A Commonwealth of Books
Running with the Big Dogs
If the Big Dogs ever gave any of us here the chance to run with them, we would probably follow Oscar Wilde’s advice and cave in to the temptation.
What do the Big Dogs love? They love to define, limit, mark out boundaries, exclude – they love to make a circle of the wagons. The Big Dogs hate words with big meanings. In our country right now they hate ideas such as Republicanism, Saying Sorry, A Fair Go, Land Rights, Multiculturalism, Welfare. Because they can, the Big Dogs try to bite people in Iraq, Afghanistan – they set up a Pacific Solution – reserve the right to tell refugees if they’re refugees and tell us we can’t crack a joke when someone in a uniform puts their electric gadget up our jumper, or sniffs at our underwear at the airport. Terror Sedition.
But how does the Big Dog effect get us to books? It should get us to the point where we’re embarrassed to adopt their standards: embarrassed to limit or define what an artist’s book is – and if anyone tries to foist THE definition on you today, please piss on them – which is something else the Big Dogs are good at.
Books form a Commonwealth of Books – they are a diverse community. Sure some leave us indifferent. The discarded ends of a bad printing job, with Japanese style stab binding ... but I can still rip off some design element to use from them.
Sure some make us cross. The collection of Charles Blackman lithographs, in a grey box, with a title page, a signature, an edition number and a colophon ... but I need these too, because they give me something to kick against.
Sure some books can strike us as a slow death, because of the standard way they present image and text on the page. But who’d turn down such a book that came out of a collaboration of, say, Picasso and Tristan Tsara; or Eluard and Miro; or Mallarme and Redon? Sam Beckett and Jasper Johns? Or one of the books designed and bound by George Matoulas and his Lexicon Press?
Sure some books may strike us as being perfect because of the synthesis they achieve. Look at William Blake’s work. He writes the text. Sets it. Designs it. Makes the images…and even though scholars won’t confirm it, I’m sure that Bill and Mrs Blake could bind like angels!
THE ARTIST’S BOOK IS A DEMOCRATIC CONTAINER. IT CAN HOLD WHATEVER WORLD YOU PUT INTO IT. KEEP IT THAT WAY ... BECAUSE, AS SUCH, IT AGGRAVATES THE BIG DOGS.
The Commonwealth of Books
I believe in a Commonwealth of Books, and although I’m a sports nut, I don’t believe in the Commonwealth Games! Though I still respect those blue Game’s Lanes.
Why do we stack books one on top of the other? Why do we squeeze them together in bookshelves? Why are libraries – both public and private – the ideal places to house books? Because arranged in such a fashion they pass on their secrets – in a global Chinese Whisper – to one another and if we’re good, when we look/read a book we not only get to hear or view its story but we pick up the echoes, ripples and suggestions that originate from all the other books our book has been a neighbour to.
In such a Commonwealth, books evolve far more effectively than the people who have made them. Once they leave us they become something better that we imagined. What is my A Gardener at Midnight learning from William Morris’s Chaucer, or what is the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses learning by being next to my copy of Feather & Prey?
I believe in a Commonwealth of Books because each book comes out of a community of people. Let me take A Gardener at Midnight as an example:
- George, Tony and John pull off Gulf War II, bless the oil and let the burning begin. The three main libraries and archives in Baghdad are burnt and looted;
- Twelve years ago I saw the three-volume set of David Roberts’ The Holy Land, and from that moment the ‘elephant folio’ format was MINE;
- The Palestinian writers Edward Said, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish; the Serphadic Jewish writer Edmond Jabes; the English reporter for The Independent, Robert Fisk ... all became part of the mix;
- The painters Robert Motherwell, Sean Scully, Turner and Casper David Friedrich were there too;
- I was reading war reportage: Robert Fisk, Michael Herr, Pappa Hemingway and looking at the war photography of Robert Capa, Philip Jones Griffiths, James Nachtwey;
- Then the paper merchant, Robert Jones, made his contribution, by having the Magnani paper that was big enough and had the grain running North to South;
- Chris Boone, a graphic designer, ensured the plates from which the book was to be printed would allow for enough colour to kick out from the cotton-based paper;
- David Pigeon set the type, knowing the traditions that the book was coming out of;
- Bernie Rackham operates a flatbed press which prints a single colour at a time: Bernie had to make that transition from printing on commercial, glossy stock to an art stock that he referred to as ‘blotting paper’;
- Des Cowley, a rare books librarian, who pointed me to a whole range of 19th century travel books: from which I could rip off design elements;
- The writer Brian Castro, who wrote the second half of the two texts;
- Nick Doslov – Renaissance Bookbinding. His is the voice saying Moroccan goat, red buckram, gold leaf, gsm, grain direction, endpapers, acid free animal glue, hold folding, wet tearing, eight-page sections ... and after working with him for over twenty years, I can say I almost understand a couple of these things!
These twelve people, let alone all the friends I ran ideas past, were indispensable to the making of this book. Appropriately perhaps, my name only appears once in the book, and that’s in the colophon.
The Commonwealth of Books spills out into collaborations, where two or three or more people work on a project. I’ve worked with writers, artists, film makers and photographers.
What does this mean?
It has financial benefits because each year you get to write fewer and fewer Christmas cards! You get to share the costs. You get to bang heads and see what ideas fall to the table. You get to be more daring in the company of collaborators: this is the secret Braque and Picasso taught us on the way to Cubism.
I doubt whether I would have used gatefolds in a book had I not collaborated with Theo Strasser on The Use of Ashes; or die-cut coloured papers and linocuts in 1316-, a collaboration with Angela Cavalieri; or screenprinting and gouache in Using Shadows, a collaboration with Robert Colvin and Theo Strasser.
Digital vs Book
Do you remember when television was going to change our lives? What a load of shit that was! I’ve been on the telly now for two consecutive Sunday spots while the rest of you were mowing lawns, drinking chai, watching the footy ... and I’d welcome a CHANGE ... I’m waiting ... but it’s not happening ...
Remember when the digital revolution was going to turn our lives around (and with Y2K perhaps even destroy the economic fabric of the world)?
Well, the book has done more than survive these revolutions: it has become an emblem of resistance.
I believe the end is ALWAYS the means to a further end. Each story can be told in different ways. Just to look at John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Fowles’ novel has three possible endings and I’m (almost) sure I’ve seen two endings to Coppola’s film: one where a napalm strike is called in on Kurtz’s headquarters and in another version where the strike is not called in.
Anyway, I’ll use my own The Ifs of Language as an example of an idea having a multiple ending. (The title, incidentally, comes from a William Carlos Williams poem where he ruminates about the possibilities of language.) So, book in/book out – once again. Before this became a book, however, it was a film. The central ideas which rotate around the title are how language looks – how much do we need to see or hear before we attribute meaning? The broken texts pull language apart, then the completed texts are an apology for pulling language apart just to see if anything’s there – if language is a con, a virus, as Bill Burroughs told us ...
[Film of The Ifs of Language]
Maybe in the end we just have to acknowledge that the great truths – if we’re lucky enough to be slapped in the face by them – always turn out to be half-truths, and they’re engaged in a constant search for their other half.