Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Printopolis book launch

When I was first invited to contribute a chapter to Open Studio's new book Printopolis in 2012, Steven Leiber had just died. Based in San Francisco, Steven was a leading authority on the subject of artists' book and multiples and the authority on the subject of artists' ephemera. We only met a few times, but have many friends in common, and would often consult over the phone, email or letter (though his postcards were mostly illegible).

Choosing to tackle his area of expertise was a tribute of sorts, and I'm glad it's finally in print. The book launches Friday night at Open Studio, at 6:30 pm. Edited by Jenn Law and Tara Cooper, the title includes texts by Patrick Mahon, Lisa Deanne Smith, Luke Painter, Adam Welch, Kristie MacDonald, Shannon Gerard and many others. Additionally, there are interviews with Mary Tremonte, JP King,  Kirsten McCrea and AA Bronson (with General Idea the subject of another text, also).

My essay is about five a half thousand words, here are the first six hundred or so:

Short-lived Phenomena

The word “ephemeral” derives from the Greek, meaning things “lasting no more than one day.” This may refer to a Moon Flower, a Mayfly, a fever, or a body of water than exists briefly after precipitation or snowmelt. Contemporary usage of the noun “ephemera” tends toward transitory printed materials, which are not intended to be retained or preserved.

Despite this definition, many of these materials are highly sought-after items, with Cartophily and postage stamp collecting being the most obvious examples. Trading cards were originally created to prevent the contents of the product being sold (cigarettes, and later chewing gum) from being damaged. Initially blank, the “stiffeners” were soon printed with images of ships, soldiers, baseball players and actresses in an effort to secure brand loyalty. They quickly became coveted in their own right, with children taking to loitering outside of tobacconists and pleading with customers to part with the card from their cigarette pack. Stamp collecting, a practice almost certainly on the wane, is still considered one of the world’s most popular hobbies, with an estimated 200 million collectors worldwide, and tens of thousands of stamp dealers.

Other examples range from old menus and recipe leaflets, to greeting cards, ticket stubs and road maps. Recently published titles suggest the growing popularity of collecting printed miscellany: Cigarette Cards and How To Collect Them, Old Magazines: Identification & Value Guide and Design for Impact: Fifty Years of Airline Safety Cards. Dutch marketing consultant Niek Vermeulen, has been collecting airsickness bags since the 1970s. As of January 2010 he had amassed a collection of 6,016 bags from 1,142 different airlines, from more than 160 countries.  Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, best known for tattooing pigs, x-raying blowjobs and a machine that produces shit, is the world’s leading collector of Vache qui Rit (The Laughing Cow) cheese spread labels, with a collection of more than 4,000.

“Artists’ ephemera” refers to materials related to an art practice whose use-value has expired (an invitation or announcement card being the most common) but which holds other interest for collectors. Examples include beer coasters, bookmarks, business cards, buttons, calendars, decals, flyers, greeting cards, invitations, letterhead, magazines, magnets, matchbooks, pamphlets, postcards, posters, shopping bags, stickers and temporary tattoos. A notable sub-section of the genre is artists’ advertisements, which are distinguished from commissioned artists’ projects within the pages of a publication (which are not uncommon) and typically consist of interventions within the available advertising spaces of a periodical.

The leading authority on artists’ ephemera, Steven Leiber, died in 2012 of brain cancer. Sometime in the mid 80s Leiber, an art dealer in San Francisco, had bought “twenty-one boxes of crap” from the Fluxus artist Jeff Berner. After sifting through the collection for over a year he realized that he was less interested in the items of intrinsic value, but was drawn to the transient printed materials. He went on to amass one of the largest collections of artists’ ephemera, published over forty sales catalogues (many of which themselves became collectible) and curated several exhibitions around his collection, including the landmark Extra Art: A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera, 1960-1999. The 2001 exhibition featured over 500 pieces and was presented at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, before travelling to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

The accompanying catalogue, featuring over 1500 items (the bulk of which are illustrated), remains the definitive volume on the subject. In their introductory essay, Steven Leiber and Todd Alden identify three criteria for ascertaining what constitutes artists’ ephemera:

- All materials are conceived and/or created by artists specifically for the purpose of being reproduced.

- All materials are distributed for free or very inexpensively.

- All materials have a supplemental relationship to art and perform a double function: a) they are secondary expressions of or about art, finding distribution in contexts in which these expressions are useful or instrumental for a short, limited time, and b) although these secondary expressions sometimes function in an external relationship to art, they also function, to varying degrees, as integral components of art or as art itself.

Open Studio is located at

401 Richmond Street West, Suite #104
Toronto ON  M5V 3A8

For more information about the book, visit the website, here.

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