Self-publishing has never been more accessible than it is today thanks to the internet and the availability of digital printing. So, in many ways, In Numbers is a timely exhibition and book as it charts the growth of publications produced by artists since the Fifties to the present day.
From the rise of the small press in the Sixties to the DIY zine culture of the Eighties and Nineties, professional artists have taken on the format of magazines and postcards as a new platform for artistic expression, as well as a means of correspondence and sharing of ideas. But unlike mainstream magazines, these serial publications belong to a genre of their own. They do not conform to the conventional formats of news items and features, but become artworks in their own right.
In Numbers comes from a collection of some 60 publications produced by artists from around the world. Curator Matt Williams had the difficult task of selecting key documents to exhibit but succeeds in displaying a concise cross-section through carefully selected printed examples. From these you get a good sense of the physical objects, and the variety on display goes from bold visuals printed on pulpy paper to much quieter and delicate artworks. While you don’t get quite the sense of the physical objects in the accompanying book as you do in the exhibition, there is room to show many more examples.
What is very apparent is the influence these artists have had on contemporary graphic design. Elements of overprinting, use of typography and other graphic elements dating back to the Seventies and Eighties can particularly be seen mirrored in today’s fashion and style magazines. But the driving content here is mostly political and cultural. The artist publication represented an often hard-hitting reflection of the world, from the violence of war to explicit sexual imagery.
The design approach is incredibly varied too. Cartoon-illustrated zine-style magazines appear very different than those that imitate consumer magazines, such as File (1972–1989). It was produced by an artistic collective called General Idea, formed by three artists who shared a house in Toronto. General Idea became an influential group in the international correspondence-art movement – a key reason for producing File.
The logo originally mimicked LIFE magazine’s trademark white lettering against a red rectangle as a ‘parasitic art project’, the idea being that copies could be placed in a newsstand and, because of its familiar appearance, could be picked up by people who would not normally be exposed to this kind of work. The page layouts also used headline fonts and text in the same way as you would expect to see in mass-produced publications.
Andy Warhol was one of File’s first subscribers, and influential contributors included Kathy Acker, Kim Gordon, Yoko Ono and David Byrne. Later, the covers dropped the original logo and adopted a more punk approach to their design. The 1977 Punk ‘til You Puke issue put Debbie Harry of Blondie on her first magazine cover and showcased punk/new era musicians such as Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols.
The timeline in the exhibition and book presents an immediate graphic illustration of the often-short lifespan of some of the publications. However, there are exceptions, notably Control Magazine by Stephen Willats (1965– present day). Willats established the publication as a forum for artists to challenge mainstream notions of art and redefine it in light of the lack of other publishing opportunities. From the first issue, Willats produced the magazine as an artwork that included philosophical statements from contributing artists about the future of art practice, and he has continued to edit Control, often without staff, from his London flat.
Provoke’s life (1968–1969) was far briefer, in retrospect offering a cultural glimpse in time. Takuma Nakahiri, Koji Taki, Yukata Takanashi, and Takahiko Okada produced this photography-based magazine that challenged the ‘straight’ tradition of Japanese photojournalism of the time in just three issues. The photographs of William Klein, whose book New York had appeared in Japan a few years earlier, heavily influenced the grainy and blurry photographic style embodied in Provoke. Not only the style but also the content of the imagery was controversial for its time. The second issue revolved around a theme of Eros and was the magazine’s strongest statement. Its sequence of 22 photographs of a woman naked in a hotel room, watching television, smoking, and having sex is a powerful example of Provoke’s radical aesthetic.
Overall, many serial publications by artists in the collection are immediate responses to the cultural landscape of a specific period. Although traditional methods of printing and the hand-made quality are evident in many of the exhibited pieces, I have no doubt that technology advances will have
a major effect on the genre.
There is every indication that the desire to use traditional methods such as letterpress and screen printing will continue alongside the low production values of the photocopier, but online communication and the development of digital printing should introduce new aesthetics and offer artists more opportunities to produce new, challenging and experimental serial publications.
All images courtesy of the ICA