This was my first time at the London Art Book Fair – a relatively small but buzzy affair held at the Whitechapel Gallery, populated with the very best in art book publishers and booksellers, and visited by the very best in heartbreakingly trendy art book enthusiasts. My initiation took place when I dragged an arty pal of mine to the opening night (25th September), and the variety of titles on display across the stalls was really overwhelming. The opening night was heaving and it was really starting to feel like I was out of my depth, but I felt a little more anchored when we wandered by the Nobrow stall. Nobrow is my latest obsession, churning out some seriously beautiful titles in inventive formats, and as I scampered over to the table I thrust the mesmerising Worse Things Happen at Sea into my friend’s hands. I have stocked some of their beautiful books in the Royal Museums Greenwich shops, and vow to continue to keep a close eye on them, particularly the children’s imprint Flying Eye – still only holding a small list, but promising great things. There were other larger publishers in attendance like Thames & Hudson and Black Dog, but the really interesting lists came from the smaller presses like bookRoom, and bookshops dealing in specialist art titles and second hand or rare books such as Koenig Books and Luminous Books.
On the Saturday (27th) I went back to the gallery take in a couple of talks. The overall thrust of the fair seemed to concern books as a product, instigator and mediator in the digital revolution (or, as it became clearer throughout the fair, the post-digital revolution). The first of the two talks I went to was CODE X: Paper Pixel and Beyond, a discussion between editor in chief of Neural magazine, Alessandro Ludovico, and Delphine Bedel, Colin Sackett (both contributors to the forthcoming book, Code X) and Emmanuelle Waeckerle of bookRoom. The matter of the hour was the nature and value of the book, in both its physical and digital forms, prompted by the collection of essays in Code X.
There’s something admirable about a book fair that encourages a discussion about what a book really is, what its purpose is and whether there is a better way to consume information in the digital age. Alessandro Ludovico and Delphine Bedel made a series of fascinating points, Bedel often referring to Kant’s writings on ‘the book’. The notion that the book is an object born out of a desire for ownership, but that the story itself is ephemeral and cannot really belong to anyone, catalysed an enlightening tangential discussion – the kind of idea that could feel crushingly relevant to publishers now, as it might well indicate the demise of the physical book.
Convincing arguments notwithstanding, I think the panel landed on the side of the physical book as a mark of grounding stability both philosophically, and in terms of the actual production and digestion of literature, in comparison to the fragility of digital information – its intangibility and reliance upon a fully functioning electrical grid. Our society is currently still firmly rooted in the idea of the physical book, which can be seen in online texts that mimic the turning of a page, through to the bloggers who find success online eventually seeing their creative product bound in a paper book, the latter substantiating their work and bringing a greater degree of kudos. I’m well aware that this is unlikely to always be the case, but as someone who loves to hold a solid book I feel at least momentarily reassured.
I rounded off my adventure amongst the excessively hip with a talk given by Douglas Coupland, well known author of such titles as Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, and also prolific installation artist. His latest offering is a monograph titled Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything, published in conjunction with a major exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery this year. Coupland briefly discussed the idea of literature as art (another prominent theme at the fair) and explained to the audience that his writing is inextricably linked to his visual art, as he is expressing the same ideas but simply using different methods – as he said, ‘Books take place in time, visual art takes place in space, film takes place in both’. Despite this he seemed to feel that the literary world was restrictive, that there are limitations in verbal thinking that don’t exist in visual thinking, and he had no qualms about making the literary world he so often occupies sound pretty drab and frigid – an insight for those on the outside looking in…
Although there was a quiet theme of ‘what has the internet done to us’ running through his talk, Coupland seemed happy to entertain us with anecdotes about his installations, which we were all more than happy to listen to. In person Coupland has a rambling and disarmingly candid tone, he laughs easily and every now and again reveals the ingrained sentimentality that I sadly found hard to get along with when reading Girlfriend in a Coma. His latest work of non-fiction, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is a meditation on the cultural implications of the internet, and he finished his discussion by answering a final question from the audience on his feelings about the digital age. Coupland’s final point really nailed it for me, stating that what will define our current era will be how technology has defined us: whether our progress has increased the power of the individual/individuality, or if it has instead empowered the collective. Nice one, Doug.
I loved the Art Book Fair, and I recommend keeping an eye out for next year’s if you haven’t been before. The Whitechapel Gallery is such a perfect venue and you’re sure to find an illuminating angle on two mediums that sit forever side by side, art and literature.