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You can buy a flick book

Experimenter Books is the first publisher of artist books and book objects in the country

I Love You by. Photo: Bani Abidi
I Love You by. Photo: Bani Abidi

Mention “artists’ books", and most people will give you a vacant stare. There is little awareness about the genre, as the husband-wife duo of Prateek and Priyanka Raja found to their dismay a couple of years ago. Directors of Experimenter, the Kolkata-based contemporary art space, the couple had long been thinking of publishing artists’ books. “We have a personal collection of these and the medium offers innumerable possibilities. However, we found out there wasn’t a single reference point from within the country," says Priyanka. They had to rely on nuggets, gleaned during discussions with friends and publishers dabbling in the genre, from across the world. Finally, earlier this month, years of research culminated in the launch of Experimenter Books, making the couple the first publisher of artists’ books and book objects in the country.

So, what is an artist’s book? The simplest definition can, perhaps, be found in an article published by the Smithsonian Libraries: “Artists’ books are works of art, like paintings or sculptures, but in book form. While book illustration has a much longer history, the book as art object is a product of the 20th century." A popular genre since the 1960s, it has been practised by fine arts practitioners such as Anselm Kiefer, who put sheets of lead together to depict the heaviness of knowledge contained within books. There are also book artists who work exclusively in this medium. In India, the genre is still new, with only three-four contemporary artists working with it. Bengaluru-based Ravikumar Kashi is one of them. “It was my training in paper-making that veered me towards artists’ books. When I started exploring the medium 16 years ago, I didn’t even know there was a name for what I was making," he says.

What happened to circle . Photo: Ravikumar Kashi

Artists’ books have emerged as a popular genre in the West as they allow artists to experiment with the structure of the traditional book form, while borrowing the sense of time associated with the literary word. “Bookworks and book objects have continued to step outside conventional boundaries to encompass concepts associated with fine arts…. (These) are not restricted to the use of paper and ink, but can incorporate all kinds of materials and appended objects," states an article on the website of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

There are various subgenres within artists’ books—ones which use the traditional book format and offer a sense of narrative. These could contain just images or images with text and could have several editions using digital or printmaking techniques. “The second is a one-off book, with no second piece. These are usually hand-drawn. A lot of what I do falls in this category," says Kashi. “The third is an altered book, in which you take an existing book and alter its shape and form. Then there’s the book object, which merely offers a suggestion of the form of the book. And fifth is the photo book."

Shelf Life 1. Photo: Ravikumar Kashi

Kashi recently showcased a set of artist’s books, All Is Always Now, at Gallery Sumukha in Bengaluru. These were filled with images of objects from different places and time zones, generating discontinuous stories. Some of his other significant works in the genre have been Experiments With Truth, Cross Talk, Broken Images and Random Destiny. “In Experiments, I did a set of six books in which I became someone else. Artists like telling stories about their struggles. By adding a bit of masala to it, these become exaggerated stories—almost like legends. I turned that thing around," he says. Each book tells a different story. In one book, he is a struggling artist, who has to wash utensils in a restaurant as he has no money. In another, he is a hobby artist, trying to enter the art world. “In time, these books will get mixed up with my autobiographical details and there will be chaos," says Kashi. “Then there is another book called Seed. In an emergency, one has to break open a glass box. In my work, when you break open the glass box, you will find sheets embedded with seeds. The idea is, if everything is lost, how do you start again?"

A lot of the artists’ books, which are single pieces, are produced by the artists themselves. However, the ones which require editions are brought out by special collectives or independent publishers specializing in the genre. In Europe and the US, such collectives can be found with ease, but in India, Experimenter will be the first to produce these limited-edition book objects. The Rajas’ vision is to explore the medium, in close collaboration with the artist and in continuation with their practice. The first book object of the venture is Bani Abidi’s I Love You—a flick book about the discretion, silence and shyness of romantic love. This set of 10 flick books has been produced in a limited edition of 100 copies and is housed within a handcrafted, wooden vitrine box. Each book has been signed and numbered by the artist. These flick books were first produced by Abidi in 2003 during an artist residency in Lahore. “In 2003, I had printed these myself and given them to my friends who featured in the books, to be passed on to those they loved. These were not meant for a larger public," says Abidi in an email interview. “The main extension with Experimenter Books is that now these have been professionally produced and presented for distribution."

Priyanka remembers the momentous conversation with Abidi over Skype, nearly eight months ago, when they arrived at the final form of the book object. “What necessitates the wooden box? Why is it so important? Both the artist and us, as publishers, have to navigate such questions," says Priyanka. Producing editions of artists’ books is an expensive proposition. While a traditional book has a print run of more than 10,000 copies, in this genre, only 100 or so artist’s books are produced. Moreover, for the former, only a printing press is required, but here you need technical staff such as woodcutters, illustrators, suppliers of vinyl, writers, and more. The price of each copy varies, depending on the edition size of the artist’s book. The first edition of I Love You started at Rs7,000. “The price keeps increasing with the edition size. The last edition is always the most expensive, as few books are left. We are right now at Rs12,000 for her book," says Priyanka. “However, there seems to be an appreciation for the genre, as within three days of launching I Love You, orders have been placed for 50% of the books," says Priyanka. The size of the books and ease of carrying these add to the attraction. “Say, you want to own one of Abidi’s works, a book by her becomes much more accessible," says Priyanka. Considering the time and effort that goes into creating one of these, Experimenter Books is looking at producing three such books a year. “Next, we want to do an audio book. The idea of sound and conversation is so beautiful," says Priyanka.

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