Sunday, 22 March 2015
Question: Let's begin by talking about your recent exhibition at Bookartbookshop, which was a collaboration with Ash Fitzgerald...
Answer: Both Ash and I have a slightly anarchic approach, which is reflected in the way we work. Ash showed a group of related books: using collaged notebooks and other materials, Ash subjected these works to a series of transformations which compromised their legibility and threatened their integrity. I showed a group of books which contained my own photographs: they were constructed using paper clips, which made them look quite distinctive as objects. One of them was particularly close to my heart: it was made of photos which I took on the day that demolition began on the Tricorn Shopping Centre in Portsmouth. Years earlier I was at art school in Portsmouth, an iconic Brutalist structure that was attacked for its uncompromising 1960s aesthetic and, by the time of its demolition, had been subjected to years of neglect and vandalism. I was interested in the building, which was composed of very strong dramatic shapes in poured concrete, but I was also interested in the way the photographs highlighted a gap between the original conception of the architects and and the actual reality, 40 years later.
So there was my stuff, and there was Ash's stuff, and Ash's books had this texture and this look, where he had subjected the pages to various processes and soaked the paper in different substances, so that they looked almost as though they were about to disintegrate. I think the combination worked well.
Q: What made you decide to work with books in the first place?
A: I went to art school in the mid 70s. On my foundation course there was an art historian called Charles Harrison who introduced his students to what was going on in the contemporary art scene. He was involved with a group of conceptual artists called Art and Language, whose work had a discursive quality which addressed the context of art education and the wider art world. At the same time their exhibitions had a dense perplexing quality that consisted of areas and blocks of text arranged on the wall. The older artists that I met might have been challenging and exploring the nature of the art world, but they seemed to me secure in their own identities, whereas I still felt extremely gauche and unclear about myself. It was this area of the personal and interpersonal which I wanted to explore. It was then that I left my BA in fine art and went off to study sociology and politics.
Q: What are you exploring through artists books?
A: I started by making a series of drawings around 1980. I was making lots of line drawings using all kinds of sources, one of which was a book about Hollywood westerns. I had grown up watching westerns and playing Cowboys and Indians, and I was interested in how these things were using images and narrative to speak about group psychology and society. I would obsessively draw and redraw different images, then rip them up and reassemble them into new arrangements. These sequences of drawings, which I initially had hoped to show in galleries, were the first elements I started to assemble into very crude looking books. They became a way of exploring power and human relations through archetypes, like the cowboy and the thief for example. The first was based on an incident in a western where one character bullies and humiliates another into acting as his servant. The second took and incident from the Thief’s Journal by Genet which concerns selling a stolen motorcycle and the fragile process of creating a masculine persona which is based on theft and braggadocio.
Stylistically these books were diverse, blending images from the movies with comic books and fine art references. I don’t think the people I showed them to at the time knew what to do with them. They looked a bit flimsy and improvised!
Q: Can you talk us through the process of making your books?
A: Right from the beginning I have been interested in collage as a way of juxtaposing one type of thing with another. What I tend to do is draw things and then collage them together. This lets me manipulate the images in different ways. This random process gives rise to new meanings and thoughts in a way that often surprises me: when I am very involved in it it is almost as though the work is talking back to me, giving rise to new ideas and associations.
Q: Tell us about the architecture of your books.
I like the word architecture. Some of my books have been literally concerned with architecture through the use of photographs which I have taken of building. Gradually the books have evolved to become more like architecture themselves, with a clear design structure which is an integral part of what they are. My first effort at an artist book was a pamplet/alphabet book which I produced in the early 1980s. It was commercially printed on not very good paper and I was disappointed when I saw my nice crisp drawings loosing some of their quality in the process. For years I had boxes of these alphabet books in my bedroom, the only place that stocked them was Compendium books in Camden Town. Then I went to New York in late 1989 and one of the first things I made was a very simple book made from one large sheet of etchings torn up to make pages; that got distributed by Printed Matter.
Q: Why did you start using paper clips in your bindings.
I had done courses on bookbinding and I had also got other people to bind my books, for example the company that did bookbinding for the British Museum and Gavin Rookledge. Apart from the fact that this was expensive, it was also difficult for other people to interpret exactly what I wanted. I didn’t have any of the equipment for conventional bookbinding and I also didn’t want to do use any sewing. So I started to think about how I could bind books in a way which would also express something about the nature of the content, if it is even possible to make that distinction between form and content. I started thinking about how I could design my own bindings which would allow me flexibility to reposition things while I was making it, but would still work properly as a book. Paper clips work because they are everyday items that don’t have any associations with craft.
Q: Would you like to say something about artists books in general? How do they relate to the wider context?
Places like Bookartbookshop, Printed Matter in New York and Bookie Wookie in Amsterdam offer artists an outlet for material which is unclassifiable and represents the kind of grassroots creativity which most commercial galleries don’t have the time or the space for.
Even if conventional bookshops agree to take a few artists books they usually struggle to display them appropriately.