I haven’t featured any Zine related stuff on the bookleteer blog for a while now, so whilst we’re busy producing the eBooks for City As Material 2, I thought I’d share a blog I’ve just discovered.
Zineage Kicks is a behind the scenes look at a number of the early Zines of guest contributors, chronicling their conception and what it took to get them made via interviews and testimonies. It’s a side of small scale publishing that rarely gets heard, unlike the wealth of talk that surrounds the inspirations and working practices of mainstream writers, artists and designers, and might surprise people who perceive Zines to be generally low-consideration, offhand artefacts. The blog seems to have been started a few months ago, but already I can see it becoming a regularly visited bookmark, especially due to the parallels with our latest series of eBooks, Material Conditions.
Oh, and I left the most obvious comment to last… great name, eh?
Although reactions to the Professor during the first half hour of the day were restrained, with students and scholars rushing around us on the pavements or zipping by on bikes with only cursory glances, the route to the high street soon swelled with tourists clutching raised cameras and smart phones, the source of their amusement filtered through tiny digital screens. The more permanent residents of the city seemed to think a theatrical troupe had come to town, or that some odd collegial stunt was at hand. A group of contractors cleaning stonework engaged in light banter, despite clearly being busy, their voices strained over the hum of mechanical equipment.
We entered the Oxford botanical gardens to the patter of drizzling rain, and were greeted by several inquisitive ducks who had wandered from the water, obviously charmed by one of their avian brethren. Minutes later, the Professor was spotted by a gang of children on a school trip and was soon answering frantic questions, handing out cards to tiny delighted interviewees. After chatting to gardeners toiling on muddy patches and being targeted by a potential bird spotter with a huge camera lens, he departed, ambling down quiet side-streets and eventually into the Museum of Natural History.
There were some great scenes here as the Professor was accosted by visitors, prodding at his suit whilst he shared his knowledge of the Dodo and other feathered creatures. We witnessed a high school student gawping at all the taxidermy specimens, loudly asking if they were real, whilst others pressed their noses to the glass cases and shrieked at the preserved contents. It’s likely many people there believed he was associated with the Museum, who despite our initial concerns, were happy to let him wander around.
Giles and I looked around the Museum of the History of Science, containing beautiful early microscopes made from gleaming brass, and intricate astrolabes with mysterious shifting layers. I found a case dedicated to the origins of the Ashmolean Museum with a sketch of its founding collection, crammed from floor to ceiling – very different from the carefully curated space of today. One statement in particular interested me: “Not everyone liked the early Asmolean Museum. Some visitors were shocked that access was not restricted to scholars and gentleman”. Prior to our outing we had talked about the migration of knowledge, namely what routes and structures it travels through in a city of prestigious institutions, and who in society has access to it, especially in earlier times. The Ashmolean’s open door policy from the outset felt like an open challenge to a belief that certain information was the preserve of the academic elite and the upper classes.
Professor Starling’s next destination was the river, where we saw the college rowing teams in the midst of practice, whole boat-fulls staring in unison towards the bank and momentarily easing their grip on the oars. A river steward told him that she thought Starlings were likely to gather in nearby areas, but he had arranged to meet everyone else back in the market where we had started the day. Dodging a hectic stream of bicycles along the narrow path, we walked back into town and browsed the stalls.
Here, the Professor met a character with facial tattoos and a piratical grin whose name was allegedly ‘Raven Hawk’, and discussed Starling sightings with a knowledgeable trader. It’s great that the market, our final area for the day, yielded quite a few people who were eager to engage. On top of this, Josie and Leila said they had been shown around the amazing Pitt Rivers Museum earlier by an associate, telling of numerous priceless artifacts half-hidden in the niches.
Whiling away the time until shops started to shut and evening crept in, we took refuge in the Turf Tavern for food, beer, and to share the highlights of our Thetford–London–Oxford expedition.
Outside the British Museum was first, where we received hails of giggles from startled tourists and smirks from Londoners passing by. It was surprising that Professor Starling got so many reactions in London, where there’s plenty of street performers and PR stunts, compared to low-key Thetford. People that did engage with us seemed to be more concerned with the spectacle of the costume than talking about the awareness of Starlings and other birds. This was especially the case when we got to Trafalgar square, after checking out the second-hand book and print shops on Cecil Court, the Professor briefly mourning some of his stuffed kin in the window of an antiques shop.
A descent of the steps leading down to the Mall was next. They were curiously empty, lending a very regal air to the Professor as he grandly strode on, cane in hand, towards St Jame’s Park. Circling the lake amongst the many species of waterfowl, eagerly scrabbling at morsels of tossed bread through the fence, we overheard questionable tales of Starling murmurations in fantastical formations, and laments for the decreasing number of small birds in the parks and other public spaces.
Shedding his feathers and back in human form, Andrew and the rest of the team accompanied us to Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road for lunch. It’s currently being threatened with closure by the landlords, after more than 50 years of service behind it – here’s hoping it doesn’t migrate elsewhere.
Tomorrow we’ll be in Oxford, the final spot of the series.
Last Thursday we travelled to Thetford, Norfolk, the first destination ofCity As Material 2, centered on the theme of ‘Migrations’. Joining us were Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer from Dodolab, Josie Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and Leila Armstrong. Oh, and the “itinerant avian scholar” (in his own squawks), Professor William Starling – Andrew’s alter ego, who is investigating the decline of Starlings and other species in the UK.
After a heinous early start and a couple of train changes, Giles and I were picked up by Andrew in Bury St Edmunds, a short drive from Thetford. He filled us in on what they’d been up to so far, and we started to discuss a loose route for the day. We arrived and worked our way into the town, along its contours of winding roads and down the High Street, where people drifted past in the slow, content manner of those living in a quiet market town on a warm Winter’s morning, then met the others in a Portuguese cafe. The 2001 UK census suggested that almost 30 % percent of the population in Thetford were Portuguese, drawn by work in the farms, fields and factories.
Andrew showed us an aging tome entitled ‘In Breckland Wilds’, which Professor Starling had been studying to get a sense of the area in past times. I immediately turned to the alluring chapter called ‘Traditions, Customs and Ghost Tales’, and learnt about the spectre of the “flaming-eyed rabbit” and other dubious local lore. Smirking aside, there was a genuine interest in Thetford’s folklore – tales that can allude to the real fears and anxieties of people in the area at the time. On that note we departed and headed for the ruins of Thetford Priory, which in the 13th century had drawn pilgrims to Thetford, after the discovery of a number of saints’ relics in a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Along the way, Andrew transformed into Professor Starling, donning grand attire and a giant bird’s head (crowned by a top hat) and spotted one of his namesake in a tree. Unfortunately it would be the only one we spotted that day. He chatted with passing locals who weren’t fazed in the slightest, cheerfully greeting our unusual ensemble.
I was expecting the ruins to be scattered rubble, but the crumbled perimeter walls were still visible, laid out in thick lines of fist-sized flint, two feet tall. It almost looked as if it was in the process of being built; the stonemasons away on an eternal break. I made some rubbings with tracing paper and a graphite block, gleaning traces of the past, and noticed covered grill pits, sadly filled with rubbish – traces of the now. Saying that, despite being a marvel for us, these ruins must seem very commonplace for the local youth.
We split up after returning to the city centre. Professor Starling and Lisa went to talk to more people on the high street, Josie and Leila set off for Ancient House Museum, and Giles and I took a scenic detour around the town edges, observing lovely flint cottages and houses overtaken by vivid green vines, then slowly passing along the river. We noticed statues of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, which was filmed extensively around the area, and by contrast, one of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who settled in the nearby Elveden Hall, on the opposite bank. There’s also an odd statue of Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, on King Street, poised with quill as if playing darts and gripping an upside down copy of his book ‘The Rights of Man’. A diverse trio indeed.
Reuniting with Josie and Leila briefly at the Museum, we saw a Narwhal tusk, taxidermy birds, and replicas of the Thetford Hoard, unearthed in 1979, and now housed in the British Museum. The circumstances surrounding the discovery are shady and it is thought the treasure is incomplete. We started to think about what might be missing, and what the treasures of Thetford today might be.
Over lunch, everyone together again, Andrew recounted some of the opinions he had gathered as Professor Starling. His favourite, in response to his question about why the numbers of Starlings had fallen in Thetford was “Cats!”. Following chuckles, we left for Castle Hill, one of the tallest Norman mottes in England, although nothing remains of the castle which once sat atop it. There seems to be many rumours about buried treasure and hidden tunnels, though our only surprise was how tricky it was to safely walk back down.
Lastly, we drove out to the remains of the Thetford Warren Lodge, surrounded by wonderfully spongy ground that felt like it was absorbing you into the land, and paths sprinkled with knapped flint. Peering through the bars which protected it gave a sense of the original fortitude and seclusion of the structure, standing firm amongst thickets of trees.
Tranquil as it was, we had another agenda: to drive back to town, and retire to the Bell Inn. Pints up!
Following in the fluttering wings of Professor Starling, who will be investigating the passages of Starlings across Europe and North America throughout the ages, we’ll be looking at the migrations of people to these shores, how these have influenced spaces and communities, as well as more intangible forces – the migration of knowledge, skills and beliefs.
Next up: London and Oxford. Look out for tales from the days, and the eBooks created, very soon.
Before the New Year, we published the first series of Material Conditions, a set of eight eBooks asking professional creative practitioners to reflect on what the material conditions for their own practice are, especially now in relation to the climate of change and uncertainty brought about by the recession and public sector cuts.
Since then, I’ve come across a couple of books that draw parallels – miniature libraries of creative insights and artistic working practices – which should be of interest.
On Monday, the Guardian published an article in which the novelist Jonathan Franzen condemned ebooks, warning that they have a negative effect on literature, and may actually be damaging to society. Whilst I’m inclined to agree with his statements about the nature of physical books, that they are permanent and reassuring tangible objects – monuments to writers’ visions, inscribed with great works – it seems he is speaking with a certain style of book in mind. Grand traditional novels, or epic modern sagas (like his own) that are often weighted by matter equal to their significance. Very real chunks of wood and ink, displaying their age and history, bearing messages to loved ones inside covers and messy notes in the margins.
I own both the printed book of his most recent novel ‘Freedom’, which I’m currently absorbed in, and the ebook, which I had first but didn’t start, despite my anticipation to start reading. The steady stream of text on the flat, grey Kindle screen failed to engage. I remembered the amazing experience of reading his previous book, and how affectionately dog-eared it is now. It was several months before I came across a copy and lunged for it.
This and other seminal novels deserve a commitment, often countered by lengthy, trying reads (thankfully not in Franzen’s case), and having to lug heavy books around. The argument that e-readers are able to contain thousands of books is valid, but carefree limitless access to anything isn’t always entirely positive. I find making the effort to single out one book can heighten the enjoyment.
But books that are liable to be read once (murder mysteries, review copies etc), reference texts, or collections of short stories are perfect for e-readers. They also allow access to out of print texts and numerous edited versions, and of course don’t require masses of trees to be felled. People with sight problems or disabilities can read with greater ease.
Franzen chooses to block access to the internet and uses noise-cancelling headphones whilst he is writing. Other writers choose to work accompanied by music, or in busy places. Readers can choose to remain devout to printed books, or they can leap into the world of the digital. They can straddle both, using hybrid platforms.
I’ve been thinking a fair bit about bookleteer’s role in creating poetry pamphlets and short story collections, and the lack of much of either from budding bookleteers.
It’s boggling – they suit the format perfectly as portable, pocket sized A6 books, or the grander A5 size, and can be made very quickly without any design knowledge, in any word processing application. Use them as cheap and plentiful portfolios of work, or travel booklets for personal reading – anyone with a computer and printer has access to their own print on demand service. If you need to make changes, or they get damaged, make some more.
Or, use the online bookreader to share digital versions, and embed into websites. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve edited eBooks embedded in my portfolio site, but as the link remains the same, there’s no need to re-upload.
Despite the tone of this post, this is not a sale pitch. bookleteer is free, you skeptics. I just want see fellow writers embracing it and adding to our library of eBooks, Diffusion. Get busy!
This recent article from the Guardian Books blog, ponders whether or not it’s acceptable to make notes in the margins of books. Reading it, I was reminded of how annotating draft bookleteer eBooks during the editing and proofing stages of Material Conditions was an invaluable part of the process.
We were able to quickly transform the draft books into the final printed format to get a feel of what they would look like on the page, and then to cross out, change and empathise parts, scribbling notes without feeling they were too precious to make marks on. Having a hard copy of previous changes, with progressive layers all on the same page, lets you revert back if you change your mind – something I’ve also come to appreciate in my own notebooks, when early choices are all too often lost with a newly edited digital file. Working with multiple versions and backing up regularly are safeguards easily neglected, as we all know.
As an alternative, use the online bookreader to preview eBooks without messy edges or any dodgy printer issues, and to show collaborators your work instantly.
Yesterday, Proboscis launched the first series of Material Conditions, a set of eight eBooks created with bookleteer, asking professional creative practitioners to reflect on what the material conditions for their own practice are, especially now in relation to the climate of change and uncertainty brought about by the recession and public sector cuts – part of Proboscis’ wider programme of activities, Public Goods.
For this series, we commissioned 8 artists and artist groups (Active Ingredient; Karla Brunet; Sarah Butler; Desperate Optimists; London Fieldworks; Ruth Maclennan; Jules Rochielle & Janet Owen Driggs and Jane Prophet) to produce a book each. Half of the contributors took the opportunity to design their own layouts and use bookleteer to create their books themselves, whilst the other half (often busy working on various projects and unable to make the books from scratch) took advantage of our in-house design and production team (for the most, myself, with assistance from Giles Lane) to create their books. My practice, as a writer, is usually contributing text but for this venture I took on a role as co-commissioning editor and designer – coordinating responses, reviewing early drafts and producing front covers, guided by my co-editor, Giles. In this way, the process behind this project also echoed one of its main themes – how do we continue to be creative and productive everyday in the face of limited resources?
Collaboration and co-creation are at the heart of our practice and ethos, for the riches they bring as much as resources dictate their necessity. This stance has led to a very different, and I believe perhaps more exciting, output for this series, than if all the books had simply been commissioned by us and created entirely by the artists involved remotely. I relished the chance to guide and inform, alongside Giles, the direction of several of the books, to be the first set of eyes to witness a first draft outside of its author, to design covers – sealing a visual stamp upon a beautifully written piece.
Being able to instantly generate and preview drafts in the relatively new bookreader format has also been a huge boon during the design process, and it’s accessibility will ensure Material Conditions can be read, shared and used as a resource globally, by anyone, in addition to the printed set and the downloadable PDFs. In fact, all the printed books carry a QR code link to the digital version on the back cover, so they can be instantly shared amongst smart-phones and tablet devices.
Thank you to everyone involved – we’ve got a great, diverse collection on our hands.
All the books are now available on our archive of publications, Diffusion. Delve in, and enjoy.
The next series of Material Conditions is scheduled for June 2012, for which we’re planning another experimental approach, shifting away from individual commissions to a collaborative process generated through an intensive ‘booksprint’. Stay tuned for more details.