Evidence of the Avant Garde Ex-Library
(Art Metropole, Struts Gallery, and Owens Art Gallery, 2021)
Within the field of artist publishing, there are several dividing lines between cheap and expensive, multiple and unique. Against this context is the work of Derek Sullivan, an artist who engages in a “distributed art practice.” Interested in ephemera (which is sometimes an artist book and sometimes not), networks of distribution, and how materials are activated through circulation and use, Sullivan’s latest book translates an exhibition catalogue documenting ephemera (audio tapes, manuscripts, buttons, and books), from a 1984 show at Art Metropole into an artist book.
In 1984, to celebrate their 10 year anniversary, the “artist-initiated” bookstore, distributor, and publisher Art Metropole, founded in Toronto by the artist collective General Idea, held the exhibition Evidence of the Avant Garde Since 1957 showcasing ephemera gathered from their archives that illustrated the avant-garde art and publishing ethos of the 1960s onwards. Using the materials they gathered over the years, Art Metropole presented a story of conceptual art featuring artworks and ephemera by Constance De Jong, Ulises Carrión, Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, and many others. As the accompanying catalogue notes, “fragments, ephemera—‘evidence’—of a network of ideas and phenomena which came to be known collectively as Conceptual art, and the manifestations which continue to give life to many of the principles activated by that network of ideas.” The show was grounded in the archive: “to call something an archive is to impute authoritative and definitive organization of material and information, and yet the material under discussion was in large part realized in this form in order to bypass the validating and authorizing mechanisms of gallery and museum (and likewise archive).”
I read these sections of the introduction not from the original offset printed catalogue—a now out-of-print collector’s item—but rather from Sullivan’s 2021 reimagining of this project. This artist book, published by Art Metropole, Struts Gallery, and Owens Art Gallery, renders Sullivan’s own singular copy of the catalogue, replete with notes and his marks of use, into a multiple circulating book once again. But now, each page is executed in his own hand, drawn with colored pencil and printed on glossy paper, creating a significant distance from the original.
The ethos of the first show, conceptual art as “evidence” and resistance to institutional order, remain at the center of Sullivan’s book. His drawings re-draw the text, making aspects of the detailed captions illegible. His copy also depicts his own drawings, notes, and personal ephemera located in his copy. The decorative additions activate the material while obscuring it; they disrupt the book’s ability to function as a historical archive, instead archiving Sullivan’s use.
When I first viewed this book, I had not seen the original catalogue (I still haven’t held it in the flesh, though I’ve consulted images). It wasn’t clear what aspects of the book were Sullivan’s versus Art Metropole’s original design, since everything was drawn in the same style and manner. The original is fully black-and-white, but Sullivan's is marked throughout by small rainbows and green leaves that run across the pages. I wonder what plants he closed into these pages to leave these marks, now forever a part of the new circulating version. (Considering the unavailability of the original, this may be the only version many ever hold.) Other interventions were easy to spot, such as the clear markers of time: the train tickets (Paris Metro and UK National Rail) scattered throughout. And most timely, the opening pages featuring COVID-19 safety and informational flyers from the Canadian government, encroaching onto the edges of the (redrawn) colophon and title pages.
Other items include exhibition cards, instant coffee packets, and orange puzzle pieces. It’s hard to imagine these were all organically sitting inside the book, giving it a sense of choreographed design and orchestration on the part of the artist, selecting items to scatter into the pages before making his drawings. Several of these placements are frustrating. I know from images online that the 1984 catalogue includes a postscript essay by AA Bronson. But when I turn to the final page in the 2021 artist book, I see instead a drawing of a bouquet of flowers, roots and all, blocking the hand drawn text.
Sullivan’s project, to take a catalogue that makes the archive and ephemera its central focus, and then to render it somewhat ineffective in its efforts to document these materials by inserting his own ephemera, is almost too clever. The layers placed between the original and new are many, and yet, this highly engineered act of transformation, reproduction, and distribution continues the original project, offering the next chapter in a history of conceptual art. The closing paragraph of the introduction to the 1984 catalogue, from what I can decipher, addresses revision and how to properly reflect on the beginnings and ends of artistic and historical movements. With this new volume, Sullivan shows that history and the archive are always ongoing, constantly being revised, added to, amended, redrawn, and redistributed to new audiences, ready to reinterpret what came before.