Goodbye to a legend

Last night I had the honour, and in many ways the privilege, to open the series of speeches at Books Works’ Jane Rolo’s leaving party. After 35 years at the helm of Book Works’ publishing strand, having founded the organisation with Rob Hadrill in 1984, Jane is now on to other things.

I remember Jane talking about wanting to maybe do something else, develop new ideas – tentatively, possibly alongside Book Works – over ten years ago, when I was editor of a series of publications at this unique organisation. Over a decade later, she is finally cutting the cord. Now I am a member of Book Works’ board, paying tribute to her immense legacy was the least I could do.

Tony White captured the proceedings and a key phrase from my short exploration of what for me characterises Jane unwavering dedication – ‘critical care’ – neatly. Karen di Franco rightly called Jane a legend, because a legend she is. Gallerist Lisa Panting, who was a guest editor before me in the mid-1990s, and artist Helen Cammock, one of the many artists who published with Book Works, flanking Jane in the last pic, echoing similar sentiments.

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Book Works

After having worked as an associate editor on the series Fabrications for independent art(ists’) book publisher Book Works in 2006-2009, I am now a member of its board. I am looking forward to working with the organisation and the other board members in the years ahead.

This year has kicked off with a bang, with founding co-director Jane Rolo’s announcement she is leaving and the start of the recruitment for a new co-director (Book Works is, after all, a double-stranded organisation, with a studio and a publishing arm). A dream job, but definitely for someone else.


Revisiting: Luca Frei – The so-called utopia…

While talking to artist Anthony Shrag, he referenced Luca Frei’s The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg. An interpretation, unaware that it is one of the titles from the Fabrications series I was responsible for, published by Book Works. In turn I was unaware that Celine Condorelli did a reinterpretation of the work at the Southbank Centre in 2007 in a sound piece.

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-11-21-41Here is the link to it on her website. The screenshot above shows the adapted introduction, transposed onto the reality of the Southbank Centre. I got back in touch with Luca and he informed that there now also is a Portuguese translation of the book, and a variety of re-interpretations of his translation have been made by others. I also came across an interesting analysis of the book here. There is also a review in Artforum and on 3AM and even an in-depth critical analysis in a PhD thesis. With the above-ground Centre Pompidou going in for a proper refurbishment it is time for a reread of the story about the alternative.

Another blast from the past

Having worked with Book Works on and off over the years, I know how long Jane Rolo and Gavin Everall have tried to get a project off the ground with writer and curator, and long-time director of Glasgow’s CCA, Francis McKee. Having known Francis for a long time myself (including working with him in 2002-2003 on Zenomap, the first presentation of art from Scotland at the Venice Biennale), and always having been a fan of his writing, which manages to engagingly blur fact and fiction, I couldn’t resist putting myself forward for proofing it.

Francis’s book will be one in a series selected by guest editor Nina Power, and although I won’t spill the beans here about the exact contents I can say it’s a great read, and very Francis. Due out in autumn 2016.

NB – although the book won’t contain any of the photographs Francis has been taking in recent years, here one I took off his flickr feed, shot in Paris 17 July 2016.

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Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon

One of the publications I worked on while at Artangel was in relation to Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film. In this work – Douglas’s first feature-length film, produced in 1999 – the camera follows the hands, and the facial expressions of a music conductor – James Conlan – while conducting a full orchestra playing the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. Therefore the length of Feature Film is determined by the length of Vertigo and its accompanying score. It was first shown on a large suspended screen in a space on Brick Lane, London, with Vertigo on a much smaller screen in the back of the space. The film on its own also did the rounds along the film festival circuit for several years. Since 1999 the work has been shown in many different configurations (I remember a screening at the Royal Festival Hall, for which a sound installation had to be brought in), and in many different settings.

The idea for the book was to come up with something that allowed the different elements of the work to be encountered in different ways – the visual, the aural and the more conceptual. I remember Douglas saying something along the lines of “I want my parents to be able to engage with the images and the sound, without actually watching the film.” In other words, the challenge was to find a way of translating these different aspects into a publication that somehow comprised all of them. These consideration also led to the title: Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon. 

As a result, the publication contains a selection of stills (selected in one of Soho’s many post-production studios, which was fun to do, but also highlighted the issue of using stills derived from the film in the sense of print quality – there is only so much extrapolation one can do with 72 dpi) of Feature Film, with a much smaller selection of stills from Vertigo, which together provide the basis for the actual book. The challenge in the selection process was to find visually interesting stills across the length of the film – which has whole periods of very slow panning shots, but also vigorous accelerations, with the hands and arms of Conlan moving in and out of the frame very rapidly – for which we could also find matching stills (i.e. the same moment in time) from Vertigo from various image libraries. In the pre-digital era, for most films there was only a certain amount of stills in circulation for press and publicity purposes. So without wanting to contact the current right holders for the film, our source was a range of stock image libraries across London. Looking at the reproductions now, am also aware of the fact that while Douglas was very specific in wanting to use a particular film stock that would enhance the black that was so present in the footage, while we used the digital edit version of the film to select stills, which has delivered varying hues in the flesh tones of Conlan’s face and hands. This translation back and forth between different mediums is an interesting aspect when considering documentation of  presentation and representation of the work. It was something that also played itself out in the presentation of the film: when it was screened as film, the quality of the image was entirely different from those occasions where a digital version was used.

Each spread in the book has a Feature Film still on the right, while the opposite is black– so to some extent trying to mimic the large amount of black in the film, for which a double run through the press was used, if I remember it correctly – except where there is a matching Vertigo still, where the background is white. So while the unfolding of the film narrative is mimicked – but plays itself out between the front and the back cover – the realisation of this being a book, with its own space and its own conventions, is present. In addition to the visuals, the full orchestra performance is available on a CD, which is attached literally inside the conductor’s ear in the cover. The sound and visuals are accompanied by an in-depth essay by renowned French film scholar Raymond Bellour, and an American Bernard Herrmann expert, Royal S. Brown, which are inserted in the back sleeve as an appendix, allowing the reader to look at the images unencumbered by text, while listening to the music.

The book was designed by Phil Baines, and co-published with Book Works (my first encounter and collaboration with them) and agnès b., while the film was a co-production between Artangel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstverein Cologne, in association with Yvon Lambert and Lisson Gallery. The book in the end had two print-runs, where the difference between them resides in a colour shift in the title.

Has Man A Function In Universe?

Has Man A Function In Universe? is part of an ongoing project by Gavin Wade to develop forty projects related to forty questions written by R. Buckminster Fuller. Each project is an artwork or a combination of artworks, developed in response to one of the questions. Of all the questions ‘Has Man A Function In Universe?’ may be the key that binds and directs all of the other questions. Gavin Wade commissioned artists and writers to respond to this question using a combination of text and image.

The publication reflects the process of the project – an ‘exquisite corpse’ involving collaboration, dissemination and the combining of works.

Contributions from: Neil Chapman, Shezad Dawood, Per Hüttner, Juneau Projects, Karin Kihlberg & Reuben Henry, Kerry James Marshall, Jessica Spanyol, Lisa Strömbeck, Mark Titchner, Sue Tompkins, Hayley Tompkins, Gavin Wade and Carey Young.

Co-published by Book Works and Eastside Projects. It was the sixth in a series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications, edited by me. The book came together through an extensive collaboration with Gavin and designer James Langdon.

Slavs and Tatars – Kidnapping Mountains

Kidnapping Mountains is a playful and informative, exploration of the muscular stories, wills, and defeat inhabiting the Caucasus region. Comprising two parts: an eponymous section addressing the complexity of languages and identities on the fault line of Eurasia, and ‘Steppe by Steppe’, a restoration of the regions seemingly reactionary approaches to romance.

Slavs and Tatars are a collective devoted to an area East of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia, who redeem an oft-forgotten, romantic sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.

Kidnapping Mountains is the seventh in a series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications. A total of eight publications appeared in the series, commissioned by me. With texts by Victoria Camblin, Payam Sharifi, and Slavs and Tatars. Designed by Kasia Korczak and Boy Vereecken.

Heather & Ivan Morison – Falling Into Place

In a range of their work, Heather and Ivan Morison had explored the currency of shelters and escape vehicles – things that can either transport you physically or mentally away from the here and now and help avoid, or offer refuge, from future disaster. The film Dark Star (2006), and the timber structures Pleasure Island and Fantasy Island (2007), took their starting points from the American house-truck movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the hand-built-shelters associated with the ‘back-to-the-land’ movements of the same period. These interests are continued in a series of commissioned sculptures and shelters.

Continuing their explorations and investigations into cultures of self-sufficiency, Falling into Place brings many elements of the artist’s research together with sketches and drawings, through a narrative which is part-science fiction, part-history, part-auto-biography and part-fairytale.

Working with Heather and Ivan was interesting. Although they are partners in life and their practice, they do have different ‘roles’ and take responsibility for different aspects. They also communicate differently about their work. Early on in the process of working with them, I stayed at their then house in Wales, and we walked to the plot of land they owned with a wood on it, that they maintain and the material of which they use for their work. Nestled among the trees was one of the shelters, related to the one they presented in Venice, when they represented Wales. Seeing how they lived, talked and made work, I think helped in the process of editing the dystopian story as it was being written. I recognised the references to works or situations that also existed in reality, and from the conversations we’d had, I could make a connection with aspects of the narrative.

For many writing is a slow process. And while written elements are part of Heather and Ivan’s practice – through plays, and minimal texts they send out on invitation cards – it certainly isn’t at the core of it. Writing a kind of dystopian novel, in which their own work and concerns featured I think needed to take its time. Because they were so very much ‘in’ the narrative themselves, it also required careful consideration as to what was functional and what wasn’t, and now and again what worked for them, as authors, did not necessarily worked for me as an editor. The end result is I think an interesting take on the notion of what an artist’s book can be, and how artists can sometimes take writing their own narrative – about their work and themselves – in their own hand.

Co-published by Book Works and Situations, University of the West of England, Bristol. It was the eighth in the series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications, edited by me. The book was designed by APFEL.


Luca Frei – The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg, an interpretation

Appearing under the pseudonym Gustave Affeulpin in 1976, and coinciding with the inauguration of the Centre Beaubourg in Paris, Albert Meister’s fictional text La soi-disant utopie du centre Beaubourg imagines a radical libertarian space submerged beneath the newly erected centre-piece of French Culture. In a world turned upside down, the 76 storeys submerged beneath the official centre for culture provide a platform for alternative modes of work and creation. Reporting, in sometimes hysterical, sometimes more poetic language, and with tongue firmly in cheek, the narrator recounts the vacillations of free organisation, in a satire that never takes its eye of the main target: state-sponsored culture.

This is the first translation and publication of La soi-disant utopie du centre Beaubourg in English, a project undertaken by the artist Luca Frei as an attempt to both revitalise a significant cultural treatise incorporating many elements of Meister’s sociological thinking, and to reflect upon the subjective role of the artist in transferring ideas from one cultural framework and era to another.

I really enjoyed working on this with Luca. Himself Italian Swiss, and his French good, but his English certainly not fluid, his translation of the entire text was an interesting basis to start with. We worked in chunks of several chapters at a time. Him sending me a draft, me sending an edited version back, and so back and forth. My attempts at editing something that should on the one hand be really legible for the reader, while on the other hand also retain the sense of being slightly off-kilter – conceptually, in time and linguistically – really highlighted the fact that translation is not something that is purely a literal act. It is an utterly engaged activity, where the sense of how it is being said can be equally as important as what is actually being said, and how it is therefore sometimes fine to not make it ‘perfect’, or slightly ‘deviate’ from the original.

Co-published by Book Works and CASCO, Utrecht. It was the second in a series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications, commissioned and edited by me. Interpretation and design by Luca Frei.

Make Everything New: A Project on Communism

Communism is routinely defined as defeated and its conquest the subject of regular celebration. Caught in the disappointment and negative connotations of the past, it has become all but unthinkable. Make Everything New – A Project On Communism seeks to rescue the idea of Communism from this trap.

Collaborating with artists, writers and collectives, this project has commissioned and collected counter-narratives, abstract and unrealistic ideas, engaged political commentary and satirical work, that presents neither an historical or comprehensive overview nor a requiem for the past. It is a collection of partial and subjective accounts of various creative practices, an experimental platform for ideas and an attempt to see in what ways the communist imagination can be materialised as art.

Contributors include: 16Beaver, Gopal Balakrishnan, Michael Blum, AA Bronson, Maria Eichorn, Factotum, Dmitry Gutov, Wu Ming, Aleksandra Mir, Sarah Pierce/The Metropolitan Complex, CK Rajan, Raqs Media Collective, Dont Rhine, Martha Rosler, Rob Stone, Alberto Toscano, and Klaus Weber.

Co-published by Book Works and Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from an original concept by Grant Watson. It was the first in a series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications, commissioned by me. This particular book was edited by Grant, Book Work’s Gavin Everall and myself. It was designed by Secondary Modern.