Trace, is an artist's book of Susie Wong's exhibition of the same name, from 9th to 20th Jan 2009 at the Substation, Singapore. The exhibition is an inquiry into the meaning of death and provokes an examination of the slippages of time and space between presence and absence. From one into the other, we are left with only a trace – whether it is a memory or a corpus. It is only with tracing, through photographs or visceral recollections, that we attempt to find and connect with what had been here or, as this exhibition has revealed, what is always at risk of loss.
Trace, the book, is a wish to seize that moment of recognition.
(Interview by Tania de Rozario)
How and when did your interest in artist-books start?
Susie: I enjoy looking and touching the craft tactility of anything and books are fast becoming a privileged object. I love to browse through visual art books at the store and in the past, have picked up children's books with fantastic illustrations, or pop-ups, or cut-outs.
Brendan: Books were never far from me when I was growing up, and after reading that many I realised I had a set of criteria - what makes one book more desirable than another? But I didn't really have a chance to develop this until I went to art school and attended many exhibitions, and got the chance to see some really awfully designed books - you could tell they were done last minute, with no consideration to content, structure, pacing and so on. At that point I realised that well designed books, like great art, can move people.
How was the design of your publication conceptualised?
Susie: Originally, I had wanted something simple, a brochure or booklet that was to accompany my exhibition, Trace. Having little experience in publishing and designing, I asked a fellow artist and friend, Brendan Goh, to assist me with this project. He managed to convince me of the need to produce something that itself could stand on its own, and extend the ideas that I had beyond the exhibition itself. As a continuation of the exhibition, which dealt with the effacement of memory, the book was meant to be a pilgrimage to that of the transient and eternal.
Brendan: Designing this book proved to be particularly challenging, as we had a rather tight budget that appeared to allow us much less than what we would be satisfied with. We decided, however, that if there was to be a trade-off between quantity and quality, we would aim for the latter rather than the former. In order to realise this, we chose to hand-bind the books ourselves instead of having it stapled or folded.
Could you describe the publishing process you went through?
Susie: Oh, that was a long and drawn-out process. We had countless discussions between us, on the content for the book, the direction it would take, as well as the more mundane affairs of searching for suppliers, printing firms and so on. The budget was both a constraint as well as a challenge to produce something irreplaceable. There were times where we might have wanted to strangle one another, but looking back at it now, the time spent on the project was very fruitful and the results we got were far more then what each of us could accomplish individually. When Brendan volunteered to singly hand-craft each copy, I was hesitant - did he really grasp the amount of time and effort needed? I must say I am gratified that he stayed focused and did it!
What role do you think artist-books play within the larger framework of publishing in general?
Susie: We cannot dismiss the pressure how internet has placed on publishing. With Kindle and books soon available as downloads, the book enters a new phase of becoming precious tangible objects, and I believe will be viewed as such, collected for not only its textual content but the paper it was printed on, its choice of covers etc. Many artist-books are highly personal projects that seek to present a unique point of view to a select audience, and in this we rediscover the preciousness of different things around us.
Brendan: I suppose the other very practical thing that such books do is they allow artists to reach out to a wider audience. The trouble with exhibitions is that their duration is often very short, due to a number of factors such as rent and so on, and the exposure that artists can get from such an event is limited. Books last a long time, and can be used to complement exhibitions, extending the mileage that artists get.
What advice do you have for artists and designers looking to self-publish?
Brendan: Read, read and read. Ask many questions, and take the opportunity to grill all the professional services you might need. Very often, practices vary within the industry, and the right questions can reveal things that are unsaid. Indie Publishing, edited by Ellen Lupton and published by Princeton Architectural Press, is an excellent guide.
Susie: Get good help. (laughs)