A little gem

There are risks attached to retrofitting a contemporary cultural category to historical phenomena that preceded it by some margin, but in the case of the Artists’ Book, as I have already shown in Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book (Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2015), there is a dividend too; namely looking with a fresh pair of eyes, and unsettling the canon. Unshelfmarked not only attacked any sort of foundationalist, a priori claims about the identity of the artists’ book, but also by creating a new timeline for the AB, embraced the Palaeolithic right up to the super modern, including burin engraving, illuminated manuscript, commonplacing, early modern conceptual writing, livres d’artistes, the photobook, fanzines and twitter etc. For as Kathleen Walkup has remarked “Hampton files the artist’s book in an ‘ecosystem’ that ranges from tramp art to pooh sticks via hopscotch, sewing bees, football fanzines and ‘rubbish of every kind’”. In short my rogue thesis disproved the prevailing idea that the AB as a democratic form only came into existence after WW2 (though clearly the tools of the digital revolution have supercharged design methods and parameters, accessibility and market share), throwing a huge wrench into the way its primary theoreticians conceived, categorised and created their fiefdoms, for this most contested and multiplex of interdisciplinary novelties.
Since 2015, critical responses to Unshelfmarked have varied from misunderstanding, indifference bordering on neglect, even such 1960s jive talk as “out there”, from one respected bibliophile, while my mother refers to it as “that book”, as if a grimoire laced with evil! Yet it turned out that the AB was less a bridge between the adjacent blocs of Literature and Visual Art, than an archipelago waiting subliminally to be discovered, with its very own flora and fauna. However in Unshelfmarked I did not approach this terra incognita as an explorer planning conquest and colonisation —worse still genocide— although as the actual subject of this post is a small, hitherto ignored (save by military historians) publication that grew to maturity during the Great War, then vanished, slaughter on an industrial scale does provide a bloody context.
Started in 1915 from their base in Eastbourne, The Peeko Journal was the in-house organ of ‘P’ Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and very much an “opuscule” rather than an “opus” to apply Anne Moeglin-Delcroix’s excellent litmus test, ie was quarto sized, visiotextual, small run doctor’s waiting-room lit, with a coterie of dedicated reading soldiery, a cousin to the better known, unofficial trench newspapers, fated to end up in latrines, such as Whizzbang and The Wipers Times. Price 1d, the first page of Issue 1 carried a trade ad for luminous dial wrist watches, an editorial by Sergeant G.T.Barry printed alongside sub-Kipling barrack room verse, advice for NCOs on bad feet, lost buttons, and how to wrap a puttee correctly! There were parish pump notices about band practice, whist drives and a theatre review of the debonair Charles Hawtrey in The Compleat Angler at the Winter Garden, and a regular slot by Pea-Nuts of Readers Digest-like quips (later replaced by the equally droll Snowball, for pseudonyms were common in trench papers due to the ever present threat of censorship). Naturally sport occupied the back pages, and Peeko gave a recommend to the White Corner Tea Rooms. Issues 2 and 3 variously had gripes about blisters, Christmas Day, with plenty of rude Woodbines and beer Tommy humour, courtesy of hut representatives. By Issue 4 team photos of officers and NCOs from the Western Front started to appear, but there was still space for a pen and ink drawing or two and some corny music hall jokes. By Issue 8 the price had doubled, and we get the first mention of Bruce Bairnsfather’s comical character Old Bill, the Peeko band, and a report on indoor cricket, mixed up with commercial ads for Horlicks and Atora beef suet. Number 13 contained a charming page of Mallarméan line drawings of mufflers, eg the Norwegian, Pierrot, the Fez, à la Pork Pie, and Belgian Militaire. From Issue 16, which is bigger and better —the RAMC’s training centre had moved up country to Ripon— the Peeko has enough of a readership to warrant Answers to Correspondents, reports of boxing and football matches, plus goonish quips such as “Why is ‘P’ Company like a new rifle? Because it has a good magazine”, with an ad for Cavender’s Army Club cigarettes. After Issue 18, the journal was incorporated into The Wit, still with light features like Pepys at Parades and Corps Crackers, though inevitably the tone had changed through time from war as a lark, to a far darker mood expressed through stoical khaki proverbs and an Agony Column, as casualty lists grew in the latter part of the Great War.
The non-profitmaking Peeko came out at irregular intervals, sometimes weekly, at others fortnightly, depending on cashflow, and was a veritable jamboree bag of earthy material; not quite samizdat, but decidedly irreverent and class conscious all the same. So, why lump it together with, what has come to be widely recognised by experts as a discrete category, Artists’ Books? Simply put, because it meets the loose criteria I attempted to tabulate in Unshelfmarked, part of an expanded field or para library, “a sprawling dynastic tree with multiple genealogies and offshoots” as Gill Partington has put it. During the four years that it took to research, data manage and write, some books and bibliobjets talked to me as if in a scéance, awaiting rescue in some cases, re-evaluation in others. The Peeko Journal was not one of these at the time, but a subsequent post hoc ergo propter hoc example, enlisted to support my theoretical position, another example of retrofitting the overlooked, to demonstrate the AB, despite the application of brand new software programmes enhancing both production and dissemination, is NOT a separate species, but an extraordinary ongoing mutation and vector, its contemporary practitioners the multi-tasking stationers of the twenty-first century.
The Peeko Journal: a little gem reconceived.


Blindman’s buff

(A review lately salvaged from unpublished notes to ‘CYBERNETICS 33’, Fordham Gallery, LONDON E1, 27 October 2001)

Inner Guard: Whom have you there?
Tyler: Mr.John Smith, a poor candidate in a state of darkness…
J.Dewar, The Unlocked Secret: Freemasonry Examined, 1966

This intriguing techno-performance fashioned by two recent graduates, Anthony Stephinson and Brendan Cortes, used Fordham’s shoebox sized space as a base camp. An array of laptop, cell phone, video, speaker and wall chart, all manned by Cortes, provided a direct visual feed from Stephinson’s West End WAP and webcam.

The action began with a flurry of pencil lines made on a sheet of tracing paper, which was hung over a large superplan of central London, as the designated ‘Anchorman’ guided his blindfolded protégé, referred to as ‘Everyman’ in their PR, into position. Terse yet considerate instructions come from Cortes: “Go straight to Piccadilly” and “If this is a bad area stay out in the open”. There are the inevitable teething troubles, and communication breakdowns due to sheer demand for net access. During these unpredictable gaps tension mounts in the gallery. Where is the trekker? Suddenly his incoming call breaks the silence and gets accepted. We see a half formed black and white urban scene, both on screen and wall projected. “Nothing yet. Are you hoodwinked?” The sign for Air Street W1 becomes visible. Cortes, a hard taskmaster, continues his demanding voiceover: “Turn the eye, I want to see you are blindfolded”. Yes there he is, a masked bladerunner. “Turn left” he orders. The Arch. But contact is lost yet again.

Meanwhile a small band of groupies and fascinated casual onlookers are treated to a colour video sequence of Trafalgar Square, spying on a pair of lovers necking against a lamp post. Footage of the statue of Eros at the bottom of Shaftsbury avenue reminds the viewer of local co-ordinates, this prepared interval film deepening the context to the main randonée. Then Stephinson’s live clips begin to come back on-line, and this jerky expedition continues, literally a private view of ‘Everyman’s’ world, except that he is kitted out in unlikely masonic regalia: a sash and apron with the usual pentagrams and tassels, a thick blindfold that is regularly checked by a team of discreet minders on hand to ensure he isn’t run over by traffic.

Despite being hampered, and dependent on Cortes for instructions, this candidate undergoing initiation, successfully passes on visual scans and occasionally some snatches of slurred commentary. Gradually it starts to become clear too that ‘Anchorman’ has his own agenda, a route tuned to ancient resonances. We are travelling amid what Iain Sinclair refers to as “smudged Egyptian ritual detail” and tracing “the line of the old Swallow street”, according to the proto-psychogeographer Harold Clunn, “a dingy, dirty thoroughfare” boasting “a livery stable which was a noted house of call for highwaymen”. Briefly a close-up of a Regent Street arcade resolves itself, a rough Xerox of Saturday afternoon consumer bump ‘n’ grind.

Apparently ‘Everyman’ has made progress towards the end of the trail, a bronze triangle in the road marking the former site of Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch, but we are uncertain of his precise whereabouts, and suspect he has slipped through the net. By now Cortes has finished his gridwork and we can study for ourselves a tracery of marks: VULNERABLE with an arrow pointing to Piccadilly circus, which is itself denoted by an eye of Horus; BEST TRANSMISSION etc; a blob next to TYBURN TREE; and most sinister of all HYDE to refer to the park.

Game over then, and the performance peters out, allowing time for the audience to try a glass of absinthe, and watch more jerky hand-held video slugs of Fitzrovia. According to Cortes and Stephinson’s press release the artist’s formula “synthesises the movements of people with the stone, illuminating the arches and chambers of historical power”. Well perhaps, but it also touches a darker human chord, namely the way individuals remotely inhabit and influence each other for good or ill in the difficult passage from birth to death. The whole event had a makeshift feel but with a vital human edge, its loosely structured narrative drawing power from the umbilical relationship between the two technicians, who together set about exploring the compulsive modern need to be in touch at all times, to bridge and ultimately nullify time and distance, whilst simultaneously transacting and transplanting a cod masonic rite to the throbbing streets of London.

‘CYBERNETICS 33’ managed to be both generically novel and freewheeling in its construction of an accessible virtual space.

Agents of destruction

DIAS 2.0 implies both continuity as well as rupture, a genetic link with the series of manifestos formulated by Gustav Metzger from 1959 onwards, as well as a freedom from those protocols which can look over didactic to 21st century eyes. DIAS 2.0 also references the ground-breaking event DIAS, held at St Bride’s church and the Africa Centre, Covent Garden in 1966, a battery which would charge a new generation of artists employing and deploying destructive means in their work.

In his jacket notes to the 2015 Bedford Press facsimile edition of Metzger’s 1965 lecture at the Architectural Association, Andrew Wilson describes his legacy in terms of “monuments that would change and disintegrate over time”, extolling the “complete codification of the theory and practice of auto-destructive art, which he had developed over the previous five years”. These statements were respectively Auto-Destructive Art (1959), Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art (1960), Machine Art Auto-Creative Art (1961), Manifesto World (1962), and On Random Activity in Material/Transforming Works of Art (1964). At the start of his 1965 lecture Metzger maintains the view that auto-destructive practice was ten years behind theory, and to support his isolated and vulnerable anti-establishment position viz-a-viz artworks (and let’s remember in those days there were still only two respectable disciplines taught at art college: painting and sculpture), cites dynamic thinkers from earlier in the 20th century: Bruno Munari’s Manifesto del Macchinismo, László Moholy-Nagy & Alfred Kemeny’s Manifesto (1922) in which they declare the artist an “active partner to the forces unfolding themselves”, and Naum Gabo’s remark in the journal Circle (1937) that sculpture was the “real movement of substantial masses”, so kinetic, volatile and ephemeral rather than monumental. Metzger certainly allies and aligns himself with kinetic art, but worries it is liable to become a “toy” (I think we all owned that ballbearing desktop novelty ‘Newton’s Cradle’!). Nevertheless he promotes Auto-Destructive art as “an important step in the enlargement of forms at the disposal of kinetic art” (originally underlined), and a shelf life for its artefacts ideally of twenty years only. So, DIAS 1966 and its unplanned spin offs was less a great leap forward than a catching up of practice with theory.

Set against this historical precedent, there is a cadre of artists whose practice has matured in the 21st century and continue to embrace destruction within the neo-geopolitical spaces formed since Al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center. Despite composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s overblown pronouncement about 9/11 being the “greatest work of art in the entire cosmos”, the televised moment was seismic, age old frameworks of meaning blown open, causing a tectonic shift from a bi-polar into a multi-polar world with diverse actors, one in which the human subject has become mediatised, fatally entangled in digital networks, a global environment in which art could no longer afford to be parochial and innocent.

With the rise of hard-to-police social media, the dark web and incessant street robbery/homicide it is increasingly harder to discern the actions of scattered auto-destructive artists, their dematerialising, aleatoric gestures often lost against this backdrop, by and large unable or unwilling to critique one of Metzger’s ideological targets -the dealership system- because they are complicit with it; while one of the most important goals of the 1960s, ie the absolute breaking down of the wall between art and life has ironically meant that types of transgressive art have become normative behaviour by default.

So, who are the new practitioners of Auto-Destruction? Maria Arceo -plastic waste retrieval; Eleanor Bartlett -tar painting; Jérémie Bennequin erasing Proust; David Blackmore -rage room; Bookend -biblioclasty; Matt Calderwood -dangerous performance; Jake & Dinos Chapman -détournement; Abraham Cruzvillegas -autodestructive kitsch; Rhodri Davies -Welsh harp violation; Bridget Harvey -visible repair; Dinaro Kasko -patisserie; Michael Landy -shredding; Kris Martin -vase smashing; Sam Messenger -cryography; Christina Mitrentse -wounded books; Glen Onwin -chemical baths; Sarah Pickering -detonations; Antonio Riello –Diabolus in Vitro; Caitlin de Silvey -curated decay; Michael Tompert & Paul Fairchild -smartphone vandalism; Diana Taylor -unpainting; Amikam Toren -interrogating representation; Vladimir Umanets -Yellowism. This list of names is by no means comprehensive but gives a general idea of the broad range of methods and aims being adopted, some more nihilistic than others, yet all working cheerfully against the deterministic principle of commodification -which in effect means the art market- even if they realise only too well that this strategy is a double-bind, in which processual leftovers themselves can easily become merchandise, notwithstanding in Liam Gillick’s words “the entropic quality of art’s structural and critical trajectory is its resistance”. These 2.0 artists constitute a sphere rather than a movement, for whom Metzger’s 1961 South Bank ‘Acid/Nylon’ performance, Herman Nitsch’s ‘Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries’ or John Latham’s ‘Book Plumbing’ event in the basement of Better Books are ancient history.

One way this background tension plays out is through re-enactment, specifically re-enactment with a twist, which sets out to avoid simplistically embalming the past as heritage. Instead of throwing a typewriter from a car travelling at high speed, Simon Morris and Howard Britton ‘restaged’ Ed Ruscha’s ‘Royal Road Test’, using Freudian confetti; Nikolas Bentel brokered ad space at $92.59 a square inch on top of a Robert Rauschenberg print in a tribute to his iconic Erased de Kooning (1953); Tomoko Hojo’s work-in-progress ‘Unfinished Descriptions’ invites composers to imagine content for Yoko Ono’s undocumented piece 014 from her solo show at Indica Gallery in November 1966, a few months after Ono’s participation in DIAS itself. Such reverential stunts loop back to canonic works of the past, forced to comply with the dominance inside the art market -since the 1997 Saatchi collection show ‘Sensations’- of the thrill over the concept. Yet Auto-Destructive art attempts to fuse both memes, giving its documentation great archival significance, and an impact even in its naïve form today, for where materials are placed under pressure, or designed to fail in aesthetic terms, the universal experience of childhood is evoked, in what Esther Leslie paraphrasing Walter Benjamin has called the child’s “impulse to revolutionary overhaul”.

Gustav Metzger’s great artistic contribution was to reach out to science and technology, before it became fashionable to do so, and use an array of substances and tools in a bid for interdisciplinary freedom, ie cardboard/ compressed air/carbon dioxide/glycerine/graphite/hot plate/laser beam/ lentils/liquid crystal/mica/nylon/photographs/plastic tube/polystyrene/ religious statuary/rust/silicon/slide projector/steel/stroboscope/sulphuric acid/water jet/etc. Sometimes this translated as a boycott of pop art in the name of revulsion, or strong public medicine, seeking as he said in his Cardboards statement of 1959 “nature unadulterated by commercial consideration of the contemporary drawing room”.

London September 2018

Sterne obsequies

If the author, clergyman and abolitionist Laurence Sterne had managed to crawl through a cosmic wormhole defying both time and space to attend the special concert held recently in his honour at St George’s Hanover Square, London W1, he would probably have annoyed the contemporary musicians and audience members with his persistent tubercular coughing. The solemn evening marked the 250 years which have passed since his death aged 54 on 18th March 1768 at nearby 41 Old Bond Street, in lodgings above a silk bag and wig maker’s, an event witnessed only by Sterne’s nurse and John Macdonald, a visiting footman sent by a friend to enquire after his health. Organised by the Laurence Sterne Trust based at Shandy Hall in Yorkshire, Now it is Come! (allegedly the dying man’s last words) was a programme of readings and baroque music to mark Mr Yorick’s burial service on March 22nd 1768 in the very same church, then regarded as the most fashionable place of worship in London.

Little is know about this event save that it was a modest affair costing 16/6d, and occurred less than a month after the publication of his second great work, the two volume A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, 1768. There is a plangent entry on the Laurence Sterne Trust website

27 February, A Sentimental Journey published by Becket and Dehondt in February, in an edition of 2500, with a list of 281 names, subscribing for 334 copies, of which 132 on ‘Imperial Paper’, some copies also contain an advertisement in which Sterne acknowledges that there should be a further two volumes, which the subscribers have paid for, and promises to deliver them within the year.

So not only was Sterne’s life cut short, but his death arrived at the moment the fame hungry writer was the very talk of the town. Arrivals and departures though had characterised his wandering existence, the latter part of which had been a grand tour of a different kind, namely one defined by a manic quest for clean air, and remedies for pulmonary tuberculosis; hobnobbing with European monarchs and aristocracy very much a bonus.

After Handel’s See, the Conquering Hero Comes played at the organ by David Owen Norris, and readings by Patrick Wildgust, and the former Bronski Beat, Communard musician Rev’d Richard Coles, a rare and exquisite performance by the disbanded Hilliard Ensemble of “Time wastes too fast” (TS Vol9 Ch viii), and also Maria’s Urn, with words supposedly set to music by Sterne which revealed him to be quite the proto-romantic: Eros folded within Thanatos and vice versa…

Alas, Maria, what remains
Of thee this mournful Urn contains
O lovely Tree, thy boughs extend,
And with thy leaves this Urn defend.

Today there is a cubby-hole at Shandy Hall affectionately known as Maria’s Room.

Allegedly born in Mary Street, Clonmel, Ireland on the 24th November, 1713, it is fair to say that the Clonmel Tourist Board have failed to capitalise on the figure of Laurence Sterne as their biggest heritage asset. Yes there is a brass plaque, a hotel bar (now closed) that was named after him, and a sculpture once installed on Grubb’s Island in the River Suir, which was swept unfortunately away by floods in 2001, only to re-emerge broken into pieces! But Sterne’s importance is as an innovative writer, and extends far beyond a few lapidary facts. According to the bibliographer J.C.C. Mays in Fredson Bowers and the Irish Wolfhound, 2002,

Irish books and the way they ask to be understood break the rules that have evolved from the study of surrounding traditions.

Poised between “anglo-american methodology” largely based around William Shakespeare and the concept of the final clean version or uber text, and continental, manuscript friendly “genetic” practices, Sterne’s use in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman of black and marbled pages, of squiggles and other paratextual devices mark him out as being a gleeful other, his knowingly imperfect digressive masterpiece sandwiched between these editorial traditions. Such irregular graphic features have made Tristram Shandy one of the greatest open source prepostmodern, texts of all time, while Sentimental Journey‘s unfinished, slightly smutty finale was an immediate red rag to the “demoniack” John Hall-Stevenson, who wrote a forgettable continuation.

Latterly Tristram Shandy has been used as a starting point for spin offs and “hobbyhorsical” treatments. These include John Baldessari’s set of photo collages Shandy, 1988, Michael Winterbottom’s charming film A Cock and Bull Story, 2005, through to Visual Editions elegant 2011 reprint with red finger posts etc, while Director Patrick Wildgust has re-energised the Laurence Sterne Trust through various imaginative projects such as the boxed Emblem of My Work, 2013, containing work by a glittering pleiades of contemporary writers/painters/ cartoonists/film-makers ranging from Norman Ackroyd to Laetitia de Chazal, Margot Ecke to Andrew Kotting, Javier Marias to Leanne Shapton, Graham Swift to Jacqueline Yallop. The museum and garden too has grown in popularity since it cropped up as a tourist destination in Patrick Keiller’s travelogue film Robinson in Space, 1997; firmly on the northern literary heritage trail besides Brontë Parsonage, and Dove Cottage.

Inevitably the shenanigans of Sterne’s corporeal afterlife hovered in the background, a shaggy dog story in itself. His fresh corpse was interred off the Bayswater Road, before being illegally exhumed by body snatchers, only to turn up on a Cambridge University dissecting table, where it was recognised and duly reburied. Here the author’s celebrity status came to his rescue, saving him from being reduced to dismembered body parts in a surgeon’s waste bin; an early modern dance of death, but with self-fashioned iconography as in the emblematic engraving by Thomas Patch. Two hundred years later Laurence Sterne’s battered bones were finally moved north to St Michael’s Coxwold, despite him being in his own time a wrong’un within the Erastian church, who though utterly haunted by death in life was never morbid.

Postcode lottery

His work is informed by the capturing of somaesthetic experiences in a notebook; as well as the appropriation of ideas from literature & philosophy. http://www.edhadfield.com/bio/

Conceived as a part of a live project, Edward Hadfield’s third year BA dissertation extensively interrogates, paraphrases and broadens the reach of his artists’ book WC1R (2014), an A5 landscape publication, soft covers divided into black and white panels, with the severity of chess ‘squares’, its pages conveying what at first glance appear to be extracts from a hand-written diary or manuscript, lipstick red and white writing on a black background antiphonally offset by red and black on a white one, the fluid cursive text by turns lucid then entangled, the discourse problematised by overwriting. What Hadfield characterises as associative/negative leaves are executed in a Sharpie permanent fine point, the integrative/positive on the other hand drawn with a Tombow ABT dual brush pen, setting up a dialectical conversation that raises questions about the motivation required to turn such personal stuff into an art object.

Hadfield has declared the indexical trace to be crucial to his practice, and these running words do hover between the iconic and symbolic, neither abstract marks nor monumental inscriptions. But what are we to make of the title WC1R? Not an incompletely addressed letter so much as direct bio-rhythmic ouput from a particular London postcode, an automatic sample of the author’s momentary physiological and intellectual trance state expressed as performance, then digitized by Photoshop and InDesign and circulated; the lushness of the fluid lettering serving too as a reminder that calligraphy is a dying art lest it be worked at, writing still a joyous activity when liberated from its merely administrative or journalistic function; for we are all typographers now.

So in WC1R the reader gets faced with the immediate evidence of Hadfield’s preoccupations, and the playing out of tension. In an apparent parody of DWP terminology Hadfield’s intervention at the Whitechapel Art Book fair, 2014, was entitled ‘Work Placement’, which he quickly re-conceived as a full-time multi-tasking job comprising author, editor, producer, curator and live performer. Featuring conscious destruction of the negative landscapes in the booklet as an act of clearance prior to transmission of the positive scenes, and their deployment in public forums as the basis for affable group chat, he has revealed -in a nod to Ed Ruscha- it had always been intended to scale the book back onto canvas, his ambition for the work extending beyond the genre specific.

The double landscape format also worked particularly well for scaling to canvas as a triptych. For me, my art practice operates using words in a field, whether that field is a page, a wall or a canvas. (Email 8 Oct, 2014)

He might well have added postcard too, as he has taken to distributing the positive pages as A5 cards with personal contact details on the back in his own hood, a performative bias which gives his expanded practice genuine social value and pzazz way beyond the mute selfishness that typifies so much of today’s hegemonic commodity fetishism, the submissive gallery showbiz of corporate capitalism. And therefore despite being a slim volume WC1R succeeds as a means and mode of transaction and exchange, an unconventional reading experience, and mediated platform rather than end in itself; seismographically charged with a painterly beauty, as a user-friendly token it puts you under its spell in a ‘kindly’ (a favourite Hadfield term) way whilst possessing the courage of its own cool unintelligibility, graphic traces pulsing beyond the limits of the normal printed page. Hadfield is on his way to re-energising the poet/painter/performer tradition as represented so well by the unbridled activities of art school stalwarts such as the late Jeff Nuttall, Bob Cobbing and Adrian Henri.

Sarah Jacobs’ data traps: a bibliography 1996-2017

  • 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

Metacognitive Artefacts

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

Holocausts of the scroll/codex

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.

Rough treatment

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.

Tree houses in the sky

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!

ISBN 978-1-910010-08-2