February 22, 2013 · Print This Article
Since the beginning of her tenure as the Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at the Center for Book and Paper Arts Gallery at Columbia College in 2010, Jessica Cochran has been quietly curating rigorous and substantial gallery exhibitions, steadily setting a new standard for book centers, which aren’t always known for their gallery shows—and expanding my own understanding of the genre of artists’ books and works on paper. This fall Cochran organized a standout retrospective of Johanna Drucker that showcased her depth and breadth as a curator; she has also organized shows both in and out of the CPBA gallery focused on the nature of text and art markets. Cochran a gifted writer, and the catalog essay for the CPBA Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Structures for Reading: Text, (Infra)Structure, and the Reading Body in Contemporary Art,” demonstrates her attunement to both theoretical questions and practical issues related to the evolution of the book, here considered through various engagements with the book-object and emerging concepts of reading in new media contexts as sites for contemporary art practices. I emailed back and forth with her after wandering around during the installation of the show, which opens tonight.
MW: For a show about text and reading the body, I expected a lot of artist books and pieces about the physical process of reading as a way of seeing in contemporary art. While there were a number of pieces along those lines, I was also struck by how many artists took up themes that I would consider questions of digital culture and new media/ the process of dematerializing the book, especially Freeman’s Commercial Yard Goods and 56 Broken Kindle Screens. Do you find that all roads these days tend to lead to the question of dematerialization? Does the concept of “remediation” you used in the catalog help to broaden this issue?
JC: In a correspondence last fall artist and scholar Johanna Drucker purposefully used the phrase “distributed materiality of the present” rather than “dematerialized” to describe book’s existence today. To me this phrase “distributed materiality” articulates perfectly how artists in the exhibition are concerned with the multitude of ways we understand the book and interact with its many forms, from codex to pdf, through various technologies such as Internet cloud based services, print on demand self publishing, and mobile computing. In the show, for example, Judith Leemann’s project reading aloud: stories about a coyote began with over fifty different actual books and texts, which she read aloud in her studio. This activity was recorded, edited and published into podcasts, distributed through the Internet. And for the exhibition, 5 hours of this recursive text was commercially printed on fabric, which exhibition viewers can now purchase by the yard. Suddenly this patchwork of texts has a whole new kind of potential for circulation. I also love that the bolt of fabric is in itself a sort of artist’s book, and so the texts have sort of come full circle, re-published several times over.
With regards to remediation, I love to think that the book object, when it is sited within a contemporary artwork such as a photograph, installation or sculpture performs meaning in a really incredible way. In his book on the subject, Bookwork, a fascinating read, Garrett Stewart seems to imply that books in the gallery are something of ruins or mementos because they are stripped of their original textual function. I tend to disagree. I think of the gallery as an active space. To me, really successful works of art, at least the ones that I want to show, illicit a strong sense of contemporanaeity. In this I mean that they deal with “world picturing, placemaking or connectivity” – art historian Terry Smith suggests all works that are “truly contemporary” address one or more of these concerns. So meaning is always in process, changing. So when I see a book, whether in codex or digital form, oriented within a broader art project in a gallery, I understand its currency as a cultural object that has helped to shape our “present,” and I seek out its textual message, however muted, multiplied, amplified, stripped, modified—because its still there somewhere! This to me is very active and interesting.
Judith Leeman, Reading Aloud, Installation Mockup, 2013
MW: In the catalog essay, you make reference to the work of Bob Stein in developing his social reading platform called Socialbook. More and more I hear about social reading as a solution to the problems of working with print culture in a post-print culture. You’ve called the idea of social reading exciting and exhausting—I’d love to hear more about your understandings of social reading, especially as a model for contemporary artists. When Stein talked at Columbia last year, he also put forth the idea that in the future, most books will be artist books—or “books as works of art,” as he put it. What do you think about this hunch of his?
JC: There are so many ways to understand reading as a social activity, particularly as a model for contemporary artists. Triple Canopy recently asserted in copy for their seminar Automatic Reading that one way reading takes a social form in the context of art (within the legacy of conceptualism) is when the written word is publicly activated. To this end, in my essay I cite Vito Acconci as an example of an artist who not only publicly activates the written word through performance (his move from poet on the page to artist on the street is infamous and important) but utilizes the language of reading metaphorically when describing his practice: body as page, etc. Similarly, I chose to include many works in this show, including those by Tony Cruz, Gareth Long, Judith Leemann, Matthew Girson and Moyra Davey, because they made me think about the spatial dimension of reading both around, to and with others both as personal practice and as art practice. This is the social dimension of reading in a physical sense- corporal proximity to others. And it’s no wonder that so many artists address the topic of reading in the studio and out in the world—I rarely find myself on a studio visit when the topic doesn’t meander to what the artist is reading or when my eye doesn’t repeatedly scan on the artist’s bookshelves. Artists are prolific readers!
Relative to social reading as a solution to the problem of print’s demise, I should also mention that many artists and cultural organizers are dealing with the so called “demise” of print culture in inventive, social ways meant to re-circulate books within new meaningful networks of participants by organizing libraries (Reanimation Library (New York), Read/Write Library (Chicago)), reading/pedagogical groups (The Public School, the Surplus Library) and other projects like Printers Ball draw thousands of bibliophiles and print enthusiasts. The Center for Book Arts in New York has a show up right now, Brother, Can You Spare a Stack, that imagines new models for the library as a force for social change.
The digitally-networked dimension of social reading (and writing) is an extension and acceleration of our relational impulse as readers. This is what is brilliant (and possibly exhausting) about SocialBook (where every other reader’s marginalia is yours to read if you want to) and reading online in general: we can satisfy that desire to share ideas or commune over texts instantaneously. There is so much going on in this field that is fascinating. And it seems totally plausible, per Stein’s assertion about the future of physical books as artists’ books, that as innovation continues to make browser-based and tablet-based reading more viable, that physical books will circulate with less and less efficiency as commodities within the broad consumer market, so printed books will have to become become more rarified and “boutique” existing in something like an art market. There will be a justifiable reason for a book to be printed and sold, and this reason might be bound up in its paratextual artfulness- paperstock, typography etc. That said, there is of course already a market for artists’ books (different markets for different types, from fine press books and rare books to zines and “democratic multiples”). These are not very efficient markets. It is hard for anyone to make money on their books, from dealers to publishers to artists!
MW: Regarding the theme of reading and the body, I found that prostheses were a surprising theme of the show. Did you think about this when planning the show? Are there ways in which some substitutes for books can seem like prosthetic devices (I’m thinking about treating screens like codexes, say)? Or, to be more morbid, if books are like bodies, in that they’re physical objects that eventually decay and crumble (I’m thinking of Liz Sales’ photographs here), is part of the show about creating prosthetic devices for them?
JC: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the prosetheses that appear in the show, particularly those created by Eva Kotatkova and Johana Moscoso-those were actually the initial “structures for reading” I was thinking about early on in the curatorial process. Kotatkova’s strange limb-like book holding devices don’t make reading easier. In fact, they have such a disciplinary quality to them, they seem to be structures designed to make it harder. In one of my favorite poems in the world, The House was Quiet the World was Calm by Wallace Stevens there is a line where he talks about a reader, leaning over a book, wanting “much to be the scholar to whom his book is true.” That passage has always resonated with me: I think that there is a psychic vulnerability inherent in reading: is reading always failure? I forget almost everything I read, and it drives me crazy. Or, what if I fail to successfully use what I learn; what if the author disappoints me? In learning environments these feelings might be attributed to Imposter Syndrome. Many of Kotatkova’s prostheses, because they are sited within learning environments, seem to play off of the complexity of reading as a psychological process.
On the other hand, there are some prosthetic objects in the show designed to make reading easier- Moscoso’s Multitask Walker addresses our incessant need to read, email, eat and walk all at the same time.
Johana Moscoso, Emotional Prosthetic (in progress), 2012
And you mention Liz Sales’ work, steam, the book as a kind of decaying body. This piece is kind of sad: the steam coming off the cup on the book tells us a reader is nearby, but why is this book suddenly a prop or a tabletop landscape? Why is it hosting small trees? There is a long legacy in art and literary theory of the “book as corpus,” object of our desire and fetish (Buzz Spector outlines many of these assertions from Mallarme’s “virginal books” onward in The Book Maker’s Desire). In psychology Theory of Mind explains how we empathize with others and try to understand their behavior; we literally try to theorize what is happening in their mind. We do this with inanimate objects too, especially the book. Now that the physical book’s very existence is in flux once again, the discourse around their fate and role in our lives is, one might suggest, incongruent to their reality as inanimate objects. If you read or listen to discourse around disappearing bookshops, or talk to a reader who is defiantly holding out against that “inevitable” Kindle purchase, you’ll find that these conversations are incredibly passionate—it’s like we think of these books as living things! This helps explain the currency of the book itself as a visual signifier of our contemporaneity, or what Terry Smith calls, “our passing present” particularly when it is sited within contemporary art projects. My reaction to Sales’ photograph steam is much more passionate than it would be if it was, say, an old box or shoe sitting on the table rather than a book.
Liz Sales, Steam, 2010
MW: I also found blueprints to be a major theme, often used very humorously—there are a few artists in the show who call ironic attention to the contrast between blueprint and realization in various projects. I found myself laughing at the contrast between the design and realization of Garth Long’s Bouvard and Pechuchet’s Invented Desk for Copying, an impossible invention in Flaubert’s novel. Do you see blueprints as a metaphor or way of understanding books as a relationship between the conceptual and the physical?
JC: I see the blueprints or “plans” in the show, particularly those by Eva Kotatkova, Gareth Long and Sebura&Gartelmann, as really light and humorous commentaries on the relationship between idea and object. Some are blueprints for totally speculative things that are absurd in terms of their actual use-value—Kotatkova’s darwings for wearable reading devices, for example, are rendered cartoonlike. The blueprints in the show also relate to the book in various ways (the idea of book as manual, book as starting point for an idea) and several also underscore a public/private theme that occurs throughout the show: the non-public place where an artist reads is the place where the artist writes, drafts, plans, makes, etc., which reaffirms reading as an active, not passive process for artists. For this reason, the desk form pops up in the show multiple times, and it wasn’t something I was thinking about in the beginning of the show.
Gareth Long, Bouvard and Pecuchet’s Invented Desk for Copying (construction diagram), Liam Gilllick Version, 2012
MW: Can you talk at all about your own hunches about the future of both Columbia’s book center and others across the country and world?
JC: I think the future for the Center for Book and Paper Arts, and that of other art / book-related organizations is exciting; the pulse at fairs like the New York Art Book Fair or Chicago’s own Printers’ Ball is extraordinary and growing. We are energized as a center and academic department right now—our activities have never been more research-driven and pedagogical, and always interdisciplinary. The interest in our academic journal, The Journal of Artists’ Books (JAB), is steadily growing, as is the subscriber base (the Centre Pompidou just subscribed a few days ago!) and we just received a major NEA grant to commission artists’ books for the iPad as part of a broader electronic publishing initiative, in addition to a Clinton Hill Foundation exhibitions grant to explore hand papermaking as social practice. We have researchers from MIT coming to our studios to work with our MFA students on paper-based electronic books. We are busy, and it often surprises people how broad our approach to publishing and book and paper arts actually is! And the best part is that our MFA students play a role in all of this, from printing JAB to planning exhibitions.
“Structures for Reading” opens February 22 and runs through April 6 at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, Columbia College.