What are Artists' Publications?

 

In the second half of the twentieth century, artists moved beyond the art-immanent space to create, supported by mass-media techniques, published artworks. These works challenged the traditional system of art and the classification system of museums. In the 1950s and 1960s, graphic collections only occasionally had record of such works, and museums in general tended to rarely note them. Their roots can be traced to the avant-garde of the 1920s, such as Futurism and Dadaism.

Artists’ publications include all forms of expression endeavored by artists with potential multiplication in mind—released either by the artists themselves, that is, through self-publication, or by a publisher using automated production methods.
The term “artists’ publications” is used as an umbrella phrase for all forms of published artworks. It comprehends all works by artists that are reproduced, released, or published. Thus, artists’ publications are, at the same time, also manifestations of information and communication. Here, the book or the record, for example, may become the medium of artistic creation for the artist. It goes to follow that artists’ publications comprise over 20 different genres:

artists’ books, multiples, book objects, artists’ newspapers and magazines, ephemera such as posters and invitations designed by artists, photo editions, postcards, stamps, stickers, graphic artworks, Xerox copies, stamp artworks, sound art (on records, cassette tapes, audio CDs), radio art, multimedia editions on CD-ROM and DVD, artists’ videos and films, net art and computer art.

Of focus here are artworks that, in the artists’ view, enjoy the same status and artistic value as a painting or an installation. The low pricing of these works has actually been intentional, since anyone interested should have the opportunity to acquire a work of art. The price should not erect a barrier but instead encourage people to start an “art collection in miniature.” Works from all artistic currents dating from the 1950s can be discovered throughout the world—ranging from the Fluxus movement, to mail art, pop art, visual and concrete poetry, land art, and to computer art of the twenty-first century.

Starting in the 1950s, artists set out to pursue new artistic paths and to define alternative premises for their artistic work. They started implementing mass media in the creation of artworks and using reproduction media like copiers as artistic techniques. Proceeding from correspondence art, and based on the achievements of mail art, the exchange going on among artists led to an international network traversing all political borders. These artists were upsetting traditional ideas about art, integrating the viewer, and abandoning the spaces traditionally assigned to artists, which simultaneously led to the creation of numerous artists’ publications. With their happenings and actions, artists were conquering public space. They were founding—independent of conventional museums and galleries—their own activity spaces, galleries, restaurants, pubs, archives, and exhibition spaces. Artists hence succeeded in establishing self-initiated public space, or even a counterpublic sphere. The organization of the production, distribution, and sales of reproduced artworks was realized with artistic independence, the autonomy of the artist becoming the declared goal. The concept of art as information was focal to their work. Societal visions became manifest in the dehierarchization and democratization of art. This new conception of art was, for one, concentrated on the rejection of the original, and on the production of reproduced artworks aiming at affordability for everyone. In addition, cooperative working structures like collaborative artworks, assemblings, and magazines were characteristic for large realms of artistic work.
The archives originating during this period were of fundamental importance. This was the only place where documents and publications were compiled and stored that reflected the creative, nonconformist potential and the quest for artistic independence apparent since the 1960s. These archives came into being through an exchange of artists’ publications on an international level, kept active by the artists, irrespective of political borders, up into the mid-1980s. This communication network enabled artists living in politically isolated countries to actively participate in art activities across the world.

In the mid-1980s a paradigm shift in the development of artists’ publications materialized. Now, due to artists’ tendencies toward individualization, speaking of a context of artistic currents is no longer applicable. The network of mail art, for instance, came to lose its functional efficiency, and concrete and visual poetry began to disintegrate as a literary and artistic current.
While the 1960s and 1970s were distinguished by the concept of “intermedia” as raised by Dick Higgins, since the 1980s a crossover in the application of various genres and media has been evolving through artistic inspiration. Of issue is no longer the connecting, or merging, of artistic, musical, and literary disciplines and of the thereby newly created art forms, but rather the liberty to freely select from these now already well-established forms of expression. The question of artistic transgression is no longer pivotal, for the artists are working per se interdisciplinarily—contemporaneously moving within divergent realms in a natural way.
The artists’ approach particularly lies in selecting media for their artistic positions in order to highlight the heterogeneity of artistic work, thus counteracting rapid misappropriation or artistic classification. In this way, too, they are mirroring experiences from social reality, which can no longer be perceived as uniform due to its complexity. That which originated in the 1960s under the label “intermedia” through the overlapping and connecting of genres has, since the 1980s, stabilized and become “suitable for art,” has become established, so that artists’ books or artists’ magazines now number among the traditional canon.


Dr. Anne Thurmann-Jajes

 

Artists' publications in the Centre for Artists' Publications, Photo: Bettina Brach