Focus on Artists' Books 3

Artspace Mackay
25 – 26 February 2006

This third seminar at Artspace Mackay: Focus on artists’ books 3, was its most ambitious to date. Funding was secured to deliver international speakers, not only to the forum but to most capital cities in Australia for workshops following the artists’ books talkfest. This was a valuable extension to the already significant work Artspace has done on the profile and conceptual development of artists’ books in Australia. Director Robert Heather regards this as a happy accident predicated on the existing collection of artists’ books held by the Mackay library and the lack of any other national initiative in this area, but it is clear that without his leadership this depth of commitment to artists’ books would not exist, certainly not at a regional level. From 2007 the artists’ books forum will run in Mackay every two years, with the Libris Awards Australian artists’ books prize and exhibition, held for the first time at Artspace this year, to be seen in alternate years.

While numbers have remained fairly static since the first forum in 2004 (in terms of marketing, artists’ books have to be seen as a niche within the visual arts niche, albeit one that generates passion and commitment), the event has clear momentum. This year it took on the canon proposed by United States academic Johanna Drucker, seeking to debate her bid for a definition for artists’ books and structures within which they are made, bought, sold and collected.

Marshall Weber, of Brooklyn Publishing in New York, kicked the ball directly into this debate in his keynote speech, when he suggested that artists’ books in 2006 were a bit like installation art in the 1980s, or conceptual art in the 1970s. His claim for artists’ books was as the medium of the moment, an intrinsically multimedia vehicle, one which could only see the concept develop exponentially.

 

The artists’ book world is multi-faceted: its role as the creative fringe of the free speech movement, as the laboratory for global language research, and as a primary new art media of the 21st century seems inevitable. The artists’ book field is having birth pangs and pains, and we’re all midwives. Our child, our hybrid child, is being reborn as an interdisciplinary medium instead of an exclusively or even primarily print based medium. Young artists and students growing up in a cybernetic, multi-media world see the artists’ book as another validated contemporary art medium … This does not efface the importance of the traditional book, the livre de artiste, or the fine press printed book; it provides another type of aesthetic approach to the medium.1

 

Feeding neatly into this debate was ‘Sufferance’, an exhibition of artists’ books shown at Craft Queensland gallery in September 2005, commissioned by the State Library of Queensland. This project, which took its inspiration from the Queensland centenary of women’s suffrage and the 40th anniversary of the granting of the indigenous peoples right to vote in Queensland, saw selected artists draw inspiration from the State Library of Queensland’s holdings. The result was an exhibition of contemporary art of significant power, but led to an outcry about the lack of adherence of many of these ‘artists’ books’ to any book-like format.

The two day conference program traversed artists’ books practices national and international—and was eye-opening in detail. Narae Kim, instrumental in introducing artists’ books to Korea, suggests they now have some 40,000 practitioners, although the movement operates more like a community project. Sarah Bodman described her method of stimulating librarians to make their own artists’ book, and several artists, national and international, presented a range of their own practices.

The conference dipped in and out of the definitions and ‘canonisation’ issue. Andrea Stretton’s keynote on Sunday morning was a highlight. She explored the book as a talisman of knowledge and power and her examples were symptomatic of the book’s allure. In many ways the most contentious issue was left till last, with a panel on Sufferance the final session. There was a clear sense that some people had been holding back to stake their claims for a definition or otherwise in this session, but discussion was defused somewhat due to the departure of some panel members to the airport.

To an extent, the requirement for a canon seems artificial, a limiting stricture or list of rules that needs only be made to be flouted (human nature being what it is). Yet discussion of these issues can only stimulate the makers, curators and collectors in this genre to take the steps to the next level, which, if Marshall Weber is correct, will see the artform have greater impact.

notes: 

1. Weber, Marshall, Keynote lecture, 3rd Australian Artists’ Books Forum, Artspace Mackay, February 25, 2006.