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Un Magazine 7.2

The Artist Book Studio: the pitfalls of a nostalgic politic

Sophia Dacy-Cole

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7/27

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Alexandra Press, a steel hand-printing press, manufactured by F.T. Wimble & Co., Australia, 1888. Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne. Restored and presented to the University Library by the Friends of the Baillieu Library in 1976. Author’s photograph.

I was recently lucky enough to spend two mornings in the Monash Artist Book Studio and Ancora Press headquarters. The space houses antiquated printing presses and their corresponding instruments: movable type, composing sticks, inks, etc.

While I was in awe of the machines and tools housed within, and taken with the books that had been printed with so much care, I found there was also something frustrating about the technique and final product that the studio facilitated.

I asked one of the resident technicians why someone would devote so much patience and care to something that could be done with much more precision and flexibility using digital media. ‘It seems like a sort of nostalgic luditism’ I observed. ‘It’s not luditism’, he replied, ‘it’s about a love for the machines. But it’s mostly about craftsmanship: taking time.’

The idea of taking time to do something—investing in a process the major drawcard of which is process itself—is tempting to me. I often feel like my life is an accretion of shallow goals. I was compelled by this proposition that there was a way to step outside the bombardment of contemporary life.

The Monash Artist Book Studio and corresponding Ancora Press are part of a group of institutions that triumph traditional printing techniques. These include the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) and its biennial conference Impact, hosted at Monash University in 2011.

I found it very hard to find any conclusive information about the Monash Artist Book Studio and Ancora Press because neither organisation has a website. This, I suppose, is conclusive in itself. These institutions underscore a way of thinking that is about a tactile, physical product.

In his talk for the State Library of Victoria’s 2007 exhibition How I Entered Here, Professor Sasha Grishin quoted famous Australian artist book-maker Tate Adams’ rumination on the relationship between artist books, time and finances. Adams asserts that ‘Livres d’Artistes [artist books] are produced with little or no regard to the time spent on each volume, nor to the cost involved. All that matters is that each book is produced as superbly as possible.’

It seems that these institutions champion a belief in working outside capitalist time: a commitment to slowness, craftsmanship, and singularity.

In her book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (2006), Pamela Lee describes chronophobia as ‘an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of’.1

For Lee, the temporal culture of the 1960s arose out of a very particular zeitgeist, one of epistemic paradigm change, socio-political shifts, and an accelerated growth of new media technology. It was a temporal culture in which our perception of time was both compounded by a sense of urgency and also radically destabilised. Lee goes on to explain that in the 1960s, technology intensified our relationships to time. She asserts that time is ‘both a symptom and a cure’ of the evolving technologies in the United States and Europe that were being used by artists in that era.2

How are we to respond to the intensified anxiety of our temporal culture? Is the solution to embrace it? To use these changing conditions to find ‘new weapons’ (as Deleuze might say)? To use the strategies of these new conditions to undermine them? Or is it to reject capitalist time altogether, as old mediums invite us to do? Michel de Certeau’s account of la perruque offers us one answer to this question. In his introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau outlines the workerist tactic of la perruque. For de Certeau, a tactic is a practice that allows the subject to ‘manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them in order to evade them’.3 And la perruque is a tactic which, in short, describes skiving off. De Certeau takes pains to differentiate this tactic from absenteeism—for him, the workers are simply reclaiming the company time as their own.

La perruque, he outlines, ‘can be as simple as a secretary’s writing a love letter on “company time” or as complex as a cabinet maker’s “borrowing” a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room’.4

These tactics describe a simple insurrectional impulse. One cannot bring down the system by borrowing a lathe, but one can subtly redefine one’s time and one’s body as one’s own.

I imagine printers and printmakers, countering the atomising, hemorrhaging speed of everyday life by retreating to their studios, slowly and methodically laying text, letter by letter, into place.

This positioning of traditional print is alluring. There is also a gravity to texts that have been created with so much work: the effort inherent in traditional print represents finality. Books become objects of desire because of their fullness.

But the disciplinary powers that affected de Certeau’s skiving subject have changed. The majority of us in the western world do not spend the bulk of our working years in a factory. Rather, if popular media is to be believed, we will have multiple career changes throughout our lives. It will not be the factory owner or the auditor that we despise, but the accretion of qualifications, the faceless bureaucracy.

I will side with Deleuze here and say that while a nostalgia for historical Marxist insurrectional praxis pervades the left, those methods are no longer radical. This is because it is no longer institutions that discipline us. Rather, hegemonic power is irreducible from the flow of information. Information becomes privilege, access, space, goods. And thus, whoever controls, diverts, and changes the flow of information, changes the flow of power. And what insidious and great power, when a single click of a button, change to a digital file or omission from a news segment can cut off a credit card, cut off a transport pass, stop a car from working or, in the case of Rupert Murdoch, control an Australian election campaign from a different continent.

Here, I want to argue that the question of medium is so important because media radically informs and transforms its content.

I assert that a platform that emphasises the impermanence and conjectural nature of published ideas (such as the fluid nature of Tumblr) moves the emphasis away from the ‘true’-ness of the text and towards the importance of the dialogical.

Exactly the same framing that seems to be the triumph of traditional print is its political undermining. Traditional print works not only stretch time, they become lead weights in time. The moment they are finished, they are archival. They participate in a culture of top-down knowledge dissemination, as opposed to horizontal knowledge creation. I believe this remains the case when one tries to mix ‘new media’ and ‘old media’.

Sasha Grishin expressed optimism about the future relationship between artist books and online mediums. He asserted that ‘digital technologies are freeing the book from a primary function of storing and disseminating data’. Perhaps this is the case. But it is not enough for something made in a historic way to simply be digitised.

Unlike the Monash Artist Book Studio and Ancora Press, the CFPR and Impact conferences do have meticulously maintained websites. The CFPR’s Centre for Traditional Print Research boasts ‘new hybrid approaches to artist print production’. And similarly, their Centre for Artist Book Research invokes the ever-tired promise of digital ‘innovation’. I am cynical, however, about what precisely this innovation means.

Tom Nicholson (Unfinished monument to Batman’s Treaty), Peter Lyssiotis and Theo Strasser (Remembrance, 2009), and Raquel Ormella and Regina Walters (Flaps), are all Australian artists whose more historical model of multiples or artist books have been at least partially adapted to be viewed online. They do this by embedding links to the artist books on their websites—allowing viewers to access them both physically and digitally. Or they offer a synopsis of the work and a few select images. These are examples of more traditional print techniques which are not resisting the ‘digital age’ but are being subsumed by it. However, I would argue that a response of uncritical assimilation does not solve the problem I am outlining for print media.

These works indicate how the platform of the internet can be used to increase the distribution of works that were designed for traditional print media and therefore to increase the volume of their accompanying message.
But their reach is still limited to the same crowds: friends, followers, and admirers.

And the way in which these works are published on the internet—as photos, PDFs, static pages—limits them to archival moments the instant they are created.

I believe that this is because the translation from print to digital is just that: a translation. The work is not made for a fluid platform and so does not seamlessly adapt to one.

There are some cultural projects, such as un and n+1 which use horizontal media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). Platforms that mimic social media have a quick turnover which liquidates the permanence of the written word, making it propositional. As the editors of the November 2012 edition of the New York-based cultural theory magazine, n+1 observed, ‘the internet is…[more] responsive to commenting, sharing, and other forms of social interaction’.5

Today I read a very funny article that critiqued novelist Jonathan Franzen’s distaste for online media (as lengthily expounded in his recent Guardian article, What’s Wrong with the Modern World?) The article overlaid Jonathan Franzen’s 5,000 word tantrum against the internet with an analysis of Chris Kraus’s rejection of narrative. The chain of events which led to Franzen’s techno-allergic article being published and mocked, and my reading the mocking were part of a complicated dialogical maze of critiques and responses. All of this information exchange took place in a surprisingly short amount of time.

November 2012: n+1 publishes an article conflating web-based criticism with a move away from patriarchal methods of knowledge dissemination.

September 13, 2013: Jonathan Franzen publishes an article in The Guardian bemoaning the lowered standards of n+1, Salman Rushdie, and anyone who doesn’t see the inherent frivolity of the internet.

September 16, 2013: Fiona Duncan and Sarah Nicole Prickett re-appropriate Franzen’s article, replacing all references to ‘Karl Kraus’ with ‘Chris Kraus’, in some small way returning the dialogue around the merits of the internet to something which, at least, does not preclude women.

September 20, 2013: a close friend who knows that I love Chris Kraus and am interested in digital mediums, texts me a link to the Duncan and Prickett article. I use the chain of essays and responses to offer an example of the inherently dialogical nature of web-based art writing. My example is for a piece for un Magazine. My piece will be published on both web and print-based platforms.

I am not saying that traditional print media is not dialogical. The history of writing (e.g. peer-reviewed journals) attests to its discursive nature. I am saying that the time put into creating the final product, coupled with the fact that the product is a physical, unchanging thing has an element of finality that does not characterise web-based publications. Rather, web-based publications undermine finality: knowledge is fluid, conjectural.

I am coming to the conclusion that the elements that I value in traditional print and the tradition of the artist book medium do not make those traditions insurrectional or even undermining. Here, I speak of the effort and resistance to capitalist compartmentalisation of time that I see in these mediums. These projects cannot be politically subversive because the conditions of power have altered and the chronophobic condition has intensified. It is no longer rebellious to take company time to do something methodically, slowly, cautiously, because in the era of overtime, innovation, entrepreneurship and the myth of meritocracy, our time and our accretions of achievements are always benefiting capitalism. Productivity, multi-tasking, and information handling are taken as the paper trails of a successful career. Furthermore, it is not the irreducible personality, the vim and underdog attitude allowed to de Certeau’s workers that allow us to value ourselves anymore, it is our relationship to ‘hard work’. Hence, Mr Abbott’s appraisal of the Work For The Dole scheme, my religious attachment to my pomodoro timer, the constant and endless accretion of unpaid internships that young artists like myself need to even see the right side of a job interview. ‘She is a hard worker’ is perhaps the biggest compliment we can give someone these days. ‘She is a hard worker who pays attention to detail and works overtime’? Praise next to godliness. Knowledge and work are everything.

This is not to say that I don’t value detail and taking time in and of itself. I do. I just don’t think it is revolutionary. Can reclaiming slower methodologies be a type of self-care in a society where time is never truly ours? Can taking that self-care be political in a personal sense, but not in the sense that it could affect hegemonic power? I don’t know. I believe so.

I am going to tentatively assert here that doing nothing at all, that not contributing to systems of knowledge, that undermining marketing algorithms, that being a useless, dirty, unproductive, unmonitorable, un-market-to-able dolebludger is the purest way to resist contemporary capitalism. Unless you burn your work, never tell anyone about it, and acquire no skills or aptitudes, productivity is always for them, everything is capital, everything is marketable, all information is instrumental. That is, unless you spend your day flipping between Adventure Time clips, cats that say ‘Old Long Johnston’, Jonathan Franzen’s public tantrums, and Nigella’s brownie recipes. That type of knowledge creation seems banal, but it is unchartered, unpredictable, it creates new links, undermines marketing strategies. That is time that no one can ever take away from you.

Sophia Dacy-Cole is a recent Fine Arts Honours graduate from Monash University. She is an artist, writer and aspiring insurrectionist.


  1. Pamela Lee, Chronophobia: on Time in the Art of the 1960s, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2004, p.xiii. 

  2. ibid, p.xiii. 

  3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p. xiv. 

  4. Ibid, p. 25. 

  5. Karla Blumenkranz, Keith Gessen and Nikil Saval, ‘The Intellectual Situation for Issue 15: Amnesty’, n+1 magazine, issue 15, November 2012, http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.