Interview published in Art Monthy No.184, March 1995.
Cathy Courtney: Where did you come across artists’ books?
Colin Sackett: The first job I had was working for a library supplier that dealt with the Library of Congress in Washington. I was able to see virtually everything that was being published in this country at the time. It was around 1975 and there was a lot of underground publishing, much of it left-wing material. It was also where I first saw Ian Hamilton Finlay’s books. I didn’t have a visual arts background but I’d been interested in Schwitters since I was at school and I’d read a lot about Dada. I didn’t think Finlay had anything to do with that although I later found that concrete poetry perhaps had a legacy from Dada. There were catalogues of Finlay’s which showed his early 60s work and I began to understand the work I was seeing in the 70s and saw the relation to Schwitters and the sound poetry. In general, I became enamoured with the idea of publishing as a kind of freedom.
CC: Were you making your early books in isolation?
CS: I worked with John Bevis, who was a poet and interested in publishing for similar reasons to myself. I did a book about four inches square using tiny pieces of coloured card which were tipped into the book, Totems and Signals, in an edition of 100; I suppose it was Schwitters-esque. Then I did a book about bus spotting. It was a tall book with very few pages; the title page was one page, the text was one page and the colophon was one page. It was very much about the idea of a format and a structure and a design, a very formal piece. The text was a little grid of bus numbers. It had a photograph of a bus pasted on the cover and a similar image as a frontispiece. It was a suburban bus route that I used regularly. It wasn’t ironic in any way, I don’t particularly like irony.
CC: How did you distribute the books?
CS: It was around this time that John and I got to know Simon Cutts who had just started Coracle in Camberwell. He sold quite a few copies of the collage book for me, which was very encouraging.
CC: How crucial was Coracle to you?
CS: Very. It was unlike any gallery I’d been in. It wasn’t cold and museum-like nor was it cosy in a posh, carpeted way—it had lino on the floor. It was more like a shop but also less like a shop than a West End gallery. It was interesting because it was quite precious in the sense that a lot of space was given to things, which were seemingly quite slight—a book or a card. I don’t mean precious in a bad way, like books on plinths or stands, I mean in terms of care.
CC: Artists’ books have great power to dictate how they should be read?
CS: They specify, like a printed score. That’s what I’m interested in, that specification of all sorts of behaviour. It’s about the simultaneity of lots of pages. Particularly with some of the books I’ve made recently, you have to be aware of what’s going on amongst all the pages. You have to read them and then behave with them.
CC: How does the repetition of the single image of Black Bob (Coracle 1989, £55) dictate its reading pace?
CS: It doesn’t dictate a pace. That’s a curious thing about it and why I’m pleased with it. It has all sorts of paces. It’s absolutely static. I don’t know if the front’s moving towards the back or vice versa. It’s like an illustrated endpaper that keeps going back and forth.
CC: You ran a magazine at one point?
CS: I did that with John Bevis and another writer, Mark Jarman, in about 1981. It was called Chocolate News and the second issue was printed at Coracle. It was a literary/visual magazine. It was A5, printed letterpress with not too much on a page, about 40 pages in each of the two issues.
CC: You eventually worked at Coracle full-time?
CS: Simon, John and I began to do commercial printing jobs, production and design work. The first book we did together was Song of the Skylark by Hamish Fulton for Waddingtons. I had a break from making my own books at this stage but in 1984 published as and of and with and within. They were very white and had small black letterpress type, two words on a page which described objects or conditions. They were important for me because it was the first time I’d used words on their own and they were about a way of reading which wasn’t narrative or poetry. The books were about reflexiveness between the pages. It was a way of looking at the plan of the book and understanding that there was a structure beyond sequence. Both of those became part of Copy (Coracle 1992, £4.50), a later anthology that has an index annotating the contents. I am interested in indexes and a lot of my works begin by using an index as a source. I like the way that an index can objectify the content of a book.
CC: The cover of Copy looks like an instruction manual.
CS: That’s a found photo of an old Hoover. It relates to the piece in the middle of the book called Stop book, about an organ piece by Gyorgy Ligeti played by Gerd Zacher. Zacher replaced the blower of the organ with a vacuum cleaner in order to get very quiet sound. It was the converse of blowing, a sucking sound. My text is about that reversal, about emptiness, about the reflectiveness of turning things inside out.
CC: What are the ideas behind Wirelesslessness (Coracle, 1992. £9.50)
CS: It is linked to a body of work I was doing in the early 1990s, and is about theoretical ways of reading sequences of pages. The various sections make examples of how blocks of pages can work amongst each other. There’s an essay which annotates the whole project. All the parts of the book were separate works but they became one paperback. The main section is called Continuum after a piece by Ligeti, a composition for harpsichord which has to be played in under four minutes. The harpsichord is very percussive, the notes don’t run together—Ligeti called them ‘slices of salami’ which related very much to the way I was thinking about pages. Ligeti’s piece is so fast that the sound becomes congestive so you’re almost unaware of each striking of the key but you’re very alert to its direction, to the fact that it’s moving ahead. I used the words from his score to Continuum, one word to a page, and made two versions, one reading from the front to the back and one reading from the back to the front. The forwards and backwards versions happen at the same time and there’s a point of symmetry in the centre of the book. I also published a typewritten version of Continuum using tracing paper, which comes with a cassette recording of the harpsichord piece played backwards and forwards simultaneously (1994, £110.00). As you hear the beginning of the piece, you’re also hearing the ending.
CC: Aggregate (1994, £100) is linked to a section from Wirelesslessness?
CS: The work is derived from a map. It appears as the frontispiece in Wirelesslessness, but the book Aggregate is the complete version, including all of the 100 parts. The aggregation is made up from all the terms and abbreviations taken from the OS 2 1/2in map of a suburban area measuring ten by ten kilometres. From each of the 100 grid squares I took all the language, but none of the topography or roads, and superimposed the 100 territories. All the locations remain in their fixed positions within each square, but their particular relationships are lost. In the suburbs one understands the geography of the local area by the inter-relationships between human landmarks like schools and parks rather than topographical features.
CC: Recent books have been hand or typewritten.
CS: Most of the books now are made in batches, rather than as finite editions. This began by making short-runs of photocopied pamphlets and the parallel series which are handwritten texts (eight pamphlets, 1993, £4.50 each). Recent books have been directly typewritten and casebound; I type and bind them in small batches and the titles carry on. This strategy means I’m not financially prohibited from making books with many pages, and I can make more titles. It’s about being light on your feet. I’m interested in developing these kinds of pragmatic strategies. My books are now largely self published but I don’t want an imprint and thereby to invent an institution. I want to use only some of the conventions of publishing. For instance, the typed books don’t have title pages and my name doesn’t appear, they have a sort of anonymity. Two recent typewritten books are kswhatab (1994, £85) and eachonebutonewithoutit (1994, £85). The first is a version of a poem by Schwitters and the second is a version of a paragraph by Gertrude Stein. The Schwitters is about stammering, very much a spoken piece involving repetition. There’s one word to a page and the poem is five words repeated. Underneath Schwitters’ poem is my parallel version which is the index of the poem, a tidy version in a way. The Stein text is about direction. It was a paragraph of 94 words and I set the text above the Beaufort Scale of Wind Force which is a series of classifications, for example, “at zero miles per hour smoke rises vertically”, or “at four miles per hour, leaves start to rustle”, so there is a velocity which changes through the pages until you reach 76 miles an hour which is devastation—galeforce. The Stein text is linear but its meaning is about a backwards and forwards motion whilst the Beaufort Scale is about getting faster but is not necessarily about any direction of wind. The Schwitters and Stein books have equal numbers of pages, they’re physically the same but each is autonomous.
CC: You’ve recently printed a catalogue, bibliopoly?
CS: The catalogue is also a critical piece, publishing my commentaries on the books. In the last four or five years they’ve become more about an identifiable concern and they reflect on and off each other. That concern is about reading and meaning.
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