Last October, Ghent-based publishing house Art Paper Editions took up an artist residency at the M HKA in Antwerp. Under the title Performing The Book, APE co-founder Jurgen Maelfeyt curated a series of events and exhibitions. We spoke to him about the book as a performance, designers becoming publishers and why photobook awards should always have a designer in their jury.
During the residency at M HKA the emphasis was on the book as performance. How do you translate artists’ and photobooks into a performance?
Jurgen Maelfeyt: “The starting point for this series of performances stems from years of collaboration with Hana Miletic. She almost always starts from street photography, but her work is often no longer recognizable as such. Over the years, text has also become increasingly important for her, resulting in some text publications such as Tenir Paroles, and Little Blues Booklet. These publications also exist in the form of performance and it seemed like a challenge to talk to some other artists about the performative potential of their work. The performance of Pieterjan Ginckel’s ‘Solar Shot’ (in which 30 people could shoot on framed prints of solar panels with an air gun), for instance, is also the start of a publication. The images of the performance will be used in a book and the destroyed prints will make up a composition that will be exhibited in Extra City from March 2018.”
Do you see the book as another sort of exhibition space?
Maelfeyt: “For me, publishing is a completely different form than exhibiting. In an exhibition, the viewer goes to a location and sees the work, big or small, on a wall. With a book it is different, there is the intimate relationship between the work and the viewer. In the observation of a book the interpretation or the registration of images, whether or not in relation to the accompanying text, is completely different from the observation of images placed in an exhibition, where the representation of images can be up to ten times larger. That says a lot about experience.”
Graphic design is at the basis of everything you do with APE.
Maelfeyt: “APE originated from my graphic studio. Ten years ago, the art book market was still very fixed: on the one hand there were the big commercial publishers and on the other hand the artists’ books (mostly self-published). There hardly was anything in between. I think it is in this respect that nowadays many new publishing houses come out of graphic studios: there is a necessity for quality.”
APE was founded in 2010, in the same year as the first Offprint. This fair really showed that the book was where experimentation took place, where photography was presented in a most innovative way.
Maelfeyt: “I remember that first Offprint very well. I had started with APE six months earlier and was invited by Yannick (Bouillis, founder and artistic director, ed.). The scene then did not have the proportions it has now; I had a few modest publications, a few zines and was more curious than self-assured. I left with two big bags full of books and they were empty when I returned home. Right time, right place, I guess? The year after this happened again during the New York Art Book Fair. At those fairs, half of the exhibitors are graphic designers, from zine-makers to designer-publishers like us. It at least explains why you see so many designers running imprints.”
You took it one step further: you also added RIOT, a project space / bookshop.
Maelfeyt: “RIOT arose from both necessity and coincidence. We were looking for a space to take initiatives with APE such as book presentations. The space we had available lent itself to a project space, which allowed us to work very focused. APE started in 2010 as a kind of hobby. It’s been my playground for many years, but now it has grown into a professional publishing house. I see the space where we are now (RIOT) as more leeway.”
“There will always be books that are overdesigned. However, it’s the badly designed books that are still dominating the market” (Jurgen Maelfeyt)
More than half of the APE catalogue can be considered photobooks. Why such a fascination with photography and the photobook?
Maelfeyt: “Well, that’s fairly easy to explain. The book is pre-eminently the ideal medium for showing photography, so there are also more photobooks than books with a different art form. Our expertise with photography will only increase, which will also make us more and more interesting for photographers.”
On Facebook you commented on the shortlist of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Award, stating you found the selection too much focused on photography and too little on design. “That’s what you get when you do not put designers on the jury,” you said.
Maelfeyt: “It was not meant to be a criticism; it was just a statement. The jury consisted of people who certainly have their merit in the field of photography. But this is a book prize, you should have at least one bookmaker on your jury, I think. Otherwise you can just call it Aperture Photo Award. A good series of photos does not make for a good book; it is also about format, editing, choice of paper, printing technique, binding method, etc. If you know what’s on the market, then this is a rather poor selection. Certainly, there are some strong books in there, but a lot of books that combine great photography with wonderful design and production got overlooked. It is pretty clear that this was a very classic shortlist: some books are exchangeable. Assemble a jury with a couple of designers in it and surely dissatisfaction will follow. A good photobook is always the result of a good cooperation between photographer and designer, is the message I wanted to send here.”
Some say that today books are often too clever or even too baroque in terms of design.
Maelfeyt: “Through design you can indeed have a big impact on the perception of the work. There will always be books that are overdesigned. However, it’s the badly designed books that are still dominating the market.”
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