Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Conversation with John Bently

I’ve been making books since I was 11 years old. My first books were hand made  comics and then a poetry and music fanzine at school. Although I’m essentially a painter, I love to make things just for the sake of making things.. I was always attracted to strong visual narratives and when I saw the ruggedly painted scripts that Fellini used to make for his films in the college library I thought that film might be the language for me, so I spent my whole second year making one with Stephen Jaques and James Blundun. I found the process bewildering  and frustratingly long winded but it somehow led me back into making books,  the predecessors of my Liver and Lights series.After I graduated I continued making and performing books until beginning the  Liver & Lights Scriptorium imprint in 1983. This started off as a kind of Manifesto and gradually  became more of a chronicle.  I am now on number 52!

As an art student I was troubled by the thought that art was a commodity that only a few people could buy for a lot of money. What I like about film is that it communicates to everyone who is sitting inside the cinema; the value of film is not that of the actual film in the can, but rather the experience of it, something that almost anyone can share and afford. A painting, on the other hand, is an artefact on a wall that only a very selected few can afford to buy. That is why I perform, make books and keep my books cheap.I think books are made to pass ideas on, before they too disappear, as all matter does. They are powerful vehicles but I am not attached to their material quality. The fact that they are not permanent is a fundamental part of their allure. I believe that they exist purely to carry stories from one place to another.

My writing is entirely to do with observation. Although I would never call myself a poet- I come from a visual arts background- I recognise that I do have a facility with words and a natural ability to explain things. As a teacher one of my roles is to find ways of explaining to students sometimes things that I don’t fully understand myself.
My writing is really about looking at things, mainly looking at ordinary people’s lives, those truly heroic ordinary lives that are far more interesting to me than supposedly extraordinary ones.

When I made my book “Bromley South”, for example, I was stuck for ideas so I decided to go out, pick anything that happened randomly around me and describe it. So on a mundane train journey from Bromley South to Canterbury one day I started writing down in as much detail as possible all the things that were happening in my carriage, then I took all the material back home and edited it down until I was left with just the story of one old lady.
You can do this with just about any piece of life, strip it right down to a sausage of relevance somewhere in the middle. You can turn your eye anywhere, and extract something meaningful.

But my books don’t always start with writing. Sometimes I draw. I always have lots of ideas sweeping around until one of them will fall, somehow… Sometimes the stories start as songs that I perform and end up as books.
I really like country music, and it occurred to me that the best country songs are never longer than three minutes, and in them the stories are told in two or three simple lines, with very few words. Johnny Cash said that nobody ever writes songs, only borrows them. I believe it’s the same for stories. Stories, like the best country songs, are already out there, they’ve been there for thousands of years, we don’t make them up! All we do is establish the basic plot, embellish with details, and the reader can imagine the rest for themselves.

One of the most important things I explain to my students is that you cannot control what other people think, no matter how clever you are. You can influence them, propose an image or an idea that will make them turn their heads in one direction or another, but meanings are not hard and fast, and everyone has the right to interpret things differently. That is a very liberating notion for an artist. If you start out with a fixed aim in mind, unprepared for digressions, disasters and adventures along the way, you wont get far! I think you must improvise constantly, you must never know exactly what you will end up with.

Another important aspect of an  artist’s work is making connections, of bonding communities together. This is what I love about performing: it’s about communing, coming together with your tribe. It is a ritual.
 My work is often very connected to London. London is what I look at, what interests me. The great thing about London are the ghosts that inhabit it, despite the cultural erasure and constant transformation. There is a wall in Deptford, down by the river that has been there for over 500 years, and that keeps accumulating layers, while the city keeps renewing itself constantly, like every great metropolis must do to remain vital. The old rubbing up against the new.

My latest book, Lord Biscuit’s Volvo 245 is Gone!  I think is the best book I’ve ever made!
I don’t always say that- sometimes I get so fed up with the process of making a book that when I finish it I say “Oh Dear! Have I spent all this time making that??”
Each page is cut out of a single piece of foam by hand, then set onto wood and printed as a rubber stamp. The book started as a poem about Lord Biscuit- the drummer in my band, Bones and the Aft- and of the time when his pride and joy, a 70s Volvo 245 which he had entirely and painstakingly restored, was stolen. Rather than give in to these circumstances, he tracked it down to a scrap-yard and reclaimed it and rebuilt it piece by piece.
The book is about that adventure, a mythic story about not giving up: The city is full of thieves and bullies - people that want to take away things that you love. This book is about standing up to those people in a very primal way and reclaiming the things that you love!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014



The new book I am working on at the moment started with an invitation from the artist/publisher Martha Hellion to take up a residency in Mexico. It was an incredible experience. Martha introduced me to Mexico City and all things Mexican. From her home and studio I was able to explore the city and visit museums learning something of the richness of Mexican Art and Craft. Together with Martha and Lilly Duering, an Argentinian artist friend of Martha’s I then traveled to Edward James’s garden Las Pozas, a 7 hours bus journey north of Mexico City, up and over mountainous desert, through the Sierra Gorda and down into tropical landscape.
The garden was an extraordinary amalgamation of jungle vegetation and man-made sculptural architecture, designed and constructed by the English surrealist Edward James and his Mexican craftsmen over many years. The garden enveloped in its magnitude and the buildings tested one in their dizzy structures. Their shapes echoed and enhanced the plants and trees that surrounded them. And the whole fused to create an incredible sensory experience of alert seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, moving and being.

I spent 8 days exploring the garden with my camera, wandering, getting lost, rewinding and refinding. I had never experienced such powerful soaring succulent vegetation in my life. 
As for the magnificent Staircase to Heaven, with vertiginous double spiral staircase and connecting bridge, the tiered walkways with splitting paths and the mysterious arches and open windows, - the latter really reminded me of Spanish/Mexican artist Remedios Varo’s paintings.  
As I wandered, I wondered how on earth I might translate such magnitude of scale, vertiginous height and depth, such profusion, brilliance and intricacies into a book. In my previous books I have always worked with a more manageable scale, so dealing with the vastness of this garden was a new experience for me, and an opportunity to think about my process, presenting a challenge to me.
I took many photographs of the garden, and once I had gathered enough I returned to my studio in Scotland where I began the process of thinking more concretely in terms of the book, following my usual process- that is starting by making contact sheets of all the images I had taken. The contact sheets allow me to get an overview of the entirety of the material I have gathered, they constitute an organized archive through which I can journey quickly and at ease and get an idea of the themes, my shifting pre-occupations, as well as the specific quality of shape and colour, the patterns and textural materiality within the images.

After that I began printing out a selection of images. I have always loved these early stages of the process, when originally with analogue I would have all the photographs to hand, in the box as it were, and look at them anew, away from the subject, as though in a reverie, seeing new things in them for the first time. Now, in a more digital world, my images exist at first on a computer screen, but I still try to print out as much as I can, even if it ends up being very expensive. These prints constitute my raw material, the beginning of the next stage in my thinking process: holding the printed image in my hands is the necessary starting point from which to make decisions about any of my books. Unlike a wordsmith I can’t pluck an image out of thin air.
I usually decide on the size of the book very early on, but in this case, given the enormous scale of the garden that was my subject matter - vast leaves, large panoramas, vertiginous view points - I kept several folders for different size prints and different scales, allowing myself to move between them along the way. When looking at the images and groups of images printed out in different sizes I started noticing how the different sizes created a different feeling in the hand, and how they provoked different ways of looking at and within the book: the larger ones provided for a broader sweep for the hand and eye, working better from a distance, whereas the smaller ones made the subject shimmer almost like a jewel in the hand.

Once I had my images, I began composing what I call “phrases”, sequences of four quite large landscape format printed images that follow one another, at first thinking that the book would eventually be constituted by a number of independent phrases/folios. But as I kept working I realized that there was a coherent narrative flowing from one phrase to the next, and that I wanted the phrases to be connected to incorporate this unfolding flow in the final book. That is when the issue of size and scale really began to work itself out more urgently in my mind: a concertina is a far more unmanageable object in the hand than a series of independent folio/phrases or a double spread codex book! Thinking of the book as one continuous phrase, rather than a collection of several shorter ones I began to have to consider the practicalities of folding the pages, manually or by machine. This dilemma also led to other dilemmas - which have continued - over methods of printing, gains and losses: inkjet quality/hand folding, offset quality/machine, press/sheet sizes and ultimately economics of production and economics of purchase: who gets to hold such a book. All of this gymnastics does my head in.
So returning to the subject and physical joy (rather than headache) of making my book, the garden was full of butterflies, birds and sounds, but these were incredibly difficult to photograph. However in Mexico City I spotted some old Mexican folk feather bird pictures that I just loved and photographed and found a way to incorporate these vibrant beauties into my version of the garden, giving them life in the garden and populating it within my memory and imagination in a similar way to how Edward James had done in real life when he came to Las Pozas, introducing his menagerie of birds, animals, including deer, boas and alligators!
All the time I was in Mexico I was also very conscious of wanting to evoke something of the ancient Mexican myth and include elements of indigenous Indian tradition and wonderful craft of Mexico. I was really moved by this. And wanted something of this feeling in my book. Martha is a great expert in textiles and together we looked at weaving, embroidery and beadwork made by Mexican Indians which I photographed and worked into my pages, as a vital element and another level of colour and texture in my book. In particular, I have attempted to translate with it that amazing and timeless feeling I got in the garden-jungle of the plants and foliage almost dripping over me. I have always loved textiles and the way they engage both eye and hand in their appreciation. For me “working” each page in the book is in its way analogous to the working of weaving and embroidery techniques: the eye and the hand teasing out the printed image as colour and surface in relation to the paper and the handling of the page. In this way the intimate nature of the book and its making is honored and hopefully it makes for an interesting material experience for the reader.

In relation to this intimacy, Frida Khalo’s small miniature self-portrait made for the hand also inspired me: so small yet so bold, I saw how this wonderful artist managed to combine such boldness of scale with such delicacy, intricacy and decorative detail all within a painting no more than 5cm high! Incredible. I thought if she managed to get such scale into such a tiny work then there was hope for me with the garden in my book!
When I start working out the physical book I need to consider so many issues: how to create the right tension and rhythm between the images within the phrases and between the phrases themselves, what size of page will work best for the image and subject matter, what distance do I want between the viewer and book- intimate and close up or slightly more distanced and table based. And then there is the agonizing consideration as to how to print to ensure the colours and blacks are as intense and saturated as I want them to be, and how to bind the phrases together so that the book will support the narrative conceptually but also remain affordable and therefore reach a wider audience, and so on. Printing methods are changing now and this affects the decisions I make, both compositionally and conceptually and, eventually, economically: whereas once I would have only been able to print 4 colour in offset litho on a specific sheet size, I can now use inkjet printing. The seduction of inkjet and its velvety matt black and intensity of colour makes it hard to return or convert back to offset: on coated stock with shine or uncoated with inevitable die back. But the former inkjet is very costly and hard to register back and front, and makes for small print runs and costly books. Offset makes for an affordable multiple if printing a larger edition. Depending on what I want and accepting differences there are different ways to realize the final printed book. It may be with this book that I output the narrative in two different sizes and print mediums, acknowledging the oscillating way I have been working and the dilemma I have found myself in. Both are relevant.
This book, like every one of my books before it, is an entirely new project for me, a place in which to pour my visual world anew. The beauty of a book is it can be opened and explored. You can lead the reader into the place of your vision - precisely where you want them to be - and then leave them there or bring them out. The cover closed, the place is safely held within the book and put on a shelf, awaiting to be discovered again. Within the constraint of a double page with a centre fold you can discipline your vision, contain and pace your whole visual universe in sequence. What is important for me about the book is the possibility to hold it in your hands, the condensed containment of that, and the intensity of material looking that this facilitates.