Focus on Artists' Books 2

Artspace Mackay
February 2005


This year’s Focus on Artists’ Books 2 at Artspace Mackay was clear evidence that a regional gallery can take on a leadership role within the visual arts by developing a focused collection and programs. Although only a recent addition to the cultural landscape Artspace Mackay’s focus on the artist’s book as an art form has already won it many admirers, and strategically builds upon an initiative of the Mackay City Library, which began collecting artists’ books in the mid-1990s.

Focus on Artists’ Books 2 (the second, after last year’s inaugural event) was not just a conference, not just an opportunity to share ideas, and not just an excuse for a social get-together; it was all of the above and more! Spanning five days in late-February, Focus on Artists’ Books 2 included a conference, workshops, exhibitions, and a range of related events. This year there were booked-out practical workshops or ‘masterclasses’ in printmaking, bookbinding and papermaking, with such luminaries in the field as Martin King, Senior Printmaker at the Australian Print Workshop, Canberra-based artist and papermaker Katherine Nix, Dianne Fogwell from the Canberra School of Art’s Edition + Artist Book Studio, and bookmaker Adele Outteridge.

Fogwell and Outteridge were in Mackay wearing a number of hats, with two new exhibitions launched at Artspace Mackay. The first, entitled ‘How I entered there I cannot truly say’, was an impressive survey of collaborative works (prints, folios, and books) produced at the Edition + Artist Book Studio (E+ABS) since Fogwell was appointed Lecturer-in-Charge in 1996. As a rather animated Professor Sasha Grishin, Head of Art History at the Australian National University convincingly argued in his opening speech, the E+ABS is a unique research and development environment that actively encourages artists to be experimental, to expand the boundaries of their professional practice, which was certainly evidenced by the work on display.

The second exhibition ‘Covered Discovered’ in the Foyer Gallery show-cased books (and paintings) by Brisbane-based duo Wim de Vos and Adele Outteridge, whose collaborative four metre long concertina Whispering rhythm 2004-05, was perhaps indicative of the ‘clear line of thought’ that pervades their practice. Both spoke with passion about their work, de Vos about his intuitive approach to making art, and Outteridge on the metaphorical, generational and material threads evident in her artist’s books, such as the subversively sculptural Vessels 2004, or at the other end of the spectrum the very personal, nineteen little books collectively titled America recycled 2003.

The conference (all day Friday) was the one event that brought everyone (this year over one hundred and thirty delegates) together under one roof. Six speakers addressed the role of artists’ books in the context of contemporary art and art history, as well as the pressing issue of whether the art form will survive the digital revolution.

One of the most endearing features of the artist’s book is that it is not merely a visual item, but an object that needs to be handled, flipped through and experienced. In the first talk entitled, ‘How precious is the artist’s book?’ Stephen Spurrier, founder of Ugg Boot Press, outlined his strategies (for example, the vertical concertina) to counteract the artificial isolation imposed upon the artist’s book in the art gallery or museum environment. Arguing that artists’ books are about the interaction of the reader with the object, Spurrier illustrated his point by passing around a number his own works, with the act of reading his elongated Barcelona Diaries 2002, in particular, a personal performance piece in itself. Spurrier also argued that the collaborative project, where the outcome is the result of the input of two or more parties, could counter an artist’s preciousness towards his or her own work.

Drawing on his recent investigation into the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Australian artists’ books, Alex Selenitsch analytically mapped the chequered history of the artist’s book in this country, from the scatter effect of the 1970s, driven by office technologies, to the 1980s with the increasing institutionalisation of practice within the art schools. It was obvious to everyone that this must have been a mammoth undertaking, which I suspect Selenitsch was relieved to have concluded. Underlying his presentation was the broader issues of what public institutions collect and how their collections correlate with broader practice. So with a single vocal prompt from the conference floor, one witnessed the inception of Selenitsch’s next titanic project, a comparative analysis of Noreen Grahame’s (of Grahame Galleries + Editions) extensive private collection of artists’ books.

On art history, the two speakers could not have presented two more antithetical modes of practice, Alisa Bunbury, Curator, Prints and Drawings at NGV: International, delivered a overview of the history of the (precious) book from the illuminated manuscript to the nineteenth-century French livre d’artiste. At the other end of the spectrum, Anne Kirker, from the Queensland Art Gallery, outlined the emergence of the Fluxus movement in the 1960s under ‘chairman’ George Maciunas, and the proliferation of ephemeral and ‘intermedia’ material as democratic multiples, including the pamphlets and artists’ books published by Dick Higgin’s Something Else Press (founded in 1964), which are critical to the American-driven discourse on the artist’s book since the 1960s.

But now to the question on everyone’s lips: will the artist’s book survive in the digital age? I think Ross Woodrow’s (from the University of Newcastle) talk convinced all that the direct facsimile of a book to the computer screen (even when the digital pages can be turned with the click of a mouse) produces a rather mind-numbing experience. Woodrow argued that digital media ‘dis-binds’ or ‘de-constructs’ the book form and re-configures the information contained into ‘something else’, which lead him to his final conclusion that ‘there will never be electronic artists’ books!’ Building on this momentum, the final speaker, writer and researcher Linda Carroli, took another step forward to work ‘native’ to the screen, and divorced from the material world entirely. Inherently ephemeral in nature, often lost as untraceable ‘data trash’, or after less than six months no longer accessible due to technological change, her talk had some of us old timers wondering why we cannot just have a downloadable print version?

Robert Heather and his committed staff at Artspace Mackay deserve congratulations for their endeavours. The annual Focus on Artists’ Books conference is a must for practitioners and scholars alike, and with the added incentive of a biennial Australian Artists’ Book Prize from next year, I expect the event will continue to go from strength to strength.