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Interview with Moritz Küng. On books and their value


18 April 2016
This month's topic: Artists' books
Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation... Imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in, 2009 Text and neon tube light, steel, transformer 1206 cm x 13 cm x 5 cm courtesy White Cube, London

Interview with Moritz Küng. On books and their value

Moritz Kung moves a lot while he speaks, as if the ideas were revolving inside him and pushing to come out his elegant shape and polite treatment. Exhibition curator and book editor, he was Head of the international Art Campus deSingel in Antwerp (2003-2011), where he developed projects like “Curating the Library”. His name also appeared in the Catalan press as the acting director of the Canòdrom in Barcelona (2010-2012). He has curated and edited many exhibitions and catalogues, such as the Belgium pavilion at the 25th International Art Biennial of Sao Paulo (2002) and the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008), where in 2010 he was a member of the jury for the Golden Lions. Researching about artists that do (a lot of) artist’s books is what he would like to spend most of his time with.

I would like to avoid the typical question of “what is an artist book”; it’s been asked before and the answer is perhaps too broad. Instead, I want to ask you why, in your opinion, some authors need to make an artist’s book?

I guess the best would be to ask an artist. But since I have recently worked closely with two very different artists on the publication of their catalogue raisonné of artists’ books (in both cases with more than 100 entries), here are two quotes. The American Peter Downsbrough with whom I published “The Book(s)” in 2011 once said: “I don’t like the term “Artists’ books”. I prefer to call them simply ‘books’: one neither talks about writers’ books! (…) A book is a volume like any other and therefore a possible support for my work. It is important to make it financially affordable. There is no reason to make it more expensive than any other book. To me, it is a work in itself, just like the other works.” For Downsbrough book making is though just another form of expression.

The Austrian Heimo Zobernig, with whom I have ve just published “Books & Posters” – sees it differently: “Artists’ books are nice little things. They offer insights into the ways artists think, they turn conventional rules of design on their heads, and they upset our established habits of reading (…) They also pose problems for the artist him- or herself, since they can only be produced, procured, and distributed at enormous effort. At any rate, artists’ books often demonstrate that nice little things can also cost a great deal of trouble.” I guess for Zobernig the book is more a critical mass that allows him to define other limits. And those limits are often blurred.

So it is like a vehicle, or a tool… to be able to do other things?

I think so! Making a book implies other facilities, other techniques. It is an artwork that has just another look in the end. For many artists I know, the book is not only a book, it is also a space, a volume, an object…a sequence of pages and a sequence of spaces.

Since 2014, you are the “Content advisor” for ArtsLibris, and since last year with Mela Davila.

Indeed, but Mela (my dear co-curator) unfortunately could no longer engage herself for this year’s 7th edition due to other engagements.

What criteria would you say make a book worth talking about?

As you know, everything in art is highly subjective and that’s the beauty of it. There is no such thing as one single truth. I guess it is worth talking about each existing book that has been published since Gutenberg. Personally I am not interested in the so-called successful book or the bestseller. I am interested in the book that carries a single or specific idea and that represents a very particular vision. This book isn’t necessarily nice or beautiful and may it even be a failure. Let me quote another person here, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas who stated on the occasion of his “Curating the Library” lecture: “Essential when choosing books is randomness and chance. There is a purpose, but in nine out of ten cases it is limited by time and spontaneous necessities or emergencies. I have never bought a book without leaving the store with another one”. And I say amen to that. The book worth talking about is not the one that is perfect but the one that is urgent.

For the symposium I organise for ArtLibris, that is in its third edition this year, I have asked the guests once more to bring with them their “most favourite” artists’ book. I know this might be an impossible question, but I think it helps in a way, for the public, to see how broad and diverse the definition of the artist’s book can be; or how subjective or individual argumentations are.

So if I were to invite you to a symposium and make you choose a book…

Well I already did that on the occasion of the project Curating the Library that I set up between 2003-2009. This was a series of lectures at deSingel art centre in Antwerp. Each month two guests were invited to present their favourite books on which they could spend 400 €. Artists, architects, choreographers, historians, philosophers, writers etc. commented on their choices, which became as well part of an ever-expanding library, that in the end after 110 individual lectures included over 1500 titles. Now, the very first lecture, I did myself, and I realised how difficult it was to choose or select my favourites. Back in 2003 I presented books related to the concepts of time, space and encyclopaedia (among them titles by the artists Stanley Brouwn, On Kawara, Jürgen Teller, Martin Kippenberger and the philosopher Franz Xaver Baier). If I would be asked today to choose my favourites, the selection would of course be different!

Which book would you include, for example?

Some time ago I discovered a book that became very dear to me: The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by the Finish artist Mikko Kuorinki[[Karslruhe: Mark Pezinger Verlag, 2012, 432 pages, € 12)]]. It is a pocket book with a transcription of Foucault’s original text but with all the words set in alphabetical order. Of course this is an unreadable book – something I have become fascinated with lately – but a great artistic and visual concept.

Do you consider yourself a collector?

The funny thing is… no! I don’t. Being a booklover makes you anyhow a kind of a collector, but I don’t have that obsessiveness or fetishism that a collector normally has. I do not search for mint conditions of signed special editions… For me it is the same as for Peter Downsborough: it is just a book.

Going back to Art Libris; how do you select participants / exhibitors?

Principally, what Mela and I tried to establish last year was to internationalise this fair. The climate in Barcelona is very much in favour of books and the city is a great place to visit. There are a lot of independent publishing houses, and there is the Sant Jordi celebration, which at least for me is a very exotic phenomenon (citizens selling books and flowers!). Our intention was to involve more publishers from abroad and also publishers with a special focus on artist books. Last year the international participation increased by a 20% and this year it remains the same.

Another thing you developed for Art Libris is a special award that provides some funds for a publication, instead of publishing, for example, a fair catalogue. Iñaki Bonillas was the first artist you published, with Hielos/Picos, followed by Martin Vitality. Is there going to be a third one?

Yes, the AL Series that I proposed to the fair director Rocío Santa Cruz continues but I cannot tell you right now which artist has been selected for the third book. This will be announced during or after the fair. The AL Series of artists’ books started somehow quite spontaneously: at the time Iñaki Bonillas had an exhibition at Projecte SD, showing a work directly related to a historical group show catalogue by Seth Siegelaub, the so-called Xerox Book and more specifically to a contribution made by Carl André. Since this work had the potential to be formatted into a modest publication – the resources are quite limited– Bonillas was asked to make a proposal that finally included another series. Producing a book like Hielos – Picos is one thing, distributing it is another. ArtsLibris has been very lucky in being able to coproduce this book with Walther König in Cologne, who assured the international distribution. The second book by Martin Vitaliti entitled 360º, a conceptual comic, is once again distributed by König.

As a part of your task as content advisor -and content producer- the Fair AL at Arts Santa Monica has an exhibition accompanying it. Last year you dedicated it to covers. What is this year’s exhibition about?

In 2014 ArtsLibris launched the international symposium, in 2015 the AL-Series and a small exhibition (This is the cover of the Book). This year, in February, ArtsLibris also launched a satellite at Arco Madrid, including next to 15 exhibitors a small exhibition of artists’ books, Amerikaner / Europäer that will be once again on display during the fair in Barcelona. And along with that– an international symposium, the AL-Series, informal talks with artists and publishers. ArtsLibris will present in collaboration with Arts Santa Mònica for the first time a “big” exhibition on the second floor. The title of this show is rather long and complex and comes from one of the exhibited works: Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation… Imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in. Basically this exhibition deals with the mutation of a work – a sculpture, painting, text, photograph, performance – into a book, or vice-versa. You will see, through a configuration of pairs, how a particular idea or concept is shown through two different media. Fifteen artists are included (among them Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Sandra Gamarra, Dora Garcia, Aglaia Konrad, John McDowall, Francesc Ruiz, Yann Sérandour, Richard Venlet, Cerith Wyn Evans… and Picasso!). In some cases the book is presented as a sculpture in itself (as with Stanley Brouwn, James Lee Byars and Gilbert & George). My basic intention is to make people aware of the status of an artist book as a credible artistic work. Very often, I think people underrate the “value” of an artist’s book, since it is not a unique work.

What about the exhibition title?

The title comes from a work by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans that is presented in the exhibition. It consists of a sentence written in neon that quotes a phrase of Guy Debord. The phrase is to me at least symptomatic of what happens when you read a book and shows the power of the written word to enable the reader to enter into another reality. This particular work has been produced on the occasion of a solo exhibition I curated in 2009. Back then, an artist’s book was also produced, that not only stated that very sentence but recalls as well the books “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard” by Stéphane Mallarmé (from 1904) and Marcel Broodthaers (from 1969), two figures of reference for the artist. Wyn Evans’ work is a very good example of how a particular concept can appear in different ways, as a book and as an object.

You have been working and living in the European context, above all in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, but in 2010 you moved to Barcelona. After the unique cycle you curated at Projecte SD in 2012-2013, The Umbrella Corner, you have also become involved in The Whole Hole Hall. What is this about?

TWHH is a project by a group of people including MAIO architects, the designer Curro Claret, and myself. I think Barcelona has quite an interesting alternative art scene, and that scene is also critical of the official, institutional one. Silvia Dauder, whom I consider to be one of the most inspiring figures in Barcelona, was looking, in 2015, for a joint-venue to organize a lecture on the occasion of Koenraad Dedobbeleer’s exhibition in her gallery. This occurred at the same time as Guillermo López, from MAIO, and myself where discussing the possibility of initiating an alternative space. The office of MAIO had this somehow inaccessible storage space, located at a height of 3 meters next to their main entrance hall. Silvia’s idea was to present the fanzine “UP” that Koenraad edited together with his friend, the architect Kris Kimpe. And one thing led to another. We decided to launch the magazine on April 1st 2015 “up there” in this small storage space and called it The Whole Hole Hall. The somehow Joycean name reflects perfectly the conditions of that space: a hole, located in a hall that forms a whole. That said, initiating a space is one thing, programming it quite another. A year later (!), on April 1, 2016, we organized our second presentation with a lecture, book, and “exhibition” by Oriol Vilanova. And again, this was very well attended and proves there is apparently a need in Barcelona for this kind of informal venue.

What comes next?

I guess an exhibition in Brussels in the fall and a third book on books, but I still have to make up my mind which artist I would like to engage myself with to make such a journey.

Marina spent the first two years of her life without saying anything: they told her parents that she was internalizing. And even though it’s a while now since she learnt to talk, she still needs to internalize. To then shake things up, question, order, disorder and celebrate. She finds politics in many places and has a special interest in all that’s subaltern, in the “commons”, and in the points where all this has an impact on creative expression.

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