Printed Matter, Inc.
231 11th Ave, NYC
38 St Marks Pl, NYC
ARTISTS’ BOOKS IN (what was formerly known as) EASTERN EUROPE
What, How & for Whom (WHW) is a non-profit organization for visual culture and curators’ collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb, Croatia. Its members are curators Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević , Natasa Ilić and Sabina Sabolović , and designer and publicist Dejan Krsić . Since May 2003 WHW has been directing the program of Gallery Nova – a non-profit, city-owned gallery in Zagreb. Among WHW’‘s international shows are: What, How & for Whom, on the occasion of the 152nd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Association of Croatian Artists, Zagreb, Croatia, 2000; Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, Austria, 2001; Broadcasting project, dedicated to Nikola Tesla, The Technical Museum, Zagreb, Croatia, 2002; START City gallery Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2002; Gallery Karas Zagreb, Croatia, 2003; Looking Awry, Apexart, New York, 2003; Repetition: Pride and Prejudice, Gallery NOVA, Zagreb, Croatia, 2003; Side-effects, Salon of Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 2004; Collective Creativity, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, 2005.
Contrary to the common understanding of the social and artistic situation in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which tends to ignore differences in favor of a homogeneous view that suitably supports the political agenda of the cold war, developments in art were rather heterogeneous. As in the West, the production of artists’‘ books in the East during the 60s, 70s, and 80s was connected to differing neo-avant-garde, conceptual, performance-based and post-conceptual practices, announcing the opening not only towards innovative forms, but also towards innovative ways of presentation, circulation, distribution, and validation outside of the established art system. Practices of artists’‘ books, magazines and so-called “pages as an alternative space” emerged as a form together with neo-avant-garde practices, in opposition to ideological instrumentalization of art as well as in opposition to a moderate bourgeois, apolitical and decorative modernism. Artists were attracted to printed matter thanks to its simplicity and functionality, its directness and effectiveness in the dissemination of their ideas.
In the process of creating these modes and spaces of artistic production, the form of artists’‘ books/magazines played an important role. Although there was a lot of correspondence and many contacts with the international art world, self-publishing in countries of the former Eastern bloc is a distinct phenomenon. While in the West artists’‘ books eventually took advantage of the expanding market for visual arts, production of artists’‘ books in the East for several decades remained detached not only from the market and specialized publishing houses, but also from cultural and art institutions. Only recently, and partially prompted by the interest of Western institutions in the history of avant-garde production in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, has a process of gradual and still insufficient valorization of the art of that period started in local environments.
What might be considered as the crucial difference from the production of artists’ books in the West is the specific politics of that practice in the East, not only in terms of an implicit or explicit critique of the art system and its institutions, but also of power structures in a broader society. This applies not only to the clearly dissident and underground “unofficial” practice of “samizdat” in the Soviet Union and in other countries of the Eastern bloc, which was located completely outside of the official system, but also to marginal practices developed during more tolerant periods and situations in these countries, as well as in non-aligned, “pro Western” Yugoslavia. Acting against official institutions, or at least apart from them, these practices were politically engaged, but not as a “battle against the darkness of Communist totalitarianism”. The political practice of art was realized as a fight for the complete self-realization of individuals and culture, against real bureaucratic limitations, taking socialist ideology more seriously than the cynical political élite in power did. The production of artists’‘ books in former countries of the Eastern bloc and in Yugoslavia is positioned within the broader context of alternative cultural movements and their articulation of politics.
The production of artists’ book in Eastern Europe has a complex and still insufficiently researched and publicized history. The focus of this article is not on the aspect of the artists’ book understood as physical form transformed in certain “auratic objects” or “democratic multiples”, but rather on transformative and communicational aspects realized through different forms of artists’ publications, magazines, books, samizdats, etc., which form a parallel to the institutional art system and at the same time its critique. The focus is on the potential of social, critical and institutional spaces that such practice could generate, on the impact that different artists’ groups, collectives, and temporary and informal communities have on the practice of artists’ books and publications, and on the ways in which neo-avant-garde practices of self-publishing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s formed communities, related to international art scenes, and continued to affect younger generations of artists.
Though artists’ book practice intensified during the 70s and 80’s, a few examples of artists’ publications can be found already in the 1960s, as is the case with neo-avant-garde Gorgona group, active in Zagreb, Croatia from 1959 to 1966. Gorgona consisted of artists (Josip Vanista, Marijan Jevsovar, Julije Knifer, Đuro Seder, Ivan Koz arić, Dimitrije Basičević – Mangelos) who shared common affinities and not any stylistic program. Gorgona’s activities were of an unspectacular nature; Gorgona was a process of searching for artistic and intellectual freedom, the achievement of which was itself their aim and purpose. The way they conducted their activities had nothing in common with most artistic groups, and its non-formality is one of the reasons why Gorgona remained unknown and undocumented so long. Gorgona affirmed absurdity, emptiness, monotony as an aesthetic category; nihilism, metaphysical irony, and its nature might be compared to the poetics of Fluxus or neo-dada.
The anti-magazine Gorgona was published between 1961 and 1966 (11 issues, each of them the work of a single artist, conceived to be realized within a few printed pages), in which they also collaborated with Victor Vasarely, Harold Pinter and Dieter Rot. Through its publications and numerous art concepts and projects, Gorgona established correspondence and contacts with numerous international artists like Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lucio Fontana. “The artists’ awareness of the absolute autonomy of the publication, of the medium in which they made their works, gave Gorgona a special status among artists’ publications of that period. Compared to such magazines as Azimuth, Spirale, Material, Zero, Nul, etc., Gorgona seems more radical, more oriented toward future conceptual developments.”
For Dimitrije Basičević Mangelos, an art historian, art critic, museum curator, and a poet and visual artist working under the pseudonym Mangelos, who was a member of Gorgona group, production of books consisting of alphabets, no-stories, projects, concepts, and manifestos remained a constant element of his work from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. Mangelos’‘ work is a unique mixture of writing and painting in the form of work-texts on globes, school boards, notebooks, black painted books, etc. He wrote no-stories, texts and poetry inscribed in notebooks painted black, and drew over art reproductions, which he called anti-peinture.
Although its members were not socially marginal, Gorgona’s activities at the time occurred mostly in total anonymity, without any prospect of their work being recognized. Like Gorgona’s, the activities of the Slovenian group OHO, active between 1966 and 1971, are a unique introduction of Fluxus-like activities into the cultural space of former Yugoslavia. OHO has never been formally established, though the year 1966, when a book OHO and a programmatic text known as OHO Manifesto were published, is considered as its beginning. The large and shifting membership included many artists, critics, poets, filmmakers: Marko Pogačnik, David Nez, Milenko Matanović, Drago Dellabernardina Iztok, Geister Plamen, Tomaz Salamun…. In the first phase of OHO’s activities, between 1966 and 1968, 20 artists’ publications with drawings, texts, visual poetry, letters ands objects were published in small editions.
Even at the level of “official” art, at different times and at different places there were various levels of imposition of ideologically produced soc-realism (or of modernist abstraction supported by the state, which was the case of Yugoslavia beginning in the late 50s). In the former USSR the practice of samizdat and artists’‘ books production happened within the context of an unofficial system that existed in unique historical conditions that produced the most innovative work in the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s. Since the 1930s, art in Soviet Union had been under direct state and Party control, and the crucial task of alternative art was not directed to the organization of public space but to the development of artistic language without official censorship. The unofficial art system was independent from a private art market as well as from the state institutions. In Moscow the activities of the unofficial scene reached its climax in the 80s, when artistic life became very active in reaction to the state apparatus repression. Samizdat Art was an independent movement in literature and politics. The term itself means “self-publishing” and it was used as an ironic paraphrase of the term Gosizdat: “state–publishing”. Samizdat Art extended the idea of an artists’‘ book and transformed it into various unusual provocative forms which aimed towards the establishment of different forms of artistic practices. Samizdat–Art is closely linked to practice of so called APT-ART that encompassed artists arranging exhibitions in their apartments and studios, inasmuch as both practices stood for the principle of creative freedom. Much like the Gorgona group in Zagreb, also in its time practically anonymous in the local environment, an ironic relation to everyday life and a conceptual attitude were crucial for the development of artists’ books in USSR. Conceptual art has been born out of poetic and post-visual experiments and samizdat was not its special genre, but rather a broadly applicable strategy and a new social phenomenon of resistance to the state repression. Many artists who practiced samizdat participated in important unofficial artists’ gatherings, circles and groups that organized exhibitions and workshops, in which collaboration and collective strategies became working strategies.
The first artists’ books in Russia were made in the 1960s, with the big impetus coming from the poets of older generation (Liazonovo Group). The books were produced manually, with the use of carbon copies, writing machines, and collage techniques. An important contribution to artists’ book production was made by a younger generation of Moscow conceptualists, like the groups Gnezdo/Nest (Victor Scersis, Michael Roshal i Gennady Donskoi), S/Z (Victor Skersis i Vadim Zakharov), and especially through the work of the group Mukhomory (Sven Gundlakh, Sergei and Vladimir Mironenko, Konstantin Zvezdochetov, Alexei Kamensky), whose work included performances with books and various books/objects made of manually produced paper. In the middle 70s the first artists’ magazines were made, ranging from manually produced unique copies of the magazine Metki (1975) and art magazines such as A-YA active from 1979 through 1986, in which subsequently the entire local and expat Russian art community took an active part, or Transponans Journal 1979 – 86 (which gave way to the Double Journal), to Collective Farm, which was published in New York.
For unofficial artists, illustrating children books was often the only way to achieve professional status and many artists made their living in such a way, but some utilized it to develop an authentic artistic language. A series of conceptual albums, for example Ten Characters (1972 - 1975) by Ilya Kabakov, are reminiscent of wall newspapers and of children’s book illustrations. In 1973 he was working on his series of philosophic-encyclopedic albums, such as Anna Petrovna in Seeing a Dream or They are Flying. Large book boxes were filled up with drawings and the albums were presented in the form of a two to four hour performance in which the artist himself was presented turning the pages and reading the text to the audience. The conceptual use of albums by Ilya Kabakov and another artist Viktor Pivovarov in the early 70s established innovative parameters for artists’‘ books production.
Another unique example of performance and artists’‘ books and samizdat-related practice may be found in the work of the group Kollektivnye Deistvia/Collective Actions. The group was founded in 1976 by Andrey Monastirsky, Nikolaj Panitkov, Nikita Aleexev and Georgy Kizevalter, later joined by Elena Elagina, Igor Makarevich, Sergey Romashko and Sabine Haensgen. Kollektivnye Deistvia/Collective Actions is primarily a performance group, engaged with different kinds of actions mostly in outdoor spaces. Their performances followed a uniform dramaturgy: an invited group of spectators would take a train to a suburb of Moscow, from where they headed to a large field that served as the stage for the majority of the CA performances. The audience was requested to compose a written description and interpretation of the performance. Usually, the audience could observe only a part of the whole performance, which was partly happening outside of their field of vision. In addition, the group was also engaged with abundant documentation which was presented in a form of samizdat publication. All performances and actions were documented and issued together in the edition Journeys to the Countryside, Moscow, 1999. Many members of Collective Actions (N. Alexeev or I. Makarevich) independently produced artists’ books. Andrey Monastirsky started from the intersection of poetry and language experiments, which resulted in graphic conceptual books and books/objects designed to be manipulated and completed by spectators (Elementary Poetry no 9 – Heap, 1976).
The practice of the artists’ book introduced not only new relations towards the work of art, but also towards the audience. Among many Moscow-based artists like Dmitri Prigov, Francisco Infante or Rimma Gerlovina who were exploring the medium in 70s, the example of Passport for Trans-State (1977) by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid has especially strong political meanings. In this booklet resembling a Russian passport the artists suggested a virtual trans-national state and produced its passport, money, etc.
May 75 from Zagreb, Artpool from Budapest and Mental space from Belgrade are examples of so called “pages as an alternative space” phenomenon, in which the practice of artists’ books is directly related to strategies developed by a group aiming at creating an innovative, critical, active context for the presentation and reception of their artworks, a framework that removed itself from the mainstream, bypassing the traps and censorship set by the institution of art.
May 75 was a self-published magazine (18 issues) initiated by the Group of six artists (Boris Demur, Zeljko Jerman, Vlado Martek, Mladen Stilinović , Sven Stilinović, Fedor Vučemilović) and named after the first exhibition-action of the group. May 75, issued from 1975 through 1981, consisted of individual pages made by artists, multiplied and arranged into a whole and published in small editions. May 75 was an open collaborative platform in which many artists of similar artistic persuasions took part, and it was conceived as an alternative against the official cultural policy of the times.
In Yugoslavia in the 1970s many artists within an unofficial alternative artistic movement of the so-called “new art practice” were producing artists’ books, but for Goran Trbuljak, Mladen Stilinović, Vlado Martek and Sanja Iveković , book-making became an extensive activity. Artists’ books by Sanja Iveković confront public and private sphere in the deconstruction of dominant patriarchal models and political matrixes, while Goran Trbuljak’s books are self-referential and self-ironical analyses of the art system and of the artist’s position within it. Mladen Stilinović and Vlado Martek, whose work is connected to activities of Group of six artists and May 75 magazine, produced a number of mostly handmade books, “open editions”. Stilinović’s books are focused on relations between issues of work, poverty, laziness, power, cynicism and pain, while Martek’s deal with complex issues of re-signifying, juxtaposing and merging of verbal and visual signs in exploration of language understood as a complex amalgam of philosophic and poetic elements.
In the context of Yugoslav “new art practice”, also important is a group of artists active in Belgrade in the 1980s, Association for space research (Zoran Belić Weiss, Dubravka Đurić, Nenad Petrović, Marko Pogačnik, Mirko Radojčić, Misko Suvaković), formed around critical analysis and theoretical aspects of art. The group published four thematic anthologies of texts called Mentalni prostor/Mental space, with textual and visual contributions by the group members as well as international artists such as Art & Language, Marina Abramović, Jospeh Beuys, Lawrence Weiner, etc.
Unlike socialist Yugoslavia, where book production was not subjected to direct censorship, but rather to institutional marginalization, “in Hungary until the middle of the 80s the right to publish was reserved for authorities”, due to almost total lack of institutional support and high market prices in publishing, In the situation in which the public had no access to copy machines and printing studios, and artists could print only under the category of “graphic art”, the activities of Artpool in the 70s and 80s had almost heroic proportions. Artpool, an alternative cultural institution in Hungary working with an archive on experimental art, was established in 1979 by György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay as an alternative art institute, connected to Chapel Exhibitions held in György Galántai’‘s “summer studio”, the Balatonboglár Chapel, from 1970 to 1973. By the time the police closed it down, the Balatonboglár studio had established itself as the center of officially proscribed avant-garde art. György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay established Artpool at a time when art forms out of keeping with the official cultural policy were denied access to the public. Periodically banned, but on the whole tolerated, Artpool organized many exhibitions and art events, and published several anthologies and art catalogues between 1979 and 1990. From 1983 to 1985, they put out eleven “illegal” issues of Aktuális Levél (Artpool Letter) , a “samizdat” art magazine which continues to serve as the sole documentary source on the non-official art of those years. Aktuális Levél was also important for the establishment of international contacts and the context of Hungarian art.
In Poland from 1971, the artists Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek formed KwieKulik, an artist couple group that ran an independent Studio for Art Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU) in their private apartment in Warsaw. PDDiU was involved in documenting artistic activities of both Polish and foreign artists encompassing objects, films, artists’‘ books, documentary and theoretical works, actions, interventions, performances, as well as activities associated with mail art.
As in other Eastern European countries, in Czechoslovakia in the 60s and 70s innovative tendencies in the work of artists who during the 70s became part of the international art scene, locally remained isolated and apart from official artistic circles. Apart from the group Aktuel that produced tabloid-sized sheets describing their happenings and political positions, the continuous production of hand-made books by J.H. Kocman is crucial to a history of artists’‘ books. In the second half of the 60s Kocman produced a series of collages that explored the relations of authorship and the processes of work finalization, while in the 70s his work intensified its conceptual and de-materialized components. Kocman also made mail-art and stamp-art. Being self conscious about the book form, Kocman explored and deconstructed the structural possibilities of the book form, focusing on the immediate effects of material, and made book-concepts and blank books whose message is self-contained.
Although artists worked in different contexts—in relative freedom in Yugoslavia and at different levels of state repression in countries of the Eastern bloc—the inheritance of that period is a strong tendency towards the development of parallel systems and tensions between progressive practices and institutional support. In different environments of former Eastern Europe, positions related to the critical evaluation and presentation of neo-avant-garde practices by the institutional and non-institutional cultural sector are still rather in confrontation. The institutional sector is still largely dominated by a mainstream understanding of art which keeps many elements of the modernistic paradigm (notions such as utopianism, formalist esthetic values, the idea of artists as heroes, the transcendent character of art, separation of art and life, art as opposed to theory, etc.) that are opposed to actual contemporary practices of artists, and for many artists forms of self-organization and self-publishing continue to be the central concern. For example, magazine Chto delat?/What is to be done?, founded in early 2003, brings together artists, philosophers, social scientists and writers from Moscow and St. Petersburg. This workgroup publishes a Russian-English newspaper on issues central to poetics and politics today, with a special focus on the Russian artistic-intellectual situation, and in that manner the magazine clearly reflects the lack of institutional spaces for production and circulation of ideas and concepts. More focused towards local communities is Skart, an experimental art and design group founded in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1990 by Dragan Protić and Đorđe Balmazović. By combining poetry, performing arts, architecture, graphic design, and community engagement, Skart’s “critical communication” works often involve strategies for self-production and self-distribution. Within her project “The Exhibition of the Local Newspapers”, carried out in different cities since 1994, Zagreb-based artist Ivana Keser either uses locally published newspapers for her interventions in a gallery or in public space, or she produces her own private newspaper, written, illustrated and published by herself. The newspapers as the symbol of the construction of official reality are susceptible to various manipulations, as well as to corrections based on subjective experience, which is a position that Ivana Keser radicalizes by publishing her private newspaper for comments about life and contemporary society, often using humor and paradox.
In Romania, in which, under the Ceausescu dictatorship, ideologically imposed state regulation of artistic production was extremely harsh, the production of books as objects was very prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the visual culture, traditionally strongly linked to literature and narration, book objects proved to be especially suitable for exploration that prompted expansion into installation pieces. Only in the 1990s did Romanian artists start to print. Apart from Version magazine, founded in 2001 at Cluj-Napoca, which functions as an internationally circulated and conceived artists‘ public space, whose members, artists Mircea Cantor, Ciprian Muresan and Gabriela Vanga, also produce individual artists‘ books and magazines, the artist who for more than a decade has consistently produced artists‘ books and newspapers is Dan Perjovschi. In his notebooks, books and newspapersmdash;often produced by institutions in Western Europe or international biennialsmdash;or on the walls and floors, inside and outside of exhibition spaces, Perjovschi’s simple, reduced, caricature-like style of drawing, in direct and explicit ways, yet always coated in humor and irony, conveys political meanings located deep in the practices of everyday life, media consumption, daily politics and cutting-edge trends in art world.
The production of contemporary artist‘s books, magazines and publications in the former Eastern Europe continues to disprove the illusion propagated by a victorious capitalism which claims that with the fall of the Berlin Wall ideologies as we know them disappeared. The ideology is as strong as ever;it is called neo-liberalism; and in the East it advances under the slogan of “normalization”, which hides the chronic lack of political imagination and stands for production of consent and consensus. In spite of a seeming disappearance of fundamental aesthetic differences between Eastern and Western art, contemporary artists’ books and publications cannot be defined solely by their “aesthetic paradigms” and still continue to reflect on political, social, economical, institutional and market circumstances that produce their forms and contents.
Thanks to: Zdenka Badovinac, Vjera Borozan, Boris Cvjetanović, Dan Perjovshi, Bojana Piskur Branka Stipančić, Mladen Stilinović, Leonid Tishkov, Igor Spanjol, Viktor Misano
The following texts were consulted in preparation of this article:
Bibliography: Degot, Ekatarina .Russia: East Art Map, Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe London: Afterall, Central Sain Martins College of Art and Design, 2006.
Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York City: Granary Books, 1995.
Gerlovin, Rimma and Valery. Russian Samizdat Art. New York: Willis Locker & Owens Publishing, 1986.
Misiano, Viktor. Moscow Recollections, East Art Map: Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe ed. IRWIN, London: Afterall, Central Sain Martins College of Art and Design, 2006.
Darko Simičić. From Zentith to Mental Space: Avant-garde, Neo-avant-garde, and Post-avant-garde Magazines and Books in Yugoslavia, 1921 – 1987,Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918 – 1991. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.
Tchoudetskaia, Anna. Catalogue of Books, Not Only to Read: Artists’‘ Books, Russia 1970 – 1990 (exh. cat.) Moscow: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, 1999.
Valoch, Jiri. JH Kocman Artists’‘ Books and Papers. Prague: Galerie Rudolfinum.