Serial publications by artists since 1955

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London January 25 – March 25, 2012

As the organizers assert, In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists since 1955 is the first significant survey exhibition of a major mode of artistic production that has until now been relatively neglected. First shown at X Initiative in New York in 2.009, the exhibition travelled to the ICA in London in early 2012, accompanied by a massive book that thoroughly documents the materials on display. Largely drawn from a private collection, the exhibition doesn’t claim to be comprehensive but merely representative. As writer Victor Brand explains in the introduction to the publication, the inclusion or exclusion of materials was often a matter of splitting hairs twice; however, the booklet produced for the IcA exhibition differentiated the works on display from your garden-variety art magazines. The selections are far more idiosyncratic than art magazines and should be considered as works of art in themselves. Through the replication and distortion of the conventions of mainstream serial publications, the artists in the exhibition draw attention to their artistic activities at the same time as they open up an aesthetic consciousness of them.

The publications in the exhibition form a timeline that has Semina (1955) as the first entry and Living & Loving (2002) as the most recent entry. At the ICA, the selections were presented in matching display cases arranged in three rows of nine running the length of a space circumscribed by walls labelled with an extensive text and a comprehensive timeline culled from the publication. The array of displayed materials included slick, mass-produced magazines; cheap, photocopied zines deploying recycled materials; examples of correspondence art; and unclassifiable compendiums of prints and diverse objects. Brand describes serial publications by artists as “bread crumbs in time,” serving as snapshots of moments in artists’ careers as they aimed to establish themselves or pursue alternative avenues of distributing their work. With no clear order to the presentation of the materials, the exhibition encouraged wayward perambulation over “breadcrumb navigation,” but offered ample evidence that artists’ serial publications are contagious forms of communication with lasting effects.

The first case placed at the entrance to the exhibition did not contain the earliest example but rather displayed Les Levine’s Culture Hero, which proclaimed itself to be a “Fanzine of Stars of the Super World,” the artist’s own newsprint response to Interview magazine (establishing Andy Warhol as a kind of guardian angel for the exhibition). Levine had hoped to make art relevant again to a contemporary audience by assuming an easily digestible, mass-media form. The short-lived newspaper, with only five issues printed between 1969 and 1970, was published through Levine’s Negotiable Intelligence Logistics (N.I.L.), which he established as a kind of art-world RAND Corporation, simultaneously subverting while exploiting corporate authority. Following with a similar spirit, situated a little farther on in the exhibition, and with a longer print run, General Idea’s FILE “megazine” explicitly hijacked the corporate identity of LIFE magazine in order to infiltrate the territory it had staked out and expose a wider audience to their art. Nine of the 26 issues published between 1972 and 1989 were on display, with one opened to an editorial about the lawsuit brought against the megazine by LIFE for the appropriation of its visual identity. One of the major accomplishments of the megazine was the establishment of a network of Canadian artists by simply showing that one existed. However, General Idea did not stop with the achievement of artistic legitimacy through the channels and models of the mirror machine of contemporary marketing and media productions. FILE took its explorations further and confounded expectations of the megazine by moving from the mirroring of the community to mirroring the mirroring of the community. One could consider these cases of serial publications by artists as enantiomorphic chambers revealing an absence at the heart of their productions that displaces the status quo.

Correspondence art is well represented in the exhibition as a mode of serial publication, as it shares similar goals and strategies even if it is divergent in form from newspapers and magazines. Anna Banana’s VILE magazine was showcased, as it rose in response from the West Coast in 1974 when FILE distanced itself from the mail art scene. VILE fully explored the range of mail art in its eight-issue run, but also tried to remain true to the repulsive aesthetic suggested by the further inversion of LIFE in its title. Another display case featured several of Eleanor Antin’s too Boots postcards produced between 1971 and 1973. Mailed to over 900 addresses, including artists, writers, critics, galleries and museums, the sequence of si images featuring an arrangement of ioo boots in various locations suggests, as the work has been subtitled, an “epistolary novel” wherein the boots take on the aspect of a fictional character in an ambiguous narrative. The reverse sides of some of the cards were presented, revealing their intended recipients, such as the influential critic Harold Rosenberg. Though the ultimate destination of the boots was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, confirming their legitimacy as art, the work’s exploration of alternative channels, and its evocation of an act of narrative fiction that would become a touchstone for Antilles practice, duplicates the mechanisms of the art world and the everyday world and delivers both worlds up for contemplation.

One of the most recent publications included in the survey is Terence Koh’s APB, three issues of which appeared between 2001 and 2002. The title of the publication is an acronym for “asianpunkboy,” Koh’s alter ego, which he ceremoniously killed off in 2003. Like the other examples discussed above, the fictional or self-mythological elements that are contained within these serial publications introduce an element of queerness into what might otherwise be seen as straight journalism. Each issue of APB took a heterogeneous form and was often tailor-made for its purchaser. Koh has said that his take on “punk,” or the handmade DIY aesthetic, is “pink,” a kind of poetic, romantic rebellion. Taken together, the fragments of APB suggest entries in a coded diary that forever defer the attainment of only one stable reading. Though serial publications like APB are often limited in run–for the most part because funds for their production run out–the ambition of their forms telescopes infinite possibilities. To borrow a phrase from APB’S “The Stolen Issue,” a visit to the In Numbers exhibition will induce the viewer into “Seeing pink faggot butterflies everywhere.”