Reflecting on the Material World and the Physicality of the Book
by Sean Scott
Sean Scott travelled from Dundee, Scotland to Vancouver, Canada to intern at Project Space for six weeks in the fall of 2013. The following texts are from the zine, Reflecting on the Material World and the Physicality of the Book, which he published during this time.
Is it necessary as a creative practitioner to remain engaged with materiality in the digital age? When I say digital age, I guess I refer to a topic that is discussed and analyzed in abundance, that of our dependence upon the Internet (1), of the vibrating pocket friend and the 13” silver beauty of which one will fall asleep closing and wake up opening.
There does however, remain something desirable about the dissemination and reception of an idea, image, concept etc. when it exists within a physical, material format. So why, when we have this instantaneous, effortless ability to find the answer to almost any question at the click of a button, do we still desire to read or view something when it is quite literally limited to the physical dimensions of a piece of paper? I like to think that it is because of an inherent, human desire for engagement.
For the global, creative community it cannot be denied that new media has transformed the way in which we function and market ourselves. However, a large proportion of this community has managed to go full circle and return to their material roots. Walter Benjamin (2) gave us a wonderful perspective on our speedy leap into the modern age of material expansion and mechanical reproduction. But then the wide world of printed matter blinked and found itself replaced with a smug post-print realm, that of the digital new media.
So are we now in the post-post-world of print (3)? We celebrate the expansion and beauty of technology, but at the same time we celebrate a world of practitioners who marry traditional methods of print with a wide variety of modern techniques to create innovative and varied material outcomes.
Lithography for example, one of the earliest methods of print reproduction, has re-emerged as a trendy and affordable way for artists to disseminate their work in a controlled manner. The Internet, on the other hand, blurs the authenticity of what we create and allows for an exponential number of people to view and own a piece of art (4). I personally love the feeling of pulling a fresh print out of a press. That smell of wet ink as it has just transferred from plate to page, the range of tones and marks that can be produced in a way that a digital printer may only strive for. But of course most importantly, that moment when I run my hand across an image that is sitting on a chalky yet slightly textured, 300gsm, handmade, off-white piece of paper. I say, how indulgent is that feeling?
1. May I quickly point out that my word processor corrected internet to Internet. As I digress completely from the main point… for the difference between The Internet and an internet, please search “Name as Internet versus generic internets.” You may understand it slightly more than I did, as I quickly lost interest and opened up multiple other tabs containing published/printed matter that I want.
2. That great guy.
3. We are forever post-something though, no?
4. I guess the question of ownership and authenticity, as related to the Internet, is an entirely different topic.
Q&A with Good Press (Glasgow)
Good Press is a book store and artist run space based within Mono, a vegan cafe that also houses Monorail Music. It has been in operation since 2011 and exists to provide an environment to explore the dissemination and distribution of a wide range of artists’ books and zines and show the works of visual artists in alternative ways.
Sean Scott: Was there anything in particular about the artist self-publishing community that drew you to initiate Good Press?
Good Press: As well as Good Press we also run a publisher, Museums Press, and our experience from that spurred us on to operate Good Press in the way that we do. We felt that having our titles stocked in many places meant that we were getting the raw end of the deal. Chasing money, chasing people, rejection, becoming part of a hierarchy, lack of promotion. We wanted to start a space that helped the publisher as much as the store or its visitors, rather than add another chore to their list. It sounds almost idealistic with a hint of snobbery, but we think we’ve implemented simple changes that have gone some way to doing this, and they’re very positive for us as a business model and for everyone involved.
Good Press was started on zero money. Just a small amount of fundraising and a lot of time and generosity from our friends and family. To us, this is exactly like making a publication. You do the best job you can on what you have.
We’re continually trying to do things by the means we have, being transparent about this, doing our best the whole way. Glasgow has a very rich history in the arts and its current scene is great. It was the perfect city to start Good Press in. It did feel strange that there was only one art bookstore and it didn’t stock the titles we wanted to get hold of. We felt that opening another store in an informal space, with a different range of books was necessary.
We focus upon self-published materials and books from independent publishers. We strive to ensure there is a range to see and choose from. We don’t just stock what we think is good.
SS: What does Good Press provide for the artist community, that possibly, other local artist establishments may not offer?
GP: Glasgow is very well catered for in the arts community, but not so much with published materials, so by stocking an international range of publications, we can provide in that manner. We’re not just here for the artist community either, we’re here for a wider audience and the general public—that’s why we remain so public and wish to stay in a busy venue.
We strive to be approachable and not make anyone feel uncomfortable, which I’m not saying other galleries don’t do, but I think the casual surroundings and familiar subjects—books—help ease that feeling of “I just don’t get it.” We’re trying to introduce and encourage in a different way. We’re very focused on the idea of community and their understanding of us, it’s very central to the thinking behind Good Press.
SS: What is your view on the current position of self-publishing within the wider art and design community?
GP: It’s good! It’s always been good though. It changes constantly and it’s stronger than it ever has been, in my opinion. There are some great publishers coming along all the time. I think it’s very diverse and it’s very, very difficult to do something new in terms of format, so people are focusing on doing great print jobs with really good artists—and that’s important. People are putting their own minor spin on things, and that’s great. Simple is great.
I think an important point that artists’ publications rely on, as opposed to maybe fanzines in the traditional sense, is money. We’re a community that relies upon money and people investing in books, zines, pamphlets, posters, printed materials. I think that trust in investment financially, as well as through attention and exposure, is not quite there yet. But it will be, eventually, and it’s something that we discuss a lot.
SS: Why do you think it is important for the artist community to have access to a resource such as Good Press?
GP: Maybe to broaden the idea of what you can do. We have daily visitors that have never thought of collecting their work in booklet form and that’s really exciting. It’s the best feeling when someone comes in and they discuss that they’ve been thinking of doing something like the hundreds of books they have in front of them. The directions they can possibly take, binding, print methods.
We also focus upon having international publications here at Good Press. We hope that people can come by and see things they haven’t seen before. That’s a resource in itself. It’s very easy to be focused on getting stock from your immediate community in your own city and feel that you’re promoting the people that need it most, but it’s a two way street. It’s good to do that but it’s also good for you to see things from out of town too, that still have an influence upon what you do. We’re promoting Glasgow artists by exposing them to publications and artists that are not from Glasgow.
SS: Do you think it is significant for a bookshop and gallery such as Good Press to be in a central location? Do you think it would be sustainable, for example, to be located somewhere more remote?
GP: I don’t think the book side of what we do would survive if we were not in an open, central and very public location, no. We’re open six days a week here, seven in the summer. Our aim is to show what we and everyone we exhibit and stock here do, to as many people as possible. Being central is very important to that. Getting to remote locations isn’t easy and can be off putting and we definitely don’t want that to hinder the artists involved with Good Press.
SS: What do you think about the idea that technological advancement has transformed, rather than hindered, the evolution of artist publication?
Absolutely it has. Visibility is much higher now, promotion and distribution is much easier. I think it depends upon what angle you’re coming from though. As an artist I use the internet and technology a lot to research, contact people and see what other people are doing with the output.
As a gallery, we fill our website as much as possible to make it open for people who can’t visit, so they can get closer to what we’re doing.
Q&A with Book Conservator Emma Fraser (Dundee, Scotland)
Emma Fraser is a book and archive conservator. She also teaches bookbinding in a local print studio and acts as a facilitator for artists who wish to produce books.
Sean Scott: How did you come to establish yourself in the area?
Emma Fraser: I studied fine art as an undergraduate degree, and found myself working on very small paintings of which I would slave over for hours. On leaving art school one of my professors suggested that I might be suited for a career in paintings conservation and that I should volunteer at a local art gallery. I did, only to discover that the conservator working there was a paper conservator, thus starting my love of paper and books.
So, I guess you could say by chance.
SS: Do you think it is important that we, as a society, maintain a relationship with physical books and the book arts?
EF: I don’t know if it’s important for us as a society, but I think there will always be physical books and the book arts. As a conservator who works to repair and maintain special collections and archives, I would be remiss in my profession if those books are not still a part of society in years to come. In terms of book arts I think it’s important to remember that a book is not merely a carrier of textual information. It can be a work of art or even a sculpture, it has a physical form beyond it’s text.
SS: I remember a conversation we had about the importance of book materiality. We discussed the notion that to read or view a book is to experience it in a way that would be impossible online. What do you think about the significance of materiality in our age of new media?
EF: I think the significance of materiality becomes greatly increased; the rise of the virtual, in a sense, makes the material or real object so much more valuable. Isn’t it interesting to look at where digital media seems to be heading? Take for example the idea of 3D printing—taking something virtual and changing it into something real and solid that you can touch and feel.
SS: What do you think about the expansion of digital archiving and conservation?
EF: I think it’s a good preservation tool, but it will always be a copy, perfect for preserving the text but it can never replace the actual interaction you experience with a book when you pick it up—how heavy it is, what it smells like, what falls out when you open it. The smell of books is fascinating to me. I went to India to visit various archives and the first thing that struck me when I entered the stores was that they smelled different from European books. They smelled of lemongrass because in India they use the oil to protect their manuscripts against insects.
SS: Has digital archiving affected your practice and that of others in similar professions?
EF: Digital archiving has actually, in a way, increased the need for physical conservation. Lots of conservators these days are working on objects in a way that allows them to be digitized. I think in the beginning there was this idea that a digital copy would reduce the demand for access to the original, but the reverse seems to have happened. People want to see the original after seeing an online version. The reality is that even after digitization the book still needs to be looked after, so there will always be work for conservators. Aren’t I lucky, I get to interact with some incredible books and manuscripts for the rest of my working life!
Conservation photo snagged from here.