Books On Books

The past and future of artist self-publishing

Peter Willis

13 Sep 2016
An exploration of the literature on artists' self publishing.

Following the second incarnation of the Artist Self-Publishing Fair, ICA Bookshop’s resident artist' publishing obsessive Peter Willis explores some of the literature that focuses on artists’ use of publications, both historically and with an eye towards the medium's possible futures.

Now is a great time to be an artist-publisher, consumer of artist publications, or as is so often the case, a combination of the two. The last ten years have seen niche annual fairs expand and multiply, the means of producing serial and multiple works become easier and cheaper, and the options by which to distribute artist publications proliferate, with retailers and distributors focusing solely on short-run, independently produced publications popping up across the globe.

In light of this, a spate of publications has sought to contextualise and analyse this resurgence in artists’ publishing, whether it’s tracing a lineage through collecting the output from those experts who’ve spent years surrounded by artists books (for example Clive Philpott’s Booktrek) to the new media theorists rebuffing the false binary of analogue versus digital (Alessandro Ludovico’s Post-Digital Print) or pioneers of a genre still attempting to create a space for itself within academic histories of art (Johanna Drucker's Century of Artist Books).

A spate of publications has sought to contextualise and analyse this resurgence in artists’ publishing.

The last few years have also seen archival collections focusing on the aesthetics and subcultural impact of self-publishing such as the punk classic Fucked Up and Photocopied, the Feminist Press’s The Riot Grrl Collection, Printed Matter’s 2-volume Queer Zines and A+m’s Yes Yes Yes: Alternative Press 1966 - 1977. Merz to Emigre and Beyond, Steven Heller’s history of avant garde magazine publishing, combines both the beautiful reproductions of classic and overlooked items from samizdat and self-publishing histories alongside heavily researched contextual essays charting the cultural impact and methods of production of political and artistic journals across the twentieth century.

With a similar interest in the continuation of a specific, technologically induced aesthetic is the inimitable Kate Eichhorn’s Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art and Activism in the Late Twentieth Century. Eichhorn’s focus on the technology of xerography across artistic, political and corporate environments in part answers the call in the last chapter of Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge: Towards a Media History of Documents, that urges the proper time and energy be given to a media history of zines. Eichhorn’s specific focus on the materialism of the photocopied zine or poster results in a fascinating history of alternative and underground cultural production and she ends with the reality that though analogue photocopiers have virtually ceased to exist in light of the shift to digital scanners and copiers, both the idea and aesthetic of what the Xerox method represents continue unabated.

Further evidence of this is the dense,eclectic Publishing as Artistic Practice, edited by Annette Gilbert and published by Sternberg Press. Focused on the here and now, the book presents a wealth of texts by various publishers, artists, curators and academics reflecting on everything from distribution strategies, design, access and sociality to the exploitation of digital platforms, the ideas of un-publishing and the radical potential of miniscule print runs. The aim collectively is to exploit the contemporary moment in order to expand not just the possibilities of the book itself but the way we read, write and share knowledge.

The aim collectively is to exploit the contemporary moment in order to expand not just the possibilities of the book itself but the way we read, write and share knowledge.

A similar exercise in un-doing is Michael Hampton’s esoteric Unshelfmarked, published by Uniformbooks. Hampton’s project isn’t simply to expand the canon of what is considered an ‘artist book’ but to explode it. While all the previous volumes mentioned take as their starting point Gutenberg and William Blake as the facile princeps of publishing and artists publishing respectively, Hampton’s bibliomaniacal tract instead posits a new chronology that spans from 700 A.D with the Lindisfarne Gospels all the way to @urbanomic’s twitter feed of the present day, via 14th century York tablets, Dieter Roth’s Literaturwurst, destroyed MacBooks, Russian suprematism and everything in between.

This impulse to trace the niche and overlooked is also found within The Territories of Artists’ Periodicals. Territories being the key word, the book lurches from place to place, embedding itself within specific locales and scenes from DIY publishers of the USSR, Neon de Suro from Majorca, Stare and DuDa from Chicago, Yugoslav art centres and the publications they birthed, the Graphic Story Journal by U.S high school students, punk zines from the Bay Area and Doc(k)s, the ‘international but nevertheless basic nomadic periodical made in World’. A mix of case studies, interviews and essays, the book reorients the idea of publishing as a social, community building exercise borne out of both necessity and ideological vision, against the dominant political and aesthetic culture.

The Magazine follows on from Gwen Allen’s indispensable collection of case studies in Artists Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art about how a selection of shoestring magazines changed how we write about art, as well as the means by which work itself can circulate. This collection from the Documents of Contemporary Art series brings together everything from editorial statements, manifestoes, media theory, reviews, notes, arguments and interviews to original documents such as the United States Postal Service’s rescinding of Aspen magazine’s periodical status as it could not be ‘categorized either as a book or a periodical publication’. An exemplary case of the inability for publications by artists to be subsumed by the bureaucracy of the market, argued elsewhere in the ongoing debate over ISBNs.

No collection of books on books would be complete without a nod to Sol Lewitt who spent a great deal of his working life churning out book after book, as work, as working out and as exhibition. Sol Lewitt Artists' Books is a selection of 76 publications and shows the breadth of his bookworks and the longevity his influence in the genre. Lewitt summarises the continuing appeal of artists absorbing publishing as part of the practice, or indeed renouncing their practice in lieu of publishing:

“It is the desire of artists that their ideas be understood by as many people as possible. Books make it easier to accomplish this.” ■

Explore many of these titles and more in the ICA Bookshop, as well a selection of of small presses and zines.

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