This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long while. I woke up at the Dead House feeling nervous, thinking about today’s public book encounters. I’m comfortable as a quiet observer, especially in public. Knowing that most of today would be spent gathering attention and making a spectacle of myself (however benign) made me anxious, for sure. I knew this would be difficult. At various times I thought about how I could just drop the entire thing, throw out all the books, etc.
I was due at Bev’s house to pick up her bicycle at 9 a.m. On the esplanade along the way I was spotted by Julie, an artist I’d met in London at BookLive. She’d told me that she might drive to Weymouth to get one of the books on the first day, as research for her Ph.D. dissertation on archives (“Archive as Activity”). Julie, who had slept in her car on her trip down from Sheffield, was sitting on a bench and called out to me, and we exchanged a few serendipitous screams and laughs. Was wonderful to sit with her and talk about our journeys and the excitement of being in this fantastic place, and the circumstances that brought us there. Hers was exactly the beautiful burst of energy I needed to get me going this morning.
A bit later at Bev’s house I listened to her talk about her life in Weymouth while she made us coffee. Bev is a friend of Jane’s, who features prominently in volume 1, and through this connection I was generously offered Bev’s bicycle — absolutely perfect in an old-fashioned, big-wicker-basket kind of way.
Back at the bakery, I loaded up with today’s edition (Volume 1: River / The Interviews) and made my way to the northern end of the promenade (the “prom”). I set up in front of Aunty Vi’s snack shack, right on the sea, at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. all of the books were gone. It happened so fast but I spoke to everyone — Olympic ambassadors, students and their teacher from Peru (several copies of volume 1 are on their way there now). A family who vowed to take one to give to a friend who would appreciate it. Someone who said they would be back every morning to collect the entire set, making me promise I would be in the same spot every day. Somehow, 20 copies were suddenly gone, just like that.
Everyone seemed genuinely interested. Enthusiastic, even. The spontaneity of each encounter fed the energy for other people who came by, and each moment rolled into the next. Was such a great feeling.
Peter, the owner of Aunty Vi’s, was the most enthusiastic. He was the first to approach me, within 30 seconds of setting up, offering me free tea and coffee and calling out to everyone passing by to go get a book because “they’re rare and you’ll be one of the twenty!” Our temporarily shared territory created a bond and I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s “territorial gifts” (exchanging a mint with someone sitting next to you on an airplane, for example).
Later, at Phoenix Bakery, I set up the reading room for the afternoon and had visits from an Italian language club. I gave them an extra copy of volume 1 that I found, and they vowed to pass it around and share it. Fellow b-side artists Frances Scott and Niels Post and friends came by, and an Irish family who had traveled to Weymouth, MA to visit relatives there. And Joff Winterhart drew me and the books and the visitors for a good part of the afternoon.
Jane and I shared a marvelous conversation about generosity and the giving/gift part of the project. She reminded me that the connections coming out of and into this project are human. That this exchange keeps us alive.
Meanwhile, Aidan the master baker was busy making delicious things downstairs.
Artist’s talk / 8 August 2012
Later today I fly east, landing at Heathrow and making my way to south west England. By tomorrow afternoon I’ll be in Weymouth, Dorset—site of the London2012 Olympic sailing games, just in time for the live broadcast of the opening ceremony on the beach.
And on Monday I start the performance (installation, publishing?) of Weymouths, my b-side Arts Festival commission. I’ve been exploring and producing Weymouths for more than eight months, so needless to say I’m excited to see what happens with these public book encounters. This is a kind of culmination for the project, but it also starts something new and unknown for me.
I’ll be giving away Weymouths in 12 installments, beginning Monday 30 July, with “Volume 1: River / The Interviews.” The last day will be Friday 10 August, with “Volume 12: Light / 1,485 colors.” If you happen to be in Weymouth look for me on the esplanade each morning, and at Phoenix Bakery in the afternoons, where I’m setting up a reading room installation upstairs.
I’ll try to post daily updates here, so follow along. If I can find wifi I’ll tweet my location each morning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to give books away.
I am a designer who sometimes creates book-related artwork. This means that I navigate different content packaging and book-making terrains, trying to make sense of what’s commonly called “publishing.”
For clients, I might advise them on how to bring a publication to market. This could be brand-related work (crafting the right message) or production-based activity (designing a book or magazine or website), or understanding new publishing platforms. I work on behalf of corporate and non-profit clients alike, but in the end it’s always cultural production (making stuff) mounted upon the commercial market (selling stuff). Even as it radically transforms itself, the publishing industry continues to match audience with message via commercial exchange (or some kind of potential for economic gain). Hence, “industry”—the production of goods.
Even when content delivery appears to be non-monetized (e.g., newsletters, blogs), the drive to justify in terms of profitability is strong. We’ve learned to define everything in terms of commodification—even attention, knowledge and personal data (eyeballs, clicks, engagement). As their audiences grow, we expect our favorite blog authors to introduce advertising or sponsorship into the delivery of their content. Writers and artists ask us to fund the creation of their work—in advance. We willingly self-publish on social media platforms that leverage our content for profit. While it can be argued that these are inevitable models of exchange in late-capitalist society, monetizing the creation and delivery of work fundamentally changes the author-audience dynamic, no matter how relevant or elegant the ask.
Our need to commodify content is a consumerist urge, a natural extension of the work of art in the mechanical age of reproduction. As the idea of browsing disappears, along with physical bookstores and all kinds of libraries, the book—as physical object or virtual data—is becoming primarily a purchased experience, a mass-produced (mass-downloadable) work without unique attributes; the purchased book is without aura.
Artist’s books are no exception. Printed Matter, one of the artist book community’s greatest institutions, operates as a retail store. Print-on-demand operations like Blurb or Lulu bring tremendous ease to book production, especially for the artist, but siphon all of our creative output through digital storefronts. Profit potential pervades, but $11,000 books aside, getting rich in self-publishing is extremely rare.
And yet this remains the default position. Screen, paper or otherwise — we sell the stuff we make. Why?
In the last few years I’ve self-published print books that I’ve displayed, exhibited and given away. They’ve never been for sale. That the work exists outside of any commercial art or publishing market isn’t easily reconciled; questions about the work’s economic value (can I buy it? how much is it?) are common. My response that the work isn’t for sale—that is, that my motivation for creating it was completely non-financial—is confusing to some, and even manages, in some contexts, to diminish the work.
It’s more challenging to define value when the work is entirely removed from its economic worth.
What if—in the transfer of book to recipient—we were free to examine other kinds of value exchange? Might it be possible to develop a viable art practice that produces book works outside of financial motivation? Are there alternative positions?
Is it possible to publish outside of publishing?
Recently, I’ve started to think about how my work might function more purely within other kinds of economic systems—mainly, the gift economy.
Last fall I exhibited a limited edition of ten printed books at a gallery at the University of North Carolina. Within a few hours of installing the piece, one of the books had disappeared. I’m not sure if it was willfully stolen or if someone misunderstood the nature of the artwork. Perhaps they thought the books were meant to be taken. My initial reaction was disappointment, of course, but I quickly recovered and began thinking about the missing book’s new life. By introducing indeterminacy into the work, the book’s disappearance subverted whatever market value it had gained while in my possession. The book “escaped.” It was out of my control; if I could release the book, instead of mourning and wishing for its return, the narrative would become richer (i.e., i could imagine that it was taken as an emotional response to the show, or that the new owner wanted to sell it, or simply make trouble, etc.). Its value was opened up, and the new owner became a kind of collaborator in my work of art, helping to extend its meaning outside of my own creative intent.
This was in itself a kind of transaction. The new owner “got” the book from me, and I got a new story, even if imagined. If it had been a cash exchange, the book would have retained its market value, and in my accepting the money, its meaning, for me, would have collapsed into the cash. Instead, the book passed into circulation and I was left with a new, changed artwork—unwillingly so, perhaps—but a new narrative: uncertain, imagined or otherwise.
This was such a revelation for me. So much so that I decided to embrace the taking (or giving) of books for my next project.
In Weymouths, a twelve-volume work commissioned by the b-side Arts Festival and funded by Arts Council England, I created a limited edition of 420 books. None will be sold. Except for a few sets that I will keep for my own records, all of them will be given away in a series of public book encounters designed to encourage a gift-giving transaction, not unlike the kind I discovered in North Carolina. By remaining in circulation, I’m hoping that the book-gifts can take on other, more ephemeral values (emotional, nostalgic, spiritual, souvenir). I won’t know exactly what these values are until the work is “performed.”
I can’t totally deny the work’s entry into a for-profit commercial market (in theory, someone could choose to sell a book that they receive from me), but I can resist this by initially setting the book into motion as a gift.
In Weymouths, the “publishing” of the books is the very act of my giving them away. I would argue that the books themselves are not the finished product; rather, these public book encounters—the event itself—is the work.
My hope, however futile, is to create value by using the books to engage in real-time encounters. At best, I’ll build up a community around the work, and look for a kind of aura released in the artist-audience engagement—something everlasting and unreproducible (Aura—the divine personification of the breeze in Greek and Roman mythology; refreshing, exterior, ephemeral, uncontrolled). At worst, the books will be gone, emptied of meaning, released from my responsibility.
What kind of practice is this? Is it even publishing? If we think of book-giving in terms of these performative gestures, might it be possible to re-imagine publishing more as performance art? I think of Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ endless supplies of posters (ink on paper, printed, “published”), waiting on gallery floors, rolled up by visitors and dispersed.
I yearn for ways to subvert traditional publishing by disrupting all of its assumptions, including its default economic models. I would like to see an art-making practice that encourages the intimacy of in-person, one-on-one exchange, removed from commercial obligation, with all debt carried over in emotional or spiritual terms. I believe in the creation of community wealth via the circulation of the gift.
Someone will say: but who will pay for these books? That there are costs associated with content creation and distribution is undeniable. Sometimes these costs are substantial. Can we look for ways to transfer the financial burden away from the audience? In doing so, can we free up the artist to engage with his audience without framing the work in profit-making terms?
Daily book set-up. Sketch for bicycle blanket on Weymouth esplanade; exact location varies.
The final bits and pieces—preparing postcards, posters, bicycle blankets, reading room signage. This is where it feels like choreography, because the parts have been fully formed. Now, to set it in motion.
I’ve been saying all along that the Weymouths project is really a site-specific performance (30 July – 10 August, Weymouth, England). I don’t feel that my photographs, or the Stetson font or the twelve books are particular instances of the work; rather, these are the players (the parts) and I’m preparing to engage them with the public. The work is the performance.
Public book encounters
Last fall, when working on 273 Relics for John Cage, I asked myself the question—how does one perform a book? In the end, that project was an installation. A performance of sorts, but a static one, when compared with, say, dance.
Weymouths will be more like a dance. Each morning, I’ll be out on a bicycle for an hour or two. I’ll ride alongside the beach up and down the Weymouth esplanade, and stop to set up the bike wherever it feels right. I’ll park it on one of the bicycle blankets I’m producing (see fabric shots below) and lay out the day’s edition, flea-market style. I’ll engage anyone with an interest and give away single copies of the book. Each book will be wrapped with a belly-band and two postcards.
30 July—Volume 1: River / The Interviews
31 July—Volume 2: Sense / Weymouth can refer to
1 August—Volume 3: Image / Weymouth is
2 August—Volume 4: Migration / Bound for New England.
3 August—Volume 5: Observation / The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton. The first book.
4 August—Volume 6: Burial / Extinguished by Purchase.
5 August—Volume 7: Preservation / The Canoe Room
6 August—Volume 8: Remains / The birds were the raven, crow, buzzard, and starling.
7 August—Volume 9: Errare / Forty Views of House Rock
8 August—Volume 10: Formation / Whence is this mass of shingle derived?
9 August—Volume 11: Memory / Who enjoyed this view
10 August—Volume 12: Light / 1,485 Colors
After I release each day’s edition of books to the public (20 x each volume; 240 total) I’ll head over to the Phoenix Bakery, where I’m setting up a reading room on the second floor. All twelve volumes will be there for the entire duration of the project, free and open to the public. I’m working on a very basic installation for the room now, and some way for visitors to respond (a blank book, perhaps).
I’ll be giving a couple of artist talks in the reading room, as well.
So for the next few weeks, until I leave for England, I’ll be choreographing the work, arranging the parts into a schema. Of course, I don’t know what will really happen once I’m there. I’ve scored the piece but this is a project about serendipity and chance, and I’m about to give up (some) control and set it in motion.
How can this work be represented on a postcard or poster? Weymouths contains a massive amount of imagery, and it’s been difficult to single-out any one or two summary images. Instead, I decided to create a landscape of symbols from various parts of the work. Inspired by dance notation, the symbols are loosely collected with volume numbers and some idea about chance movement, relationship and flow. It’s a diagram of forces, both highly specific and not. As an image, it describes my methodology for the project better than any verbal explanation I can think of.
- Ship (symbol of Weymouth, Dorset), modified from a souvenir sticker
- House Rock (Weymouth, Massachusetts)
- Man pointing, from a late-19th century postcard of House Rock
- English Heritage symbol for “ancient structure”
- River Wey (from Open Street Maps)
- The marks of Wampetuc, Webcowett, Nateaunte and Nahauton, the four Native Americans who signed over the land that was to become Weymouth, Massachusetts, to the English settlers
- Native American canoe, c. 1450 (at the Weymouth Public Library)
- Chesil Beach stone
- King George III on his white horse (carved into the hill at Osmington)
- Sea-side bench
- A pixel
PS Check out Spoonflower. They create custom print-on-demand fabrics and I’m using them for the bicycle blankets. Excellent service.
At the printer now.
Here’s the 20-minute Weymouths talk I’m giving in London later this week — I’ve posted the entire thing as a single Tumblr blog. If you’re interested, spend some time with it. I set it up this way to discourage a quick read, as a way to replicate the slower rhythm of an in-person talk.
The remainder of the Weymouths proofs arrived today, so I spent most of the day photographing the complete set of 12 volumes for my talk next week. I’ll be speaking on Saturday at the Book Live symposium (full program PDF) at London South Bank University. I’ll post the entire talk here, including all of the slides, in the next few days.