Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chapbook as Art Object

On May 3rd & 4th, as part of The Annual Chapbook Festival held at The Graduate Center, CUNY, I participated in a panel discussion entitled Chapbook as Art Object.

The panel was moderated by Sarah Nicholls of The Center for Book Arts, and the panelists included Roni Gross & myself.

The same panel took place on both days, the second of which I recorded.

What follows is an audio record of this panel, as well as the notes which I generated in response to the initial questions that Sarah Nicholls sent to the panelists.

General Introduction by Sarah Nicholls

Roni Gross Introduction

Jeremy J F Thompson Introduction

Panel Discussion


How can publishing help foster a conversation between the visual and the verbal?

Publishers need to perform.

Publishing is, at its foundation, the primary form of archiving and documentation.

Publishers need to constantly consider and reconsider the relationships between publishing as an industry and publishing as an increasingly everyday practice that is becoming more and more democratized.

Blog & Twitter publishing vs. Trade Book Publishing.

The intersection of publishing as a tool or platform for fostering conversations between the visual and the verbal is most identifiable within networks of blogs that resemble communities, sharing topical interests and adopting comparable forms of writing/blogging. Within these networks, tools of visual communication via text and image correspond with a verbal tone of conversation, a dialogue between practitioners, conscious of, but not limited to, a private language.

How do you approach collaboration? Do you think of publishing as a social activity?

Collaboration, within the context of art, generally refers to the artifacts produced as a result of practitioners approaching each other.

I hope with my collaborations to produce artifacts that openly and blatantly point up the process while rendering the artifact increasingly valueless as the process becomes increasingly understood.

Collaboration is best practiced when the collaborators operate within the context of a defined role or practice (i.e. editor/ writer, curator/ artist, composer/ musician). This is not to say that the traditional hierarchies suggested by the professional and commercial practices of these collaborations should be maintained, but rather that such hierarchies allow for a shared entry point of mutual, though generalized, identification.

Collaboration is asking someone a question that imposes a context on someone willing to respond within that context. Their response may also involve a disregard of the imposed context.

Publishing is not a social activity, but publishing needs to be a social activity.

Publishers, like editors, curators, and other authoritative and facilitating administrators are responsible for the way generated data is organized. The organization of this data is the art of our century. This realization places more responsibility on publishers, equalizing the relationship between publisher and writer, data and data placement.

Example: TAN LIN’s EDIT event, wherein editors outnumber writers, 17 to 1.

What kind of relationship do you want to foster with a reader? How do you do this?

I want the reader to approach a text as an intermediary. In the same way that an editor, instructor, or publisher is an intermediary. I hope the reader will acknowledge the text as an artifact document, as well as information that needs to be mitigated and interrogated. I have done this with varying degrees of success by adopting language and images sourced from the internet, some of which I edit, and some of which I merely recontextualize through selectivity and placement. Much of this language, either immediately or over time, is recognizable to the reader by virtue of their being predisposed to linguistic devices and tropes which are ever present on the internet, and recognizable through the readers presupposed use of email, forums, rss feeds, blogs, and twitter posts. I also sometimes seek to accomplish this activation of the reader by creating very identifiable artifices within narrative (Autographography). These artifices are similar to the kind of cues one finds in 1st person video games, wherein an object they are meant to interact with is singled out by some characteristic, while also being an acceptable part of the scenario. For example, if I am playing a 1st person shooter, such as Bioshock, I identify tools I can add to my toolset by looking for anything that has a glimmer of light that passes over it every few seconds. While these are meant for my use, they are also logically part of the narrative, in that they are located in places presumed natural, such energy-giving canned food located in an old abandoned kitchen. In the context of my own writing, I attempt to create similar devices by creating immediate contradiction or obvious lies. One line say that a woman named Carolyn answers the door wearing boots, and the next line says she does so wearing slippers. This is that glimmering image object that alerts the reader to the possibility of falseness, thereby inviting them to challenge every line.

What kind of relationships are you interested in in the form of the work you make, or the work you enjoy? What is your relationship to the word "handmade"?

I desire the form of the work I make to be conscious of the content therein. This is nothing new. But I complicate this by adding constraints, such as the cost of materials and production. I am not an advocate of Artists’ Books, with the exception of those that directly explore and implore the process by which they are made. (Sarah’s recent book). But this is a rare exception. Most Artists’ Books don’t advocate reading. They so often resort to over-worked studies of stagnant collage, resulting in an effect that fails in aspiring toward the kind of media collision one experiences by way of juxtaposing disparate words entered into a search engine in order to experience and organize the results. That said, the problem is not so much with the form of Artists’ Books, as the examples of the form suggest an almost indefinable collective practice, but with the practitioners of the form, who, for the most part, tend to cling to fleeting notions of tangibility, physicality, and costly product as virtues of their work.

Chapbooks should be cheap. Period. This is my opinion as a reader, not a practitioner, and the reader of today more than ever is the ultimate authority and publishing agent.

My relationship with the handmade is tenuous. I am quite capable with my hands. I have a love of precision and micro-craft. I enjoy detailed constructions and elaborate design. But in terms of professing an ethics of aesthetics, I will not privilege the handmade over the readymade, the mass produced, the formless, or the downloadable.

Within all practices, there is not now, and nor has there ever been, a need to protect or preserve any particular form. A form preserves itself by virtue of its use. If people stop reading codex bound books, then the use of the form expires, which is not to say that the form itself expires. Technologies can never expire, so long as their existence is archived. There is nothing to fear from new publishing technologies. I do not understand why so many seem to cling in desperation to outmoded forms, when those very same forms were brought into existence out of necessity, destroying and outmoding the technologies preceding them. The keyboard has not replaced the pen, but rather, the pen was designed with the promise and hope of the keyboard in mind.

What is not handmade? Is a chapbook, letterpressed, and handbound handmade? If so, how much of said

chapbook must be made by hand? Should the paper be handmade? Should the type and the presses also be hand made? Should the ink be handmade? Should the staples or thread be handmade? Is this issue actually a quantitative one? Are we really saying that we prefer evidence of hands making? Otherwise, what is not handmade? Hands make everything.

What effect does scale have? Materials? Medium?

In the information age, scale is effect. This is not the same as Bigger is better. Bigger, in fact, is bigger. If social networking has taught us anything it is that the publishing of information should not thought about in terms of how many, so much as to whom. First we must determine a readership group. This can be done in a number of ways, but the fact is, that most of the work is already done for us. Again, I turn to blogs as an example. Readership is the sum of those who already “read” us a plus those whom we have access to and whom we want to ‘read’ us. Once Readership is determined, you must then divide that sum by the qty available, which is determined by resources, cost, and time. The remainder determines scale. This process also aids in determining materials and medium, as they are directly related to readership, resources, cost and time.

I have produced a broadside that was incredibly time consuming, costly, and resource-laden, for an immediate readership of some 100 people. That is, 100 people posses the artifact. But the process, as well as the artifact, is documented online, reaching hundreds more. In some ways, the online experience is more comprehensive, in that it is associated with an explanation, context, story and commentary. It may lack the physicality of the object, but for now, most readers within this community are acquainted with “reality” of physically experiencing said object. I would call this an anomalous, transitionary art form, in that it’s reception and distribution is cross-platform, while unable to exist wholly in either. It is readers and institutions that are encouraging this practice, out of their desire to experience objects, while the object, and they themselves, are locked into fixed spatial locations. Art forms and media of all kinds are now and will continue to participate in this practice throughout our lifetimes, as we transition ever rapidly from one platform to the next. To illustrate this, let me suggest that it is impossible to see a film on YouTube. Even video, is not available on YouTube. In fact, one can only view flash on you tube. This has lead several practitioners to struggle for new language, sometimes resorting to the most obvious and surprisingly antiquated of terms “Moving Images”

What kind of audience do you hope to find with the work you produce?

I think much of this has been discussed, though I’ll attempt to say more. Today’s practitioners must look for audiences who are looking for them. This is not as simple as supply and demand, in that readers aren’t demanding, but rather, asking questions. In asking these questions, they are practitioners. I am their audience when coming upon their questions. I am not inclined to answer their question, per se, but to convert them into my readership by exploring other forms that their questions might take, forms that I am practiced in the construction of.

What effect does edition size/ price point/ economics of production have on your expectations of the work? Poetry audiences have very different expectations about the price of a book of poetry as compared to the expectations that an art audience might have of an artist's work. How does that complicate making work that has a foot in both worlds?

If a work is too expensive for its form, then my expectations are too great to warrant my addressing the work at all. I tend toward evaluating what is too expensive through analyses of the works process and materials, which can be difficult without actually addressing the work. A problematic exception is a painting, which must be viewed with regard to the paintings location. I find it almost impossible to access a painting or any artifact that is placed within a commercial gallery. All information is in code, be it language, symbols, shapes or colors, and the code that most prevails in galleries are numbers, preceded by dollar signs and followed by decimals and zeros. As a code, numbers dominate and aggressively overwhelm, evaluating the work before and after you do. There are, of course, books and texts in galleries, but more often than not, these are non-commercial spaces. Artists’ Books tend to be deemed fiscally accessible, usually by the artists themselves, and in relation to other forms of fine art or gallery art. Many of these books are priced out according to time and resources applied, and there’s generally little if no room for profit. That said, I still find these books less offensive as underpriced art object, and more offensive as overpriced books. The offense lies in the mingling of conflicting ambitions: to produce an artifact intended for distribution and reading and to produce an artifact, the distribution of which is limited by price and scale, rather than by interest. That fact is, 9 out of 10 artists books I’ve seen could be reproduced at a fraction of the price. These practitioners argue that additional value is lost in such reproduction, but I have yet to hear an argument that succeeded in going beyond the fetishistic overreliance on physicality. It is not that these books are not capable of prompting a valuable experience, but that their cost cripples their perception in a time where new efficient mediums are accomplishing similar tasks in a more affective way.

Chapbook is a word that finds its root in old English, intended to mean Cheap Book. The original chapbooks were sold by street peddlers, not so long after the invention of the press. They were almanacs, joke books, instructional volumes, and religious tracts, all meant to inform and entertain. In this sense, I would argue that I am more of a traditionalist than any material-loving craftsperson, in that I am interested in production and distribution of cheap books, and I am willing to entertain and engage in any practice which will further my cause. The chapbook is not an art object, it is an information object. I allow that chapbooks are art, in so much as all of its materials, form and content, are information, and the publishing and distribution of information is an art. It is when the materials of form and content fail to produce information, or when that information is redundant or mismanaged, or when the cost of that information exceeds its use that the chapbook becomes nothing more than another useless piece of gallery art. If such a practice were to become widespread, libraries would become galleries, and we’d find ourselves back in the dark ages, petitioning scribes and monks for a few minutes at a table to sit and view the pages of one of their sacred tomes.

The problem with addressing the issues of having your “foot in both worlds” in regard to publishing texts that exist within the realms of poetry and art is not directly related to the respective expectations of fiscal value associated with these practices. Rather, this discrepancy is just a symptom of a far greater problem, though it does suggest a means by which to demonstrate the actual conflict. The issue at hand might best be described as solidified commercial modalities, a problem born of practitioners asking what to do with their book, rather than wondering who will want to read their book. This conundrum takes place well before any artifact is produced; it is born into the foundation of the manufacturing process, giving rise to troubling titles like “book artist,” the semantics of which suggest that there are books made by non-artists. This further solidifies the already terrifying 20th century polarization of practitioner titles: fine artist vs. artist, writer vs. artist, author vs. writer, poet vs. writer, blogger vs. journalist, academic vs. scholar, theorist vs. philosopher, etc etc ad nauseum.

Albeit, some of these distinctions point toward viable differences in practice, but even those are so generalized and ignorant of the necessary subcategories beneath them that the distinction must become what it should have been in the first place: a discussion. The fact that time is limited by design always has and always will encourage categorical distinction, but the commercialization and institutionalizing of these distinctions has brought us a century of consequences, not the least of which are those imposed on and embraced by various kinds of information generators and managers. First came the desire for information, followed faster and faster by the invention of information technologies, followed by the demand for information technologies, resulting in the endless proliferation of technologically produced and distributed information, arriving at a society of both self and institutionally trained practitioners, all producing, managing information differently. Amidst this chaos, the bureaucratic innovators stand out as the social engineers of our time. Abandoning last century’s task of divining and amplifying wholesale demand in the name of issuing the best and then the better supply of said demands, these new bureaucrats now specialize in providing an ever evolving supply of monetized interfaces for personalized networking. In short, we generate the supply and demand, and they facilitate the process. It doesn’t sound half bad until you consider the few caveats they’ve imposed. Mainly, categorical streamlining. Relying upon our collective craving for simplified communication, they’ve created tags clouds, prioritized search parameters, quantitatively legitimized categories. It’s our majority voice screaming back at us. It’s telling us that a book (or any product) must initially be defined by what we have to give for it. The subtext is, that all products, and therefore all information, are categorically situated and defined by their price. It begins with logical material deductions, such as hardback vs. paperback. Then scale and availability come into play, turning limited supply into limited edition. Finally, once we’ve begun to drink the water, we’re ready for that absurd leap, which no industry exemplifies so well as the arts. This is the stage where quality and value but heads semantically. Association, origin, and age turn dust into glitter. It is here where the art comes to qualify object, and in doing so, invites the unmitigated speculation of potential value. Art was never worth Ten Grand until someone paid that much for it.

The Poet and the Artist are two commercialities at odds. They are characters in a farce that pits against each other two unlikely roommates of different genders, classes, ethnicities, sexualities and nationalities. We watch and participate as hilarity, calamity, and tragedy ensue. When a cultural barrier is finally breached, we revel in having witnessed the first hope of their eventually discovered commonalities. The categories that we demand result in the solidification of such categories for the sake of commerce. In turn, these solidified categories redefine the systems of production, streamlining them for the sake of more effective commerce. The demand for redefinition is then no longer limited to that of systems of production, but also to the systems that shape and educated the producers. This is the point where the Poet and the Artist are born. When a poet is struggling to exist between the forums of poetry and art, frustrated by the economic values, among other things, enforced by the two forums, he should realize that he is at a crossroads. There is a moment when one steps out from one forum and into another, that the space in between is occupied. He can try to straddle, while straining himself to conceive of working titles like “art poet,” or he can realize that this struggle does not describe his inability to fit within these forums, but the forums inability to facilitate him. The poet should retire, forfeit his dreams of art making, and devote himself to becoming a practitioner.

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