BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

Will Holder

Publishing as an act of performance; the materiality of language

BY Sam Thorne in Features | 01 OCT 08

Franny and Zooey, 2004, poster for a play directed and produced by Will Stuart (Will Holder and Stuart Bailey), 50 x 31 cm

Will Holder’s work as a writer, editor, performer and book designer collapses the usual designation of roles, creating not only a prolific production model but also a self-reflexive discussion that starts with print and form. Along with Ann Demeester and Dieter Roelstraete, Holder edits the journal F.R. David, published bi-annually by de Appel in Amsterdam, which focuses on the status of writing in contemporary art practice. The editorial foreword to the ‘Stuff & Nonsense’ winter issue muses on language-based visual art that is invested in ‘the thingness of the word, in the materiality of language – its non-linguistic or extra-linguistic qualities’.

An open understanding of text as a basic material force that should be used as more than a vehicle for practical information is close to Holder’s own approach to book design. Reading this foreword, I was reminded of Lawrence Weiner’s complaint about a certain Swiss sans serif: ‘All information that comes out in Helvetica is saying the same thing: it’s telling you that this is cultural, this is intellectual, this is intelligent.’ Printed words are never obediently transparent; even when designed to be neutral, as Helvetica was in 1957, typefaces have agendas too.

This summer the fourth issue of F.R. David was taken over by five participants in the de Appel Curatorial Programme. Titled ‘The Book of Intentions’, the publication presented a body of research made in preparation for ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’, an exhibition in the Stanley Brouwn building in Leidsche Rijn, a suburb of Utrecht. It was named after Charles Dickens’ short-lived weekly publication in which both The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) and Barnaby Rudge (1841) were serialized; the point in the novelist’s career at which, as G.K. Chesterton noted, he was ‘the editor of his own works’. The exhibition was preceded by the generative ‘Book of Intentions’ and will be bracketed by Index, a record of the physical exhibition and proof of the attendant contingencies of exhibition-making. The three-part exhibition model lingered, as F.R. David often does, on both the circulation of stories and the unpredictable processes of bringing a collaboration to visibility.

Holder’s practice similarly relocates the institutional exhibition space to independent publications; in the past he has also reversed this by applying the processes of selection and editing to public events. In 2003 the second issue of Tourette’s, a magazine that was self-published by Holder with Dexter Sinister co-founder Stuart Bailey (working together under the name Will Stuart), took the form of a week-long festival held at the W139 exhibition space in Amsterdam. A year later at de Appel the pair also expanded J.D. Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey (1961) to incorporate a play, library and film programme. As part of ‘Nought to Sixty’, the ICA’s six-month-long 60th birthday exhibition and event series, Holder organized Bachelor Party (2005–ongoing) in July this year to celebrate what would be Marcel Duchamp’s 121st birthday with an evening of talks and screenings concerned with languages other than speech and text.

Framed within an exhibition that looked to the future and the past, the event marked a reflective shift from analytical observation to performative inquiry. In Indeterminacy (2008), performed at Jan Mot in January this year, Holder reprised John Cage’s eponymous lecture to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the piece. The original lecture comprised 30 stories that were told at the rate of one per minute, so that the shortest were spread out and the longest were rapidly delivered. Rather than an ironic replication of a lecture that focused on the vicissitudes of performance and personal memories, Holder’s performance kept close to the sentiment expressed in Cage’s essay ‘How the Piano Came to be Prepared’: ‘Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.’

A script necessarily has future performances in mind, making provisions with stage directions and lighting cues, but the transcript’s smallest claim is to be an accurate record. Many of Holder’s performances dwell on the forward-facing moment at which printed documentation, rather than a script, is brought alive again. Whether by coincidence or dint of publishing trends, few of Holder’s literary sources originally emerged fully formed: Franny and Zooey, for example, first appeared as two short stories in The New Yorker, while Cage expanded ‘Indeterminacy’ from 30 to 90 stories, adding a piano before the recording was released in 1959. In 2007 Holder performed sections of Gertrude Stein’s mammoth The Making of Americans (published in 1925, although first serialized by Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway in the Transatlantic Review in 1906), while Middle of Nowhere (2008) is Holder’s serialized rewriting of William Morris’ socialist Utopia News from Nowhere (published in 1890, but first serialized in the Socialist League’s journal Commonweal), in which the original is translated into a speculative history of the forthcoming century. (It should be noted that Morris saw his own effort as a corrective to the American Edward Bellamy’s best-selling Utopian tale Looking Backward, from 1888; Holder’s transposition is a second readjustment, sketching out a new guide for design and education practices.) Morris’ west London-based Kelmscott Press was, of course, largely responsible for kick-starting the independent press movement, and, as Deyan Sudjic points out in The Language of Things (2008), when design first emerged as a distinct activity, designers often cast themselves as socially engaged idealists. Each of Holder’s projects is set in opposition to the more recent sense of graphic design as a streamlined industry of branding agencies and viral strategy analysts. In his performances and related portfolio of publications Holder opens out the ‘act’ of publishing so that it becomes a self-critically social endeavour.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.