November 22, 2004

ESSAY | Digital Writing Circa 2004

by Jim Andrews

My own feeling about digital writing is that it is still in its infancy on a societal level, but has been developed into something like a strong beginning by digital writers. It is in its infancy on the societal level in the sense that peoples' consciousness of writing as a polyartistic enterprise through several media is not as widely prevalent as print-minded literacy. People do not have much of a sense of composition in several media, and their reading skills of such work — and by 'reading' I mean here something more comprehensive than reading solely text — are in the initial stages.

Read the full essay online at:

November 19, 2004

REVIEW | Bookworks

Noosa Regional Gallery
28 August – 17 October 2004

by Linda Carroli

Annually for eight years Noosa Regional Gallery has presented an exhibition of artists’ books. Together with Floating Land, the Bookworks exhibition is among the most popular and anticipated exhibition events presented on the Sunshine Coast. In 2004, Bookworks was themed ‘Nature’ and artists responded with works that examined everything from natural materials to human nature. How, where, does one begin in thinking about nature in book form? In turn, what is the nature of the artist’s book? Such are the questions that this exhibition raises through its array of works which include conceptual, text-based and sculptural works.

It is in these myriad inquiries, we see that the book is an agglomeration of multiple media, yet remains quite a resilient form. As a form, even in its undoing, even when it is an ‘un-book’ or an ‘anti-book’, it is still, critically, a book. It can still be a book because it folds or opens or communicates like Natalie Hartog’s cube puzzles or Marianne Little’s book of torn away pages or Mayrah Yarrage Driesc’s ‘message stick’ featuring her letter to a white person. It can still be a book because it contains, like the wood and perspex boxed works by Rob Duffield and Laura McKew in which sand and toy plastic soldiers can be shaken to reveal texts such as ‘it’s natural for children to play games at the beach’ and it’s natural for adults to lie’. It can still be a book because it collects, such as Judy Barrass’ In their nature, a traditionally bound book, in which she has collected, not in any particular order, a series of cultural and ethnic stereotypes such as ‘bystanders are innocent’ and ‘Australians are bronzed’. Even though many commentaries in the book are unwelcoming, we, as readers, are welcome to skip, flip and read at random. There’s an appealing contradiction in this work where the book, as an icon of knowledge, is undermined through its repetition of mindless mistruths. And then there is the page such as Ruark Lewis’ Banalities, a series of puzzling, numbered, aphoristic statements as white text on black cloth banners. Almost like newspaper headlines, the statements are self-contained stories and curiosities. While we may or may not take these statements as truth, they do highlight emotional and psychological realities as if passing or wandering thoughts - not so banal at all.

‘The book’ has come to mean much more than merely a form of bound pages: there is a plurality of books just as there is a plurality of technologies. Even so, several artists’ books retain this sense of book-based narrativity or linearity through diary or photo essays. A.C. Berkheiser’s small handmade book documents three days spying on an urban fox where the artist has taken a series of photos of a fox which has found temporary refuge within view of his window. For the three days of the fox’s visit, he photographs it as it naps and skulks, tries to befriend it and leaves food for it. Other works are non-liner or non-narrative such as Tommaso Durante’s Terra Australis for which he photographed details from the landscape and digitally manipulated them to produce a limited edition commercially printed book which includes several poems by Australian poets. He has also punched holes through many of the pages which adds to a sense of layering and obliterating. As a recent migrant, his images are exploratory, focusing on the ‘newness’ of the landscape and details, which those more accustomed to, may overlook. Many artists’ books in Booksworks include photographic studies and they remind us of the role the camera has played in the way we see nature and read the landscape, flora and fauna inclusive. Likewise, Matt Dabrowski’s bolted and carved street directories (existing books which has used as a material). Several UBDs have been bolted together and Dabrowski has carved holes into the layered books as if they are wells and gaps in the maps which chart our comings and goings in urban space. There’s an urge to refill these excavations because the maps are now unreadable. The holes give them a dimensionality and depth that they had lost in the translation of space to maps.

In writing and reading worlds, the object and its text are interlocked and we habitually read and write books, forgetful that the text is a different entity to that object. Materiality matters and this is perhaps why we refer to the book rather than the fiction and N. Katherine Hayles argues that there is a ‘feedback loop from materiality to mind’. For the artist, Hayles writes, ‘artefacts spring from thought, but thought also emerges from interactions with artefacts … Insights are stimulated through touching, seeing, manually fitting parts together and playing with materials, that declined to come when the object was merely an abstract proposition.’[1] Artists’ books, then, find themselves stranded in a semiotic minefield. Taking a step only to have their leaves blasted across allegories. In addressing the question of the nature of the artist’s book, Johanna Drucker is instructive when she writes that the more salient question is not ‘what is a book?’ but rather ‘how a book does?’.[2] In so saying, she evokes performativity and its relationship with interpretation. Random reading and flipping through pages makes for bookish encounters. We understand books, even produce them, through our interactions with them and artists’ books, as rigourously critical or crafted works, present us with another means of performing, and thus producing, the book.

[1] N Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2002. 75
[2] Johanna Drucker, ‘The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space’. Accessed on 20 October 2004.

November 04, 2004

Works of Imagination: Noosa Regional Gallery

by Linda Carroli © 2004

For eight years, Noosa Regional Gallery has presented an annual artists books exhibition. Under the enthusiastic guidance of NRG’s Public Programs Manager, Maryke Stagg, the exhibition has staked a claim as a showcase of Australian book arts and more recently has attracted exhibitors worldwide. Not surprisingly, a community of book artists on the Sunshine Coast support the development of the exhibition and have played an integral role in the workshops and other activities which expand the reach of the event.

A one day forum was a focus of this year’s artists’ book program. Themed Interaction, the forum addressed the relationship between the book, the artist and the audience. As an afterthought, it occurs to me that catalogues (not just lists of works for sale or the full colour glossy variety accompanying blockbuster exhibitions) are quite important, often overlooked, publications. Not only do they seek to mediate the experience the interaction between art object, artist and audience but they emerged in the 1960s with more of a twist and proliferated as vehicles for artist writings and as a type of artist book.

Over the past few years there has been increasing focus on and interest in artists books and, more generally, arts publishing. While Noosa’s exhibition has played a pivotal role in showcasing many and varied works, Queensland is also home to several important collections of artists books such those in the James Hardie Library at the State Library of Queensland and Tate Adams Collection now housed at Mackay Artspace. Both SLQ and Mackay Artspace have recently held symposia which explore artists books and arts publishing. As well, a new email discussion list has brought together an online community of artists, librarians and critics: it’s not a particularly active list which throws around ideas. This turn of attention towards artists books and publishing, I believe, is operating as part of the circuit of investigations of experimental practices - now historicized - such as those foregrounded by the conceptual artists. These investigations, I would argue, are as much the result of new technologies which are challenging our ideas about books, writing, image, materiality and reading as they are a manifestation of what Darren Tofts describes as certain “inflections, attitudes and energies” that have persisted into and across the present mediascape, in its plurality. In so saying, Tofts recalls artists who don't or haven't quite ‘fit in’ - James Joyce, Stephen Mallarme, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Bacon, John Cage, Gregory Ulmer, Jon McCormack and Troy Innocent. Where once the book was the symbol of literacy, new technologies are spawning new literacies. In turn this produces many uncertainties about the role and status of the book and, in this context, there needs to be an exploration of some of the historical counterpoints and tensions in artists book practices without rattling off the moments in art history such as ‘Conceptual Art’, ‘Fluxus’, ‘Dada’ etc. While there are many tensions which arise out of discussions between books and newer technologies, there are also many moments of confluence and consonance.

Moreover, just as artists books may have historically asked questions of the book in relation to form and content or provided a means of railing against ‘the art establishment’, new technologies have provided us with an opportunity to confront some of our own cultural biases about the book which as N. Katherine Hayles argues has not been available to us for some hundreds of years. Jorge Luis Borges tells us that ‘a book, any book, is a sacred object for us’ and in so saying he is addressing the difficulty of displacing such a profoundly embedded cultural object in all its manifestations and connotations. But across many technologies, including the book, there has been a shared interest in connectivity, dispersion and accessibility where artists have negotiated technology and produced artforms that lead to different opportunities for interface, interaction and immersion. Hayles argues that the book is

an artifact whose physical properties and historical usages structure our interactions with it in ways obvious and subtle. It defines the page as a unit of reading, and binding pages sequentially to indicate an order of reading. To change the physical form of the artifact is not merely to change the act of reading but profoundly to transform the metaphoric network structuring the relation of word to world.

Many do not - cannot - consider the book, as we ordinarily experience it, as a technology, a device for reading and writing. Not all technologies are as resilient as the book in that not all technologies can endure the sorts of interventions enacted upon them and still be, without a doubt, a book, even if only by appellation of the artist. This was most notable in Judy Barass’ presentation at Interaction where she spoke about the myriad sculptural forms that artists books take and concluded by passing out small, simple handmade booklets for the audience to mould, tear, fold and shape into a sculptural object – the book as material, the materiality of the book. And this raises a passing thought – if aesthetics can be described as filmic or digital, what is it to be bookish? Much critical energy is expended on defining the artist’s book and this is no different from other secularized groupings in the arts – questions are put ad nauseum about the definitions of new media art, community cultural development, net art etc. Such matters can only be a matter for negotiation because definitions in the artworld are propositions rather than resolutions. For sure, ideas about ‘bookness’ have changed with the availability of new technologies. Perhaps all the books in Works of Imagination posit a response to this question in some way. Drucker proposes that it is more useful to examine ‘how a book does’ rather than query ‘what a book is’. Drucker argues that performativity is useful in considering the book and this question of ‘how a book does’:

A book (whether thought of as a text or a physical object), is not an inert thing that exists in advance of interaction, rather it is produced new by the activity of each reading. This idea comports well with the critical legacy of post-structuralism's emphasis on a performative concept of interpretation. We make a work through our interaction with it, we don’t “receive” a book as a formal structure … Performativity in a contemporary sense borrows from cognitive science and systems theory in which entities and actions have co-dependent relations, rather than existing as discrete entities. Performance invokes constitutive action within a field of constrained possibilities, not only the use of fixed terms to achieve particular ends.

In this respect, books are performed as well as formed and this is the basis of the three-i’s -interaction, immersion and interface. The difficulty of an exhibition such as this annual exhibition is that it evolves out of a call to submit work and, in recent years, Stagg, as curator, has themed each show. This results in a diverse array of artists books and books arts which cross what historians, librarians and critics have identified as a two key threads in artists book practice and, so, rather than labouring over the definition of artists books, attention turns to tendencies and processes. And Works of Imagination as quite an eclectic grouping of works does grant this opportunity. There are innumerable immaculately and beautifully crafted books resplendent with sculptural rigour in Works of Imagination but there are also works which tease out and explore ideas about the book – allegorically, materially. These latter works are no less rigourous; the artists, such as Ruark Lewis and Matt Dabrowski, simply take their explorations into different conceptual and aesthetic territories. What the works tell us is that there is no such thing as the book. And we can pause to reconsider what it is that a book might and can do through our interactions with these often surprising works.