AN ONLINE INTERVIEW
by Michael Hampton with NICK CASH & MATT HALE of BOOKEND.
MH: Your project website is a suggestive address, implying a singularity of practice (i.e. not ‘bookends’), delimitation, ordering and support, yet also via a play on words the demise or terminus of the book itself. Are these readings you acknowledge?
Cash & Hale: BOOKEND was a double entendre and was discussed and acknowledged. We both like humour and word play but also wanted the project title to be open for interpretation. The word bookend implies the end of a book, of a story for instance; the object that holds books up on a shelf and the end of books. All books. The last is a question really. The title is open to interpretation and our interpretation is in the work presented.
The dot space domain is not a clever design but one that was available and cheap.
Any play on words or extra meaning was purely coincidental. Dot space did resonate, after all “space is the place” According to Sun Ra.
MH: But space is also hard to come by, which is why you must be extremely grateful to have access to a well-equipped former sculpture workshop out in the London suburbs. How has this place and its secluded faux rural atmosphere influenced the rugged objects produced by BOOKEND recently, particularly the modified book works that were on display at Westminster Art Reference Library during October 2016?
Cash & Hale: I was grateful for the studio space, not sure that is right word for Matt who has a normal business arrangement i.e. pays a monthly rent albeit very reasonable. The studio has been equipped by Matt and is no accident. He spent months creating the space making new walls etc. The ‘influence’ of the rural space is hard to quantify not having another space to compare to. Some of the actions were made easier and may not have occurred if we had needed to travel to find suitable venues. Burying, blowing up, burning and trial by acid was all possible within the grounds of the studio as nobody was close enough to be disturbed.
The size of the studio quite coincidently mirrored the Westminster Library exhibition space that allowed us to set up the shelving in different configurations. This was important as it gave us the opportunity to work through logistical problems of wiring and placement of the book objects.
The rural secluded nature did not directly influence the work but being in a dedicated space away from distractions of everyday living did allow time to contemplate and discuss what we were doing, this would happen in any studio, but having other artists/people in a studio complex closer to hand may have been inhibiting.
The rural setting could have had some bearing on the less destructive poetic actions such as book flying and pages being turned by the wind. The floating book video came about because we had easy access to the river Brent leading to the Grand Union Canal. The influence of the rural setting was not overt, the ideas were floating around anyway. The setting just made it less problematic for them to be realised
MH: Yet the opportunity to inflict various irreversible treatments on discarded or unwanted books would still in certain eyes look to be a form of sacrilege, ie unholy, So aside from the noise issue and also the ever present spectre of health and safety enforcement, the covert Hanwell studio appears perfect for BOOKEND experimental actions just now. But my question goes further as many of your reverse engineered artifacts have been subjected to ecological processes demonstrating they are made of cellulose, ink, thread, adhesive and so on, and that this material ground of the text has always had more in common with woods, hedgerows and streams than we imagine; (in fact I believe the German word buch comes from their word for beech tree). Therefore you are exposing ipso facto both the naturalness of the cultural, and if I am reading you right simultaneously attacking the largely conservative discourse of art history, as in the Berenson work. So is ideology something explicitly at stake here, as in John Latham’s burning ‘skoob’ towers that incinerated systems of knowledge symbolically, or is it more a case of acting out your destructive urges and then making sense of these through various curatorial ploys afterwards?
Hale: I particularly like your phrases in this question “the naturalness of the cultural” and also the idea of “reverse engineering”. Both of these are connected for me. The first phrase implies a reality of the unacknowledged fact that culture is both a natural thing and ultimately made of things originating in nature. By returning a book to the elements in a very basic way we acknowledge this. Burning a book for instance does this. The idea that the book ash may return to form a part of the earth that the tree for the paper it used grew in is something we talked about. But Nick and I are not scientists or professional engineers as with reverse engineering. Our treatments and play with books involves the imagination in a way that isn't aiming to reach a known desired result. For instance floating a ‘book’ down a river is as much to do with the idea of travelling with the mind when reading a book as it is to do with getting it wet. With the video of this we may have presented this idea. The video is in fact a fiction itself. No book floats actually, they won't. But as within books things physically impossible can happen. As in the mind so also in a video.
No the naturalness is revealed with the book’s partial disintegration in water as we showed with books that had been soaked and then left to dry. Their new shape was created by their new weight when saturated. This is both a rendering to object only status but also a returning to matter only status. It also might contain the idea of constant return. How everything is constantly breaking down and becoming a part of other things. The coal in your fire was a fossil and before that a creature or plant and then before that was something else and may have been coal before also. Circularity interests me and in books it occurs with repeated ideas, constant revision, new ideas created from a mixture of existing ones.
The reverse engineering connection is about the examination of a way something is made and as you say we do reveal the elements of its manufacture which ultimately are basic materials originating from the earth -plants mostly- cotton, natural glues, minerals. The difference with reverse engineering’s usual use in industrial design and its relevance to our project BOOKEND is that we did deconstruct but did not intend to reconstruct the books again as say with an engine in industry where manufacturers copy others designs by deconstruction.
We were examining but just for it’s own sake and not rebuilding other than in a transformed way. Always irreversibly and sometimes unrecognisably. The book presented only as ashes for instance is unrecognisable as the book it had been and certainly is not retrievable…unless we just bought another on the internet! But it is a new thing of interest we hope. It is to us not just because it refers to the burning of books as acts of suppression of knowledge but also how now that wouldn’t really work anymore. It is also a magnificently ‘only just in existence’ object. As a possible art object it is very ‘Auto-Destructive' as Gustav Metzger might have said. I like how auto comes up again there, that it relates to the way the automotive industries do reverse engineer; but this is reverse full stop object wise. Only to dust and then back around is possible.
The Berenson edition could and perhaps should have been also paralleled with another history, another historical reading to reflect the idea of constant revision. I have been a part of the historicisation of a small period of art making in the 1990’s with a book on City Racing gallery and perhaps this should be equally presented with changes to the actual books. We removed images in the Berenson books and replaced them with images of books we had treated or experimented on. The Berensons became the holder of images and less a specific history with illustrations. It was revised in that way. Whether I could have sanctioned the same act on a book I cared more for is unknown at this point but in choosing which books to act upon we did show a position towards them perhaps. This may relate to Latham’s incineration of symbolic systems of knowledge. However the ease of availability of the books as reflected in the number of the identical book that we presented does undermine the act of desecration of them. If you burn half the bibles in the world you don’t get rid of the content. With digitisation it now seems impossible to destroy ideas and histories. We were interested in thinking about this and testing our feelings and ideas through actions. For me the project was about all this but can be seen both metaphorically and literally as about this.
Cash: We approached the book as an object concerning ourselves with the bookishness of sculptural possibilities. The content was not really a concern. We decided early on that the text may have an accidental bearing on the finished book actions, but we were not going to play with the text or make a concerted effort to attack or celebrate it.
A few books were saved from experimentation because they were deemed personally useful e.g. A Dictionary of Quotations. Addressing the knowledge contained in the books was discussed but we decided that would be a different avenue of discourse probably best left to writers. We alluded to this and other historical and recent attacks without being specific about them.
We did talk about viewer’s perception -that a polemic about ‘conservative discourse’ may have been discerned. The truth is more prosaic. Various books were donated by friends and family. The biggest percentage were art books. We thought it fitting because we were making art. We also bought books deactivated from libraries and from charity shops. We did talk about the demise of libraries and the book as vehicle but any thoughts on this were to be gleaned by the viewer not led by an agitprop spoon-feeding. Some artists (in the widest sense) meticulously plan a work then set about realising the plan. Messrs Cash & Hale tend to work to find the meaning, get stuck into the making and that process leads to discussion. The idea of planning a structure that then has to be worked through is tedious and not exciting for us, nothing to discover.
The criteria was more about the physical presence and format of a book. In some cases that would mean being suitable to contain a tablet, or having a certain mass that would still be evident when put through extreme trial. We talked about and avoided books of a religious nature partly because that is an obvious Aunt Sally but also thinking the ensuing conversations would detract from the overall work. The 'destructive' experiments were conducted in a playful alchemical restructuring, investigating how the book mutated under different stresses and procedures. We discussed our mutual childhood interest in chemistry and science, time making concoctions or experimenting with gunpowder and chemicals. Some of the actions were of that nature, ie 'what happens if you do x y z to a book’. We were excited by the potential transformation of books.
The Berensons were not being judged by our process. We used the series in a symbiotic/parasitic way. The knowledge contained within was not touched or addressed , only the colour plates were removed. I don’t think we claim to be erudite about the Renaissance or know enough about Berenson to judge whether he was conservative in his writing or if he had some modernist approach to the subject. Again the reason for choosing Berenson was the ubiquity and accessibility of the books, some of which we purchased for the paltry sum of one penny plus postage. The cloth cover in faded pink and the ‘tipped in’ plates made it self selecting. The colour plates we removed are mostly details of images, black and white versions of which are still in the book. A number of the books came from libraries and had library stamps and dedications. These various inkings and annotations along with general wear and tear appealed to us, making each one unique even though ostensibly a multiple.
On skim reading part of the text we discovered that Berenson himself deemed the colour plates inferior to the monochrome ones due to the printing processes of the age. This gave us added license, not that it was needed.
In the specific instance of the burnt book there was a desired outcome. We hoped to create a carbonised object that would still appear book shaped, with cover and pages intact. To this end we came up with the process of encasing the encyclopedia in clay before burning, to stop the book from disintegrating. Although this ‘tandoori’ procedure failed we were interested in the pile of ashes that remained. Some of the pages and text could still be discerned so the challenge was how to transport and display the remains.
MH: I like the way you discuss these heuristic activities without any trace of self-aggrandisement, i.e. “what you get up to” in darkest Hanwell as I put it during the course of my recent workshop visit there. Reducing books to “matter only status” does mean that you have to address the fundamental instability of the book, that’s to say pages are fragile, and even when held in bindery gathers and glued at the spine, aren’t the most resistant of structures. The differences to working with wood, plaster or bronze are fairly clear, i.e. books as found objects are ubiquitous, often cheap, so there are no serious headaches about availability or cost of materials, and this must be a factor in the production of unfine art work that isn’t serving the high altar of contemporary art, its status expressed through an arte povera, profane aesthetic. Steering clear of damaging religious books was probably a wise move as it can end up with accusations of iconoclasm and unwanted attention from fanatics as trolls or vandals, nevertheless a whiff of sacrilege still hangs in the air for whenever a book is trashed its associations with priestly power or authorial copyright are both hard to deny; they are part of the apparatus of worship. The 1522 bildersturm or picture storm enacted by followers of Martin Luther in Wittenberg was an attack on popish practices, and in particular targeted Marian images, whilst in a painting called The Mass of Saint Gregory by Master Seewald (which would have been anathema to Lutherans as an image of the transubstantiation of wafer and wine), all the figures had their eyes scratched out revealing the wood panel below. These sorts of incidents were manifestations of cognitive changes in the European psyche that was sitting on the cusp between manuscript culture and movable type atelier printing. Your destructive practices although part of a continuum that dates back to the 1950s and 60s, are also a sign of the transitional times we live: shifting from the purely analogue world through into a full blown post-digital environment, by which I mean an environment in which the younger generation regard the internet and world wide web as a given, nothing strange, ‘natural’ in fact, even as books and book culture is repositioning itself in order to exploit the market in new ways. Discarded books, especially outdated and outmoded ones, increasingly look like the detritus of these changes. How do you think BOOKEND fits into this 21st century landscape of catastrophic transformation?
Cash: Your questions are always well conceived and have historical references that require some research be undertaken to respond fully.
Though we didn't modify religious books it doesn't mean to say we have no position regarding their contents. Just would have been a difficult to come to an agreement between us and not something we were particularly interested in concerning ourselves with. As I devout atheist I have a lot of problems with organised religion and the way it tries to prescribe personal behaviour especially when it comes to sexuality. The hypocrisy of religious leaders and practitioners is quite staggering, we all know of the stories of hideous abuse that have been in the public eye for years. This becomes a polemical avenue that is better addressed elsewhere. There is nothing worse than some poncey artist trying to make didactic arguments that are perfectly obvious to the viewer. In fact there are not many artists that pull off that particular trick, Peter Kennard would be a notable exception with his CND protest work. There are obvious earlier 20thC. antecedents, but they are few and far between. As previously mentioned most of the books were donated to us and as it happens we were not given any bibles or other religious texts. In some instances we were surprised by how un-precarious a book was. In the case of the buried law book we assumed that after a month it would have deteriorated quite substantially. When it was in interred after four weeks, apart from being wet all the pages were intact and text was legible. It took 6 months before the book started to breakdown by animal habitation and microbial infestation. Even after this prolonged burial it was still perfectly understandable as a book object.
The move from analogue to digital looks to be a trajectory in one direction but now we are seeing that this is more fluid: most people got rid of record players after the rise of the CD and death of the Long Player but now there is a resurgence of vinyl production and a discovery by a new generation: an imperfect but more satisfying delivery system. The record plants left operating are at full capacity and cannot keep up with demand. I see the same fluidity with books, with media being consumed in different ways on phone & tablet and in a recognised book form depending on the situation. Maybe a hybrid form will develop, a bit like our book/tablet in BOOKEND, where the digital and analogue can be accessed simultaneously. Recently I have discussed the problem of digital versus analogue reading with regard to memory and information retention whether non-fiction or fiction. Anecdotally it appears that information is less readily retained when taken in digitally. I have no evidence but theorise that a physical book with different fonts, cover art and olfactory and tactile sensory input impacts memory more substantially than a tablet with its homogenised feel, fonts and lack of smell.
You talk about the ubiquity of books and their ephemeral nature and accessibility and cheapness. We got lots of books for nothing as friends and family were clearing them out, something that libraries do on a regular basis too. There were other components which incurred costs which would (belie) a link to Arte Povera much as we laud and respect that way of working and aesthetic. Purchasing two second-hand tablets, a desktop computer for editing and the very specific shelving that was rescued from Cambridge University medical library, were not insubstantial costs. There were also material costs, which have a habit of adding up. I mention this just to point out that beyond a certain point our commitment to the project was total and took a year in time.
The act of book ‘trashing’ does have an iconoclastic whiff of sacrilege but your mention of bildersturm is fascinating, but unlike the Lutherans it wouldn’t just be transubstantiation that I take issue with. It is most religious tenets. Obviously we are not destroying books because they offend in a spurious religious, intellectual or artistic sense (there are some that would but we didn’t go there) The attack/transformation was about testing the durability of the object and likewise our own responses to the processes. In all art there is certain alchemical transference when substances or objects mutate. When that mutation is at its optimum is of interest to us. So I like the analogy you draw, namely “manifestations of cognitive changes in the European psyche, that was sitting on the cusp between manuscript culture and movable type atelier printing” and the digital/analogue wars.
You talk about discarded, outmoded books. This is a subject in itself. What or when is information outmoded and can something outmoded be useful in a research sense? A friend who is a doctor of medical anthropology found a skip full of books being thrown out by her university library. She questioned the wisdom of this but was told the texts were not current or up to date. She rummaged through the pile and retrieved various volumes. Her riposte to the librarians was that some of the books were historically important and had pedagogical use as a way of explaining how procedures in obstetrics had developed or changed.
We were not interested in BOOKEND being a research project. For self illumination and as part of an arts council grant application we did look into the statistics of book sales and manufacturing. We supposed that book sales were waning, but in US 2015 2.7 billion books were sold  and 304,912 new titles were released in 2013 . It appears that the book is not going to disappear anytime soon. On the other hand libraries are under threat, a lot have closed or are being made into knowledge hubs/community centres; buildings with very few books, more computers and possibly just a shelf or two of books as a token gesture in a coffee shop/gym. Places without qualified librarians. Librarians are having their jobs downgraded and some are being asked to work as volunteers. A librarian I know told me that they were not allowed to order books as before but were required to use one preferred supplier. This supplier then gave them books according to their own lists which mirrored the best seller top 100 list. Such control by publishers is a worrying development, and library closures means the disadvantaged, broadband-less public have less access to books, weekly & monthly publications, not to mention information about what’s going on in local government.
Hale: The “catastrophic” implies a major dramatic change? I think with BOOKEND we were seeing if we thought that that was what was happening to books, to the knowledge carriers we had been brought up with. Gradually in our lives other carriers have been designed or appeared depending either on their existence (cinema, radiogram, transistor radio, b&w TV, colour TV, desk top computer, internet, tablet, mobile phone with internet and onwards) and also dependent on the economic ability and public availability of these devices. My parents had to rent only a black and white TV –one which didn’t receive ITV– only BBC stations and then no colour. Some people had computers while many didn’t. I remember there being one in an office I worked at but not having my own. Throughout all this period books were constants, providers of information and ideas. Now in 2017 through BOOKEND I feel we have tested our emotional relationship to this situation to a degree. We have literally mixed the digital and the analogue book by inserting one into the other plus having film of book actions playing on the digital object.
One thing that I would like to try to decide on or test is how much the exhibition context mattered. It was all shown in a library. So for some viewers seeing books in ash form or drilled into etc may have felt transgressive, shocking. These library users probably love books and so may have found it particularly difficult to see. We didn’t find anyone who stated these feelings however. Presenting BOOKEND in a library might be very different to a non library context though; in a gallery for instance. But actually every different gallery context affects the work shown, so another library would do the same perhaps? It is interesting to work with found objects but I need to alter them if I do this. Other wise I feel I am just presenting a shopping list arrangement. Doing, acting upon and with material does mean you think about the thing, the object the stuff.