Unanchored, Destabilized: About Some Artists’ Books Using Photography – Q&A with Katja Gentric, part #1

Katja, you have started a research project on artists’ books published on the African continent. This is quite a vast (and yet unexplored) subject: so, what outlines (geographical and/or temporal) have you chosen to define it? Or, to put it differently, what do you consider to be the characteristics of an artist’s book in the frame of your research project?

While artists have experimented with the book format under very diverse circumstances, what has become known as the artist’s book movement in European and American contemporary art receives critical attention from the early 1960s onwards. This movement, inspired by concrete poetry, developed in close connection with conceptualist art practices and with the process by which photography became recognized as an artistic medium in its own right. The artist’s book as a genre is considered to have come under pressure when computerized publishing became generally available, the approach to conceiving books or printed matter changed radically. There are two essential bodies of research on the artist’s book movement by Johanna Drucker [1] and Anne Mœglin-Delcroix [2]. Notwithstanding the technical changes the genre has undergone, artistic production in book format continues to be most fertile in artist’s never-ending quest for new formats.

In South Africa the artist’s book is popular amongst contemporary artists, a lively artistic scene is connected to this medium. This field of interest attracts collectors and academics [3]. In most exhibitions dedicated to the artist’s book in an African context, South Africa tends to be predominant [4]. But this circumstance should by no means mislead us to conclude that there are no artist’s books produced in African countries other than South Africa. Seeing that research about book art has developed into an academic discipline in South Africa, the books produced tend to be classical, many book objects are produced with the aim of being collectables, very often (slightly too often) magnificently crafted unique objects, which is counter-productive to the ideal of democratization of the art object adopting the multiple, which is one of the defining features of artist’s book movements.

To answer your question about the characteristics of the artist’s book: this has been a much-debated subject amongst scholars of the 70s book-art movement. Definitions tend to be discarded not long after having been voiced, seeing that the most interesting cases of artist’s books explore the borderline of what can still be referred to as a book or what aspects about it give its “art” status. Artists relentlessly broaden the acceptation of the book format and their involvement with it, they will always be “on the edge”. The implications of this complex relationship between artists and books become interesting in the grey areas between what is traditionally accepted as a book format and what falls outside the definition. I came upon the most pertinent questions in the work of artists using books in performances, contradicting the book, physically destroying the book, performing it. Within decolonial debates, the question whether writing and the book format should be conceived as an “alien intrusion” in Africa has often been over-simplified [5]. Africa’s relationship with writing systems and means of formally organizing knowledge is a very complex one, going well beyond colonial rule. The problematic aspect of the historical interpretations of books in this context informs contemporary artists’ involvement with books in a fertile dialogue.

Another dynamic subject is the relationship between artists and magazines or fanzines produced in Africa. There is a great wealth of this form of publication, I feel we do not draw enough attention to it. Critical artistic debate has mainly taken place within these experimental fanzines, magazines or cultural journals and artists have been very active in this field. At the same time these magazines or cultural journals are a way of getting a glimpse of the extremely complex political background. The arts are caught up in political upheavals whether they choose to be part of them or not, either shaping them or resisting them, these relationships are caught up in a web of political influences, colonial powers, cold war bipolarities, strife for independence, post-independence turmoil, etc.

During your research, have you come across artists’ books by photographers? Or uses of photographs that one might consider particularly experimental or innovative?

Yes, photography is central. Photography lends itself to the serial approach and, of course, the book format particularly invites this practice. Photography also has a relationship to narration, to fiction, to the absence and presence of words, all of which have been a guiding principle to artists who, as a consequence, turned towards the book format. Where definitions are concerned: after reading about Ben Krewinkel’s interest in “Africa in the Photobook” I do see that a definition to distinguish the documentary approach from the “artist’s book” approach might be called for, as much as the “objectivity” of the documentary eye needs to be questioned. However, I strongly agree with Ben Krewinkel’s remark that sometimes, notwithstanding all attempts at definitions, incongruous things seem to be of such importance that one can’t exclude them.

At this stage I would like to point out a handful of artist’s books based on photography. In each of these cases the authors are better known for their contribution in other artistic media (painting, film, installation work, performance), this is to say that their first interest is not in photography, but each of them has made one or several artist’s books using photography. Some of them work collectively.

Take, for instance, Barthélémy Toguo’s Die Tageszeitung, Robin Rhode‘s Promenade, Marc Johnsons Lacune féconde/fecund lacuna, Keith Dietrich’s Fourteen stations of the cross, Bettina Malcomess’ and Dorothee Kreutzfeld‘s Not No Place, Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times or Sam Hopkins’ and Simon Rittmeier‘s Letter to Lagat (these works are developed in detail in part 2 of this post).

Robin Rhode, Promenade, Southbank Centre, 2008 (Full book view, hand-held).

These examples are multiples by virtue of the publication process. Their multiplicity and affordability (“democracy”, if we follow Anne Mœglin-Delcroix, op. cit. pp. 105 – 147) is part of their concept. Beyond this, they have in common the circumstance that they take their cue from a process, which is then translated into the book format. This work is as much an artistic research project, an intervention or an action before being a publication.

In the same venture, all these artists ask questions about the status of the photograph itself as a physical object, as a construct or as a concept. They ponder the randomness of the survival of certain photographic prints, in some cases the (ir)relevance or the serendipity of archiving processes or the incidence of the printing process and/or other technical or political constraints on the readability of the image. Further questions investigate the randomness of the conditions under which certain images were taken; haphazard decisions on framing which might just as well have eternalized another detail of the same scene; archaeological layering in the of production of images; retroactive interpretations of historical data influenced by the nature of the image that survived; the instantaneity of the image which brings with it the fragmentation of action. In the six examples quoted above, the spectrum stretches from the coincidental find of a shoebox full of images in an attic by Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier to the use of precise satellite image of a certain geographical location by Keith Dietrich or photogrammetric techniques by Marc Johnson.

Whether the artist himself took the photograph is not the central question here, the inquiry into the nature of the photographic process and the semantic potential of the photographic image receive priority.

It can be interesting to contrast this first set of artist’s books with three further approaches:

(1) photographer’s catalogues bordering on artist’s books,

(2) book works not intended for publishing,

(3) the fanzine.

(1) I will briefly mention three artists who have worked on series of photographs destined to be published in book format. These might be referred to as “photobooks” or even traditional photographers’ catalogues in other contexts, but to me they are different from classic catalogues in that they engage in an extended form of narration.

Malala Andrialavidrazana publishes Echoes from Indian Ocean in 2013 [6]. This book brings together images taken on the continents and islands flanking the Indian Ocean. By her recognizable photographic approach, Andrialavidrazana creates an intimate link between these spaces. Likewise, in The Phantoms of the Congo River [7] by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, the narrative linking the individual photographs depends on a very personal way of seeing: in Ouedraogo’s case, this includes his all-pervading sense of the unseen. Ouedraogo’s images of the river Congo capture the quietness and age-oldness, the flow of the river and the individual fates linked to it. Abrie Fourie has published several artist’s books, amongst which Oblique [8] presents a synthetic moment. His images are taken during travels and different places called “home”. While the human figure is all but entirely absent, these images communicate a sense of intense “latent narrativity”.

Abrie Fourie, Oblique, Revolver Publishing, Berlin, 2011, n.p. (full book view).

The nature of some of the texts included might relegate these publications to the sole status of a photographer’s catalogue where images are accompanied by critical or descriptive texts. But in this case an extended sense of poetry and “latent narration” emerges out of the back-and-forth between text and image. As a result, these images carry intelligibility beyond that which is seen.

(2) Not all artist’s books are intended for the formal publishing process. One example of an artist using photography in a series of hand-made books is the project 101 Ways of longing for a home (2014, on-going) by Emma Willemse. This work comes out of an experience of loss of home and bodily memory linked to this loss. Willemse creates a series of 101 handcrafted books with an intense tactile quality about them. Collages of photographs translated into a multitude of printmaking techniques, digital and graphic, are embedded in these architectural tactile objects. The collaged images convey a sense of the fragmented nature of memory. While the small wooden parquet blocks that form the covers of these books constitute the mnemonic tactile link with the lost “home”.

Emma Willemse, 101 Ways of longing for a home, mixed media, packaging material, parquet floor boards, collagraph print (installation view details 2017).

Emma Willemse, 101 Ways of longing for a home, mixed media, packaging material, parquet floor boards, collagraph print (installation view details 2017).

The intermedia artist Achille Komguem authors an e-book that is the outcome of a collective performance, an itinerary though several countries, that was given the title Exitour. The e-book is called AfricanFragilityFaces. In his academic work, Komguem analyses the theoretical aspects of this intermedia process.

Achille Komguem, AfricanFragilityFaces, e-book, n. p. 2017.

(3) Nonkululeko Chabalala produced the Fanzine University of Students [9] during the on-going student protests in South-African Universities. This experimental publication illustrates the slippages between artist’s book and fanzine. Chabalala’s use of photography is closer to the artist’s approach than to any journalistic reporting. Chabalala’s experimental photographic techniques include collages, digital enhancement of image, collaged inclusion of written notes and printed text as a canvas for the collages. In the true spirit of the socially engaged artist-activist, the ’zine is reproduced by using a photocopying machine and held together by two staples.

Nonkululeko Chabalala, University of Students, self-published ‘zine, n. p.

The interesting question is that of the fruitful dialogue these photo books and ’zines engage within the contemporary art debate. In this quest of broadening the spectrum of works adopting the book format, or works inspired by books, I favour those who adopt a critical approach. Here the book is destabilized, unanchored. The book-format is not to be taken for granted. When working with books, artists seem to want to question, to deconstruct or contradict the book. Starting out from this polemical relationship these works come out of a process, an action, a contestation, a necessity encountered in life, and start building from there. Often, there is an « actionist » aspect to the artist’s book, in a mutual back-and-forth with the day-to-dayness of life.

At this stage of your research, do you see emerging, by the very existence of these books, any networks, communities, circulations of ideas, of savoir-faire, which might perhaps help us to nuance our understanding of art history in Africa?

The production of a book necessitates a team. For obvious technical reasons, there is always some form of team-work involved: starting from conception of the project, gathering or producing the content, financing the printing press, design, layout, proofreading, printing, bookbinding, distribution etc. Some artists publish though their gallery or though an editor while some learn to be competent in each of the skills needed in order to produce a book – only to then start facilitating the publishing process for other artists (like Abrie Fourie, for example). Barthélémy Toguo for instance has started his own label. In this context we can also mention the publisher-artist Thomas Geiger and Mark Pezinger Verlag, whose work is by no means limited to the African context but who has published a lot of material while working from Johannesburg. Geiger’s own book, Bricks to perform [10] was made in Johannesburg and is a perfect example of the performativity I referred to in my previous remarks.

Bettina Malcomess/Dorothee Kretzfeldt, like Sam Hopkins and Simon Rittmeier, work as a duo for their book project, which makes this process a dialogue from the outset. But there is more: Keleketla! Library is an inter-disciplinary, independent library and media arts project. It was established in 2008 to create access to art and media strategies as alternative education models and tools. Situated in Johannesburg, it works in the border regions between education, publication and artistic actions. Bettina Malcomess and Dorothe Kreutzfeldt are closely involved with this project.

Nonkululeko Chabalala’s project is intrinsically part of the collective movement of the student protests, other similarly engaged informal publication ventures are the projects Publica[c]tions and Pathways to Free Education: From Paphflets to Action.

Artists are often involved in experimental journals and, as I stated before, their involvement documents their critical involvement in art appreciation, and permits to place their work in a socio-political and historical context. Here, I will only mention Diartgonale, whose editor is Achille Komguem. We might also mention Chimurenga, who offer on their website a library of culture mags.

On an academic level, there are several research programmes that can be considered very close to the interest in artist’s books and culture magazines, placing the cultural magazine published in any African context within a worldwide perspective of similar publications.

Last year’s conference Booknesses in Johannesburg can be seen as a sign of the amount of academic interest in the medium of the artist’s book. Examples mentioned by the speakers came mainly from South Africa or the United States – which confirmed my feeling that more extensive research is urgently needed.

Electronic Textures is a collaborative artistic research program on twentieth-century modernism revisited through the lenses of postcolonial and Pan-African art magazines. It is a common venture hosted by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and Trondheim Academy of Fine Art/NTNU. Annett Bush presented intermediary results at the recent Artistic Research Forum (Stavanger), at the conference “La revue critique et culturelle dans le monde” (linked to the exhibition Sismographie des luttes, INHA, Paris), and also in the exhibition Parapolitics: Cultural Freedom and the Cold War (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin).

Finally, last but not least, let’s briefly mention the African Art Book Fair (AABF). As we speak, the AABF is opening its 2018 edition at the Dakar Biennale It is an experimental project initiated by Pascale Obolo and linked to the online journal Afrikadaa. Initially, the project was to federate art-related publications extending to independent publishing in general. At each new edition the AABF evolves but, from the start, it consisted in a book fair, a discussion forum and a curated exhibition of book-related installations. In later editions, a program of performances was added and a small sampling artist’s books. The embeddedness and the interconnectedness of these different forms of book-related actions permits most fertile discussions at the same time as interrogating the sustainability of the category “Africa”.

How do you plan to organize the “results” of your research?

For now, following on the examples I have collected so far, I have started working along three axes, but this is a provisional solution to organize “work in progress” – these three axes continually cross each other.

  1. Looking at art journals and magazines allows us to fathom at the historical, political and theoretical depth of the publication processes in the African context.
  2. Starting form the great amount of artists’ books in South Africa and the initial academic analysis generated by them, the aim is to intensify the inquiry on artist’s books in a wider African context, observing the technical processes of invention linked to this format.
  3. Artists using books in performances: here the book format is effectively questioned in a critically informed way.

To be precise, as an afterthought: in this Q & A, in order to answer your questions, I have singled out the artists who use photography – this might be misleading. While it is true that there is relatively much attention given to photography, it is not the only medium used.

A warm thank you to the artists for their availability, for their generous permission to publish images of their work and for their interest in dialogue. Thank you also to Stevenson’s for the permission to publish images by Robin Rhode.

Artist and art historian, Katja Gentric completed her studies in South Africa and in France. In 2017 /2018 she is an associate researcher at the Centre Georges Chevrier, Dijon, France and post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa. 

Footnotes

[1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books. Granary Books, New York, 1995.

[2] Anne Mœglin-Delcroix, Esthétique du Livre d’artiste. Une introduction à l’Art Contemporain, 2e Édition. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, 2011 (première édition 1997).

[3] See the « Artists’ Books in South Africa » website. This website features a database of South African artist’s books and also extensive information on online resources on book arts worldwide.

[4] See for example the exhibition Artist’s Books and Africa held at the Smithsonian Institution Washington in 2016.

[5] Christine Mullen Kreamer (ed.), Inscribing Meaning, Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution et Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2007.

[6] Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Berlin, 2013.

[7] Vues d’Afrique, Paris, 2014.

[8] Revolver Publishing, Berlin, 2011.

[9] Self-published, 2017. It is also available on the Internet, see: https://www.behance.net/gallery/52156361/UniversityofStudents.

[10] Mark Pezinger Verlag, Wien, 2017, edition of 500.

 

 


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