INTRODUCING THE RESEARCH QUESTION
From the late 1960s onwards, books have been exploited as a substantial part of artistic practices. The artist’s book became a new form of expression that uses the book as a canvas for an artistic work.1 The artist’s book is a work of art in itself especially conceived for the book format and often published by the artist him- or herself.2 The content could be anything that the artist wants to express to his or her readers; there could be texts, sketches, photographs, and these could be related to one another or perceived as separate items. The artist’s book is like a portable exhibition, but differs in that there are no external curatorial opinions reflected. The book permits the artist to express purely personal reflections and avoid misrepresentation by critics or other intermediaries.3
It was Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), followed by his Various Small Fires (1964) and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), that dominated the conception of artists’ books in the late 1960s. Ruscha’s books were a landmark starting point and an enormous validation of the book as a legitimate medium for visual art. His work and that of others, like Sol LeWitt, Marcel Broodthaers, Lawrence Weiner, Dieter Roth, set the tone of what would become a new genre in visual art: conceptualism.4 The art world took considerable notice of artists’ books in the late 1960s, when Seth Siegelaub started to create independent exhibitions in book form that had a broad scope. His catalogues – similarly to a group show – offered a number of pages to each artist instead of a wall or a number of square meters.
From a graphic design point of view, the artist’s book is a weird apparatus. The book, usually designed and typeset by the artist him- or herself, suddenly serves as a canvas for infinite artistic expression. I find myself in a field of expertise – designing books that disseminate artistic thoughts and ideas – that seems to be that of the graphic designer, but isn’t solely anymore. The canvas of the book is used for artistic expression, but the interference of the graphic designer doesn’t seem necessary today to accomplish an artist’s book. Besides different personal approaches to structuring a book, artists and graphic designers are profoundly distinct in their working methodologies. Graphic designers merely collaborate with clients and respond to a set of rules when working on a commission, while artists create from their inner selves, not necessarily taking into account the commercial or marketing interests of others. But even if an artist’s work is free from the influence of a client, it is still strongly tied to museums and galleries that are interested in exhibiting and selling. In the 1960s and 70s, this institutional attachment was felt as a lack of freedom, which pushed artists to explore other mediums in which to communicate their work. Books offered artists the possibility to operate outside the paved institutional roads of galleries and museums and produce work without the intervention of intermediaries.5 Conversely, Ulises Carrión – artist, author of The New Art of Making Books, and owner of Other Books, which he ran in Amsterdam from 1975 to 1979 – is unconvinced by the claim for independence through artists’ books. In his text ‘Bookworks Revisited’ he states:
If we consider the objectual production of works of art in book form, one copy of the book is not the book. The book is the whole edition; that’s why it’s nonsense to say that producing or having a book (as artwork) is cheaper than, say, a painting. … The same misunderstanding is the basis for another reason for optimism – that books would allow artists to liberate themselves from galleries and art critics. I would like to ask, what for? To fall into the hands of publishers and book critics! Let’s imagine a world without artworks, a utopian society where books are the only known possibility for a creator to embody his mental and emotional world. Now imagine that the creators of this world discover the field of the visual arts. We can imagine their enthusiasm as they think: no more literary critics, no more intermediaries between our works and the audience, no more prestigious publishing houses, no more translations, no more best-seller lists, no more handwritten originals, etc.6
Carrión’s opinion is rather isolated compared with those who welcome books as a tool for artistic autonomy and independence and is based on a somehow implausible hypothesis; however, he was right when he noticed the growing interference of publishers and critics in the artist’s book market.
Writing on this pull for freedom by the book as an apparatus, Arnaud Desjardin, initiator of The Everyday Press, notes:
There is now an outside to the book. Up until probably the 1960s there wasn’t an outside of the book. The book was this dominant monopolistic form for dissemination of culture and ideas. There wasn’t an outside of printed matter. Every idea that was produced would have to circulate in printed form if it wanted to circulate. … The book in a way now lost its monopoly. I think it’s the loss of that monopoly in the 1960s that created a huge amount of anxiety, because the hierarchy that was ingrained in that monopoly was also threatened and put in danger. To fetishize the thing of the book goes hand in hand with those forms of anxiety, which are vested in that monopoly.7
Artists in the 1960s, according to Desjardin, perhaps created anxiety among book publishers and designers by dispensing with the different tasks and opportunities in book production. This anxiety or loss of monopoly for publishers and book editors later on in the 1990s was generously fed by the rise of the Internet. These reflections make me – as a graphic designer – reflect on my position on and possible contribution to the production of artists’ books today. I fully support and applaud the existence of artists’ books, and although my practice centres on the production of printed matter, I’m not over-nostalgic when it comes to the survival of the book in general.
Books produced as art practice, containing writings and reflections, simply produced in small editions and sold for a few dollars (Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha was sold for $3.50 in 19638) over the years have become, in some cases, scarce objects for the elite.9 Ruscha, who neither signed his books nor put his name on the cover,10 formulated his intentions as follows: ‘I’m not trying to create a precious limited edition book but a mass-produced product of high order.’11 The early wave of spontaneous and radical books in the 1960s and 1970s were turned into precious collectors items after art collectors and the art market became aware of them. Jérôme Dupeyrat argues: ‘Although almost always animated by the desire to make art more accessible by using the medium of the book as the means of creation in its own right, many of these publications actually had very small circulations and have now become very rare or even impossible to find because of speculative prices that contradict the original intentions.’12 This phenomena of scarcity, generated by galleries and art dealers, clearly puts artists’ books in huge contradiction with their initial raison d’être: an independent, accessible, and inexpensive medium for autonomous artistic expression.
At the centre of the debate over the scarcity of historical titles is the increasing production of reprints and re-enactments. Since the early twenty-first century, supported by the rejuvenation of self-publishing, artist’s book fairs have increased and print-on-demand techniques have evolved in favour of artists. Relying on the possibilities of the Internet, it stimulated the overall production of artists’ books and interest in possibilities for re-enactment in particular. If artists books were originally available to everyone at low prices, Jérôme Dupeyrat wonders, ‘why are artists’ books from the 1960s and 1970s, which are almost inaccessible due to the exhaustion of the print-run and because they reach exorbitant prices when still available on the second-hand market, not re-edited? When a novel or essay is exhausted, it is customary to make them available again when there is a demand.’13 It is a legitimate question from a historical point of view. Michael Bracewell has something to add to Dupeyrat’s statement: when it comes to a revision or re-enactment, ‘a book or text is both being made newly available and, equally importantly, being entered into what might be described as a process of print re-enactment: a renewed engagement with the history of a work, in which the processes of publishing as much as the text itself – its authorship, context and editorial ancestry – become both media for new art-making and venues for cultural historical inquiry.’14
The term ‘re-enactment’ is primarily used to describe a historically correct recreation of a socially relevant event15 and relates most of all to performing and stage arts. As Robert Blackson, quoting Sven Lütticken, states about re-enactment, it ‘may lead to artistic acts that … create a space – a stage – for possible and as yet unthinkable performances.’ A re-enactment is very much a tool for appropriating historical content that ‘is distinctive in that it invites transformation through memory, theory and history, to generate unique and resonating results.’16 This statement by Blackson, alongside that of Lütticken, emphasises the possibility or urge for a re-enactment to end differently from the original source and have multiple possible outcomes. Re-enactments don’t necessarily follow the exact historical event. A war could end differently than it did historically. As Sven Luticken notes, ‘since the outcome of the original battle was not clear in advance either, an authentic war re-enactment must contain the elements of surprise and chance, and have an open outcome.’17
Numerous contemporary exhibitions show that ‘re-enactment’ is not isolated to the performing arts but is a concept embraced by conceptual artists from all backgrounds.18 When applied to the realm of artists’ books, a re-enacted iconic artist’s book results in numerous reprints displaying artistic interpretations more or less loyal to the original source.19 A certain degree of acting is involved when re-enacting historical content – in any form of art whatsoever – that obliges an artist to take a position and deal with the legacy of the source in a responsible manner. Robert Blackson adds, ‘drawing personal motivation from either your past or historical references is the conventional element necessary to construct a re-enactment.’20 On the other hand, the framework in which to re-enact is highly determined by the source material. Personal entanglement is therefore always limited, or has at least a strong reference point. Sven Lütticken concludes about this degree of artistic interference, ‘It is unlikely that an artistic re-enactment will prove to be “an event that unleashes a tremendous emancipatory potential”, but what contemporary art can do is investigate the modalities of re-enactment and the possibilities and problems inherent in them.’21
First and foremost, re-enacted artists’ books make historical titles newly accessible for a present generation – usually for a reasonable price – and offer the possibility of actually flipping through these books again, instead of treating them with gloves or being kept at a distance by a display case. Two types of re-enactment are distinguishable and key to this research. Re-enactments either aim to produce an exact copy or reproduction, as true to the original source as possible, of an old book, manuscript, map, art print, or other item of historical value, the so-called facsimile,22 or to take an iconic artist’s book as the starting point or point of departure for diversification.23 This type of re-enactment – which in this research is referred to as a ‘bootleg’ – is the appropriation of the original content by the artist for further interpretation. The term ‘facsimile’ seems more related to the arts because the source to be reproduced is usually an object of printed matter, like a book, manuscript, or print, while the term ‘bootleg’ is mainly used in reference to the music scene or alcohol. Descriptions of ‘bootleg’ include ‘to make, transport and/or sell an illegal version or copy of a copyright product’24 and ‘(of alcoholic drink or a recording) made, distributed, or sold illegally.’25 Most definitions of ‘bootleg’ refer to copied objects and products that infringe copyright, and not to the specific artistic practice of ‘bootlegging’, to which later on in this article artists Eric Doeringer and Michalis Pichler strongly refer when describing their artistic practice. A definition deriving from the art scene and describing the eponymous exhibition ‘Bootleg’ at Evilson Gallery in Cape Town (South-Africa) in 2012 notes: ‘Bootleg is about acts of citation and appropriation in contemporary art practice, as well as the decentralising of production in the global economy.’26 In Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha, Marc Rawlinson describes numerous different forms of re-enactments of Ed Ruscha’s books as ‘straight homage or self-conscious borrowing of Ruscha-as-artistic-material’,27 which is a respectful description of bootlegs regarding Ed Ruscha’s body of work. Bootlegging does require a strong – almost militant – act of appropriation. A bootleg differs from a facsimile in the way that it adds a certain amount of complexity to the original, and thereby, in creating a new proposition, argues that it can avoid infringing the original’s copyright. While the publishers discussed above obtained legal permission to republish artists’ books from the 1960s and 1970s, or at least mention the rightful copyright owners,28 Eric Doeringer’s and Michalis Pichler’s books do not state anything about obtaining copyright permission. Doeringer and Pichler do mention copyrights in their books, but these cover their own artistic property. A copyright line referring to the artist or publisher of the original book is missing. The only reference to the source of Michalis Pichler’s bootleg is a mention of the original book in the bibliography.
The frontier between a facsimile and a bootleg is a highly subjective and fragile one, in which copyright – the exclusive right to copy, licence, and exploit an artistic work29 – operates right in the middle. An attempt by the College Art Association to determine the fair use of copyrighted artworks, published under the name ‘Fair Use: Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in the Visual Arts’, describes the consensus within the visual arts community in the United States on practices to which the copyright doctrine should apply and provides a practical and reliable way of applying it.30 The codes on making art using another’s work state that the copying artist should cite the source, avoid any suggestion that incorporated elements are original to the copying artist, justify the artistic objective when using a pre-existing work in part or in whole, and avoid the use of existing copyrighted material that does not generate new artistic meaning.31 These restrictions leave much room for interpretation and are on the side of the copying artist. As long as the original work is respected and referenced, copying is generally accepted.