Sunday, 22 June 2008
manifesto: The rain in Brick Lane falls
Frank Elliott and I began by commiserating about losing the pub - even though it’s the best pub near Brick Lane and we’ve both been coming here for years. The telly in the corner is tuned to horse racing from Leicester - the last race has cancelled because of rain. We've come here on a miserable bank holiday in order to talk about wikipedia. Frank is a book artist whose latest project is a scholarly approach to filling the voids in online information about artists' books.
We talk about the destruction of 1950s warehouse buildings and flats, not listed but more beautiful than tourist attractions; of invisible counties such as Rutland, which we wouldn’t know how to find on a map; of the divisions between North and South in Britain, and how the border between countries is decided. All these conversations about borderlands and virtual spaces nudge our theme. How do you define an artists’ book? What is it? What is not it?
Frank's work is influenced by polemics and ideals- one of his best bookworks is 'manifesto', photographs of equations chalked on a blackboard after Beuys, charting a changing attitude to his own own art. He is compiling a canon of artists’ books – intended for the contentious information site wikipedia. What do you think of the canon? he asks me. I have to admit I've learnt to be distrustful of anything preceded by a definite article. But, says Frank, the reason you get a canon is that someone believes passionately in something, so they record it or they save it. Lots is lost, but not these things… surely it’s better that people should have some reference material, rather than no information at all?
wikipedia is open to all participants and it is constantly changing. I imagine the lines of text appearing and disappearing like people in a rush hour cityscape, speeded up on TV. It’s democratic, Frank says. Hooray, I think. And anyone can edit your text. Suddenly I see myself less as an honourable worker for global truth, and more as the careful hoarder of my own words. But, Frank says, people can only change it until it’s locked. Some things are so controversial they get locked. Like Bill Gates. I can’t see artists’ books becoming as controversial as Bill Gates but... you never know, there might be a major incident about the position of the apostrophe. In fact, a few weeks later at the Tate symposium entitled The Liquid Page, Emily Artinian gave a demonstration of the page on wikipedia devoted to the artist's book, describing the page a a portal for debate about the form – before dramatically erasing the whole entry, replaing it with the words ‘But what is a book, really?’
Most of the major artists of the twentieth century have made an artist’s book and in some movements, such as Futurism and Fluxus, the book is arguably the most important media. Yet the form is still undervalued in the art world. Frank saw Yves Klein’s newspaper Journal de Dimanche on ebay for only £900, by now the colour of the smoke-tanned prints on the pub walls. Klein’s newspaper, featuring Saut dans le vide (A Leap Into Space), is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the virtual scholar. Klein captioned his leap: ‘To paint space, I owe it to myself to go there, to that very space… without illusions or tricks, not with a plane or a parachute or a rocket ship: [the painter of space] must go there by his own means, with an independent individual force, in a word, he must be capable of levitation.' Klein’s picture is a photomontage – and the original tarpaulin that caught him as he fell has disappeared from the image. wikipedia likewise lacks a visible safety net, and as an academic activity it has to be approached with a wry smile and a sense of irony. This doesn't mean the space shouldn't be used - doubt and judgement are valuable assets in research.
As we step out into the rain and say goodbye I ask Frank whether he’s profiled on wikipedia. But he has spent so long framing himself as an underground artist, that even when you google him he doesn’t show up. He used devious devices to preserve his anonymity, and spelt his name a different way on each publication to shift the focus of catalogue records. ‘I can’t imagine who would write the entry on me.’