Lionel Bovier and AA Bronson
LIONEL BOVIER During the five decades that saw its emergence, identification, categorization, institutionalization, spread and hybridization, the artist’s book has regularly transformed itself, shifting its shape(s), modifying its declared origins and altering its modes of distribution. As an early participant and acute observer of this evolution—from the first DIY and Free Press initiatives you embarked on while in Winnnipeg, the founding of Art Metropole in Toronto and the fantastic journey of FILE Megazine with General Idea, to the directorship of Printed Matter in New York and the organization of the NY Art Book Fair—how would you characterize the production and reception of artists’ books in the current phase we are living in?
AA BRONSON In this era of iPads and Kindles, on-demand publishing and electronic books, we can see that the artist’s book is at once fracturing into a myriad of forms, while opening itself to a new and very young market. At Printed Matter, we now see three hundred to four hundred new books monthly, 150 of which become part of our inventory… and this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is an explosion of both activity and audience. Of course, the present is always difficult to discern. The past has structure, actions and consequences, patterns to be unraveled. But the present moment is formless, without pattern. We can pretend to understand the present as a continuation of the past, but for the most part, this is wishful thinking. In its early days, video art, for example, was seen as an update of film, but of course it was not. So, too, with artists’ books today.
LB When I initiated the Artists’ Books booth and conferences for Art Basel, I started with the pedagogical goal of helping the audience to identify the book as an artistic medium among others; recently, it has become clear to me that they did get it and even that a market exists for these objects today.
AAB Yes, in New York we have observed a similar phenomenon. When we started the NY Art Book Fair, we were shocked by the avalanche of young people who descended on it. Last year, more than 16,000 people attended, of which I estimate two-thirds were under 35. It is the same in the Printed Matter storefront: there is a growing audience of young people buying and collecting artists’ books. As those people grow older, the market will transform. Although Art Basel tends to have a more mature audience, a more youthful scene is visible in the Artists’ Books sector, which we’ve had so much fun with over the last years. This year, with its mix of music, books and relaxed atmosphere, it became the place to end a day at Art Basel. I felt I was present to the birth of something new, didn’t you?
LB One characteristic of this new, young audience is maybe a different fetishization of the book as an object. As we said, it has taken time for artists’ books to be received as artworks; they are currently often presented as ready-mades. On one hand, the book as a cultural object seems to have lost part of its authority, while on the other hand it has imposed itself as a collectible. Do you think that it might be a point of convergence with the vinyl record’s transformation, in one generation’s time, from an inevitable cultural experience to a specialized and refined one?
AAB Yes, I do. Marshall McLuhan said that when a medium dies, it becomes an art form. So when you see artists using a particular medium, it is a sign that its life as an integral part of popular culture is ending, or over. Major publishers should have paid better attention to Ed Ruscha’s books back in the 1960s. Maybe they could have forecast the crisis that has overwhelmed so many publishers in the last ten years. When we were interviewing applicants for the Director’s position at Printed Matter, one of them said that we should forget about old-fashioned media like vinyl records and books and focus more on the future. She didn’t get that vinyl for young people today is a completely contemporary and valid phenomenon. Similarly, artists’ books emerged at a time when the Gutenberg press was passing into history.
LB I’m currently editing the writings of Clive Phillpot—one of the few figures who could be said to have shaped the discourse about artists’ books at their beginning and institutionalized them through his work as MoMA Chief Librarian—and I’ve been struck by the limited extension of the corpus of artists’ books during its early phase in the 1960s. There were Ed Ruscha’s first ten books, the early Sol LeWitts, some Lawrence Weiners, as well as British examples, then Fluxus, followed by a wave of small presses from all over Europe, but always in a very limited number of titles and by a limited number of artists. That limitation of the corpus shaped the first books and surveys dedicated to the medium. Looking at the explosion of the genre since the 1990s, how do you think we can evaluate these early readings and attempts to categorize and curate the history of the artist’s book?
AAB Clive began writing about artists’ books in magazines like Studio International as early as the mid-’70s, when he was the librarian at the Chelsea School of Art in London. He wrote a review of General Idea’s FILE Megazine in April 1973, and we were astonished to be given serious attention—at that point we had published only three issues, out of Toronto, Canada. And when we began Art Metropole in 1974, which we conceived as our very own museum shop and collection, it was mostly as a way of making available artists’ books by our friends, the same people you mention and a few more: John Armleder’s publishing activities as Ecart in Geneva; Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press in Vermont; Ulisses Carrion’s Other Books & So in Amsterdam; Felipe Ehrenberg’s Beau Geste Press in England; Maurizio Nannucci’s Zona in Florence; the conceptual crew from New York, especially Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner; certain individuals such as Ed Ruscha, the entire output of Fluxus—Joseph Beuys and George Maciunas especially—and, of course, General Idea. Art Metropole had almost a familiar flavor, as did Printed Matter, which began two years later in New York. I think that the time is ripe for a reinvestigation of some of these histories.
Also, significant bodies of work were being produced in both Eastern Europe and South America, both places where the publishing of a book was implicitly a political (and dangerous) act. Those histories are still difficult to discern—much of the material has not survived. Once these histories are better understood and documented, then we might turn our attention to the wave of small presses and galleries that published artists’ books in the 1970s, mostly, as you say, in Europe.
I’m also personally interested in the history of the underground newspapers of the 1960s and how they acted as a prototype for the sort of self-publishing and visual publishing of artists’ books. Especially in Amsterdam, London and San Francisco, an explosion of graphic and editorial experimentation in the underground press was as visible as it was in the more often cited literary presses of the period. Without that history, a magazine like Kaleidoscope would not exist.