Paul Thompson: Zooks

Originally posted Monday, July 06, 2015

Paul Thompson, from Wellington, New Zealand, introduced himself to Lik Ink via an email in September 2013. He asked if we could exchange artist books. He was interested in Andrew S. Guthrie’s “Broken Records: 1960-1969”, as his ‘7.34’ used the same accordion or leporello format.

New Zealand might seem close to Hong Kong, but it takes ten hours to fly there. This distance, shortened by the internet, seems closer to Asia than Europe or America, but perhaps New Zealand is far from everywhere, just as Hong Kong used to be. But it made sense that Mr. Thompson would get in touch with Lik Ink; the relative proximity was shortened by way of our similar interests.

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‘7.34’ published in an edition of 50 by Wai-te-ata Press (Victoria University of Wellington)

“The title comes from the commuter train I catch to work every day and the form of the book is a leporello with a train track one on side and a long poem on the other. The poem is about how at every station when the train stops one of the classical Muses gets on (each is modelled on a real woman I observed). When all 9 are on board all the other commuters, who of course are unaware, start writing poetry on their laptops or phones or tablets and the train turns into a giant poetry machine as it comes into Wellington.” Paul Thompson

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from ‘Imprint’, Spring 2013 (Vol. 48, No.3, p. 12)

As already noted by Lik Ink, if not over and over again, the category of “artist books” is so ill-defined that Lik Ink arbitrarily calls them “artist books”. Most people know what I’m talking about. There is a cognoscenti, though to the initiate I might be unable to provide a succinct definition. Mr. Thompson is well aware of this problem, as he states in the article shown above, “Just as three lawyers can mean four opinions there are perhaps as many definitions of what an artist’s book is as there are makers and commentators.”

To partially remedy the vague boundaries of this category, while yet blurring them further, Thompson created “Zooks”, a combination of “zines” and “artist books” (or simply books). Though he invented the term, his touchstones are obvious; it is a kind of code. The term “zooks” indicates the way “artist books” aspire to uniqueness, a one of a kind or limited edition, and a higher quality print or publisher, while on the other hand, “zines” (the poor but charismatic cousin of “artist books”) are D.I.Y., self-distributed, and use the materials-at-hand.

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‘Book 101’ is a numbered edition of 25. The materials include; paper, card, bookcloth spine, sewn and glued. Even though hundreds of thousands of books are published world-wide every year probably 99.9% are in the codex form using standard materials. The only apparent difference is in design but even then the different genres of book (Romance, Chick-Lit, textbook, academic, etc.) usually conform to the ‘look’ established and expected for that type of book. Thus they are a fully industrialized and standardized product. ‘Book 101′ comments on this and then raises the question of content – is 99.9% of published content as repetitive as its form?’ Paul Thompson

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‘A line is a dot going for a walk’, is inspired by painter Paul Klee’s famous saying. This zook was produced in collaboration with noted New Zealand artist Bob Kerr who, like Klee is besotted with drawing and the line. With a colophonic mini-essay by Paul Thompson, it features a series of drawn figure-studies that increase in linear complexity as the work unfolds. Produced on a photocopier in an edition of 50 numbered copies each zook is individualized by a hand-drawn line that walks along the back from the first to the last fold. Paul Thompson

But it is not only the formal qualities of “zines’ and “artist books” (combined into “zooks”) that are addressed by Thompson’s neologism. While researching the “zine” collection of the Wellington Public Library, he noted the relative access to, and distribution for, creative productions: “The fact that this library holds (and issues) zines while art galleries usually collect artists’ books struck me as a telling example of two very different book cultures operating in New Zealand.”

He comes back on his definition later when also he acknowledges, “Zine production ranges from the disposable to the crafted and collectable, and many institutions now include them in their printed and ephemera collections.”

His “zook” is an attempt to resolve the dilemma of definition, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner, as he concludes, “The term zook may be superfluous without tighter boundaries.” and “New terms enter the language everyday, some last, such as the fearsome Jabberwocky or the elusive Snark promulgated by polymath Lewis Carroll, and some have lives as brief as a shorter lived atomic particle.”

In lieu of these indefinites, Thompson finally provides an ambiguous question/statement for the “zook”, putting its conceptual impetus at the forefront with a pertinent nod towards a book-that-refers-to-books:

“To come up with a precise definition of the zook, is it possible to marry Marcel Duchamp’s idea that art is any object that the artist presents as such with Johanna Drucker’s location of the artist’s book within such a wide field (encompassing chap books, fine press, democratic multiples, exhibition books, etc.) that ideally remain referential (however obliquely) to the concept, craft of chronology of the codex? . . . Possibly not.”

I finally met Paul when he visited Hong Kong at the end of May 2015. I took him to a Cha Chaan Teng in Tai Hang where he showed interest in the potent Ying Yang, a mix a strong tea, coffee, and sweetened condensed milk. He was kind enough to answer a few question about his practice.

Linink: What initially led you to the production of “artist books”?

Paul Thompson: For many years I was primarily both a photographer and a writer. My books, on cultural or aesthetic subjects, were conventional in that they were well-designed standard products by commercial publishers. However about seven years ago I was working on a biography of Alan Loney who is one of New Zealand’s more progressive poets and printers and, as my research deepened, I became more and more aware of the separate cultures of poetry, self-publishing, fine printing, multiples, mail art, artists books. Philosophically I had always been fascinated by the idea that form and content were merely manifestations of the same reality and so I was sort of ‘captured’ by the idea of the artist’s book which can combine all or any of the above genres. I was also attracted to the democratic non-commercial ethos that so many practitioners in the field subscribe to.

Linink: What other producers of “artist books” in New Zealand have you had contact with or been influenced by?

Paul Thompson: I have contact with a few of New Zealand’s more regular practitioners, such as Tara McLeod and Terrie Reddish. I would also include librarians who collect for their institutions. One of the interesting things is that the public library in Wellington where I live has an extensive loan collection of zines and many of these I would categorize as artist’s books. The library is very supportive. Every year there is a “ZineFest” in the four main cities of New Zealand. I also travel a lot overseas so have the opportunity to see what goes in in other places. I regularly visit Monica Oppen in Sydney, Australia and the Artist Book Bookshop in London.

Linink: In general terms, how would you characterize the approach to contemporary art in New Zealand as compared to any other place in the world?

Paul Thompson:New Zealand is like any country that has a range of approaches to contemporary art. Some artists ape what is going on in the rest of the world; their work might fit seamlessly into any contemporary art exhibition in Wellington, Sydney or Stockholm. Maori artists, use their immediate cultural, physical and social environment to create work that is themed, or by its realization, is definitely from here. Others combine an internationalist perspective with a South Pacific sensibility. So we get work that can be identified as coming from here and other work that exists in the somewhat homogenized atmosphere of international contemporary art.

Paul Thompson is a creator of zooks and artist’s book. He also works as Deputy Director and Head of Content at Museums Wellington in New Zealand.

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