Written by Lana Lopesi
Supported by Creative New Zealand
Lana Lopesi is the editor of Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.
This article is the first in a four part series that looks at design and the ‘Other’ that will be published over the course of this year. This series will consider the various roles of design and design objects outside of dominant design discourses.
The subject of what separates art and design is convoluted. Artists and designers both create visual compositions using a shared knowledge base, but their reasons for doing so are entirely different. Art is known as existing purely for pleasure as well as being academic, pretentious even. Whereas design serves a practical, commercial purpose and, in many instances, solves problems. Art however, looks to make propositions, leaving ideas unexplained and unsolved. And yet both industries are concerned about a visual language often resulting in natural crossovers or moments where rigidly defined art and design practices become confused.
The publication as an art object is one of these instances of crossover. Not to be confused with a long history of artist books or artist magazines, I am specifically referring to when artists or curators think through the form of the book in the same way that they would think about an art object or an exhibition space. In these instances, the publication is no longer a supplement to the art, but the art itself. A more specific trend we see among contemporary art practice in Aotearoa, is the use of the publication as an art object among women. Artists are treating the publication as a spatial experience almost, where the pages, words and images are used in a way to suggest and provoke alternative readings by audiences, in the same way an exhibition would.
Unlike many art forms such as painting and sculpture, a publication in its many varieties — the 1B5 exercise book, reading book, Bible — is something very familiar to many people. We know how we are supposed to engage with it, we start from the front and make our way to the back, it has a cover and pages, it’s relatable and unintimidating, it’s a classic. So how are these women artists using what may be seen as a rigid, practical format as a contemporary art object.
Berlin based artist Ruth Buchanan (Te Ātiawa/Taranaki) has used the publication form in a variety of projects. Lying Freely was the first publication made by Buchanan, designed with David Bennewith and co-published in 2010 by Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory and Jan van Eyck Academie. The 4th and final part of a larger project, Buchanan uses the publication to bring together the other three parts of the project with the additional challenge of dealing with the book form itself.
Over two years Buchanan, “investigated questions surrounding the tension between private need and public appearance, individual agency and collectively received legacy”, which culminated in a guided tour, Nothing is closed (2009); a theatre piece, Circular Facts (2009); and an installation, Several Attentions (2009). The scripts of each of these works makes up the bulk of Lying Freeling. By re-presenting these experiences that occurred in different locations over a period of time, Lying Freely not only archives the project but also displaces those moments from a formal timeline. The publication itself becomes the public appearance and legacy of these collective works.
We are told that the book: “behaves on the one hands as a schematic or script for the body of work, drawing boundaries – and on the other hand it proposes a method, an approach, that suggests constant repetition and following, constant reconfiguration. The book becomes an experiment in sharing material, sharing space; absorbing and reflecting its own conditions and the conditions under which it becomes public.”
Another collaboration with Ruth Buchanan and David Bennewith as designer is the publication The weather, a building. Here, Buchanan focuses on the history of Staatsbibliothek Berlin (the State Library of Berlin). Telling us three different narratives of the library, we learn about the removal of the libraries contents during WWII and the relocation of the contents to other spaces in Berlin and even other cities, as well as where the library is being housed today. Seeming facts (which include timelines, photographs, images and archival material) are curated alongside Buchanan’s own images and writing by both Buchanan and Ian White, disrupting what appears to be a historical narrative. This overlapping of different perspectives, facts and speculations suggests an alternative way of understanding the architecture. Buchanan uses the editorial plane of the publication to physically manifest both a rupture and creation of this alternate narrative, while also leaving it open for the reader to wade their own way through the printed matter.
Unlike Lying Freely, which is building an archive of the artist’s own work, The weather, a building investigates the archive itself, performing and questioning the role of the traditional archive and information distribution. Buchanan uses the form of the book to question the very way we would expect to receive information in that form.
Another artist who thinks through ideas of the archive is Auckland based Louise Menzies (Pākehā). While Menzies doesn’t always directly use of the publication form as a mode of production, it is undoubtedly a staple reference in her practice. In Time to think like a mountain, a project made while on residency in 2014 and recently exhibited at Auckland’s Artspace, Menzies curates printed archival material focused on feminist periodicals before repurposing and representing them as prints for new audiences. Menzies pulls material from the Alternative Press Collection at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre at the University of Connecticut which holds archival material of cultural political movements from the 1960s and 1970s.
The use of these materials provides a type of time stamp for audiences or as the artist has previously stated: “an index, beginning point or reference for considering a specific time or place, a situation or action.” If anything, in Time to think like a mountain Menzies’ reprinting and presentation of the archival material reiterates how this 50-40 year old feminist narrative is still as relevant today as gender imbalances are still rife in modern society. Menzies brings to the surface the design not only of a certain era but of a certain politic.
Another project of Menzies which uses archival material of a particular politic was a collaboration with Warren Olds called Mushroom Magazine Poster. Mushroom was “an alternative living magazine” which was published in Waitati, New Zealand from 1974-1985. The non-profit self-published magazine printed articles, news, letters and notices. Their mandate was stated as: “Call it subsistence publishing if you like. We want to cover: Communes and Communities; The Ohu Scheme; Homesteading; Rural Technology; Alternative Schooling; Natural Foods; Organic gardening and farming; Crafts; Survival in Cities; Personal Awareness…” For Mushroom Magazine Poster Menzies and Olds curate a selection of images and text from various issues of Mushroom into one A1 sized poster, which is a two-colour silkscreen print available in a number of colour combinations.
In both of these projects by retaining and presenting the aesthetics of the time, Menzies reminds audiences about the visual languages of the past. Both projects reference optimistic ideals – of feminism and environment consciousness – which at the time (and even now) highlight radical and alternative ways of thinking and doing.
Fiona Jack is another Auckland based artist (Pākehā) who uses the form of the publication to build an archive. However, in contrast to the work of Menzies, Jacks Living Halls creates an archive which never existed before. Published by Clouds in 2011, in Living Halls Jack turns her interest to New Zealand’s war memorial halls. These halls which were funded by the government post WWII popped up in communities across the country as a way of acknowledging our county’s contribution to the war as well as the many lives that were lost. They were incredibly popular public spaces with hundreds of them spanning the nation.
Jack archived these halls in a number of ways including listing and drawing each of them based on the original applications made to the government. These records are not only kept in Living Halls but are also stored in the National Archives. Jack’s extensive research in this instance was not just for art’s sake but had a tangible effect on the country’s archival practice.
Janet Lilo (Ngā Puhi/Samoan/Niuean) deals with archives of a different sense, the photographic and the digital. In 2016 she had her first survey exhibition, Status Update at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, where a publication of the same name was published alongside the show. Taking the model of a traditional artist book, Status Update included five essays by Ioana Gordon-Smith, Monique Redmond, Caterina Riva, Ema Tavola and Nina Tonga, over 250 colour photographs and a number of hand-drawings. Designed by Julia Gamble Vale, the publication’s hardcover had a screen-printed cover featuring a custom hand cut font created by the artist, a typeface which has come to be closely associated with her work.
While the publication held more of a typical role in terms of one that supplements a big landmark show, it was also the only attempt to really make permanent a practice which is so based in the temporary and the now through site specific installations. We see the accumulative effect of images that Lilo plays with happen in real life on the pages, they become an exhibition of their own in sorts, referencing each other. In Status Update, the publication form is used as a curatorial plane, images aren’t specifically referenced or captioned instead situated next to each other as they would be in a gallery space, leaving the readers to decipher and establish meaning and connection for themselves among an archive of practice.
The familiarity of the tried and trusted form of the book means that it is incredibly accessible to all audiences even those outside of gallery visiting regulars. The potential for it to be mass produced allows for many audiences to engage with it, taking away the exclusivity of the traditional art object. As well as that, the publication allows for art to transcend geographical boundaries being accessed by people all over the world.
Buchanan, Menzies, Jack and Lilo are only a small example of women using the publication form in their work. The common thread of the publication for each of these artists is its relation to the archive. In a temporary exhibition practice, the publication cements work in a form which exists far beyond the walls of the gallery space and the lasts longer than a month-long exhibition slot. The works show us that not only can publications archive artists own practices allowing their works to enter into traditional archives such as libraries and reading rooms but also can comment, disrupt and dislocate the archive as we know it, looking to the archive as a method. It allows for a longevity. The perfect marriage of art and design.
Our previous Aotearoa Design Thinking articles can be found at:
What does a fact look like? K. Emma Ng
Expanding the Conversation: Thinking About Aotearoa Design