‘Lodret Vandret is a collaborative platform for independent publishing and exhibition making based in Copenhagen. Among other projects, they organise One Thousands Books, a fair dedicated to art and artists' books. In the previous two editions, the fair was set up in a REMA 1000 supermarket, while this year they decided to accompany the selling event with a seminar and an exhibition focussing specifically on the relationship between artists’ books and how to display them.

The seminar day took place on April 21st at Overgaden Institut and addressed two main issues: the difficulty of displaying books in a satisfactory and critically engaged way, and the fetishism attached to the medium.

The first speaker, the art historian Jerome Dupeyrat, highlighted a constitutive paradox lying behind the intention of treating artists’ books as subjects of exhibition. First, artists’ books are sequential objects whose content can’t be simultaneously displayed; secondly, they are conceived for an individual experience – an aspect that the exhibition space, open to more than one person, contradicts. Eventually, they are originally an exhibition device in itself, allowing the diffusion and circulation of artistic work through a non-expensive and mobile item. In the ‘70s, artists’ books were seen as an alternative to traditional galleries, responsive to an ethic of removing mediation in order to reach a broader audience. Some artists sold their works as fanzines for $2 in supermarkets. Nevertheless, this “democratic” value attributed to the medium never really blossomed, its main audience having remained a middle-class and highly educated one.

In a thoughtful talk, Merete Jankowski, director and curator at Overgarden, questioned the validity of dedicating exhibitions or fair spaces to artists’ books in regard to the limited public that this seems to rally. In her first-hand experience of hosting an artists’ book fair in Overgarden along a few years, she observed an audience composed of a closed, self-referential group of visitors that found in the fair a sense of community over what she calls “a fetishism” for the object at stake. She subsequently decided to put an end to the event, being for this accused – as she self-ironically reported – “to have killed a baby”.

Among the open issues she raised is the function of artists’ books in a digital age, as well as whether and how they can actively participate to an understanding and reflection on contemporary culture.

To further that thought, it is relevant to look at the development that other media experienced in the past. When photography emerged as a medium able to depict reality in an accurate way, painting didn’t disappear; instead it shifted in forms and contents to explore new possibilities. Can’t we imagine the same phenomena happening with artists’ books in the digital age, shifting from being a mediator of artistic instances to being the artistic instance itself, with its own specificities (the mobility of the object, the page and its narrative implications, the interactive possibilities of the digital realm, and so on)?

Merete Jankowski's critic towards the veneration for artists’ books is rooted in the idea that what she calls a quasi “religious” phenomenon results in a lack of critical thinking towards the works that are produced and shown, that is, a certain superficiality.

The “sexiness” pointed out by Merete Jandowski might be an existing issue for part of the production that doesn’t engage critically with the contemporary. However, many artists do experiment and reflect through works in book format. A good example is Meriç Algün Ringborg, who was invited to present her work at the seminar. Meriç Algün Ringborg is a Turkish artist based in Sweeden who works often with books, either producing them or integrating them in her installations. From her experience of applying for a visa when immigrating to Sweeden, she created The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009), an hand-bound encyclopedia-like book consisting of all the visa application forms in the world. By doing so, she highlighted the often inquisitive, and sometimes absurd, questions included in these forms such as “Have you engaged in any other activities that might indicate that you may not be considered a person of good character?”. Her work is a reflection on globalisation, illustrating the hidden structures traveling and moving depend on. The exhibition strategy she uses is also an enlightening example of the possibilities that the exhibition format can open on the mediation of artists’ books. The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms was shown in a small room inside the gallery, where only one person at a time was allowed, and asked to sit on an uncomfortable chair to browse the book laying on an office-like desk. Through this setting, Meriç mirrored the distressful experience of applying to be accepted in a new country and chose the book as the main tool for the activation of a complete experience for the visitor.

In her serial work The Library of Unborrowed Books (2012 - ongoing), she displays all the books that, in a specific library, have never been requested by anyone. By doing so, she highlights cultural differences between the audiences’ interests in the libraries she chose to explore and invites the visitor to actually get in contact with the discarded volumes. In both cases, the message is sent out in a very straightforward way, boosted by the choice of presenting the books in their apparent simplicity and thus enhancing their inner meaning and complexity.

As Jerome Dupeyrat stated, an exhibition often reaches a wider audience than an artists’ book itself, as per the more open context that it provides and the exposure it benefits of. This is a key element when one comes to consider artists’ books audience and how to address its diffusion.

The physical relation between the reader and the object is obviously essential to the experience of artists’ books. To show them as untouchable pieces, protected behind a glass, indeed fosters the very risk of fetishising them; but the alternative looser and more open displaying formats that are commonly in use today are not free from internal contradictions and blind spots. 

In his intervention, Jerome Dupeyrat described an exhibition where the visitor can browse and read the books as a library or a bookshop. However, bookshops rarely accommodate original artists’ books for obvious questions of space, display specificities, sizes, prices and fragility of the object. When libraries do, the access to artists’ books is usually limited and requires a good knowledge from the reader to be able to reach and read them. Fairs are probably the most open context for meeting this art form, being able to give an overview of contemporary production in this field and allowing a direct relation between the reader and the book. However, if fairs select a number of publishers, as libraries and bookshops select books, these contexts rarely produce a critical discourse in order to mediate this often abscond object. Moreover, they often showcase a quantity of books that might be pretty overwhelming for the visitors (both amateur beginners and experts) and in conditions that are not precisely appropriate for book reading.

On another level, an exhibition displaying videos would probably not be compared to a film bank. The distinguishing element of an exhibition lies in the curatorial approach that informs it, as well as in the mediation purpose attached to it. By presenting a selection of works of art within a critical discourse, the exhibition fosters and shares knowledge on a specific field with a wider audience. Art exhibitions have taken many forms and need constant renewal to create better mediation strategies and adapt to shifting audiences. Why would an exhibition where it’s made possible to read or browse a proposed selection of books become “a kind of library”? Can’t it be conceived in an unusual and imaginative way, as an original space and experience for the visitor to encounter the work?

Being by definition temporary, an exhibition also allows to implement a communication format that might attract attention, useful to reach a wider audience than the happy-few mentioned earlier.

Some examples brought by another lecturer invited at the seminar - the Belgian publisher, editor and designer of books Luc Deryeke - are especially interesting in this regard. On the occasion of a book fair he took part to, he decided to set-up a sale where only the book covers were displayed behind a desk and the visitor, if interested in one of those, would be orally explained about its content. The visitor would not have the option of browsing the book before buying it. The procedure had a great success, creating mystery about the works, while playing on the “erotical” level denounced by Merete Jankowski. However, it served as a didactic gesture, making the information related to the books, as well as their contents, accessible and understandable to a wider audience.

As stated by Bernhard Cella in the book No-ISBN published by Walther Konig this year, these set-ups allow for a broader entry, which doesn’t request previous knowledge from the audience.

On Saturday April 23rd, the Festival opened the second part of the event, an exhibition and fair taking place in the galleries of Kunsthal Charlottenborg. One Thousand Books had invited 13 publishers to create an exhibition related to the content of the books they were selling there. The publishers, carefully selected, have independently chosen to show publications from their catalogue that would best project in the space. The books were displayed on a long shelf across the main gallery and the corresponding art installations were exhibited in the space.

The show worked well, as it created a dialogue between the book as medium and the art work and enticed the visitor to look for the connections between the two. However, in this case books were not the subject of the exhibition as such, but the referent to which a three dimensional installation responded. Hence, this strategy raises several issues. First, in this context, the book retrieved its documentation function, abandoning its status of artwork in itself. Second, the experimental exhibition displayed a series of independent works without a clear thread connecting them, which prevented it from creating a coherent discourse addressing the visitor.

On the overall, the seminar, exhibition and fair organised by One Thousand Books raised interesting questions relating to art audiences, the function of the exhibition format and the nature and status of artists books in the contemporary. Examples like the displays by Meriç Algün Ringborg  or the experiments in blind sales by Luc Deryeke give interesting orientations to reflect on communication strategy towards mediating artists books, either in a gallery space or a fair.’ 

Yet Magazine