery ploughs, bigotry, theft (ie the latterday rare book mutilator Farhad Hakimzadeh). Although Bill Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (2007) has changed attitudes in some quarters, treating cosmetic reader’s marks as supplementary to the original printed text and opening up a whole new area of scholarship, librarians and conservators still remain fearful of vandals, which is why it’s refreshing that the staff at Westminster Reference Library in London have allowed ‘Bookend’, an installation of modified books by Nick Cash & Matt Hale into their building.
Housed in three reclaimed metal shelving units, Cash & Hales’s display of bibliographic aberrations trace the summary declension of reading matter into object matter, ie ink, cellulose, board, linen binding and so on. This breakdown is wilful, a series of violent physical assaults on de-accessioned reference books that “breach the usual terms and conditions” as Neal Brown puts it in his exhibition notes; a huge understatement! In fact these ‘bookmorphs’ belong to an emergent post 2nd World War branch of sculpture to be found on a spectrum of interventions ranging from the theatrical cut-out fantasies of Alexander Korzer-Robinson, to Michael Gibbs’s bloody limited edition Wounded Book (1979), and John Latham’s infamous burning ‘skoob’ towers. The nameless contents of ‘Bookend’ sit at the pulp end of this scale, a result of crushing, baking, sugar treatment, sawing in half, Dremelising©, drilling, mollusc damage, bathing in water, cremation, mildew flowers, unburial etc. Videos of the two maniacal artist/curators at work –their faces are never shown- can be watched through paper apertures cut into hardbacks that frame their screens. Clever stuff, as the films record key processual moments that went into the making of these ‘bookmorphs’: a hole bored by a hot steel rod, a conflagration in suburban woodland as a textbook gets reduced to ‘bio-char’ -to use Greville Worthington’s term- or the pages of a book posed on a demolition site, in this case the former brutalist icon Birmingham City Library, pages fluttering in the breeze; yet another reject title floating downriver Pooh sticks style. Hale points out “joining ideas, actions and objects on an equal level was something we were for and aware we were doing” (email 19 October 2016). Furthermore details of many exhibited pieces are also indexed as tipped-in images, replacing the coloured plates of quattrocento masterpieces in a ten volume set of Bernard Berenson’s Phaidon published Italian Painters of the Renaissance. In short, Matt Hale, a long standing member of staff at Art Monthly, might be said to have taken quite literally the magazine’s bold strapline ‘Taking art apart since 1976’.
‘Bookend’ gives off an ergotic whiff of damp, and if you are using the library itself for research, the feint whine of a power tool can be heard in the background, noise leaking from one of the embedded video devices. Cash & Hale have laid out their work as if jetsam stranded in a surreal dreamscape or nightmare, lumpen things beyond the pale, top shelf literature here consisting of a rotten tome grow bagging a holly bush, the individual pieces emitting a collective force backed by their self-reflexive documentation. Westminster Art Reference library itself is steadily developing a reputation as a risk taking space thanks to its recent bibliographically biased shows featuring Linda Toigo’s pop-up confections, and Elaine Robinson’s ‘Turning ‘ages’. Now Cash and Hale have rocked the book that bit harder, as if returning the crude gesture often employed by municipal librarians’ of tearing out the front papers of withdrawn stock (to prevent resale by dealers), but with compound interest.
‘Bookend’ was at Westminster Reference Library, LONDON WC2, 4 – 22 October 2016.
Stephen Willats’s new book Vision and Reality (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2016) is a retrospective collection of transcribed interviews, and black & white images (all taken by the artist), which document the various public projects carried out by Willats from the late 1970s up until 2006, principally taking the post-war suburban tower block as his research site and ecological setting for intimate snapshots of its inhabitants, in locations ranging from suburban London (east and west) to Oxford, Milton Keynes and Leeds,
Although slightly outside the chronological remit of Vision and Reality, ‘West London Social Resource Project’ (1973), is a good place to start an evaluation of Willats’s work, as it was groundbreaking in many respects. Reprised at Chelsea Space in 2011, in Willats’s own words the project signalled “we were going in a completely new direction, well outside the existing framework and precedence for the existence of a work of art”. Cherry-picking a few key phrases from a list of broken taboos and novel precedences established by ‘WLSRP’, is enlightening. These included “dynamic model”, “sequence”, “context dependency”, “open system”, “floating base line”, “collective authorship”, “active feedback”, “suburban communities”, “voluntary participation”, “multichannel”, “access”, “task orientation” and “heuristic outcomes”; a repertoire of concepts that would go on to determine Willat’s modus operandi right up until the present day, an abrasively modern interactive practice with little or no time for Kantian aesthetic discourse.
What was once called ‘council housing’ in the post-war era has now come to be known by the more generalised and therefore anaemic term ‘social housing’, for whilst council new build has steadily declined, housing associations have grown in size and ambition, even in some instance taken over the running of sink estates from the local authority. However in Willats’s series of field studies dating from the 1970s his main focus was the daily routine of working-class council tenants, their gritty lives often enacted in architecturally overbearing Soviet style estates, still very much Beveridge Britain in fact, a nation attempting to claw its way back to life after the financial and physical gutting of the Second World War. At Skeffington Court, Hayes, after making contact with the caretaker, Willats initiated a six month project in 1978 called ‘Vertical Living’ that involved the residents and established his trademark notice boards. Interviews with them revealed a litany of concerns to do with the isolation, lack of balcony space, dark kitchens, fly-tipping, train noise and so on. Clearly a new intake of people used to the conviviality of back-to-back homes in narrow streets were finding it tough to adapt to high-rise existence, and misapplied zoning, the latter described by architectural critic Ian Nairn as “the biggest single cause of the sterility of our post-war estates”. In Vision and Reality, photographs of flat interiors are obliquely captioned with commentary about the lifestyle of these displaced nameless subjects, transcribed from a Uher 4000 Reporter IC tape machine and Electrovoice RE50 Microphone (equipment Willats has stubbornly continued to use up to the present day). Carpeted rooms are typified by mantelpieces dressed with family snaps and electric clocks, shelving units storing knick-knacks such as oriental dolls, ceramic beer steins, hi-fi decks and spider plants, with a cathode ray tube telly invariably situated in the corner.
On into the 1980s saw these selfsame communities reeling from the hammer blows of Thatcherite monetary policy, mass unemployment being the human cost of deregulation and free market dogma. In Ken Smith’s poem ‘Movies After Midnight’ from his 1985 collection The House of Numbers, the scene is chronically bleak: “From Canning Town to Woolwich | the tall cranes rust. | The pub’s shut | and the lift’s out in the towerblock, | everything you see is up for sale.” Amid this social environment Willats trained his attention on Sandridge Court, Finsbury Park, and in particular a character known only as John, whose flat resembled an art deco penthouse, and who became the subject of a print A Difficult Boy in a Concrete Block (1983), Dobson Point, Newham, which generated the diptych Every Day and Every Night (1984), with its nihilistic slogan YOU’VE GOT NOTHING. THERE IS NOTHING. YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO GET OUT. YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO SURVIVE YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO LIVE, and Farrell House, Whitechapel, that centred on an encounter with Leigh Bowery, a heavily pierced, futurist tailor, with his own sewing machine and a large collection of vinyl. These studies explored alternative lifestyles, or ones deviating from the nuclear family: post-punk council tenants self-fashioned as Berlin cabaret performers, habitués of the Cha Cha Club, following bands such as Visage and Duran Duran.
Away from the capital, Willats was asked to make a work for the 1991 Bath festival, and chose Saffron Court, for ‘Living Mosaic’ that consisted of an outdoor public register, and display boards in the foyer and estate laundry on which residents could freely respond to a questionnaire by means of drawings, texts and diagrams. This format has proved to be a constant in Willats’s oeuvre, on one hand resembling a social audit not much different from the Mass-Observation project of the 1930s and 40s, on the other a totally novel way of inserting the contemporary artist into what were often pitifully austere domestic settings, arguably making Willats the inventor of the public residency. But his career has also seen the artist develop a critique of ruling class ideology, and this becomes apparent in Vision and Reality, where the vision is one imposed top-down by idealistic urban planners (largely in denial about Pruitt-Igoe, that notorious failed icon of international modernist housing in St Louis, USA), the reality one endured by human guinea pigs: rentiers entombed in confined spaces, spying on the world and each other with binoculars, coping with the sheer monstrosity of their battery units.
Inevitably the question ‘but is it art?’ will always arise when Willats’s work is put under the spotlight, and there are those cultural conservatives who do scoff at the pretentiousness of his documentation, the mixed media collages and homeostatic drawings, since this material composed from rigorous field work hardly qualifies as fine art, neither does he himself fit the template of a posturing yBa. In ‘Personal Islands’ (1993) Willats interviewed a couple in an Isle of Dogs tower block who had customised the interior of their flat, laying a terrazzo floor with ash skirting board, and functional book shelves without an ornament in sight, a striking Bauhaus-like move that counteracted the dull uniformity of the locale. Such gestures seem utopian in retrospect, and a far cry from the reality conveyed by the Brit horror film Tower-Block (2012), of a building awaiting demolition, its last residents subjected to random attacks by a sniper assassin. Ironically in 2013, Alex Morton a member of the Tory think tank Policy Exchange called for the flattening of such high rise buildings in favour of “streetscapes”, marking the end of an era begun in 1956, which had seen the subsidy of dwellings over 6 storeys high erected on slum clearance sites (the curatorial group Assembly won the 2015 Turner Prize for their regeneration of terraced housing in Toxteth, Liverpool 8), although the new architectural scene is of luxury high-rise owned by absentee oligarchs, or gated communities with Dickensian ‘poor doors’, asset managed real estate bought and sold years before its actual construction on the basis of 3D digital renderings.
Stephen Willats shows us that through communication there is always a way out of the box we find ourselves in, even if egress only leads to another similar box. Plus ça change plus ça reste la meme chose!
Mikhail Pogarsky’s hand made globe Artist’s Book Unites the World (2013), propels its fly-sheet message in tabloid terms, as if a hoax headline at an evening news stand. Here Pogarsky’s papier-mâché globe is the proletarian launchpad. This loud immediacy of the street or kiosk is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but does ask us if only momentarily to entertain the idea of human unification through the auspices and agency of the artists’ book. Could a painting unite the world? a sculpture, an installation, a video, a song etc? Unlikely, as the world appears dead set against the idea of its own rescue or unification and rarely takes kindly to anyone pointing out that its conflicted state is unsustainable in the long run. This is because war is big business, the biggest in fact even if military interventions alone rarely work, and often create yet more civil strife. Pogarsky doesn’t deny this, but his work doesn’t support top down political control either, optimistically announcing a utopian era of goodness and common wealth, an end to bigoted nationalism and tyranny. Perhaps! But the irony is all too obvious, for in truth human beings as a species are in extremely deep and largely self-inflicted trouble.
A colour image of Pogarsky’s post-Soviet globe boldly appears on page 9 of
The Artist’s Book Phenomenon (2015), his important survey of the artists’ book, privately published in 2015 in a limited edition of fifty copies. A heavyweight volume Swiss casebound in black cloth, this obscure publication has the severe look of a bible and according to spokesman Vitaly Patsukov is both a landmark and structural part of “the new information explosion”, a text that “starts the pendulum of a new time”. Written in Cyrillic and lavishly illustrated Pogarsky provides a fantastic window into the little known field of the artists’ book in Russia and beyond. As a mail artist, international curator, theorist and maker of handcrafted artists’ books he himself along with Vasily Vlasov and Viktor Lukin has done much to promote contemporary Russian book arts (‘Kniga Khudozhnika’) in the west, running creative projects in conjunction with Sarah Bodman et el. In his Preface to the catalogue for ‘Rukssian Artists’ Books’ held at Bower Ashton Library, UWE Bristol (2014-15), Pogarsky states that “the artist’s book like any other artform has its own regional and national peculiarities. Apart from the language in which the text is presented, there are various historical roots from which the artists book has emerged and on which the contemporary tree of this artform grows”. Fitting that Pogarsky should adopt the genomic metaphor of a bush or tree since many books from Russia in particular do have a xylographic, artisinal quality as if hewn in a wood shed. But Phenomenon is also a cosmopolitan encyclopedia that reveals the indebtedness of modern book arts to everything from medieval rubricated Ars Magna manuscripts, the celestial engravings of William Blake, Stephane Mallarmé’s spatial poetics, Russian Futurist hooligan blasts, Matissean découpage, Iliazde’s elegant typography, Oskar Kokoschka’s erotica and Marcel Duchamp’s Bôite-en-valise (1935-41), to the salami sausages of Dieter Roth and naturally Ed Ruscha’s iconic books (perhaps a third R in the shape of Robert Rauschenberg could have been added as it might be argued his ‘combines’ helped to prepare the ground for the heterogenous quality of today’s post-literary formats). Pogarsky showcases sewing, screen print, typewriter art, letterpress, installation, outdoor performance, textual modification, and paper folding in his account, revealing how Russian pieces generally possess a distinctive and vital shamanistic energy, whilst being open to cutting-edge scientific methodologies too. Indeed there is considerable overlap in terms of both style and content with Vladimir Arkhipov’s Home Made: Contemporary Russian Artifacts (2006), an illustrated collection of improvised household appliances such as a bottle opener, Christmas tree lights, shovel, paste squeezer, rat trap and toilet seat; objects fashioned as the Soviet Empire collapsed, and many were left so hard up that such practical bricolage was a sine qua non.
Drawn from what Brian Eno has called a ‘scenius’, ie a co-intelligent environment without any need for celebrities, starchitects or supermodels, Mikhail Pogarsky presents us with a treasury of visual information, a bulletin about the state-of-the-art (of the artists’ book). Published in the same year as my own revisionist theory Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book (2015), in Phenomenon, where Pogarsky choses to superimpose his slogan ‘Artist’s Book Unites the Whole World’ on top of the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean or aqua incognita, I referred to the genre as a “Great Barrier Reef of shimmering forms”. No longer exporting the idea of world revolution as Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the germ of this goal lingers on in Pogarsky’s globe, not a de luxe object belonging in a long gallery or rich man’s book closet, but the slowly revolving symbol of our multi-polar world. It is no coincidence whatsoever that the artists’ book in its most modern extrusions since the 1960s has evolved in parallel with Roland Barthes’s seminal essay ‘Death of the Author’ (1967), as Barthes’s original text was specially commissioned by Brian O’Doherty for publication in Aspen, #5+6 item 3, an exclusive box set of multimedia materials.
The accelerationist era of the digital age has let the artists’ book mutate in front of our eyes, transcending itself for fun, its practitioners stumbling upon new formal possibilities, a discipline yet to be straitjacketed by conservative art historical discourse. An academic at Moscow University, Pogarsky has avoided falling into this trap, for the artists’ book community is a friendly one, its episteme under constant review as its platforms move.
Despite having been in possession of a British Library reader’s ticket for more than six years, until recently I had never heard of the Artists’ Lives archive of recordings with living artists, a catch-all that appears to include poets, painters, sculptors, critics, gallery owners, dealers, curators, publishers and so forth. A discrete part of the overarching project National Life Stories, along with Industrial Lives, Craft Lives and Book Trade Lives amongst others, C466 Artists’ Lives active list of human subjects interviewed since the project’s inception in 1990 (the first five interviews were funded by seed money from the Henry Moore Foundation) is one that will probably appeal more to art world insiders than the wider public, for it seems to have largely steered clear of celebrity artists (even Tracey Emin’s NLSC interview focuses on drawing rather than her bad girl past). Perhaps some practitioners are not yet in their dotage or unwilling to look back on the past, too busy with careers and money making? This though is mere speculation, as the exact criteria that shape the direction and content of Artists’ Lives and how biographical noteworthiness is determined are unclear.
Having navigated from the BL’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to the Artists’ Lives web page and scrolled down it emerges that some electronic resources are formatted as ‘Play this’ and can be listened to immediately at any of four computers with headphones dotted throughout Rare Books & Music, whilst everything else (actually the vast bulk of material) must be ordered in advance either by an old-fashioned Playlist Request form or emailing the issues desk. Clicking randomly on a Details tab certainly brings up some intriguing statistics: eg Derek Boshier’s entire interview lasts some 25 hrs 13 minutes, Richard Demarco’s words are stored on 19 x 60 minute cassettes, Paula Rego’s tape 10 side B is blank, while Gustav Metzger’s testimony (recorded on a Marantz PMD660) is closed until April 2017, an option according to Project Director Cathy Courtney that can be “of greater value to posterity than an anodyne version for immediate release”. It is also handy from the research perspective to see the precise bibliographic information and extra material contained in summary form that comprises some entries.
Using the resource in an ad hoc manner though is not to be recommended. Grazing in the modern way, ie sampling from here, sampling from there must be carried out under close restraint, as so few interviews have been digitised, and therefore just turning up on the day and expecting to have instant access to a particular life story is not recommended. Frankly this is a resource for highly organised researchers, specialists who can plan in advance and order tapes or cassettes from the store to coincide with their visit. As such it might be claimed that Artists Lives is still somewhat antiquated as a delivery system (there is a noticeable transition in the late 1990s from Product, ie material stored on open reel, to Recording). Nevertheless the charm exuded by some conversations soon gets to work. Alasdair Gray’s moving reminiscences of his family, and growing up in industrial Glasgow between the wars are related in a full range of rich Scottish cadences, featuring many voices or personae in one recording, with the odd burst of sardonic laughter or apology for getting carried way by the performative side of his interview. Bruce Lacey also tells a good yarn, and reveals how he once smuggled government issue cigarettes from his Royal Navy ship after cutting a compartment out of a history book, whilst the painter Patrick Heron, tentative at first, memory faltering, until gently nudged along by Mel Gooding recounts a pre-war trip to Nazi Germany in which the Gestapo boarded the train and sneered at his capitalist top hat (Heron was on his way to a wedding in Berlin). Looking back into the long lost past these figures often find it hard to keep the thread, and sometimes actually lose it along the way, but aided and abetted by the odd deft intervention can be heard to actually be in the process of rediscovering a buried archive of experience as if scraping away grime; although quite how much preparation or scripting has been done in expectation of the interview is impossible to tell. These are old stories, so the best or most vivid ones in other words, not to say embroidered over and over again through their recall.