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City As Material 2: Thetford

Last Thursday we travelled to Thetford, Norfolk, the first destination of City 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!

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ARCHIZINES World Tour

City as Material recently became part of ARCHIZINES, an archive of independent architecture zines, journals and magazines from around the world, curated by Elias Redstone. I was lucky enough to be able to talk about City as Material and self-publishing at Archizines Live, part of November’s Friday Late at the V&A. Now the collection is touring the world, starting with an exhibition at Spazio FMG in Milan which runs until the 23rd of Feburary. Next up: Paris, Berlin and New York, with details to be announced soon. The photographs of the launch night in Milan look great – best of luck with the other stops!

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Material Conditions – Launching 15/12/11

On December 15th we are launching a new series of eBook commissions called Material Conditions. This series asks 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.

The contributors are:

The first set of 8 contributions will be published as eBooks made with bookleteer and available as downloadable PDFs for handmade books, online via bookreader versions and in a limited edition (50) of professionally printed and bound copies which will be available for sale (at £16 per set plus P&P). You can pre-order a set via paypal:


Material Conditions 1 Set (inc P&P)




We’ll be releasing one eBook every day on Diffusion until the print launch on December 15th in our Clerkenwell studio, where copies of the full limited edition printed set of 8 books will be available.

Yesterday saw Sarah Butler’s Knowing Where You Are; today it’s making / do by Jane Prophet.

(Material Conditions is part of Proboscis’ Public Goods programme – seeking to create a library of responses to these urgent questions that can inspire others in the process of developing their own everyday practices of creativity; that can guide those seeking meaning for their choices; that can set out positions for action around which people can rally.)

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City As Material / Archizines Live @ Friday Late, V&A – 25/11/11

Thanks to Archizines curator Elias Redstone, tomorrow night, as part of Friday Late at the Victorian & Albert Museum, and to coincide with the transfer of the collection to the National Art Library hosted there, I’ll be talking about City As Material as part of a conversation about the role independent publishing can play in celebrating overlooked and underappreciated spaces in our cities.

Coincidentally, this morning we’ve been developing our proposal for a digital “sketching tool” for collaborative book production, using content gathered from events such as City As Material. This will allow participants to aggregate and curate content from different sources, annotate and tag via themes, then automatically produce draft eBooks for shared discourse and the exchange of ideas, fostering interesting discoveries which will inform later publications.

Archizines Live starts at 8pm in the tunnel entrance, but is just one of many features of the night, this month focusing on “contemporary graphics, typography and illustration through the lens of independent publishing”. Come along!

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Publish & Print On Demand – October’s eBooks

October saw a combo of eBooks created with bookleteer and printed using our Short Run Printing Service – ‘Picnic: Order, Ambiguity and Community’ and ‘Sites and Strategies’.

‘Picnic: Order, Ambiguity and Community’ by Kevin Harris, an author and community development commentator, and Gemma Orton, an artist, is an illustrated essay focusing on the relationship between food and social interaction, particularly on that “wobbly combination of conviviality and disorder” – the picnic. Using the A5 landscape to great effect, Kevin has placed footnotes and references alongside the text, interspersed with Gemma’s lovely images.

Fifty limited edition copies, complete with special signed wrappers, will be sold in aid of the homeless charity Crisis at the publication launch on the 14th November, at the Wellcome Trust Gallery. Register for tickets here.

‘Sites and Strategies’ by Gair Dunlop, a visual artist, is a portfolio of select artworks created between 2003 and 2011. A document of his numerous sculpture, media and installation pieces, as well as his approach, it can distributed fluidly both in print, through galleries and art festivals, and online, through the digital bookreader version (below), acting as perfect companion text to Gair’s work.

You can also download, print and make it for yourself on Diffusion here.

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Archi Zines

Archi Zines, due to open from the 5th of November at the Architectural Association, is an exhibition of international alternative and independent architectural publishing, curated by Elias Redstone. There’s an online catalog, where every publication featured is available to view online, along with specifications. The entire collection is also going to be permanently housed in the National Library at the V&A.

Aside from the obvious wealth of interesting content, particularly relevant to City As Material, I think this could act as a valuable resource of inspiration and how-to knowledge for those wanting to create their own publications, thanks to the level of detail attributed to each exhibit – I can only hope more archives like this are compiled in the future.

Image by Sue Barr

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London Art Book Fair Picks

I paid a visit to the London Art Book Fair last Saturday at the Whitechapel Gallery, and have finally got around to writing a brief piece about it now – we’ve been swamped in the studio.

Along with large publishing houses, the fair played host to a number of small publishers and unique handcrafted artists’ books. A few of my picks…

Ruth Martin‘s charming fold-out creations.

Vicoria Browne’s (founder of Kaleid Editions) amazing sculptural pop-up book, ‘Dark Matter’.

This interesting cork cover from a/b Books (artist unknown).

Apologies for the meagre amount of photos – after taking a handful, I discovered photography was apparently FORBIDDEN. Bah.

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Publish and be Damned Soapbox

Last week, I featured the Portable Reading Room at the London Art Book Fair 2011. Also making an appearance with a pop-up stall is Publish and be Damned, who run annual self-publishing fairs in London. The Publish and be Damned Soapbox will have new publications by their members, as well as host the launch of the first PABD magazine for alternative publishing and distribution, ‘Three Letter Words’.

11am – 6pm, on Saturday 24th September, in the Whitechapel Gallery foyer.

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‘Sense and the City’ at the London Transport Museum

An enjoyable exhibition called Sense and the City is now on at the London Transport Museum, which explores new ways how our understanding, experience and perception of the city is continually re-shaped by the rapid changes occurring in technology and IT.

The same categories of space and time are radically put into question as the access and fusibility of information is massively altered and boosted by open data, smartphones, and a blizzard of new apps. It is noteworthy to realise how the unconstrained use of these devices make us think of the city, of its vastness and complexity, in a totally different way. It seems we can cover the city, physically and imaginatively, much easier and faster than before. However, the abundance and redundancy of data produced and incessantly consumed, add intricacy and diverse levels of meaning to our vision of the city.

A distinguishing feature underpinning any present project or prototype for future research – as the ones presented by the Royal College of Art – is the restless attention on every consumer’s feeling and perception of the environment which has to be shared and fall in the public domain. The only risk is to accumulate data over data just for the sake of it, and the question is whether out of this over-exposure to information and stimulus we’ll ever find a substantial thread.

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The Portable Reading Room

Featured in the upcoming London Art Book Fair 2011, held at the Whitechapel Gallery, is The Portable Reading Room. Brainchild of Wild Pansy Press, this flat-pack pop-up booth acts as a gallery, bookshop, social space and studio, and will be debuted from the 23rd  to the 25th of September. It’s an intriguing idea – a really dynamic way to interact with people, showcase work and raise the profile of the press.

The Portable Reading Room, pre-assembly

We’ve had similar concepts for future City As Material events – how about constructing a portable library and making station, that can travel to places lacking access to experimental publications or a self-publishing initiative, and could benefit from a little D.I.Y impetus? The Proboscis circus comes to town!