What does it mean to be an ‘artist publisher’ nowadays, and how is the rise of digital changing how we feel about real world print production? We chatted to Laura Sillars, Artistic Director of the Site Gallery in Sheffield, about their new installation, Print It.
Can you describe the new exhibition at Site? Why is it a good match for the gallery?
We are situated in the heart of the Cultural Industries Quarter of the city – there are over 500 artists working within a 10 minute walk of the City Centre. This is a place where you just walk down the street and you will find people doing stuff – making art work, sculpture, printing, T-shirts, books, films. The whole history of artist books intersects with that of radical DIY pamphleteering and now, if you have something to say, we live in an era with the means of production to say it relatively cheaply, with basic domestic tools. It’s so much easier now to be creative and make your own things, but in order to do it well, you do need to look at what other people are doing and know what went before.
We constructed this exhibition to make these links between making, doing, seeing and thinking real and tangible. Throughout the exhibition Joanna Loveday and Charlotte A Morgan will produce a book, the workshops we are running will enable budding book makers to print and bind their own work, and artists taking part in the programme will produce limited edition art prints that are for sale.
How do you reconcile your support of creative expression with selling products as part of this show?
Selling is a key part of book making – we are not hiding from this, and one of our galleries is filled to the brim with beautiful, unique books that have been made by artists. We are working with more than 20 international independent publishers, often led by artists whose work does not fit into the mould of the big commercial publishers. The world of art is very simply a world of people. This exhibition explores all the social networks that exist between artists, publishers, shops and galleries as part of the process of bringing new ideas into the world.
What is the significance of Coracle Press?
Coracle Press have been working with British and International artists for over 35 years. From Kurt Schwitters, one of the earliest members of Dada, through to Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long – British artists working with environmental interventions from the late 20th Century onwards. There are incredibly precious art works in this exhibition that do not exist anywhere else any more. The exhibition celebrates the lifelong commitment that people have made to the art of book making. Each little book or small ephemeral paper work invites audiences into the imaginary world of the artist.
Is all of this a reaction to digital?
The digital world does present new opportunities for both production and distribution. However, as new technology is taking over in areas of reading – the form of newspapers and pamphlets is now e-reader rss-fed content and blogs, for example – the material world takes on a new set of qualities. People are more interested in production and how things look and feel, as some of the more utilitarian needs are removed. We don’t need paper to inform us in the same way that we used to, so we become interested in it, in its own right. Paper can be beautiful, and reading can be a sensuous visceral experience rather than simply a cerebral act.
It is getting harder and harder to make money out of mass-market generic objects and that is the same for book publishing as it is for other cultural areas such as film and music. The internet has destabilised the way we make choices about what we consume. Independent publishing is no longer seen as some sort of act of vanity undertaken by people who couldn’t get a contract with a mainstream publisher – it is understood to be a deliberate choice enabling an alternative kind of production and the internet can cut out the middle man. Sites such as Folksy draw producers into direct contact with buyers. For small amounts of money, a very wide group of people can access the material produced. Of course, this can become problematic when artists become famous and the work becomes rare! Coracle’s artists’ books are in the Getty, V&A and Tate collections. At their point of inception though, they are inexpensive items that can circulate widely.
Visual arts and publishing have always gone hand-in-hand – in fact, the Site Gallery is itself a book publisher. How have you responded to the pressures of analogue publishing?
Over time, galleries have become less able to churn out a book for every show, and social media and online magazines and online videos have filled some of the gaps. Now, when a gallery makes a book with an artist it tends to have more deliberacy, and this is a good thing for sure.
We are always re-thinking what it means for us to be a publisher and very simply the best books, like the best art and the best exhibitions, come out of a really strong, singular idea. So, we don’t tend to do mid-career retrospectives or large scale monographs. Like our exhibitions, we prioritise bringing something new into the world. There is something special about the longevity of books; unlike websites or exhibitions, they remain in circulation for years.
You have taken on ‘publishers in residence’ as part of this project. What sort of things are they doing, what’s the goal of the experiment, and how are they getting on?
We have taken on COPY as residents because we wanted the project to be alive. They are hosting weekly workshops and also re-configuring works in the exhibition on a daily basis – so it will never look quite the same. The experiment is geared at making the production process more visible. We go to exhibitions and see the final pieces and often have very little clue as to how the works arrived there, how they were made, what it took to think up the idea and then to see it through.
Art is sort of an open ended game of chess that never ends, and which happens across many years. One artist makes a move, and then several years later another responds from a slightly different angle on the board. Having publishers in residence in this exhibition is a way of exposing some of these moves.
Anything else to add?
Yes – Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper and print it.