Collected Collaborations is presented by the Artist’s Book Research Group, a cross-disciplinary research concentration based in the Faculty of Art & Design at Monash University. This exhibition is the first in a series of projects concerned with the role and significance of artist’s book-making in relation to collaborative practices. Here, two established collaborative groups, the Open Spatial Workshop (OSW) and Redrawing collectives, present new works that extend their respective inquiries. This essay does not seek to unpack the minutiae of the two projects in this exhibition. It intends, rather, to explain something of the histories and the broader contexts of these projects.
The field of artists’ books is rich and diverse. So diverse, in fact, that it is strongly marked by contested definitions. (And even by contested punctuation: should we speak of the “artists book” and books, or of the “artist’s book” and “artists’ books”?) Risking dispute, a summary definition: an artist’s book is a book made by an artist that is proposed as an artwork in itself. The exhibition Collected Collaborations brings together two multifaceted works, neither of which pays explicit heed to this debate. Through their very form, however, both make an important contribution to an expanded understanding of artists’ books.
The Open Spatial Workshop (OSW) collective, a collaboration initiated in 2002, presently comprises Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell. The OSW collective’s work is characterised by an ongoing and expansive study of and through spatial practice. Its practice frequently comprises material interventions that expose subjective or shared relationships with space, but in any given project the collective’s focus can settle at a different juncture between spatial, temporal and material investigations. All OSW projects, however, are strongly research-led, and are the product of a rigorously discursive developmental process. All projects also contribute to a growing archive and knowledge base — the material and immaterial centres of the OSW collaboration. In its work for Collected Collaborations, OSW reveals its collaborative research and developmental processes in an exploded form. Here, the book’s function as an archival and documentary technology is unpacked, interrogated and writ large.
The Redrawing collective grew out of an eponymous exhibition in 2008; its representatives here are Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis. The act of redrawing — the point of commonality around which the group was assembled, and the method which it has employed in its subsequent collective activities — is a method of disruption, an intervention that seeks to expose contingency in systems of meaning. Key pieces of furniture from Rodchenko’s workers’ reading room are remade here, and whilst unmistakable, this is no longer Rodchenko’s furniture. Should we interpret this act of redrawing as one of idolatry, as post-Communist criticism, or as mere functionalism? (This furniture does, after all, neatly contain the other components of the collective’s installation here.) Of course, any or all of these readings may be true, as still others may be. The act of redrawing something, whether image or object, by whatever means and in whatever medium, idolises but also destroys the original, because the materiality of the redrawn work entails a simultaneous dematerialisation of its model. Of an artwork, this act exposes the fact that the original was already riven by contingency: our received understandings of a given work — its historical significance, the artist’s intentions, the expected interpretations — are all mutable, often conflicting and ultimately incomplete. It is here, with this multiplication of meanings, with this act which compounds the overdetermination of objects and artworks, that we can locate the significance of the Redrawing collective’s work.
Akin to pronouncements of the death and rebirth of painting, which are heard in recurring and ever-shorter cycles, interrogations of accepted definitions of the book are paradoxically both unnecessary and entirely current. With respect to the artist’s book in particular, however, this task is unmistakeably necessary right now. In the present moment, we are witnessing an international surge in the popularity of artists’ books and independent publishing, a trend that fetishises printed matter and which is accordingly yielding a glut of uncritical and self-congratulatory titles. In this moment, it is absolutely necessary to question the potential, the definition and the limits of the artist’s book, and its relationship to other forms of practice. Grounded in the two collectives’ respective practices and eminently rigorous, the two projects in Collected Collaborations contribute, through their very form, to this critique: they encourage us to interrogate the fetishisation of the artist’s book, to ask “why publish?”, and to proceed in the making and the reception of artists’ books with a critical eye.