N.E. Thing Company
N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1)
Vancouver, Canada: Brick Press, 2020
362 pp, 21.3 x 27.5 cm., softcover
Edition of 500
Between the proliferation of Artist Book Fairs (pre-pandemic) and the ease of online distribution, the market for artists' publications continues to grow, and once unsaleable books that languished in storage for years are now only available on the secondary market, often prohibitively priced.
To counter the scarcity of the originals, many publishers have undertaken the difficult work of producing reprints of these rare titles, in order to make them available again at affordable prices.
Five years ago four Marcel Broodthaers titles were reprinted in the span of a few months, by Siglio Press, Granary Books and the Museum of Modern Art. Siglio has also produced reprints of long-unavailable titles by Sophie Calle, Ray Johnson, John Cage, Bernadette Mayer and others, alongside their schedule of new publications. Similarly, Primary Information produces both new artists’ books and facsimile reprints (Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, Constance DeJong, Tony Conrad, etc.). Other publishers who take this approach include The Everyday Press (Yves Klein), Zédélé Editions (Jan Dibbets, Peter Downsbrough, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Long, Herman de Vries), Dancing Foxes Press (Fred Sandback), JRP Ringer (Dorothy Ianonne, FILE Megazine) and Boabooks (a series of great Ulises Carrión titles).
I have no compunction about this practice. If there is renewed interest in a band, their recordings are re-issued, without concern for the collector who owned the "first editions". The authors of novels and non-fiction often see their books returned to print when the market suggests there may be a demand. These titles might feature a new cover design, an added preface or other extras that would be complicated with an artist’s book. Unlike an author’s book1, an artists’ book is typically designed as a cohesive work. Short of re-engaging the artist to reimagine the original title, a facsimile seems the most practical route. Most are pretty faithful to the original, with occasional concessions to available paper stocks, and sometimes scale.
The Brick Press version of N.E. Thing Co.: Companies Act (Volume 1) is perhaps the first instance I am aware of that constitutes a reinterpreted facsimile.
Inspired by the ambiguous copyright of the original (“The Material in the N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. Book Can Be Used By Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere. Please Let Us Know When You Do This.”), Ryan Smith set out to produce a version of the book that is both loyal to the original and also acknowledges the time that has passed in the forty-plus years since publication.
This includes the physical properties of the book, but also the shifting political and social mores.
Rather than work from the original files, or clean up the scans in Photoshop, Smith maintains the scuffs, cracks and creases of the copy he found in a second hand store a few years prior. Most surviving copies of the book are pretty beat up (see previous post).2
This choice helps distinguish the reprint from the original but also serves as a reminder that cultural artifacts accrue meaning over the years, particularly if they are in circulation.3
The original book looked like a series of photocopies, a stylistic choice that was revisited in the exhibition catalogue for Art Metropole's 1992 retrospective Media Works, on the works of Iain Baxter and NETCO. This lends itself well to the Brick Press approach of not tidying up the scans. The price Smith paid for the original book, seventy-five dollars, is also included as if written in pencil on the upper right hand corner of the title page. This is bound to cause some confusion, as the reprint retails for around fifty dollars.
The reinterpreted facsimile also seeks to correct offensive language used in the press at the time. Several of the clippings have a distinct tone of misogyny when discussing Ingrid. She is referred to as "Iain's pretty blonde wife", for example. Rather than let these instances go unchecked, Smith runs a thumbtack scratch through these lines. There's a bit of a righteous FTFY4 feel to the intervention, but it does serve to highlight the passage of time and draw further attention to Ingrid Baxter's erasure.
The history of Canadian collectives is littered with founding members reduced to footnotes after parting ways, particularly if they no longer pursue a career in the arts. But it's especially egregious in the case of the N.E. Thing Company. Both Baxters were listed as Co-Presidents of the Corporation - and it's only employees - yet the duo's works are often misattributed to Iain Baxter as solo creations, even in the Vancouver Art Gallery, the city in which they worked.
Baxter is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and he has been awarded the Order of Ontario, the the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. His solo career has far-outlasted his time in the N.E.Thing. Co., but it is also clear that the international success of the couple's collaborative work are the primary impetus for these awards.
After their divorce - the year of the original publication - Ingrid Baxter stopped producing art.
"I went back to school for my master’s degree," she told Art in America in 2014, "I bought the canoe and boat rental business in 1981, and it has since grown way beyond whatever I imagined it could be." This business - the Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre, in North Vancouver - now employs more than sixty people.
Approaching an art practice as a corporation was a wildly influential venture (see the work of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc., Xavier Veilhan, Fabrice Hyber la, Dana Wyse, etc., etc.), as was opening a restaurant or store as an artwork (Michael Rakowitz' Enemy Kitchen, Damian Hirst's Pharmacy, Jonathan Berger's The Store, Keith Haring's Pop Shop, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin's The Shop, and so on).5 Ingrid Baxter's role in the legacy of posing prescient questions about the relationship between art and commerce deserves more than being referred to as "Iain Baxters then-wife".
And this is gradually happening, as the art world continues its reckoning with the marginalization of women that it has perpetuated for years. Ingrid Baxter's contributions are slowly being reinstated into the canon, including at the VAG, who recently adjusted the attributions in their collection.
For me, this Brick Press publication is still first and foremost a facsimile reprint of an important book that I wasn't able to own previously, but these discreet gestures introduce compelling ideas about what future collaborative publishing might begin to look like.
The title is available from the publisher, here, for $50.00 CDN.
1. The very fact that we do not call them "author's books" makes the term "artists' book" suspicious, but until a good alternative is agreed upon...
2. There is only one copy listed on ABE, by Gordon Simpson's ANARTIST store. It is being offered for $750 US and the condition is listed as "very good, except covers are good with lots of creases": https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&cm_sp=SearchF-_-home-_-Results&an=n.e.thing&tn=companies+act&kn=
3. See Derek Sullivan's recent artist book, here: https://artistsbooksandmultiples.blogspot.com/2021/08/derek-sullivan-evidence-of-avant-garde.html
4. FTFY is urban slang for "Fixed that for you", which originated in Reddit memes. The acronym encompasses both copy-editing (corrected spelling or grammar in a post) and also sarcasm (a Democrat editing a Trump tweet to subvert it’s meaning, for example).
5. Restaurants by artists that predate Eye Scream include FOOD by Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark in 1971, Allen Ruppersberg's Al's Cafe in 1969, projects by Les Levine and others.