THE MEMORIAL PAPERS:
DEMOCRATIC, DISPOSABLE SOUVENIRS
Digital Versus Analogue Dissemination
In 1967, long before the impact of self-publishing and dissemination made possible by the Internet, theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan heralded the dawning of a new age for publishing. "Xerography - every man's brain-picker", McLuhan argued, "heralds the times of instant publishing. Anybody can now become both author and publisher." McLuhan's claims were in response to the dawning of a new means by which the multiplication of words was made possible: the Xerox machine. By 'xeroxing', words could be multiplied and distributed in great quantities, yet they were still relegated to the sheet of the page. The emergence of the Internet has since encouraged amateur writers and bloggers the world over to explore the potential of their writing abilities, and has resulted in a massive acceleration in the tempo of publishing. In a world dominated by the sharing of virtual writing, virtual words, on a massive-scale, it is tempting to think that Jan De Cock's Memorial Papers - a series of newspaper-like publications in which each issue contains approximately forty full-color images, each printed for circulation in an edition of 10.000 or more - is an outdated, laborious, or even a non-ecological method to disseminate artworks. The suggestion that an unobtrusive-looking newspaper is the cheapest solution to circulate an artistic commodity around the world is questionable considering the potential of present-day digital reproduction methods. After all, it could be highly advantageous for Everything For You, if it is to succeed (in its stated aim) in disseminating beautiful objects in abundance, to pursue the Internet as the medium of choice. Can a series of analogue newspapers, the production of which the artist controls from conceptualization to final printed product be considered the most transparent manner of authorship with the fewest obstacles to conception, production, and distribution?
It would appear that Jan De Cock is deliberately positioning himself within a long tradition of artists' books, zines, and other printing efforts with a limited audience. Yet the question of the extent to which De Cock's 'democratic multiple' can fulfill the artistic objectives of this ambitious project, and whether his platform in the format of The Memorial Papers can be defined as anti-institutional or underground, remains. What audience does De Cock seek? Does he succeed in ignoring the existing constraints of the art world by creating a self-reliant mechanism of artistic distribution? And finally, what is at stake by electing to use this particular ephemeral medium?
The Promise: A Tangible Gift
In comparison to online publishing, a newspaper requires a time-consuming and intricate process of production. The deliberate choice to create The Memorial Papers in paginated form, therefore, is evidently an artistic one that within it contains the sum of the project. The foremost reason for the artist to pursue this format is that dissemination through a print medium results in the synchronous delivery, of both the promise, and the actual tangible gift or souvenir of the action. The memorial images that appear within the papers are both an extension of De Cock's presence at the site, in the city or town in which he originally erected the sculptures and took the pictures, and the only lasting evidence that remains. In the Manifesto for Sculpturecommunism, printed in each Memorial Paper, the artist proclaims: "[Sculpturecommunism] is a sculpted form of social distinction, from which an economic shortage becomes the foundation of its multiplication, because the form (the gift) is so beautiful and exceptional, it has to be reproduced in abundance."
The manifesto's promise of a tangible souvenir, which consequently appears as an intrinsic part of the completed artwork, clearly underlines the fact that De Cock's gift could never be exclusively virtual. Or, as he states in a further passage: "Some of the gifted sculptures will be sold in order to finance the multiplication of souvenirs; souvenirs to be known as works of sculpture communist photography." De Cock has thus opted for a familiar medium in which a series of loose, folded pages can be easily disconnected, allowing the beholder to pin each page, each image of the installation, on a wall. The manifesto even provides indirect instructions for the procedure of detaching and disseminating these memorial images: "These beautiful non-valuables- ex-situ works on paper- should be hung at all possible places, at no cost, for all, and without the permission of the recipient."
Whereas Jae Emerling has argued that the staged or accidental 'rendezvous' are the actual gifts of the project, I would suggest instead that the encounters collected and featured in The Memorial Papers form the tangible gift, which eventually enables possible new encounters. The afterlife of these gifts, however, is uncertain, as is the reaction the gift will generate in its future dissemination. Further, as Bruno Bosteels has pointed out, the ideological message of Sculpturecommunism, in which the political economy of art is restructured on the level of exchange, exhibition, and consumption (of the sculptures and photographs), is represented in both the manifesto and photographs. It can also be seen, however, to trickle through the texts of the authors featured in The Memorial Papers, forming a contra weight to the visual content. By adding to his images the writing of prominent scholars, De Cock is providing a gift of erudition.
From the moment an edition of The Memorial Papers leaves the artist's studio, it has the capacity to circulate freely, independent of any specific institutional restraints, with all the autonomy the newspaper medium possesses. The Memorial Papers, as such are free from the institutional parameters imposed upon the artwork by the artist. The very mobility of the papers is its most unique characteristic. Within the premise of the work, the question of who will ultimately carry out the express objective - to post the photographs up in all possible places - becomes secondary. An autonomous life outside the context of art institutions is guaranteed either way. Manifesting as layers within a networked project, the artwork consists of three forms in three stages that are closely linked to one another: the sculptural ensembles themselves, composed of various materials; the full-color photographs taken of the sculptures interacting with their environs within a series of cities and towns; and finally, the ephemeral newspaper distributed in the cities of location and elsewhere. Of these manifold forms it is only the outcome of the last phase that remains uncertain.
Circumscribing the Audience with Sculpturecommunism
Apart from the artistic objective of fulfilling the promise of the manifesto, there is a second possible reason for De Cock's preference of a newspaper over other dissemination methods. The remarkable geographical whereabouts of the project in both metropolitan cities and provincial towns provides insight into De Cock's subversive practice. Like a missionary the artist spreads his elaborate sculptures throughout these places. After the sculptures have disappeared that which remains is the final result: photographs and texts compiled in a newspaper - which are transmitted through such unconventional channels as offbeat galleries or department stores - so that people stumble upon them once again. Time passes in the period between De Cock's first and second presence in the town, since the newspaper has a slower dissemination rate throughout the world than, for example, a website, which can 'go viral' in what feels like an instant. This 'incubation time' consequently influences the critical awareness of both the maker and the beholder, which may result in a change to the artistic message. For people with varying degrees of familiarity with the setting the message may differ. It is easy to find oneself looking at certain images (labeled as they are by their location), in order to glimpse a point of reference or a landmark - as if leafing through a travelogue. Nevertheless, by sending the copies to the precise cities where the project has taken place, and by inserting the title of each city on the cover, it seems that one of the artist's goals is to provide locals with their own copy. By doing so, De Cock is transitioning his practice from the moment in which the sculptures were installed in the open, accessible to everyone, to an intimate moment in which a single person is confronted with the visual remnants. As in a memoriam image or a Gedächtnisbild in medieval ages, he tries to encapsulate his viewer in a private moment with his artwork. Subsequently, his audience could either embrace the ideological agenda of Sculpturecommunism and the discourse offered in the newspaper, or ignore these efforts categorically.
About two-thirds of the images found in each printed edition hails from the place named on the cover. The other third is comprised of photographs from the project as it was realized in other cities and towns. The paradoxical combination of images from enormous metropolises with those of provincial towns, often on the other side of the world, functions as a framework. By including such a wide range of venues in each publication, the artist intentionally shifts the attention of his spectators to the scale of the project, perhaps securing the transmission of the diverse message of Sculpturecommunism. As Stefaan Vervoort argues: "The schism between the word and the image, the discourse and the photographs, not only reveals a new level of deduplication and dissimulation within EFY, but also characterizes the ideological agenda of the project." Pictures from the Belgian town of Otegem - the first city the series focused upon - return several times in every issue, and aside from the manifesto and colophon, serve as the only consistent element to appear in the papers. Repeatedly going back to these 'original' images, each of the papers ties itself to the early phases of its germination at Deweer Gallery in Otegem. The project, therefore, despite its ever-expanding scale, comes full circle to its roots (and perhaps coincidentally the artist's Belgian roots).
The Origins of its Unconventional Dissemination: Zines and Artists' Books
Given their rather unpretentious appearance, The Memorial Papers can productively be read in a legacy of artists' books and zines. With its roots in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, modern artists' books - in which art in the form of a book is published in limited edition - gained renewed attention in the post-war era due to the pioneering work of artists like Dieter Roth and Edward Ruscha. Ruscha's conceptual series of sixteen photo-based book projects in the prosperous 1960s are particularly interesting in comparison to De Cock's practice. During his travels along Route 66 from Los Angeles to his parent's home in Oklahoma City, Ruscha took pictures for his first artist's book, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1962), referring to the photographs' subjects retrospectively as "cultural curiosities". The most interesting element of the book, for a discussion of De Cock's practice, is that Ruscha, with his photographs mediated through a book, created an artwork that could exist outside museum and commercial gallery structures. The book was affordable (a copy cost $3,50), which resulted in people, who were not necessarily active in the art world, being able to afford a copy. Ruscha, thus, had found a solid strategy for bypassing the traditional methods of artistic dissemination. And Ruscha was not the only prominent voice in the United States to see a certain 'utopian' potential in artists' books: writer, art critic, and feminist theorist Lucy Lippard was convinced that artists' books could be effective in the democratization of art. She stated optimistically in 1977: "One day I'd like to see artists' books ensconced in supermarkets, drugstores, and airports and, not incidentally, to see artists able to profit economically from broad communication rather than the lack of it."
Unlike artists' books, zines have a less aesthetic conceptual starting point. They tend to be openly political, socially and ideologically motivated, and often serve as a means for the expression of minority groups. Zines tend to be designed to communicate solely with like-minded people that are often relegated to the margins of society, and therefore embrace the inexpensive multiple to gain wider attention for their thematics. One could argue that the idea of the independent zine-maker is closely linked to that of an activist. As Nico Ordway states: "Zines reflect the unmediated obsessions of the immediate producer, in which publicity in the normal sense and other commercial concerns are completely subordinate. Regardless of the particular concerns reflected in their pages, zines are purely libertarian." A popular definition stipulates that circulation must be 1.000 or fewer though most zines are published in editions of less than a hundred copies. Zines declined in popularity with the rise of the Internet yet in these dire days for print journalism a new generation, born in the 1970s and 1980s, is reexamining its political and subcultural capacities once again.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that artists are reconsidering the strengths of paper media in recent years. Dutch artist Marc Manders, for instance, has been autonomously publishing artistic booklets and newspapers since 1998. The edition Traducing Ruddle (2010), comprised of a series of newspapers that consisted of every single word in English language used only once, was distributed in 2010 throughout Vancouver via newspaper vending boxes in the months of February and March. Manders also integrates these very newspapers into his sculptures. In Room with Broken Sentence (2013), Manders' contribution to the Venice Biennale of that year, the artist covered the windows of the entrance with his newspapers, enclosing the interior of the Dutch Pavilion and disconnecting it from the outside. Apart from the windows being completely covered by his newspapers, several of Manders' installations were also placed inside the pavilion, pictures of which were further printed in yet another newspaper, which the audience could take with them on their way out as a reminder of what they had seen. Such layering - of newspaper, installation, and image - highly complicates the circulation and reproduction process, much like the process of Everything For You (and De Cock's oeuvre more generally).
Another example from Manders' work that strikes a chord of similarity with that of De Cock, particularly in how it incorporates newspapers and sculpture, and makes them both inextricable in the artistic process, was Manders' Untitled (2001), a work that consisted of three mice hung upside down by their tails, clamped under a beam attached to a building close to the Kruisplein in Rotterdam. As a part of the final work Manders disseminated thousands of newspapers house to house at the moment of the sculpture's official inauguration. The newspapers consisted of several poems and pictures of Manders' temporary interventions in the public realm in Rotterdam, photographs of the rodents, and portraits of fifteen-year-old Angus Taggart, insinuating that both the publication and the artwork were made by the British boy. Unlike the clear authorship of The Memorial Papers, Manders' name only appeared in the colophon, which contributed to the mystification of the fictional character 'Mark Manders', an alter ego of the artist Mark Manders who has been working on his Gesamtkunstwerk Self-portrait as a building for the past three decades. Even though Manders' intentions for including newspapers into his process and alongside his sculptures vary greatly from those of De Cock, the fact that self-produced newspapers form an inherent part of the final artwork (which furthermore consists of sculptures, pictures and written texts), is a striking similarity.
It can therefore be argued that it is in the same stroke that De Cock deliberately combines the small-scale publishing traditions of artists' books and zines while suggesting an awareness of the aforementioned newspaper-incorporating projects. Like Ed Ruscha and his book of "cultural curiosities", De Cock opts for a democratic dissemination that would allow for an image of the work and its ideological message to be obtainable for all. Yet unlike the haphazardly thrown together aesthetic of the typical zine, with its wild bricolage of screaming headlines, The Memorial Papers puts an emphasis on the aesthetic elements of the photographs and the general design of the newspapers. The average artists' book or zine, produced at most in the low hundreds, is much outnumbered by the 10.000 copies of each edition of The Memorial Papers. And in contrast to other artists' books and zines, The Memorial Papers are free of charge, which means that the production is a completely self-financed undertaking, from graphic design to commissioned articles, to distribution. Sculpturecommunism is thus only possible by means of the artist's own financial investment. Consequently, De Cock has a keen interest in actually transmitting his artistic propaganda (to remain in the communist jargon) throughout the world. He can proliferate his artistic practice thanks to the mobility of the newspaper, and therewith De Cock is able to profile himself as an artist in the most remote corners of the world.
The Artist's Book as Democratic Multiple
The question as to whether or not The Memorial Papers are an effective tool in achieving aesthetic change belongs to a larger debate about the efficacy of democratic multiples as an instrument of change in the mainstream art world - a question which is not measurable at this moment. What can be said though, is that The Memorial Papers are De Cock's mouthpiece for his ideas on Sculpturecommunism, and the messenger of his autonomous artistic project Everything For You. In accordance with De Cock's (manifesto-elucidating) principles, the papers operate as a vehicle to advocate a change in aesthetics and discourse. With their inexpensive appearance they are able to circulate widely, in abundance, to be available to a broad audience all over the world. The seemingly cheap and simple format, which makes them appear somewhat undistinguished (as compared to 'typical' artists' books), contributes to their manifestation as a 'democratic multiple' - one that could be cherished or easily disposed, thus having either eternal or temporary value. The democratic principle of the project, however, resides more in the fact that the unobtrusive mass-produced commodities are gifts, distributed for free. Their slow dissemination as an analogue medium that requires a few months between conception and transmission, by bypassing museum and gallery structures, might not be a recent development in art history; however, the global scale De Cock is striving for is a markedly new phenomenon that resonates with the times in which we are living. The disposable quality of The Memorial Papers allows them to simultaneously bring the dematerialization of the art object (of the sculptures themselves) to the fore, and lays stress on the artistic process and the complex conceptual terms of the work. Within these complex, and perhaps contradictory, conceptual terms is the artist's ambivalent attitude towards the art institutions he is trying to circumvent, particularly given that the project is not absolutely disconnected from these institutions, going so far as to disseminate newspapers within and through these platforms. Nonetheless, once The Memorial Papers are fully distributed they have the capacity to circulate autonomously, beyond institutional borders, on their own ideological terms.
- Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, An Inventory of Effects, Berkeley, California, Gingko Press, 2002 (reprint 1967), 123.
- Apart from the distribution via newsprint, The Memorial Papers are being made accessible online as PDFs at www.everythingforyou.be.
- The term "democratic multiple" is coined in the now canonical publications of Johanna Drucker who relates artists' books to the post-1945 era of art and literary activity. Johanna Drucker, "The artists' book as democratic multiple" in The Century of Artists' Books, New York, Granary Books, 1995, 69-89.
- Jae Emerling, "Everything for You: An Oeuvre in Construction, Here-and Now", in Everything For You, Havana, 2014, 27.
- As asserted by Bruno Bosteels in his essay "Three Paradoxes of Communist Art", in Everything For You, Hong Kong, 2014, 74.
- As Jo Applin states: "Whether the gift is accepted or rejected, a relationship is nonetheless established between the gift and its viewers, who find themselves lured into a relationship with the gifted item. What they do with that gift - how they choose to interact or participate, or not, is up to them." Jo Applin, "Rendezvous", in Everything For You, Otegem, 2014, 5/7.
- Edition Hong Kong consists of 40 pictures (29 of Hong Kong, 1 of Carrara, 4 of Otegem, 1 of Kiev, 1 of Belfast, 2 of Havana, and 2 of Mexico City); Edition Mexico City consists of 41 pictures (26 of Mexico City, 14 of Otegem, and 1 of Pensemont); Edition Havana consists of 47 pictures (25 of Havana, 8 of Carrara, 6 of Mexico City, 3 of Belfast, 2 of Otegem, 1 of Lviv, and 1 of Kiev); Edition Kiev consists of 24 Pictures (20 of Kiev, 2 of Otegem, 3 of Auschwitz, 5 of Belfast, 2 of Hong Kong, 1 of Mexico City, and 1 of Kwaremont; Edition Carrara consists of 48 pictures (16 of Carrara, 8 of Havana, 11 of Otegem, 4 of Belfast, 1 of Lviv, 2 of Kiev).
- Author's translation: "Het schisma tussen woord en beeld tussen het discours en de foto's, openbaart niet alleen een nieuwe laag van ontdubbeling en dissimulatie binnen EFY, maar typeert ook de ideologische agenda van het project." Stefaan Vervoort "Paradise Now", in Everything For You, Mexico City, 2014, 32.
- Otegem may have additional relevance to the project due to the fact that in August 2013 a group of participants gathered at the Deweer Gallery in Otegem (at the 'Everything For You, Otegem Workshop'), to discuss the still-developing Everything For You series. More about the workshop can be found online at http://everythingforyou.be/otegem.html.
- Drucker, 1995, 69-78.
- TateShots: Ed Ruscha's photography books, September 6, 2013, available online: tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-ed-ruschas-photography-books [accessed 13 January 2015].
- Drucker, 1995, 78. Contradictorily, Drucker argues that artists' books were never completely disconnected from mainstream art institutions. Artists' publications were often developed in coordination with museums or galleries, who saw these inexpensive items as a good way to generate publicity, rather than a threat of subversion of their authority.
- Lucy Lippard, "The Artist's Book Goes Public", in Joan Lyons (Ed.), Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Rochester, New York, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, 48. Originally printed in Art in America, January/February, 1977.
- Ellen Gruber Garvey, "Out of the Main Stream and Into the Streets: Small Press Magazines, the Underground Press, Zines, and Artists' Books", in Scott E. Caspter, Joanne D. Chaison, and Jeffrey D. Groves (Eds), Perspectives on American Book History: Artifacts and Commentary, Amherst and Boston, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, 367.
- Nico Ordway, "History of Zines", in Zines!, San Francisco, 1996, vol. 1, 159.
- Other recent art projects that concentrate on newspapers include, for example: first/last newspaper (2009) by the artist group Dexter Sinister, in which a newspaper that combines old and contemporary content is created; two newspapers (2005) by Carlos Motta in which the U.S. interventions in Latin America since 1946, and leftists guerrillas in Latin America are thematized; Jana Gunstheimer's Maßnahme (2007-2009) illustrating and commentating on a range of topics from different perspectives; Stephanie Syjuco, Towards a New Theory of Color Reading (2008) interrogating the place of "color" and ethnic politics through four abstract newspapers. All of the above mentioned newspaper projects were distributed in gallery/museum spaces and varied in their editions. A more socially-engaged doctrine is represented by the U.S.-based artist group Temporary Services who have focused, since their foundation in 1998, on printed materials that address social issues. For example, in 2009 the project ART WORK, a conversation about art, labor and economics contained a wide range of articles written by artists, activists, writers, critics, and others fueling a discursive discussion of the impact of the international market crash in 2008 on artistic processes. See: artandwork.us/.
- Manders founded Roma Publications collaboratively with graphic designer Roger Williams in 1998. He has since been publishing autonomously.
- Since 2005 Manders has circulated 'fake' newspapers in several works: Eucaryote Tarp (2005); Curculio Bassos (2006); Sonantal Lush (2006); Hypocotyl Raki (2008); Traducing Ruddle (2010); Minyan Swizzle (2013); Acolyte Frena (2013).
- Drucker, 1995, 69-91.