Canaries in the Coalmine of the Book - a review of ‘Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution’ by Johan Pas

Canaries in the Coalmine of the Book - a review of ‘Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution’ by Johan Pas

A review of: Johan Pas, Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution, Koenig Books, London, 2017, 308 p.

Written by Kurt De Boodt

Translated by Julian Ross

Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution is an encyclopaedic book written and curated by Johan Pas. What kind of book? Putting that into words makes up for the first of three chapters: ‘The Borders of the/this Book’. Pas’s book is a library and an exhibition in one thanks to the 390 illustrated covers in the main part and the selection of 50 publications at the end. The book is also an archive, a book about books in which artists have probed and pushed the boundaries of the medium. It is an art history and a meta-book about the power of the book in a digital age, with Johan Pas in the role of scientist, curator, gatekeeper, guide and passionate collector. The book design is from MER. Paper Kunsthalle, by Luc Derycke. Indeed, a publisher of artists’ publications is not just a publisher: he stands at the head of an artistic centre or Kunsthalle, which must also be able to colour outside the lines of the traditional book. He becomes a partner in crime of the artist.

A parade of artists and publishers steps into the spotlight in the central chapter, ‘Undercover: Artists and/as Publishers’. Belgian art’s usual suspects from the late nineteenth century are there, but so are names of artists who have been left in the wings in the traditional narrative about art in Belgium after 1945, yet who deserve a bigger share of the spotlight precisely because of their radical contribution to artists’ publications: Mark Verstockt, for example, with his leading-edge (This is not) A BOOK (1971). Johan Pas also pays tribute to pioneer publishers such as Yves Gevaert and Hossmann-Lebeer, and pays homage to the artist/publisher/collector Guy Schraenen. Schraenen’s collection (the Archive for Small Press & Communication, assembling 35,000 items of art documentation) could not find a home in a Belgian museum, but since 1999 forms the basis for the Zentrum für Künstlerpublikationen (Research Centre for Artists’ Publications) in Bremen. This great loss for Belgium can be compared with the departure in 2011 of the Daled collection (top-flight conceptual works of art from the 1960s and 70s) to the MoMA in New York. Nowadays, Belgian contemporary art museums are working hard to make good the damage, and currently there are many fairs in Belgium where artists’ publications are attracting increasing attention from fanatical collectors. This book fits in with that growing recognition since the turn of the millennium. Pas is now making his own collection available for research under the banner CRAP! (Collection for Research on Artists’ Publications).

Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution has all the hallmarks of a standard work. Why wasn’t this book published earlier?, one wonders, so persuasive is the alternative view of (art) history it offers. Johan Pas has filled a gap the size of which one could only guess at. He cuts a broad swathe through the artistic landscape from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century and allows us to see a majestic wood through the many trees. He makes us aware more than once that the Belgian contribution to artists’ publications deserves more international recognition. And rightly so. Belgian artists and publishers have published wonderful books that shed a different light on the possibilities offered by the book as an artistic object, but also as an exhibition space and a work of art in itself. Books not only display skill and artistry, they also have a strong conceptual appeal and expose the reader to an intimate, tactile experience.

The strong Belgian contribution began with what Johan Pas calls pre-history: the Art Nouveau designs by Henry van de Velde, Georges Lemmen and Théo Van Rysselberghe, dubbed as ‘the Belgian revolution’ in the French press. It continued at lightning pace with avant-garde journals such as Het Overzicht and publications from the early 1920s, in which writers and artists came together and which saw the emancipation of wood and lino cuts as art forms. Neo-Cubists such as Karel Maes, Jozef Peeters, Pierre Louis Flouquet and Oscar Jespers, with his originaalhoutsneden (original woodcuts) in Paul van Ostaijen’s Bezette Stad (‘Occupied City’), dabbled in the world of books, as did Expressionists such as Frans Masereel and Jozef Cantré. Surrealists like E.L.T. Mesens and René Magritte then took up the torch.

After the Second World War, they in turn passed the flame to CoBrA and the sporadically published journal Daily Bûl by Pol Bury and the critic André Balthazar. In the early 1960s, Paul De Vree entered the stage with his visual and ‘Konkrete’ poetry. He had become a close friend of the artist Jef Verheyen, and ushered in a revival of the interaction between writers and artists from the time of Paul van Ostaijen, Michel Seuphor and Jozef Peeters.

And then Marcel Broodthaers made the memorable hop-skip-jump from pop art to conceptual art. The former museum guard and guide saw the importance of consistent communication – from the invitation to every aspect of the exhibition – as an integral part of his artistry. This is epitomised by the apocryphal slogan from May 1968, kunst = kommunikatie (‘art = communication’). Broodthaers turned poetry collections into an art installation by making them illegible. He turned an exhibition catalogue into the actual work of art. Artists’ publications increasingly became stand-alone objects, as a democratic art form because of their circulation and affordability – at least in principle before they become collectors’ items.

The floodgates were open. Happening news, punkzines, performative photography, the book as the product of performances, hijacked periodicals (e.g. the Kempens Informatieblad by Jef Geys), mail art, the postmodern multi-facetedness: the developments tumbled one after the other at a dizzying pace. Pas brings together the publications between 2000 and 2015, somewhat ironically under the name ‘Publish or Perish’ – a reference to the frequently heard criticism of the pressure to publish in university research. Is the (artists’) book in fact disappearing at the same time as it is so frenetically appearing?

Artists’ Publications: The Belgian Contribution appears at a pivotal moment. Never has a book been so aware of itself; never has it shown this so clearly with such a carefully designed appearance and thought-through concept. In a digital age, the analogue – the tactile and controllable – is back in town, never having left. It could be compared with the revival of vinyl records. Will this usher in the swansong or the renaissance of the book? Artists have always been good at breathing new life into old media: from woodcuts to videotapes and vintage computer games. Are artists’ publications the canaries in the coalmine of the book? Read, look, smell, touch and admire.

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