The 'OTHER' PHOTOBOOK FORUM: Artists’ Books, Zines and the Photobook

Cobbled together, a handful of words on the page read aloud by Louise Jennison as part of an 8-minute introduction to our work for Photobook Melbourne’s the ‘Other’ Photobook forum at the Photography Studies College. Convened by Dr Doug Spowart, other contributors were Dr Lyn Ashby, Victoria Cooper, Des Cowley, and Peter Lyssiotis.

20th February 2015

"I saw that I’d get nowhere on the straight path, and that to go crookedly was straighter."
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls: A Novel

Salvaged Relatives editions I, II, and III

For those of you who we have yet to meet, we are besotted with paper for its adaptable, foldable, cut-able, concealable, and revealing nature. In our artists' books, prints, zines, drawings, and collages, we use play, humour, and perhaps the poetic, to lure you closer. And sometimes this will incorporate photography. For us, it is not the medium that is always of greatest import, but the message. And so, we use found photographs in our artists’ books and zines not because they are photos, but because of what they can enable us to say, and what we hope you might feel.

Though, of course, what you feel is entirely up to you, and to this end we favour open endings above all. You can see in our work what you will. You can make of them what you will. You can see yourself. You can see your own link with nature. You can see human nature reflected in the movements and actions. You can see charm. Along the way, some people have seen our zines to be artists‘ books, or our ‘this’ to be ‘that’, and as this is something beyond our control, we’re fine with that. Like anything, the closer you look, the more you see.

The animal is oft present and easily detectable, the centre of our paper stage. Hard to miss, over here and over there, the animal runs up hills, scales rooftops, and sometimes appears to take flight. Gliding through a scene it is too large to be contained within or perhaps too manmade to call home, that it has a tail or feathers or furred muzzle is not solely why its form appears. For us, the animal is there to question our very behaviour, those moral principles one governs the self by, and to explore our relationship with the natural world. Yes, "the longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes". And so we seek to invite you to ponder and perhaps find that things are not always as they first appear.

Based in Melbourne, we work from home. And more often than not, we collaborate. We rather fell into collaboration, many years ago now, and it is one based on harmony. In 1999, our first series of artists’ books were made with the two of us working on the one image, side by side at the computer. With our collaborative installation as part of In Your Dreams at Counihan Gallery last year, the process has shifted somewhat, but then, it is now some 15 years later.

To date, we have made 82 artists’ book titles. And combing through the archives last night, we have also made 82 zine titles. That these figures are in accord is purely and beautifully accidental.

We decided early on in our collaboration, through an organic process, not to polish the same skills. We naturally lent towards different things and now bring those different things together to make one work not possible without the other. Working this way, a third work is made that belongs to us both. Sometimes, drawings are made to mirror collages, like the imagined portraits of the last pair of Great auks and their spinning-top egg. With gold trims painted on the sides of the drawing to complement the found cabinet card works from the Salvaged Relatives series. At other times, it is the collage with scissors and glue that will respond to the drawings. Sometimes, we pool our work together and see what we have before racing in our related but separate directions. It is a definite, but flexible pattern. And creating a sleight-of-hand is often our shared objective.

Similar things influence us, but to the collaboration, I bring my love of natural history, science, and wannabe bookbinder’s precision. Gracia enjoys inverting these facts about extinction and the plight of endangered animals to give them a different meaning. Armed with a pair of honeybee scissors, she tosses in the red herrings, but not always. Our work as part of In Your Dreams, was inspired by the choreography of Graeme Murphy, Jiří Kylián, and George Balanchine, and it was about loss; loss of our Siamese cat of sixteen years, Omar; loss of species; loss of possibilities. It was about the body inevitably growing older and knees that now creak. It was about all the things that are now only possible in dream. It was inspired by the stories of Katherine Mansfield, which pull the rug out from underneath you, and the writing of Patrick Hamilton and John Williams for their sadness and the beautifully ordinary characters on the page. It was inspired by Charles Dickens’ description of a character "building castles in the sky" as much as it was by the muted colours of the costumes of the Ballet Russes. It was inspired by all the things we love.

Incidentally, the Salvaged Relatives series of Gracia’s collages on cabinet card photos rescued from a collectibles store was initially prompted by a photographer’s comment that her collage work with its "mindless stickers" was an act of "vandalism". The salvaged troupe in their ballet costumes from The firebird to Petrouchka are part in retaliation to this. They have also been given the chance to soar weightless on the stage in costumes designed by Matisse. And this perfectly embodies the notion that where things begin are not always where they end up.

We work together because we enjoy it and we could not imagine it any other way. We have never questioned it and find that it keeps us motivated. It sharpens our Can Do spirit. As well as being pleasurable, it is also reassuring setting up an installation that is fiddly and precise with someone else. We can take turns to lose confidence or faith. Moreover, as we both thrive when working, it makes sense to do that together.

The two of us have been fans of the book in its many guises for a long, long time now, and it is perhaps that no work is ever ‘just so’, just as you’d imagined or saw in the mind’s eye, that we keep going, that we keep working with books, paper, and collage.

Every step, every part of the process, every learning curve, holds us entranced. We love the challenge artists’ books present, the possibilities, the history they hold, and the intimacy they awaken, all this and the unexplained keeps us working with artists’ books. The flexible medium of the book holds us in its palm rather than us holding the book in our own palms. We seem, for this reason, unlikely to cease making artists’ books. It is often to the cabinet displays in exhibitions that we gravitate, wishing that we could turn the pages. Not only do we like their awkwardness to display (where not every page can be seen at the one time), we like the presence they command beneath a sheet of Perspex or glass. Peering down at something so tactile yet untouchable, the book’s magnetic pull is strong.

In the beginning, the medium of the artists' book seemed, to us, to be free of rules and regulations. It also presented many new things to consider, from page layout and sequence to typographical decisions. Which paper stock ought we use? Will we be able to draw over the printed areas? Will a watercolour wash make the paper ripple excessively? How can we get the most out of a singular sheet when it comes to printing a costly small edition? These questions we tossed in the air and arranged upon their landing. And working together meant that we could start to figure this out through mock-ups and trial and error, and groundwork. From the outset we knew next to nothing of the logistics of binding, but a love of reading books, and a limited knowledge of the history of artists' books, coupled with a stint in Switzerland to studying experimental binding techniques (on a Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship for Emerging Artists in 2002), has guided us along the way. And blind faith, or whatever you wish to call it.

At the back of our minds, the feeling that if we stuff this up, it has all been in vain, and this is a powerful motivator when joined with a love for what you are doing.

In true show of how our collaboration works, never sharpening all our arrows equally: I am reading from notes penned by Gracia.


Related post,
Go crookedly