Follow the paper trail: publications in the archive Back to Discussion

12, May 2021

Published by
Kerry Ann Lee

What does it mean to be ‘bookish’ in these days of Hypertext? I think of ancient stories carefully transcribed as words and images onto vellum. Bound into a unique volume, they survive the ages by bunking with other rare and antiquarian books inside a climate-controlled library somewhere.

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I also think of our World Wide Web, where each ‘page’ we read (like this one) doesn’t stand alone, but is linked to another …and another …and another, ad infinitum.

Publications — both printed and digital — mediate across time and distances, intricately connecting us to one another. They feature in the first edition of Kaitoitoi, an ambitious new digital archive that looks to document contemporary design in Aotearoa.

I was excited to hear about this project. As a design educator and scholar at Ngā Pae Māhutonga Wellington School of Design, we look back at what came before and around us, with a mind to contribute to the field of knowledge we are intrinsically a part of. An archive appeals to creative researchers as a knowledge repository, deliberate in its design and future-thinking in its inception.

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Arts publishing as a discipline pulls together art, design and writing to become natural legacy documents for exhibition and site-based works. News From the Sun scales down the exhibition of three photographic artists at City Gallery into a compact 3-volume photo book, a collaboration between the designer (Kraftwerk), publisher (Bad News Books) and gallery (City Gallery). The design elegantly presents each artist’s work independently yet united together with the slipcover case. The combination of text, image and format, ease of reproducibility, and portability, have connected my words and work with audiences and readers I have never meet and places that I’ve never been to. For years I have made, received and traded these with friends overseas through my project, the Red Letter Distro. These include keepsakes from shows I’ve visited or sometimes as gifts from trusted sources.

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This world also attracts like-minded designers with an artful bent, as well as artists with designerly interests. Dwelling in the Margins – Arts publishing in Aotearoa, is a valuable document sure to inspire practitioners in this rich space between. The format encourages discovery with every turn of the page. It features publishers whom I’ve known for ages, others who I have yet to meet. There’s much to appreciate within these pages and it is encouraging to see so many people dedicated to their practice in print. I look back, forward and around and see independent publishing everywhere. Here in Pōneke, I think of Social Dis-ease, Pistake, Cookie Cutter, White Fungus, Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People, Always Never Fun, The Freedom Shop, Wai-te-ata Press, Food Court Books and many others.

As a restless reader, I actively seek out publications of all shapes and sizes. As an artist and publication maker, I add, subtract, turn inside-out and then recreate the stuff again from scratch. This pleasure principle is evidenced through publications, essays, zines, books and collages. I share, teach, and write about them. The uber-localised world of ‘stuff’ contained within these four walls has been made much more acute since global lockdown.

The archival impulse is literally everywhere, materialising as fragments on my desk: a stack of postcards, books, postal receipts, an essay cut up like confetti, an exhibition catalogue, Polaroids from Hong Kong, printer’s specs, a student essay, a picture of my mum in the 90s, a stolen ‘HELLO my name is’ sticker, an address book, an I.O.U. note to myself, a 7” record sleeve and a tape measure. I am an accidental archivist.

To archive is to collect, curate, preserve and display. In Ilya Kabakov’s essay ‘The man who never threw anything away’ (1977), the protagonist has a lifetime of varied things — a ‘paper rain’ of magazines, letters, addresses, receipts, notes, envelopes, invitations, catalogues, programmes, telegrams, wrapping paper and so forth “arranged in a special, one might say carefully maintained, order.” We take such matters very seriously in Aotearoa. Shipping to these islands is expensive, hence what we can make and circulate on the ground is precious. Could Kaitoitoi be read as an antipodean archive of the beautiful boring here and now?

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Zines present a challenge being taught at Art and Design school as a DIY, social, anti-academic, all-comers medium. The Lockdown zines published by students at Otago Polytechnic School of Design presents personal narratives through text and illustration that is also political, produced in the context of the Lockdown. As a first-year design project, this work adopted the one-page folded mini-zine format as an effective means to learn formal design skills and allow for expressiveness, reflection, humour, and sincerity around everyday life experiences to come through.

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Publishing in Covid-times provides a catalyst for socially distanced connection. The Spinoff Covid-19 communications feature the work of illustrator Toby Morris in active collaboration with Dr Siouxsie Wiles to clearly, empathetically and respectfully communicate science information around Covid-19 to a wide audience, primarily online. Toby got started making short-run, self-published printed comic zines, which enabled him to develop his voice, style and ethics. These memorable illustrations exemplify publishing with global impact, being circulated, translated and used globally.

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Contrasted this with Sam Fraser’s Covid-19 diary, a typographic publication which expressively interpreting numbers pulled from public data sets pertaining to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Numbers — both banal and staggering — stack, recede and smoulder in this artful inventory of life during lockdown. Documenting a point in time, a story is told in black, white and soft grey tones, that is equally personal and subjective as well as public and factual.

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Print has gravitas. I am working with student researchers who are exploring the power and possibilities of illustration and graphic design being useful in understandings of where we are. I remind them about the easy access we have to the National Library and Archives and the National Museum being based in the Capital. Our grand narratives are reinvigorated every time a designer develops a fresh response to them that is thoughtful, succinct and useful. Nation Dates: Timelines of significant events that have shaped the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, produced by Wellington-based McGuinness Institute, draws upon the wealth of knowledge we have here to reflect, organise, visualise and communicate. This work has obvious practical value in contributing to the new national curriculum in history and beyond.

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The life of the ‘designer as archivist’ is full of contradictions — there’s a very real desire to locate edges and create seams in an endless ecology. An archive is useful as an ‘ordering device’ to create a sense of logic and navigation through random chaos. The archive poses both statements and questions. By drawing together a collection of disparate fragments (with all the tension and baggage each piece brings), the archive is active, boundless and full of potential. Multiple readings are discovered every time one is opened. We are presented with what is in there, yet at the same time are confronted with items are missing. This tension is ever present. Photographer and theorist Allan Sekula stated that “the central artifact of the archive is not the camera but the filing cabinet”. The structure we are craving is paramount and boundaries are essential.

So is this the end of the paper trail? I once daydreamed about countering ‘ too much information’ online by pressing a pause button on the internet – literally. No more browser windows to open, nothing more to doom-scroll down for, just a chance to slowly go back and read everything that is already there. Yet that would go against the prolific nature of artists, designers and publishers, who are inadvertently contributing to future archives every day with artwork, recordings, publications and various outputs. I hope something like Kaitoitoi can encourage researchers and practitioners to actively question the very notion of the archive, while considering what their own practice might look like in proximity to it — perhaps to actively embrace, resist or even redefine it.

This essay by Kerry Ann Lee and two accompanying illustrations by Lucie Blaževská are part of a commissioned series of essays, interviews and artworks commissioned by Creative New Zealand for our 2020 pilot of the Aotearoa Design Archive.

Creative NZ