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.