The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. –Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library”
Every artist should have a cheap line. It keeps art ordinary. –John Baldessari
Let me tell you about a dream I had.
It was a working-through, partially, of an 80’s era Twilight Zone I probably saw for the first time late at night on a television where there were still two knobs for UHF and VHF, re-ran on YouTube this past year. In the episode, words began to lose their meaning. The word “lunch,” for example, became “dinosaur,” and by the end of the day, there was simply no way to communicate. Sign and signified completely shifted; language was suddenly unintelligible.
In my dream, something similar happened. The buttons I pressed on my phone produced all the wrong numbers, and the messages I typed to friends were all gobbledy-gook. I tried to communicate my way to the hospital, but no one could understand me. The dream ended with a pair of twenty-somethings with knit caps, close-fitting jeans and smartphones in the hallway outside my flat in Kreuzberg, cruelly cackling at me as I begged them in a garbled tongue to help me lock my door on the way out. They finally assented, but to my horror, walked off, laughing, with my keys. I woke up terrified, picked up a pen and notebook that I usually keep next to the bed, and wrote it down.
Now, this record of a dream in my scrawled hand – this text on paper – exists, unmediated, in the world. Nothing, except perhaps basic earthly elements, like fire, air or water, can “corrupt” it. When I die, I fantasize that it will become part of the “Goldwyn papers” neatly catalogued by an earnest intern in a series of semi-matte black cardboard boxes – alongside my book, magazine, pamphlet, postcard, and random-slips-of-paper collections – in an institute founded posthumously in my name; my legacy as a twenty-first century (female) Aby Warburg.
Or perhaps the notebook will end up, anonymously, in a dumpster where an intrepid art student will discover and extract it like a prize before handing it over to a folk-art museum – an honest work of mysterious provenance, similar to the talisman-like sculptures of the Philadelphia Wireman. Handwriting experts will pore over it, curators will comb musty census-records at City Hall, an artist with a “research-based, archival practice” will plaster her walls with photographs, photocopied texts and sticky-notes that she cognitively thumb-tacks together with bits of thread – like a 70s detective in a big-city precinct – as she dreams of me at night.
If, on the other hand, I had written my dream as a blog post on a Google-sponsored Blogspot, editing, “cutting” and “pasting” my thoughts in a Microsoft Word Document on my Hewlett Packard laptop powered by Windows 8 and backing it up on an external hard drive that I eventually dropped and stepped on, the romantic fantasy of anyone giving a shit about my legacy contracts to the figure of a tech-nerd hired by a curatorial consortium institution (sponsored by the above-mentioned corporations who now own all the content in all of the planet’s libraries, long-ago fully digitized). He is hunched over a mouse, trying to excavate an IP-address, a digital fingerprint, a set of key-words, a garbled file – trying listlessly to decode a “corrupted” language for this dumb “project-based” job that he’s overqualified for.
In the latter scenario, “lunch” definitively becomes “dinosaur” and vice-versa, the proverbial paleontologists are reduced to simple consumers of pre-packaged dino-burgers, and no one remembers me…
Joseph Beuys, “The Revolution is Us”, 1972; Courtesy TATE.
Rewind to the present, looking at the past. When ruminating on and researching about the recent resurgence of interest in artist books as well as art- and self-publishing in the art world, I’ve found there are many explanations that try to pin it on an evolution of art’s democratization through a popular seizure of the means of (re)production. Starting in earnest in the late 60’s – with Fluxus, Yoko Ono and Joseph Beuys, who dreamt of a work of art in every home, as well as independent publishers and catalogers of artists’ books such as New York’s Printed Matter and Franklin Furnace – self-publishing was a real revolution.
Authors and artists and punks and all the poetic and desperate types in between – perhaps inspired by Marinetti and the Futurists – just wanted to get it out there, now, unmediated by gallerists and publishers. As Stewart Home and Lynne Tillman (two writers who are arguably more “art novelists” than “literary authors”) put it in a correspondence published by London’s Bookworks, back in the day, self-publishing was about speed, and independence. And nowadays, as observers have it, it’s still about accessibility. Books can be part of artists’ “cheap line,” the prêt-à-porter or fragrance to the luxury items no one can actually afford.
The gallerists, the fairs, the biennials – the traditional mediators and arbiters between art producer and consumer – are now teaming up with unusual, underdog publishers with hard-to-market content to put a scent of of the art world onto every art-goer’s wrist. Mousse Publishing with art berlin contemporary and Semiotext(e) with the Whitney Biennial are just two recent examples. In the meanwhile, Printed Matter’s LA and New York Art Book Fairs are an undeniable hit: every conceivable iteration of the art or artist’s book is presented and paged-through by hungry, suddenly uncontrollably bibliophilic hordes.
But I wonder, though, if the uptick in booklove is really about accessibility. I mean, hello? The internet. If it’s all about utility and access to the means of (re)production, there’s nothing to beat a blog or a PDF, and there’s no good reason, really, for the ‘zine re-revolution here in the 21st century. No. I would say that it’s what came to me in a dream: technophobia.
We want real, unmediated artifacts of what we’ve seen, thought, and done. And we want to really own them, not lease them – like e-books from information conglomerates – for the duration of our measly lifetime. Books keep the transmission of humanity, the work of human hands, and perhaps even the individual, incorruptible.
Twilight Zone, “Wordplay”, 1985. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_Ucw9cPH-8
Desjardin, Arnaud, The Book on Books on Artist’s Books, The Everyday Press, 2007.
Fusco, Maria and Hunt, Ian, (eds.), Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing. London: Bookworks, 2004.
Phillpot, Clive, Booktrek. Zurich: JRP RIngier, Zurich, 2013.
[Image on top: View of the LA Book Fair, 2013; photo courtesy of Desilu Munoz and the LA Book Fair (Next year to take place January 31- February 2, 2014, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA).]