A Codex Australia 2014 symposium presentation. The Codex Australia symposium was held over the mornings of 1 and 2 March 2014, with a fine book fair following each afternoon. An account of it is published here. This paper, the second of the six in the symposium, was a primarily visual presentation (as were all the others) and the text has been slightly edited for ease of reading. Three of the six presenters have their papers published here on Pretext: Monica Oppen, Lyn Ashby and this one by Caren Florance.
SHARING BOOK SPACES
When Alan Loney asked me to speak at this symposium, he told to speak on my practice, and my relationship with books, and not to get too theoretical. I don’t think I’m able to be theoretical at the best of times; but I’ve just embarked, for better or worse, on a creative PhD, because I really want to drill down into my relationship with books and text. I’m especially interested in the slippage between fine and artistic book production, and how Antipodean book communities also slip between the two depending on the opportunities and education available to them.
Australian book spaces, & the lack thereof
So the micro-focus of my study is my own textual production practice; I’m looking at notions of poetic collaboration and the influence of technology, and by technology, I mean in the most basic sense: tools, equipment, process: the human need to extend our reach beyond our bodies, and the book is a very big part of this. The macro-focus is on the Antipodean field of creative book practice, or our regional condition. In other words, how Australians and NZers are making books, where they’re learning about them, what they’re using to make them and where they are showing and selling them. I think – and I think you all know – that our book environment is very different to that of the northern hemisphere, and I’m interested in how this influences the kinds of books that are being made. As I said, it’s early days in my focus on this; and the larger picture is actually only a small part of my overall research, but thus far I’m treating it as my literature review, and my plan is to continue pursuing the subject serious after my doctrate. In the short term I want to do as much making as I before I wear out physically – book printing and making is tough on your body! So I plan to keep the observations and enquiries ticking along as I move through various creative communities, and any input from any of you this weekend is very very welcome.
So, before I launch into a more focused talk about my book practice, let me give you a brief example. This is a very quick brainstorm done in one afternoon, thinking about major book-focused events, initiatives and opportunities in Australia that I’ve known about since I’ve been involved with the books arts. It doesn’t look too bad for a country with a population the size of ours, and I’m sure I’ve left out quite a few things — but if I do this:
You can see how things change. The red lines are things lost, disbanded or discontinued: bookshops, fairs, journals that never got past one issue or tried their darndest to survive; the green lines were one-off events. I haven’t included educational courses or exhibitions by individuals or institutions, but eventually I’d like to draw up a big mind-map of book-related activity here and in NZ. Ok, I’ll come back to this topic a bit later, but this, I hope, gives you a sense of the flux of our regional condition. The mere fact that I can list things like this on one page shows that we are a very small pond compared to the Northern Hemisphere.
The forming of personal book spaces & how this affects the making of books
My interest in the larger picture stems from my realization that the traditional origin stories and narratives about discovering book-making and fine printing are fundamentally shifting. The kinds of books that people make depend on where they were born and how they grew up.
By ‘born’, I mean how they first encountered books as art. ‘Growing up’ is the education and experience they underwent and accumulated. People are coming at books from quite different angles now, and in the art world the book has become the ultimate cross-disciplinary vehicle.
This may seem obvious, but it is vital to remember that Australia has, and has had distinct moments of fine press and book art activity that waxed and waned, and similar waves of educational opportunities. As Andrew Schuller said to me the other day, according to Geoffrey Farmer there wasn’t a lot of private press activity in Australia before the 1970s; there was a solid wave of activity that arose at that point and then seemed to crash and break in the mid- to late-1990s. In regards to artists’ books, again, there have been surges of activity since the 1970s, but they’ve been especially popular over last ten to fifteen years. I’m getting the feeling, though, that at the moment, we’re over the crest.
Before the internet, it seemed that you had to be somehow personally connected to the people populating these moments. Since the rise of the internet, there is an illusion that we are all closely connected, that knowledge is easily obtained virtually, but in reality there are just as many small and mysterious circles of activity as ever, and it is only events like these that flush many people out.
We can blame our country’s size for a lot of this. If someone from regional Australia discovers artists’ books on the internet, they would probably prefer to muddle through a Youtube clip than have to travel hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometers to find a class on bookbinding. if you want to learn letterpress, there are few ways to learn about handling type other than enrol in a university course, find some printer to mentor you or find somewhere that provides public access, and there are very few of those. It’s a tough country in terms of the finer book arts.
There is really no standard formula to judge or dictate how someone should be making books. Even notions of technical skill and quality have to take into account the angle from which the maker is approaching the exercise. Someone who is a papermaker with an interest in paper pulp wants to make a very different book than someone who came through art school with a passion for screen-printing. A university-trained graphic designer has a different focus to someone who encountered a working press and yearned to own one themselves, which is, over the last century, a very common – and now endangered – origin story. The thing that unites them – us – all is the book itself.
This is the first thing I ever printed with letterpress. It’s not my first book; that was made when I was very little, at the behest of a great-aunt. But this is the moment that turned me towards the book arts. Here is where I tell you my own origin story, and my apologies to those of you who have heard it before. It does tie in with what I’ve been saying. I’ve realized that my book education was exceptional, in that it straddles various moments in Australian book arts history, and it positions me perfectly for my research.
I worked on this chapbook in 1992 as an English Masters student, and my class used the press at the Australian National University School of Art as a temporary bibliographic press, to learn about the traditional printing of books. The press is still there, but it hasn’t been used for bibliography teaching for a long time. There are only a few presses still used this way; one is at Monash University here in Melbourne, and another is in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Soon after encountering letterpress, I was introduced to Alec Bolton, whose Brindabella Press surfed that recent solid wave of traditional private press activity in Australia; I mean, there is, of course, still activity in Australia now, but it’s a mere shadow of what used to be out there, and the boundaries have blurred between private press work and fine artists’ book work. I worked with Alec professionally in his capacity as book designer, and then I worked with him privately while he attempted to move his presswork into the realm of photopolymer plate.
He showed me his books and the books of other presses that he’d bought or bartered. Before meeting him my idea of beautiful book production was Folio Society books. His steadfast traditional approach, and incredibly fastidious design drawings inspired me no end. I wanted to do what he did, I knew I wanted to work with letterpress, but I had no means to get my own equipment, so I followed the press I’d used at the ANU a few years earlier.
Which meant that in 1995 I encountered this team, who were an incredible moment in Australia’s book art history. Petr Herel, Dianne Fogwell, Peter Finlay, and a host of visiting artists like New Yorker Raphael Fodde and sessional staff like papermaker Katherine Nix. They took the book seriously, and working with the form of the book creatively was the daily business of the Graphic Investigation Workshop. The book was a vessel of exploration, something that could hold, showcase, accentuate and extend every kind of mark-making that art can produce. Image and text held equal weight, and handset letterpress (and later polymer plate) was readily available to students without constraint. Many of the books produced were unbound; this was partly because Petr revered the French tradition of unbound works, but also because the workshop didn’t have proper bookbinding equipment, so bindings were often rudimentary. If students wanted to learn more technical binding processes, they were encouraged to do an internship with local fine binders like John Tonkin, or to attend the local TAFE in our own time, something I did after graduating. These teachers profoundly influenced my book-making, in very different ways; when I started at art school my head was full of Alec’s fine press work, and it took a long time for me to loosen up, as you’ll see. Peter Finlay, who had been an apprenticed newspaper printer from a very young age, taught me the nuts & bolts of printing. He was the inspiration for Phil Day and Ingeborg Hansen’s Finlay Press.
Dianne Fogwell: over the years we have been teacher and student, employer and employee, mentor and apprentice, Batman and Robin, and finally friends. She lives just near me in Canberra, and we see each other regularly. She taught me that you can work on very small, sometimes flippant, sometimes substantial books on your kitchen table as a way of channeling energy and ideas between the slow, steady work of larger formal projects, and this has been ever since been my pattern.
This is an early formal work for her, very much made in the Graphic Investigations style: large open unbound pages, nice balance between text and image. Dianne is still making books: very large, lush printmakerly books alongside small digital zine-like works.
Dianne and Petr Herel formed a strong dichotomy within the workshop, and it worked well with the varying needs of the students. What I learned from Petr Herel is still unfolding; his relationship with the page spread is complex and sinuous and while I took his teaching onboard reverently as a student, I’m only now really allowing myself to unpack it properly, and part of my PhD is to give myself permission to play with his teachings in the way that I should have back in my undergraduate days.
I’m still working in the ANU Printmedia Book Studio now; I have been hanging around it since 1995, so it’s no wonder most people think of it as ‘my’ space when I’m actually just a sessional employee there, teaching one 4-hour class a week. The equipment it holds, the potential it offers is very important; we are currently at a crossroads with leadership change and pressures from the university, so I cannot say what its future holds, only that I hope it has a future.
So having encountered all of these people, you can see how my bookmaking evolved. By my honours year I was influenced by art, by design, I was enamoured of artists’ books AND finely printed books. My love of traditional fine books was deemed to be quite, sort of retrograde at the art school, I had to almost prove myself as an artist, but I really didn’t want to stray too far. So I made Shared Rooms. It is very much a shared book space: two Australian poets creating a project for themselves, writing imitations of Russian poets like Mandelstam and Akhmatova with the help of a translator. This book involves Akhmatova, and I worked from the original manuscript copies held in the National Library of Australia. So there are four versions of each poem, plus an original image, all collated in ‘envelopes’ screenprinted with their and my workings to evoke a sense of correspondence.
Four beginnings, not quite saying the same thing. [Recollection has three epochs/Memory has three eras/ Memory divides in three. And I can’t read Russian, sorry!] Who is to say which is the best or the most important? I mean, you can present the original and the translation together, but how do you decide who should sit next between Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell? Alphabetisation can be quite a dreary option. So they are unbound, and able to be moved between the trays of the presentation drawer to suit personal taste.
There is a concertina version of this book, but it loses something by imposing control on the order. I like to bring work to a reader, but I also like to share reading control when I can. Paratextual elements help: in this case, the envelopes work like chapters. Petr Herel may not bind his books, but he controls the movement through his books by clear narrative elements that would not work out of order. Still, they can be lifted out of place and admired, and returned. There is a risk of loss, but then there is a risk for every object that is handled, and the joy of handling things should outweigh the risk.
By the time I made Shared Rooms, Alec Bolton had died, and I had become good friends with his widow, poet Rosemary Dobson, who had let me use her papers for the book. These particular books, which I planned for years before I had the time and means to make them, were a pure and simple homage to Alec. These are companion volumes, reflecting shared friendship. Rosemary introduced me to the work of her friend, the late Nan McDonald, who had worked at Angus & Robertson as an editor with her, and she helped me connect with Nan’s family for permission to reprint the poems.
As all of the fine book makers here know, part of the magic of our work is matching the visual elements with the textual elements, finding the right combination, sharing a vision with someone else and co-ordinating that vision. The text and image production is rarely the same person; if it is, the result is more likely to be seen as an artist’s book. In this case, I invited Jan Brown, a Canberra sculptor who concentrates on animals and birds. She is Nan’s exact contemporary but they never met, and whilst reading the poems, Jan worked out that they had tramped the same bushwalks, around the same years. I felt like the book was introducing them, allowing them to share thoughts.
This was also my chance to try a few things; I wanted to show that I could print well, and design thoughtfully. There was a lot of debate and outrage happening on the internet about kiss printing and mash printing (an argument which is still happening, but more muted in the face of change: grumbling rather than raging). I printed the text lightly, but deeply embossed the drawings using polymer plate, allowing the indented line to show through on the other side of the page, like tracks or animal traces and wove the progression of the poetry to match this movement. I had a lot of freedom with this book, because the poet was dead and her estate amicable.
In contrast, the Dobson book was troublesome. Rosemary was quite elderly and fretful by that time, and even though we were very close, she held on to the thought that this was her final book (it wasn’t, but we weren’t to know that) and wanted complete control over everything. I ended up making a dustjacket for it because she demanded that her name be on the spine, and I didn’t have access to blocking equipment. To compound the troubles, I decided to set the entire book in photopolymer, as the type I had access to was very worn (I made that a feature in Transmigration, but it wouldn’t have helped in this situation). It made a lovely book, but the experience was somewhat diminished. It solidified my current attitude to polymer, which is that all the creativity happens on the computer; once the plate is made, the skill lies in positioning the plate and making sure it prints cleanly. No mean feat, for sure, but to be honest, it doesn’t interest me. I like the wrestle with the text; I like to be able to change the words and let them move and transform.
The best thing about the book was working with Ros Atkins, who is a wonderful wood engraver who also worked with Alec, and was Rosemary’s choice of image-maker for the book. Alec also worked with Mike Hudson of the Wayzgoose Press, and Barbara Hanrahan, an Adelaide-based artist. I quite enjoy tracing connections with Alec’s work: I have met Mike and Jadwiga, a few times now, but I was too late for Barbara, who died in 1991.
I wanted to give the book a bit more outreach so I offered it in sheets for binders to buy, and then organized an exhibition of the resulting bindings. This is my binding for the show, which was called Books to Hold or Let Go. I still sell both books in sheets, because Australia has a dearth of printers willing to make sheets for binders. This was a limp binding using paper I’d made when at art school, and I momigamied it myself, which a very haptic, deeply satisfying physical process.
When people make art or craft or write poetry, there’s a pure focus on the resulting artifact or work. Lately much has been made of the actual process, mostly thanks to the internet, and this has been one of the ways that craft has managed to stay alive in the face of online technology: by using that technology to show our workings, to prove that time and care is necessary to bring forth the artifact itself, that it doesn’t just spring out of thin air. People used to know about the relationship between skill and time, but now they have to be shown all over again.
Over time, as I worked on my books and other people’s books, I became interested in the detritus from the stages of production. This work, an installation piece, resulted from misprinting a section of the Dobson book; some of the section was used to make this two-part installation bookwork, and the rest made the prospectus for the fine press book. A lot of my ‘artist’s book’ work now stems from offcuts or overprints or is inspired by technical processes such as hand-rolling type or tearing paper.
Here are some quick examples of what I think of as ‘detritus’ books, that tap into the offcuts or processes. This book uses paper that has been pulled through the press rollers before cleaning it and then gathered in a whirlwind binding: the only text beside the colophon is a line from Gerard Manly Hopkins: ‘I wake, and feel the fell of dark: not day’. There are wonderful, completely accidental visual moments in the blackness of this book’s pages that, for me at least, belie the meaning of the line: they are moments worth living for, marks that inspire.
I put this in because it contains a joke perfect for this audience. It is an artist’s book, responding to a Jeanette Winterson passage, and the story it holds in its dos-a-dos pages is a fictional and speculative account of the genesis of the internet. It is printed on drawing cartridge using my home inkjet printer, using domestic ink that I know will fade to grey over the next however-many years (as will most contemporary documents). So at the back I printed some letterpress, posing the question that I ask myself regularly: what will remain when all this fades? Why, the letterpress, of course.
As usual, with a PhD, one’s project shifts about in the first year. I started part time last year which gave me time to get the meandering out of the way. Originally I was going to explore contemporary letterpress usage. One of the questions I asked, and still do, is: what can letterpress do that other forms of textual production can’t? A designer would say ‘emboss’ but that is too simple. My answer so far is that it can straddle materials: it can print on and over surfaces that are hard to print otherwise. I’ve made a book made from the plastic film that protects photopolymer plate before use; it prints wonderfully and holds its shape without cracking when folded. The individual pieces stack to make one object and it is housed inside a CD box.
This is the perfect example of what letterpress can do – not a book, but I couldn’t resist showing you: what other process could print on cling-wrap (or saran-wrap to you international types)? I made this series of prints for a show called ‘Hopeless Romantics’ and I found the text by typing #forever into Twitter.
The freedom of book spaces & our attempts to wrangle them
I am often asked by library types whether the book I have made is private press work or artists’ book work. It’s hard to answer. Everything I make is essentially private press work, as I happily take full advantage of the definition that a private printer prints whatever they want without commercial pressure and the bottom line is the enjoyment of making. Thanks to my particular book education, you can perhaps see why I’m very catholic in my tastes, very broad in my acceptance of what is a book and how book space can be shared by a variety of makers. For the next few slides I’m going to show you an example of this, via an exhibition that I curated last year.
Last year was the Canberra Centenary; everyone in the region was thinking about our shared history and our future. There are a lot of books being made in the region, but they are rarely seen in the same place at the same time. I asked 20 artists to exhibit an old work and a newer work; for some, this gap was 20 years, for others it was only months. I didn’t think too hard initially about formal connections between the artists beyond the fact that I knew they made books, but when it was all installed and I looked about me, I realized that they were all connected to the ANU School of Art, and the majority were influenced or informed by Petr and Dianne and the Graphic Investigation Workshop.
I really mixed it up: the room held symbolic books, sculptural books, fine press books and all manner of artists’ books, which, when you really examine the breadth of the genre, is just such an inadequate term. Here you can see a table of finely printed artists’ books in the tradition of Petr Herel’s unbound books: works by Iona Walsh, who still works closely with Petr; Dianne Fogwell, and Tanya Myshkin, who is an extraordinary printmaker with a love of traditional books.
This is a close-up of one of Tanya Myshkin’s works. She didn’t have access to letterpress for this book so she engraved the Russian text as well as the images. I have her latest book with me for the fair, it is based on a poem by Mallarmé and printed in my studio.
There were a lot of codex books, but many other book structures. I always tell my students that humans are hardwired to know what a book is, how it works, how to use one. We know from a very early age that a book is intended as an intimate space, a personal experience that connects the thoughts of many. By choosing to make a book, or by using ready-made books or by suggesting book-like qualities, artists are using this knowledge to their own advantage, pulling the reader halfway towards their idea, using the book itself to facilitate the meaning of their message, making the reader do some of the work.
This is a beautiful fine artist’s book by printmaker Antonia Aitken with flawless production values, including etching, letterpress and laser etching on the cover. In NY on a residency, she strapped etching plates to her chest and walked around the city, making marks with the swing of her arms. Each mark is a breath and a step. The attached CD holds recordings of her walks, and is a spectacular augmentation for the marks. I can give people contact details for any of these artists if you would like to see the books yourself.
Nicci Haynes, who makes books that look traditional from the outside but are very surprising on the inside. Lots of text used, but nothing legible, just built into the imagery. She works a lot with and is inspired by the writings of James Joyce.
This was a revisitation of a student work by artist Murray Kirkland. It has many elements that allow it to exist as a book: sequence, presentation of marks, structure, temporal movement. The clockwork drawing machine moved slowly around, completing the circuit in around 24 hours. I put it at one end of the exhibition and a sculpture of cast books at the beginning: I wanted people to start and finish with the thought ‘that’s not a book!’ and then perhaps go back through the works and try to work out for themselves what they thought a book actually should be.
I’ve observed that people will look at an artists’ book much longer than they will look at a painting or sculpture, if they are allowed to touch the book. And this is the irony of books as art: most of them are meant to be handled, but handling diminishes their quality and depletes their value. Most fine press editions, as we’ll experience this afternoon, have a handling copy, but if a book is in a very small edition or is unique, it is a real problem. So in this exhibition we apologetically didn’t allow handling except for Saturday afternoons in the gallery, when we could have artists and minders present, and we gave out white gloves so that people could explore the books for themselves. These sessions, which included artist floor talks, and the exhibition generally was very popular. It encouraged a lot of local artists to think about the book form as part of their practice, and I want to have a follow-up exhibition in a year or so.
Collaboration is the ultimate form of sharing book space. I mentioned before the magic of matching the right images with the text; in fine press work the printer tends to be like a conductor, steering everything in the ‘right’ direction.
This work, with Ros Atkins was a bit like that: I wanted to use a text that Rosemary Dobson had asked me to read to her many times, a letter from 1820 about ways to stop being depressed. Ros and I discovered that we’d both wanted to hand-carve wooden type to make illuminated capitals, so I sent her some spare type and she sent me back her visual response to the text, and then I just made the book I wanted to make. We divided the edition and nearly all of them were used as presents rather than sold.
This way of working together is not really collaboration, but rather, shared trust. It’s risky; it’s handing over your part of a project and hoping that the other person or people will do their bit well. This book was a bit like that: we worked out a framework, Patsy and Shellaine Godbold did the images, they gave it to me to work out the text and the binding, and it all went swimmingly, thank goodness. A small digression: the book was made to support the poet, who was very ill; the process of making it, and the sense of purpose she felt at being taken seriously as a poet actually brought her back from the brink of death; we thought the money we were making would be used for her funeral, but in the end it funded her to go to writing workshops. The power of a book!
GW Bot and I work on similar terms. She has a book idea, she gives me drawings, I work out my part of it while she prints the images, and then I do my bit. This is our second book together, and I’m sure there will be another one before too long.
Poetry has always been part of my practice. I like using visual elements to draw the essence of a poem to the surface, to allow inroads into meaning. When I was in Dunedin at the Otakou Press printing broadsides, I met a poet who felt the same within her writing; her name is Sue Wootton, she wrote this banjo poem.
Sue writes shaped poems amongst her other poetry work, and I like working with them very much; what I like about them is that they are shaped, but not overly concrete and certainly not twee. There is nothing cute or forced about her words. She makes these shapes in Microsoft Word, which is a feat in itself, and the fun for me was translating that layout again into lead, trying a few options, scanning them and emailing them back to her in Dunedin. I did a tip-in for Matrix journal using this poem, and then I committed to printing a whole book of poems as one last fine press work before I launched into my PhD work.
And this is it; the purists will grumble about this being more like a print folio than a book. It is indeed loose pages inside a paper wrapper, but this is for similar reasons to my Honours work, Shared Rooms: this is a selection of ten very visual poems that have been treated, as most finely-printed poems are, as jewels in the hands of a bespoke jeweler. There is a title page and a colophon page with a list of acknowledgements that can double as an index of the poem titles, but again I didn’t want to impose an order upon the reading of the poems.
In fact, only one spread imposes control, and that is a triple-spread involving two separate but interconnected poems, Lovebird and Hatebird. What distinguishes this work from a print folio is the page fold for each piece of paper: the fold creates a space that can only be read as book space. Each poem responds to the fold in its own way.
I’d planned the book before the last time I visited Dunedin; it was going to be stark black and white pages, maybe touches of accent colour. But spending time with Sue changed all that: she doesn’t wear black, she is always in soft blues and greens, and she’s a very gentle person.
The book, therefore, reflects her as a person: it is printed to look like the ink is watercolour paint, with a palette of four colours that work together to add visual meaning to the poems. I’ve got copies of the book with me on my table, please come and have a look.
True collaboration, where the work moved back and forth and evolves over time, is a very exciting thing. I’ve done a lot of work now with poet and printmaker Angela Gardner, with whom I’m sharing a table at the Book Fair. Working with her has sparked off a whole right-angle of thinking about my work because of her openness to textual play and her understanding of my urge to use letterpress, and text in general, within an art context.
The work we have produced to date has been ostensibly sensible: we’ve made a broadside and a chapbook, each in a huge hurry over the space of a weekend as she flies in and out from Brisbane; but the difference is that she has helped with production, is keen to actually set the text and pull the prints, and I have to relinquish control, let go of my desire to print the pages perfectly. I don’t want to hover over her shoulder and fuss to make sure that the print is flawless, I’d rather let her build up confidence and enjoy the experience, as it will follow through to, in my mind, much more interesting outcomes.
What you don’t see when I show you these images, is the plethora of vastly interesting conversations about text and production and how the language – her poetic language – could be shifting if we weren’t working to such a deadline. This is the latest thing we’ve done, unshackled by plans and outcomes: we have been texting poem lines to each other and accepting whatever our respective auto-suggests suggest. I have an iPhone, she has an ancient Nokia, and they are as much a part of the collaborative process as we humans. I’ve made a chapbook, simply laser-printed, out of the poem states, called Interference, widely available soon, but I have few test copies with me.
So I’m on the cusp of change; as you can see, I’ve been working very neatly up to now, floating words in white space, giving them room to breathe, as all good printers do when inspired by classical production. But the words are getting wilder, behaving themselves less, and romping gleefully, and I need to find a way to work with them that isn’t quite anarchy, but not the sedate wrangling that I’m used to.
The problem I’m setting myself is how to set books where poetry moves through the space of the pages, where I’m collaborating directly with the writers themselves as the poems are written, and working out ways to let the formation of the text be an important part of the “final” outcome; to see what happens when you introduce various technical processes, like letterpress, digital printing, html; correspondence by mail or email or text message; how the work progresses and how it solidifies… you know that point when you pull a proof of an original poem, and then you show the poet, and they go — oh, I should change this and this… so they make textual changes, and then you have further states of the poem. That building towards a “final” state, and then all those little shifts away from what was thought to be final…
I’d like to work with this concept of pulsing, of coalescing and diffusing through book pages, and I’m talking to a number of poets, including Angela, about way to do this. I’m still working on the form, deciding whether I want to work in a formal, fine way, or whether to push it further in the artists’ book direction. But first I need to explore the boundaries between the two: design elements, material choices, production values, technical proficiency… what elements of production push the work one way or the other? Can serious poetry ever really be used in artist’s books? When you see poetry in artists’ books it’s laid out very differently, sometimes one line per page, used narratively to give purpose to the usually predominant images. If you make a book that is all poetry, will it be considered an artists’ book? Or, if the production values are alternative, will it be rejected by the fine press community, which is traditionally so interested in poetry and poetics?
To explore this, I have stepped away from visual arts; I am studying at the University of Canberra under the umbrella of design and creative writing process, and I’m attached to a brand new academic centre for Creative and Cultural Research, and specifically its International Poetry Studies Institute, or IPSI, headed by Professor Jen Webb (here today) and Associate Professor Paul Hetherington. I’ve seen creative books produced by architects, designers, writers, and all sorts of other angles; I think this approach particularly suits my background.
Exploring more ways to share book spaces
I don’t know if you have noticed, but there was a strong sense of community engendered by events like the Focus on Books conferences in Mackay, and it seems to have faded lately without similar events to sustain it. I have high hopes for this Codex weekend, may it provoke some sense of solidarity, and remind us that we all care deeply about this material thing called Book. I know that if we have too many events too close together in Australia, it can feel like we’re all talked out, that we’re listening to the same speakers all the time, and I’m probably a good example of that. But there is still a real need for discussion and engagement. There seems to be defined strata in our book community, layers of makers who move in their own circles: high art, low art, contemporary craft, traditional craft, university education and community workshops, with little communication between them. If people think that there is an issue about the quality of the books being made, or the lack of skill and conceptual rigour behind the work, then there’s only one solution, and that is more energy: more educational opportunities, more sharing of skills, more public access facilities, more exposure to good work, more awareness built up within the general community and more support from infrastructure such as galleries and bookstores. The irony in Australia is that there are many good, reputable outlets selling secondhand fine and rare books, but none of them sell new fine books! It’s almost worth sending a book off to a dealer via a friend who pretends that they’re trying to sell it from their personal collection. Crazy! But I’m sure if I did, I wouldn’t be the first.
Personally, I try to do as much as I can: I teach at tertiary level and for communities, I get involved in my local bookbinding guild, and I curate and mentor. I run a residency program from my own studio to get fresh graduates from the ANU art school enthused about letterpress. I would make books with them, but books involve too much time and commitment so we make a broadside together.
I’m just flicking through a selection of some of the work we’ve made.
So you can see that I’ve been thinking a lot about Australia’s corner of the field of the Book as Art. I’ve been involved now for a good number of years, but now that I’ve really started looking, I’ve discovered that there’s not a lot of consolidated information out there. It’s early days yet, but what I do learn from my research isn’t just becoming a private database: I’ve learned my lesson from the historical failed attempts to publish in print media, and have started a public website called Pretext that aims to be a one-stop resource of weblinks, reference materials, re-published texts that are out of print, and new writings by people who are at the coalface of book arts in Australia and New Zealand. I only started building it in January, and it’s having a slow and steady start, but as the momentum builds I hope that people (and I mean all of you) start to interact with it: leave comments, start discussions, send me information, write words for it. It covers the whole spectrum of book making and processes that lead to books, like binding, papermaking and printmaking. I’m interested in book-making that steps sideways from the mainstream publishing industry. They all need to be explored and supported and above all, discussed, by everyone involved. I’m attempting to build up a proper living and pulsing picture of what is happening in Australia right now, and of what happened in the last 4 decades up to now, and it might, alongside Codex and other related endeavours, help us, as book lovers and book makers of all types, to share our book spaces to everyone’s benefit.