The artists’ book and the photobook share many aspects of practice, histories and makers. While this post relates specifically to the artists’ book it may be of interest to photobook people as well – take a look at the other tribe …
Early in 2019 Vicky and I received an email from Monica Oppen and Caren Florance inviting our contribution to a report commenting on news and updates on book arts activity in the Antipodes that they were preparing for the Codex Foundation‘s new journal The Codex Papers. They mentioned that they were asking for those involved with projects, conferences, workshops, collections and awards to send through their comments and plans so the local scene could be collated into the report.
Monica and Caren added that, Your commitment to the photo books and also to documenting events for the past years (or is it decades now?!) has lead us to decide that we must ask you what you see as the trends and key events of the past couple of years. Any feedback (your personal view) on the state of the book arts in Australia at the moment would also be of interest.
We were particularly excited to have been invited to contribute and over the days following the request we collaborated on a document that outlined our view of the scene. Photo documents that we had made were reviewed and prepared and forwarded, along with our text to Monica and Caren. The task of collating and blending the individual responses into a single report was completed and forwarded to the Codex Foundation.
Early this year the report was published and we received a contributor’s copy. We were impressed with the journal and the many interesting commentaries on the book arts from around the world. It was interesting to see the complete report and to read the individual contributor’s comments.
Published below is our text and some of the photographs we contributed in response to Monica and Caren’s invitation.
Notes on the Antipodean book arts in the Antipodes
In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the world of the artists’ book in Australia was an exciting place. In Brisbane Noreen Grahame, through her Grahame Gallery, Numero Uno Publications, Editions and the Centre of the Artists’ Book championed the Australian artists’ book discipline. Grahame efforts were directed towards artists’ book exhibitions which started in 1991, art book fairs the first of which was held in 1994 and special invitation themed artists’ book exhibitions featuring clique of prominent national book makers.
Artspace Mackay under the directorship of Robert Heather hosted the first of 5 Focus on Artists’ Book (FOAB) Conferences in 2004. Over the years FOAB brought to Australia some of the world’s noteworthy practitioners and commentators on the discipline including Marshall Weber, Keith A Smith and Scott McCarney and juxtaposed them with local key practitioners. For the next 6 years those interested in artists’ books gathered to participate in lectures, workshops, fairs and a solid community of practice developed. In 2006 Artspace Mackay added the Libris Awards: The Australian Artists’ Book Prize that, with a few breaks, continues to be the premier curated artists’ book exhibition and award in Australia.
Queensland also had 10 years of artists’ book exhibitions and 5 years of conferences from 1999-2008 at Noosa Regional Art Gallery. In many ways Queensland was the place to be if you were into artists’ books.
In this period a few other artists’ book awards took place including the Southern Cross University’s Acquisitive Artists’ Book Award from 2005-2011.
Throughout the 1990s and until fairly recent times State Libraries and the National Library of Australia actively collected and built significant artists’ book collections. These included many forms of the artists’ book including: private press publications, significant book works by recognised international and Australian practitioners, books as object/sculpture, zines and the emergent photobook.
Now around the country major libraries are feeling the push by managers to move access to the library’s resources online thus the importance of the physical object and the tactile connection with items such as artists’ books is now not considered part of the service that the institution needs to provide. For example, the State Library of Queensland’s Australian Library of Art, which houses one of the largest artists’ book collections in the country, is now without a dedicated librarian. Research fellowships and seminars that were once administered by the Library and supported the Siganto Foundation are no longer available. Information and advice about the collection and other exhibitions or group viewings of artists’ books from their extensive collection have been significantly affected.
In recent years two Artists Book Brisbane Events coordinated by Dr Tim Mosely at Griffith University has facilitated a significant connection between the American and European scenes with guest speakers like Brad Freeman (Columbia University – Journal of Artists Books), Sarah Bodman (Centre for Fine Print Research – The University of the West of England), Ulrike Stoltz and Uta Schneider (USUS). The conferences also have included a place for discussion and review of the discipline by academics and emergent artist practitioners from Masters and Doctoral programs. These two ABBE conferences have provided a platform for academic discourse.
The artists’ book medium has been principally the realm of the printmaker as their artform easily enabled the production of printed multiples. Digital technologies, new double-sided inkjet papers as well as print-on-demand technologies have enabled the emergence of a range of new self-publishers – particularly photographers.
In 2011 I completed my PhD the title of which was Self-publishing in the digital age: the hybrid photobook. From my experiences in the artists’ book field as a practitioner and commentator and my lifelong activities in photography I saw a future for the photobook which could be informed by the freedoms and the possibilities for the presentation of narratives. While some aspects of this prophecy have been the case with some photographers, particularly those involved in academic study, the main thrust for the contemporary photobook has been towards the collaboration with graphic designers. These books take on various design and structure enhancements including special bindings, foldouts, mixed papers, page sizes, inclusions and loose components that can, at times, dilute the potential power of the simple photographic narrative sequence. The contemporary photobook has developed into its own discipline and through the universal communication possibilities of social media, conferences and awards a new tribe has emerged quite separate from and unaffected by the artists’ book community.
Over the last 5 years the National Gallery of Victoria has presented the Melbourne Art Book Fair. In keeping with the art book fair worldwide movement participants man tables selling their publications. These can range from Institutional/gallery catalogues, trade art publications and monographs, artists’ books, photobooks and zines. The umbrella-like term and the spectacle of the ‘Art Book Fair’ as an event to witness and participate in has captured the individual disciplines and united the various tribes into one, not so homogeneous – community.
A quick review of the 2019 Melbourne Art Book Fair’s 86 table-holders there were only a handful of artists’ book-makers, perhaps a similar number of photobook publishers and a large contingent of zinesters and self-published magazines. The bulk of the tables were held by book distributors, bookshops, arts organisations, educational institutions and art galleries. The discipline of artists’ books was not significantly represented in this space. Was that due to the National Gallery of Victoria’s selection of table-holders or was it to do with artists’ book practitioners not considering the event as a relevant opportunity to show and sell their works?
Ultimately the question is – what is the status of the artists’ book in Australia at this time? My impression is that one of artists’ books key strengths was its closeness to the printmaking discipline and the cohesive bond of makers, critics and commentators, educators, journals, collectors and patrons. As many of these are connected to the tertiary academic environment and collecting libraries, both of which are fighting for their relevance in a changing education and library world, could it be considered that this is a defining moment in the history and the future of the artists’ book in this country?
Doug Spowart co-written with Victoria Cooper
All photographs ©Doug Spowart