Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists’ Books
Rob van Leijsen
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Plenty of artists’ book practitioners and scholars have a background in graphic design, but for Rob van Leijsen graphic design is not merely an entry point into artists’ books; it is a place to stay (and not the most comfortable place). That discomfort drives a compelling critique of artists’ book discourse and offers up a useful, transdisciplinary vocabulary for future scholarship and criticism. From a designer’s perspective, theories about authorship and the unity of form and content obscure the power relations at play in publishing and cover up the messy realities of production. Such questions cut to the core of the books Van Leijsen examines (those with origins in Conceptual Art), but they remain in the background of his main project – a study of bootlegs, facsimiles and appropriation in artists’ book publishing.
The book itself is bilingual, with a section of full-color figures dividing its English and French halves. The resulting codex doubles the heft of what is really a long essay, written in approachable prose free of frills and jargon. Van Leijsen explains his methodology in the introduction: compare two facsimile publishers (Éditions Zédélé and The Everyday Press) and two bootleggers (Michalis Pichler and Eric Doeringer). To make the most of these close readings, the introduction also does a large portion of the book’s theoretical work. Perhaps most importantly, Van Leijsen demonstrates what graphic designers bring to the topic: technical understanding of book design and production, and a nuanced understanding of how authorship is distributed among all the players who contribute to a book’s creation. Along with this perspective, Van Leijsen’s main innovation is importing a more refined vocabulary for appropriation. In a field fond of “self-reflexivity,” distinctions such as re-enactment, reproduction, bootleg, facsimile, transimile, homage, and so forth not only allow for greater precision but also point back to their fields of origin and bolster artists’ book discourse with interdisciplinary connections.
As time-based, interactive media, artists’ books are a challenge to document adequately, but the design of Copy, Tweak, Paste maximizes the specific arguments Van Leijsen puts forward. The figures that divide the English and French sections are arranged in before-and-after sets: first the original book, then the facsimile. The photographs themselves are shot and cropped almost identically to allow for a point-for-point comparison. A combination of single images, compound images, and detail shots highlight the salient features of each book under consideration. The books are presented at one of two scales: actual size or 30 percent of the original. Along with the hands that accompany many images, this gives the reader a good sense of the books’ size and allows for more meaningful comparisons among them. That said, it can be difficult to avoid mixing up the originals and the facsimiles (which are, of course, quite similar) since the figures are numbered but not captioned.
Like the book’s structure, the writing itself aims to advance relatively narrow and novel arguments, and therefore assumes some familiarity with the topic. The case studies, however, engage with diverse approaches to publishing as an art practice, whether or not the reader has encountered the specific books before. Van Leijsen occasionally errs too far on the side of brevity, making subjective assertions or leaving claims unsupported. His main arguments are always rigorous, but terms like “well-made” or “well-designed” warrant greater examination since the whole point is that each mode of re-enactment has its own goals and criteria. Another challenge is maintaining the level of detail necessary to discuss the differences between two things as similar as a book and its facsimile. The reader must trust that Van Leijsen has focused on the important differences when, for example, he scrutinizes a book’s paper more closely than its binding or printing. Nevertheless, his method is sound, and his writing is accessible and enjoyable. Anyone with a background in graphic design will appreciate the chip on his shoulder and find ready parallels regarding authorship and labor throughout the art world.
This examination of labor and authorship is one of the book’s key contributions, and Van Leijsen is especially sensitive to the particularities of artists’ book publishing. In analyzing the role of artists as publishers versus institutions with experts (such as historians) as editors, he grounds an abstract conversation about values and motivations with concrete examples. This approach is not only effective but replicable. The field needs more scholars who pay attention to the hidden design and production labor that goes into publishing, not to mention the financial and institutional pressures that shape the final products. Dealing with the details of disparate case studies adds much-needed texture to the usual discussions of self-reflexivity. Ironically, it is by delving into the specifics of bootlegs and facsimiles that artists’ books can speak to other contemporary art forms that use appropriation. Happily, those who take up this cause will have an easier time thanks to Copy, Tweak, Paste’s bibliography.
There are certainly questions left unanswered, especially regarding the role of digital facsimiles. Digitization may seem beyond the book’s scope given its emphasis on the specific materials and processes, but it represents a missed opportunity to examine the type of uncreative, unacknowledged labor that motivates Van Leijsen’s critique. Such debates have been essential in other fields, especially the digital humanities, which could serve as a useful model for artists’ books. Another missing perspective is that of the reader. Van Leijsen decenters the author but remains focused on production rather than reception. It will take an examination of libraries, collections, readers and critics to fully realize what he has begun.
Copy, Tweak, Paste is half history and half manifesto, and the field would do well to pursue both directions. A comprehensive bibliography or literature review of bootlegged artists’ books would serve future scholarship, just as a full-throated manifesto for appropriation and re-enactment would catalyze artistic production (and maybe even make artists’ books accessible to more readers). Copy, Tweak, Paste lays the groundwork with a solid methodology and a new vocabulary.