BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Editions of You

Independent publishing has seen a boom in new imprints, often designed by artists, of classic novels and ‘lost’ books

BY Michael Bracewell in Features | 06 JUN 08

As evidenced by such recent ventures in artist-led publishing as the ‘Familiars’ list from Elinor Jansz and Richard Embray’s Four Corners Books and Book Works’ ‘Fabrications’ series, there is a developing interest in the idea that classic texts, ‘lost’ books or previously hard-to-find publications can be simultaneously revived, reassessed and repositioned as new editions created by artists. In this, a book or text is both being made newly available and, equally importantly, being entered into what might be described as a process of print re-enactment: a renewed engagement with the history of a work, in which the processes of publishing as much as the text itself – its authorship, context and editorial ancestry – become both media for new art-making and venues for cultural historical inquiry.

The ‘Familiars’ series, which commenced last autumn with an acclaimed new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), designed by John Morgan to a concept and art work by Gareth Jones, is a bravura example of how an iconic book might be re-enacted. Returning, on the one hand, to the publishing history of Wilde’s novel, which first appeared in print on 20 June 1890, as pages 3–100 of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the ‘Familiars’ edition restored the book to its physical form as a large-format, magazine-style publication. The pages turn over with languid ease, as though to the neat flick of a doubtlessly yellow-gloved hand. The phrase ‘A young man of extraordinary personal beauty’ is printed on the pale blue cover in dense black letters. Wilde’s famous preface to his novel, in the form of a succession of aphorisms (concluding ‘All art is quite useless’), is printed in large italics, with entire pages and double-page spreads luxuriously given over to the rolling flow of each maxim and paradox. The effect is to refresh and dramatize one’s reading of the text, while also reminding the reader of the complexities of Wilde’s cultural enshrinement. And yet this is only one half of the artistic formula at work in The Picture of Dorian Gray as reconceived by Jones. By way of design, motif, typography and, most importantly, the inclusion within the text (as illustration) of advertisements for Gitanes cigarettes – originally made in the 1970s by the Hipgnosis advertising agency for UK print media and featuring suave, Gallically handsome male models – Jones re-routes the novel to both concepts of masculine beauty and the reclamation of Art Nouveau and Wildean foppishness within the subcultural pop styling and fashions of the early 1970s. Other new publications in the ‘Familars’ series include an edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), conceived and illustrated by the artist James Pyman, and Franz Kafka’s disturbing short story ‘Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor’ (1915), with images by David Musgrave. In both cases, more formally, the texts reinterpret themselves by way of the artist’s intervention: Pyman’s soft, ghostly illustrations to Dracula, in the form of exquisitely poised and shaded drawings, work to highly dramatic effect, seeming to combine the peculiar inscrutability of illustrations to a child’s first reading book with a tense, poetic and obsessive timbre, reminiscent of David Lynch’s eye for particular detail. Likewise, Musgrave’s illustrations to the Kafka story have an other-worldly, ethnographical air; miniatures, pictorially untethered to the occurrences within Kafka’s tale, they seem to suggest prehistoric, occult or extraterrestrial presences – thus adding a new gloss, all the more chilling for being intentionally indistinct, to this account of a man haunted by two tirelessly bouncing rubber balls.

In a separate venture, yet linked in Gothic sensibility, the artist Pablo Bronstein conceived and published in 2005 a new edition of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765). Such affiliation to the Gothic as fable and futurology is matched in the Book Works ‘Fabrications’ series, edited by Gerrie van Noord, and the reclamation of Gustave Affeulpin’s quasi-science-fictional satire on state-sponsored culture, The So-called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg –An Interpretation first published in 1976. Affeulpin being the pseudonym adopted by Albert Meister, this oddly Punkish/Situationist fable, re-envisaged and redesigned by Luca Frei, describes a subterranean (hence literally underground) venue for radical creativity that has been established directly beneath the flamboyantly iconoclastic new centre for the visual arts in Paris. Co-published by Book Works and CASCO Office for Art, Theory and Design, Utrecht, the re-enacted book also adheres to a trend that stretches back in the history of British publishing to the Virago and Picador lists of the 1970s, through which hitherto hard-to-find Beat, Surrealist, feminist, fabular and New Journalistic titles were republished in new editions and their political, gender-political, countercultural or avant-garde pronouncements reassessed.

This relationship between lost or occluded texts, appropriation, re-enactment and history as subject matter, particularly in relation to countercultural bibliography, is well summarized by the statement of intent from the Amsterdam venture (Missingbooks), whose re-publication in 2005 of the Argentinian New Journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s A Dark Day of Justice (1973) was accompanied by the making of a film reconstruction, In The Last Twenty Minutes (2005), of Walsh’s assassination in 1977. As proposed by (Missingbooks), their intention is ‘to bring what has disappeared back into view’, in such a manner that ‘the background of the disappearance is contextualized […] intervening in the canon of cultural heritage’. This might also be a perfect description of another of the ‘Fabrications’ series, Today in History/Tarihte Bugün (2007), by Ahmet Ögüt, in which drawings and paraphrased stories taken from Turkish newspapers over the last four decades are reprinted, removed from their context. Likewise (also from Book Works) Maria Fusco’s new series of publications ‘The Happy Hypocrite’ (2007–ongoing), which aims to investigate and survey radical and experimental methods of writing about art by, among other means, incorporating found texts and parodic writing.

The notion of publication and republication as a venue for creativity and polemical, ‘secret’ history is also well documented at Metronome Press, Paris (founded in 2005 by Clémentine Deliss and Thomas Boutoux), whose forthcoming Unhouse – The Architecture of Dwelling Portably, created by artist Oscar Tuazon (with an epilogue by the novelist and former nest magazine literary editor Matthew Stadler) provides an astonishing account of Bert and Holly Davis’ nomadic existence in the forests of Oregon, including facsimile reproductions from their ’zine Dwelling Portably – ‘written by and for a close community of hardcore hippie survivalists’. As mainstream literary publishers begin to explore, by way of new, digital reprint and print-on-demand technologies, economically viable means of bringing unfairly lost and out-of-print titles back to availability, so it would seem that these artist-driven ventures into print re-enactment are not alone in their desire to escape subordination to the extended and homogenizing processes of cultural globalization. The world wants more than celebrity chefs. And as Patti Smith so memorably remarked, at the conclusion of her winter 1975 performance in Cleveland, Ohio of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ (1965): ‘We created it – let’s take it over.’

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.