| Codex Event 8
An Australian and British collaboration of pulp-printing, installation and artists’ books
With Sarah Bodman, Paul Laidler, Tim Mosely, Monica Oppen and Tom Sowden, 2011-2012
We started our initial collaboration (in February 2011) with an email invitation from Tim Mosely in Australia, founder and organiser of all the Codex Events to date. Tim invites artists to join him and collaborate as a group on a specific theme for each Codex Event he hosts; whether produced for a particular exhibition such as the Lithuanian Book Arts Festival, which Rabbit and House was produced for, or on a subject under discussion nationally, such as the Pflight of the Paper Balloons which commented upon the Australian government’s treatment of refugees who had arrived by boat and were turned back, or the Music for a Jabberwocky Quintet which was a large scale printed installation on one sheet of paper. The one thing that ties all Tim’s Codex Events together is the method of production – pulp printing, in which Tim is a specialist with many years of experience in papermaking and printing with paper pulp.
Sarah had worked with Tim previously, five years ago when she was lucky enough to be sent to produce an artist’s book edition of her own for two weeks after the Focus on Artists’ Books Conference at Artspace Mackay in 2006. She realised then that Tim was not only an expert, but also empathetic, patient and full of great ideas for stretching the potential of any given project. So, when Tim invited Sarah and two colleagues, Paul Laidler and Tom Sowden from The Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) in Bristol, UK, to join him for Codex Event 8, she was excited at the prospect of working together again and quickly accepted. Paul and Sarah were going to be travelling to Australia for the Impact 7 Multi-disciplinary Printmaking Conference (1), in Melbourne, so a stay over in Brisbane for another two weeks was definitely a possibility, especially with the kind offer of the artist-in-residence apartment at Queensland College of Art (QCA, Griffith University, Brisbane(2) where they would be based with Tim. Tom Sowden would send his notes and instructions from the UK, and Monica Oppen would collaborate from Sydney with her instructions. The final aim for the project was to take handmade papers from the time at QCA for each participant to make into artists’ books that would be returned to Tim for a future exhibition in Australia in 2012.
Our initial brief was to look at smooth and striated space in relation to the urban jungle. Tim proposed this based on Deleuze and Guattari’s exploration of smooth and striated space in their publication A Thousand Plateaus(3). The striated was to be the instructional signs we assimilate and obey each day as we pass through any city, “don’t walk, walk, do not enter, exit, stay behind the line, go back” etc. The smooth was to remove the control, and think of space in the way that the Inuit see their surroundings on an even, unbroken white horizon of snow, or the way that nomads travel without constraint in the desert landscape. For Codex Event 8, to smooth was to bring the jungle into the urban.
Having emailed back and forth in planning before Paul and Sarah left for Australia, they arranged to travel on with Tim from Melbourne to Brisbane after the Impact 7 Conference, on 30th September 2011. As well as guest accommodation, QCA had kindly allocated workspace in the White Space at QCA, and a slot in the POP (Postgraduate and Other Projects) Gallery’s schedule from 4th -15th October 2011, for a public installation towards the end of the Brisbane part of the project (4).
Our first day was spent talking, and as in any good collaboration we all got chance to say what our ideas about the project were, and how we might proceed over the next 11 days. Tim demonstrated the rudiments of pulp-printing, Paul and Sarah experimented (messily) and then got to work with a planning sheet of words, and walks through the city to observe and record those striations.
After much discussion we decided upon a text-based collaboration; taking the instructions that usually appear in a regimented, uniform and clear font such as Helvetica or Geneva, and turning them smooth by firstly recreating them in a kind of punk-craft, post apocalyptic, graffiti, making them irregular and unpolished, so that their authority waned with each ragged edge letter’s appearance.
On the second day Tim arrived with ready mixed coloured pulp, which he had been using to make sheets of paper he was placing on well-known graffiti walls around the city. In a separate strand to our collaboration, he wanted artists to graffiti over the papers and then intended to collect them up to bring back to make into books around this project. The colours Tim had brought with him were blue and pink, two bright and energetic colours that provided our first negotiation as a collaborative team. Tim as a nature lover, from warmer climes saw the cityscape in pinks, blues and yellows, full of flowers and vegetation, whereas Paul and Sarah with their dystopian (or dysfunctional) European outlook perceived the city as a bleak grey, black and white landscape. For them it was dirty, grubby, messy, exhaust fumed, concrete, and devoid of the colours of the jungle outside.
Tim however, said that as someone who had lived mostly in the countryside before moving to Brisbane a year ago, he saw colour everywhere, and it hadn’t occurred to him at all that Paul and Sarah might not also think in colour when they imagined a cityscape. Discussions continued, with each person amicably putting forward our their reasons why we should or shouldn’t use colour: control takes colour out of living, the sky is still blue in the city, concrete is grey, people add colour, concrete poetry from the 60s and 70s is usually black and white, graffiti has colour, soot is black, the jungle can be brought into the city, the urban drudge is represented as soulless and colourless, nature invades the cracks in the sidewalk and brings colour into it. Eventually a group decision was made that black and white would be the colours used, and Tim produced another vat of pulp in a suitably dark black.
To produce our instructional texts in pulp, we experimented with screen stencils but found that a simple plastic alphabet stencil sheet, the kind of cut-out, plastic letter set that children draw through to produce uniform capital letters, worked much better. The stencil added to the DIY aesthetic when we dipped it into a vat of black pulp then forced the letters out onto felt sheets to press and dry ready for use on the gallery walls. Our production line started as we dipped and pressed letters until we had two stacks of full felts ready to press.
Days three and four saw us moving between our project space where we had also made some screens for pulp printing our overlay white texts, and the gallery space where we would show the final installation in ten days time, to start working on the wall space. We had all collated our found texts from city signs, alluding to the control and observation of actions under the striation of the city landscape, for example: “No entry, go back, authorised personnel only, no turning, use other door, keep left, stay right, warning, this area has electronic and video surveillance at all times, keep out, authorised parking only, beware of opening door, for your safety you are being monitored by CCTV, do not obstruct, do not enter room, do not cross, walk, don’t walk, use other footpath, no cars, no cycling, no drinking, no skateboarding, tow away area, keep clear, assemble here, end shared zone, no eating, wrong way, ahead only, full, reduce speed, stop, obey signs, no posters, keep off the grass, no stopping”, etc.
Over the next few days, students from QCA, and public visitors to the gallery space were also asked to give us signs or instructions they had observed, and other collaborating artists sent their texts to us. From Bristol, Tom Sowden emailed his instructional signs and a quote on non-space from Marc Augé: “Words and images in transit through non-places can take root in the still-diverse-places where people still try to construct part of their daily life” (5). Monica Oppen, in Sydney emailed an unpunctuated free verse of text from a walk in her neighbourhood noting every sign as she passed it.
With all the instructional words ready we began to construct our installation, having all agreed that we would make a single line (a horizon) of the smoothed out instructions extending across and just above the middle of the gallery walls. Each of us added our own and others’ texts. We did this by peeling the pulp-stencilled letters off the felt sheets one at a time, to apply to another felt to assemble the text, which we would then transfer one word or one sentence at a time onto the wall. We recorded each word or set of words as we added them, noting the order and also the interaction with other words as they were applied next to, then over, under or on top of existing words: No Posters became No Postmodernism, No Post Modernism Posters, and so on. Some letters fell or slid down the wall as we worked and these were left drifting in the white space. Those that dropped to the floor were also left as part of the artwork.
After applying the first set of texts, over the next few days we gradually started to overlay with the remaining letters we had made. These included more playful interactions with the original texts: “assembly line, wait here, no territorialisation, do not obey…”. This continued the existing line of our striated horizon, to make a typographical graffiti landscape of more and more illegible texts that smoothed the line back into a proper horizon. A horizon that was not controlled by the many instructional sentences buried within it.
We had set up a camera and tripod to record our gradual building of the line of text, initially only to document for our records, but the more we talked through our ideas as we worked, it emerged that we were all thinking that we would not leave little more than a trace evidence of what we had done when the gallery formally exhibited our work on the final night of the public part of our collaboration. We all agreed that it would appear on the viewing night, to be, in the famous words of George Costanza to Jerry Seinfeld and the TV show commissioners: “a show about nothing”. This was quite a gamble, as we weren’t sure how visitors would respond, but we thought that this was a great opportunity for play and experimentation in the spirit of POP gallery, which is a space for trialling projects and experimental pieces, so we carried on with our plan, and kept our plan secret from any visitors to the gallery.
After days fuelled by cups of coffee and snacks brought to us by Jo Diball, POP Gallery’s wonderful director who was very supportive of our plan, the layers of black pulp printed texts had filled and overlapped the line across the gallery wall. We documented the result and then began our plan to obliterate the texts over the next few days before the public opening. And of course, we decided not only to destroy the work we had made, but to make it as difficult and time consuming as possible by pulp printing new texts in white, over the existing texts in black. We made two screens to stencil the white letters with, one in Helvetica, and one of an alphabet Tim had constructed through fonstruct.com using images from the city to create letters.
It took us another two days to slowly cover up the black with white texts. Once we had covered the black texts with white, we still felt that the shapes were too visible, so after a group decision, we went out to buy white paint, to finish the walls off and bring them back to pristine gallery white.
Our second to last day at POP, whilst literally watching paint dry, between coats we selected the images for our slide show on the projector, and talked about how we felt the collaboration had gone so far, before we put the finishing touches to the gallery space the day after. Tim originally started the Codex Events as a means to promote artists’ books in Australia – his first project was a two-week collaboration with invited artists, graduates and staff at Southern Cross University in Lismore, where he was working. At the same time, Tim was also looking after the gallery space at SCU, and co-curated a show of artists’ books with Sarah Jones, an SCU graduate. The show was well received and SCU staff and librarians used it as a platform in 2005, to launch their successful annual acquisitive exhibition which is now in its 7th year.
One of the things that drove Tim’s passion for the Codex Events is the idea of a group of people making something, rather than an individual. This he thinks is influenced by his childhood upbringing in a remote area of Papua New Guinea, where the village survives through operating as a group. Decisions were made collectively, never by one person, and this has influenced Tim’s outlook, especially in his willingness to listen to, and accommodate the views of others. When Paul and Sarah asked to use black and white rather than colour, Tim thought that this was fine even though he was thinking of the intense colours of graffiti and nature in his choice of pink and blue. We also realised that each of our perceptions of colour were different; what Paul or Sarah saw as muddy and cloudy, Tim saw as muted and subtle. The reference to concrete poetry from the 60s and 70s being mainly black and white was the appeal that settled the choice for all of us as a group for this particular project. We all felt that it is important to work with others who can offer a different perspective, none of us works in a way that is similar to the others, but we all knew that the finished installation was bigger than any of us, and that we were working towards a common goal. Tim has obviously more experience in this through his other Codex Events, most of which have worked extremely well, but one had been difficult previously, with clashes of personalities and working methods; some too pensive, some more direct. He knows it is always a risk to bring a group of artists together, but feels that generally with people he knows or respects that they will bring elements to it that contribute to a successful outcome. The thing to remember in a group dynamic is that the work is always the most important to consider.
Tim’s idea of using Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophies as a starting point worked well. Their argument for the nomad’s affinity with, and reading of the natural environment offers a theoretical framework that allows Tim to acknowledge that part of his way of seeing and working. And having found it, he appreciates the calibre of the philosophers who discuss it. When Tim thinks of the Inuit or of nomads, he doesn’t see them as entering a space devoid of experience; the nomads that Deleuze and Guattari refer to have lived in their environment for 30-40 years, they are adults who know how to read it, and this is something that is learnt over time by an intimate negotiation of space. This is something that Tim is researching himself through smooth theory in relation to describing art practice. For him, the successful collaborative endeavour is framed within smooth theory, and in particular his creative work with papermaking straddles both smooth and striated through manipulation of the fibres and shapes. The transition between smooth and striated works in the Codex Events too, as nothing is shaped by one person or the other, it is always a group undertaking.
Thursday 13th October saw the three of us now, almost ready for our opening/closing public viewing at the gallery that evening. The walls were white, we had set up the projector and stencilled Marc Augé’s quote and some text on the gallery’s wall by the main entrance to allude to what visitors may expect to find if they looked very hard.
Finally we launched our exhibition, or happening as we were now calling it (subtitled privately between us all as ‘How to Make Friends and Influence People’, as we were wondering if people might think that we had gone mad, or were being overly pretentious) at POP gallery. As visitors arrived, they entered the space, saw nothing obvious, looked disappointed and turned to exit, only to see the projected video playing that showed them how much work had been done to achieve “nothing”. After everyone had had their experience of looking at nothing, Tim invited the guests to choose a palette knife or scraper, and start scraping the gallery walls. Gradually the black texts started to reappear, and the guests now realised that they had been there all the time, just undercover.
Once all the walls had been scraped off, we swept up the abandoned scraps of all the letters for the next part of the project, and restored the gallery walls to their previous condition. It was time to leave POP and move on to Tim’s papermaking studio underneath his rented Queenslander house in the suburbs of Brisbane, for the beginning of the next stage of our collaboration.
Tim had saved the last of the black pulp for more papermaking. As Paul and Sarah filled the water tanks in the space beneath his house (avoiding Huntsman spiders!), Tim sifted through the debris from the scraped off walls and carefully added it to the pulp. We managed to get 20 sheets of paper made from the mixture, which we then pressed again.
Tim had already suggested that we make the paper a little more special and particular to the project by drying it on the ceiling of the local underground car park, so that the paper would take on some texture from the concrete slabs. Although we did think that this might look a bit suspicious, we agreed to do it that evening after dinner at Tim’s, and at 8pm, we all set off to the underground parking lot in town, armed with the rolls of felts and paper. We selected spots with extra texture and Tim showed us how to roll the paper on so that it would adhere well to the ceiling.
We did have a few passers by asking us what we were doing but they seemed assured we weren’t planning anything too bad once we had explained what we were doing, although they did walk away looking a little confused. What we didn’t realise, was that so close to the river in the evening heat left us prey to mosquitoes, which resulted in us being covered in bites the next morning, so we can at least say that we suffered for our art!
The sheets dried overnight and were peeled off and shared out, 4 sheets per artist to make into our individual books. The only stipulation was that each book should be A5 in size when finished, but we could do whatever we liked to the sheets of paper. Paul and Sarah returned to the UK the next day and Tim agreed that we would all have until March 2012 to complete our books. Over the next few months, between us all, the papers were printed upon, laser cut, scanned, dipped in paint, and written upon. The resulting five artists’ books produced for Codex Event 8: An Australian / British collaboration of pulp-printing are as follows:
Sarah Bodman: Do Not Enter
Paul Laidler: Record, 2012
Tim Mosely: The Burden of Privilege and Privileging Burden
Monica Oppen: A speck of dust
Tom Sowden: Smooth My (striated) Urban Bitch
The books had their first UK outing at UWE, Bristol in March 2012, as part of a show of new work from CFPR, and are now back in Australia for a tour of venues commencing summer 2012, where we hope they will stimulate more discussion of the urban jungle.
1. Impact7: Intersections & Counterpoints, International multi-disciplinary printmaking conference. 27 – 30 September 2011. http://impact7.org.au/index.html