May 18, 2006

PAPER | Mackay Artists Book Forum 3

Sufferance: a critical response (revised)
by Linda Carroli

Book, I am coming to realise, is one of the most powerful words in our language.

As a critic, I think I am supposed to consider the ways in which these things called artworks are doing what artists and curators say they do. I’ve written a longer essay about artists’ books, libraries and including some commentary about Sufferance. This will be published in an upcoming issue of Eyeline. Here I will raise a couple of key points from that essay.

I’ve been researching some issues and ideas about the relationships between text and image in visual arts practices – that includes the ways in which texts such as press releases, EOI documents, essays, didactic panels and artist statements have their own shape but also shape our understanding of and interaction with visual works. Art itself doesn’t define the artworld. And I have been particularly influenced by the art writing of James Elkins and David Carrier in this regard. Artworks rarely appear in public without any kind of commentary. In this context, the image and the text are intrinsically reliant on each other.

I wholly concur with Marshal Weber’s observations in yesterday’s session where he said infantilism is the result of this perpetual compulsion to define artists’ books. In focusing on this ‘defining’ question other more pressing and much more interesting ideas are being ignored. Perhaps when the theorist Rosalind Krauss proposed her ideas of sculpture in the expanded field that was a watershed moment or milestone when criticism caught up with [three dimensional] practice, as Marshal said. So perhaps we need to think about an expanded field of artists’ books and perhaps library catalogue systems aren’t the best way to nut out the kind of critical typological and topological thinking this requires. Nola Farman’s idea of ‘book works’ is one way of expounding this expandedness.

One of the things that some of the texts associated with Sufferance said to me was that there were some normative ideas about artists books, that somehow ideas about artists’ books should be changed rather than calling me into a dialogue about questions emanating from critical and contemporary approaches and processes in book works. Nola’s ideas about books being relative and contingent are particularly relevant because I think some of the issues with defining artists’ books are really about how this particular practice, which is comprised of many practices, ideas and media, rubs against others. So I was a bit surprised when I didn’t see much in the way of a curatorial argument about books or artists’ books, although appreciate Jacqueline Armitstead’s interests in the research base of artmaking. Some of that research is founded in an artist’s interaction with materials in the processes of making.

In many of the commentaries associated with Sufferance, I was reading reiterations that everything in the show was a book as if it was self-evident, that elements of it were book-like or paper-like or page-like. As a critic – and ordinarily I don’t regard myself as a critic, preferring instead to think of myself as an art writer – I honed in on those statements. Just because an artist or curator says so doesn’t make it true or plausible or resonant. Likewise, just because a critic says so doesn’t make it true either. The sad fact is that it seems we end up having the last word. Dialogue is what forms a community, even an art world, and that includes multiplicity and dissent.

Some of the works in Sufferance presented very compelling arguments and strategies but because the works were presented as an exhibition, there was, I felt, a need for curatorial argument beyond what the artists were saying. Artist book practice, like the various practices represented in Sufferance, are vast, so where are these boundaries? What boundaries exactly were being pushed, especially considering artists’ books are a multimedia practice. And many of the works we’ve been shown demonstrate this. In this postmodern era, how useful is an idea of pushing boundaries given that we are presumedly immersed in diversity, flux, technology and borderlessness.

So perhaps there is a need to understand Sufferance as a project rather than as a curated exhibition, and that’s a way of speaking to these problems of exhibition convention that Steve Tonkin raised earlier. It was a series of commissions that sought to weave ideas of the library, feminist history, artists’ books and a disparate range of artistic and craft practices and processes. This is a big brief and rather a contrived undertaking - to my mind and in my experience all project spaces are contrived. Where large institutions and public money are involved, these undertakings are also very political things.

Exhibition practices need more reflexivity in how they negotiate this divide, assuming there is one, between reader and viewer, between reading and looking. Given that books were important as alternative exhibition spaces, I always find it ironic that the formalities and conventions of exhibition are adhered to when artists’ books are presented. I love the images I’ve seen in others’ presentations of audiences/readers hovering around tables packed and stacked with books, adopting that browser’s stance with the book held open and close to the body, or opened as the body leans over the table. We’ve seen it here as we’ve looked at the works on show. Our bodies do tell us what we will or want to accept as books. N. Katherine Hayles has written about these ideas of the body and technology in greater detail.

When I had a look at the exhibition, I must admit I walked in looking for the fugitive, and Nola mentioned the fugitive in her very erudite paper. Like a predator, I went scouting with my critic’s (or art writer’s) senses. That’s probably a bit misguided – trying to find the fugitive is perhaps a little self-defeating because the idea of fugitive is that it remains out of reach - unnameable, unknowable.

After seeing the exhibition, I walked out asking ‘can you knit a video?’. I’d really like to see someone try to knit a video – and I am aware of Fiona Hall’s work but that raises other questions, which I will come to. To my mind that’s a worthy and quite interesting undertaking. I want to see what artists come up with out of that inquiry, how they think it through, whether any kind of hybridity results. When I ask this question I don’t intend it to be answered – this is just a rhetorical device. So when people tell me the answer to that question is Fiona Hall, the next question is whether knitting video tape is the same as knitting a video and the nature of the relationship between the videotape and what we might think of as the actual image of video work as it is projected or screened. Could we feasibly expect a knitted videotape to be a video work - if the tape is knitted then are the actual images, assuming there are some, likely to be destroyed? And so on. This turns into something akin to Xenos’ paradoxes - it's not intended to get anywhere but the questions raise questions. I think that questioning process is also integral to various ways of thinking about the fugitive – clarity is elusive. For another way of processing this question please look at an article in Wired, ‘Pardon, Your Dress Is Singing’ at,70003-0.html?tw=wn_tophead_4.

Even though there’s a bit of Drucker bashing going on here, let’s remember that her body of work is much greater and deeper than her recent essay in which she proposes a canon and a cataloguing system. As we know, artistic and critical practices are always much broader than a canon and catalogue. Like N. Katherine Hayles, Drucker argues for materiality and media specific analysis. I think media specificity is quite powerful, without defaulting to formalism, in this context. And I bring to your attention the interdisciplinarity of more recent media, the field with which I am more intimately involved and familiar, such as digital video, interactives and net art. So I can’t agree that it precludes hybridity or interdisciplinarity. The challenge is always open-endedness.

One of the questions that media specificity allows me to ask is this – if, say, we are knitting books, at what point have we produced an image of a book, a representation? And Andrea Stretton spoke in more detail about various images of books. What comes into play is the idea that artists are producing or making representations of books and engaging what representations do – metaphor, allegory and the like. But even this question becomes riddled with conundrum given manifestations of the simulacra, of the representation overtaking the ‘real’. The real, perhaps even the literal, seems quite important in artists’ book discourse as I’ve heard it and read it, because there are many iterations of ‘the book’ and I have always found this quite odd as if there is an authentic book. There’s intransigence here. We don’t hear this about other media – there’s no such commentary about, for example, ‘the video’ – so again, I draw your attention to Nola’s comments about books as relative things. Nevertheless I am reminded of Magritte – ‘this is not a pipe’ – an image of a pipe is not a pipe. And, of course, Michel Foucault extrapolates on that, addressing hierarchies of the real and the representation, in his very important essay. As artists you understand representation and abstraction – it’s what you do. You understand about signs and signifiers – this is a postmodern era after all.

So when I was looking at Sufferance, and my experience was very much one of looking rather than reading, it seemed that I was generally looking at representations – books represented, abstracted or imaged across that range of artistic and craft practices. Some of those representations were more convincing than others. I also couldn’t help but feel there was ambivalence about, perhaps even disinterest in, artists’ books and books more generally, as the artists pursued their research and practice trajectories. It also goes to show how elusive books can be which is odd given that we’re also harbouring preconceptions of ‘the book’. There are exceptions to that and Judy Watson’s and Barbara Heath and Malcolm Enright’s works stood out as critical, complex and engaging inquiries. Today, during Judy Watson’s presentation, is actually the first time I have seen the prints in the folio, the first time I knew that this is how the prints are kept and that this folder is part of the work. So the folder has a particular importance given the artist’s reference to files and archives. I agree that this work is an important work and it is one I could and would like to write extensively about having continued thinking about it and learning about it since encountering it. I have mentioned to other people that when I was looking at Judith Kentish’s work I was very much reminded, rather strangely, of Vida Lahey’s painting, ‘Monday Morning’ – that’s where it sits in my visual thinking even though the artist has said it is a page. Even so, it does evoke that sense of documenting the daily domestic life of women. You can probably chart the congruencies between the page and sheet, the imprint of women’s lives, yourselves. This textile could be folded like a sheet and it would be like a page or like a book. Like the tablecloth that Mona Ryder had copied – there’s a resonance there. For me, that’s what visual thinking is about.

And so to finish, I’d just like to read the final paragraph from my essay which is at

Even though Sufferance communicates ambivalence and uncertainty about books, in the library these works may become books. Perhaps this will be evident in the way that the works are held and stored, the way we encounter them in the reading room. The exhibition catalogue shelved. Kentish’s flat textile rolled like a scroll of Alexandrian antiquity. A levered plastic case that opens like a book for King-Smith and Smith’s DVD. Watson’s folio of prints stacked or filed like so many pages. Heath and Enright’s radiating bicycle spokes dissembled and nested like a book signature. So, as for the end of books, the library itself, in its infinite forks and folds, stacks and shelves, proffers its own answer – there is certainly no end of books.