Benjamin Willems Lost, lo-fi book objects that have something to teach normal book objects

The publications I collected for this bibliography span from spotty, bleeding photocopies, to traditional trade paperbacks, to thoughtful monographs and unbound literary objects. As an enthusiast of distinctive printed matter, I see the care and craft and thrift put into these books, and I recognize that the makers of these books were people who had “more important things” to do than create these books. These were books that would not be printed millions of times, and only a few people would ever see them.

I used the word “thrift” up there because these publications are physically conventional. Even Letters from Home (Association for Non-Commercial Culture, 1992), the least conventional of the objects I collected, is pretty conventional. It’s a small box full of thick cards the size of a bookmark. One for each letter of the alphabet. And similarly, the Image Bank Post Card Show (1977) is a set of postcards. They are beautiful, compelling, and intriguing postcards, but they are still postcards. Making normal-looking publications might mean that they are more accessible to non-artists—more inviting to lovers of traditional books—but it also means that the publications are more normal looking. The more normal looking a publication, the more difficult it is for it to make a long-term impression—as opposed to, say, a sculpture or installation that spatially encourages the spectator to become a participant in something. What makes these books less conventional is of course how they were produced. (For example, David W. Harris’s Pamplemousse: an act (Intermedia Press, circa 1960s) is just a bunch of pages stapled together.) Not to mention the people who produced them and the content inside of them.

What do amateur and lo-fi conventional book objects have to say in a world full of conventional, even profitable, book objects? Many of these publications might fall under the zine umbrella, if that helps: Intermedia Society helped artists create new work and publications together and provided a safe space to investigate new technologies from a more critical perspective. The Association for Non-Commercial Culture distributed interventionist art and pamphlets to tens of thousands of Vancouver residents. The Association for Non-Commercial Culture, especially, attempted to start better conversations about women’s issues and about the groups of people Vancouver was pushing to its margins. Some of these publications, though, are just exhibition catalogues and normal-looking books of poetry. Do they have anything worthy to say?

Even the normal-looking, machine-bound paperbacks I discovered felt exceptional once I opened them. As if the authors themselves had given me their publications and said, “Hey, I saved this one for you.” I wish every book, exhibition catalogue, and postcard that exists would feel this way, even if I hate what it says or how it says what it says. But many publications don’t make anybody feel anything.

Maybe I find awful Xeroxes fascinating because I live in a market saturated with “designy,” commodified book objects that care an awful lot about symmetry. But I don’t identify these publications primarily as scrappy, lo-fi objects or “artist-run-centre bullshit.” And that’s usually a good sign.

I wish that every exhibition catalogue I took home felt as personal and handmade as Carole Itter’s Western Blue Rampage does. I wish more conventional poetry publications made by major publishing houses would incorporate collage and news clippings as have those of Avron Hoffman (Chicken teriyaki: Haikus, odes, treaties, lunch-hour poems, etc., et. al) and Diana Kemble (Immersion). To get even more sentimental: you can see the human DNA in the way the paper is cut and how unreadable an author’s handwriting is.

I know that some sort of dedication goes into every publication, no matter how mediocre a publication turns out to be—short-run and self-published objects especially. In the publications I’ve collected for this bibliography, the dedication seems apparent even at a glance. There was no money to be made (surely) and probably only a bit of hope that these books would see daylight for more than a few years. Even tens of thousands of Vancouver residents is a small number of people to produce a pamphlet for.

And now, in order to access Intermedia’s publications, you have to wait for a library attendant to locate them in the UBC Rare Books and Special Collections automated storage and retrieval system. Or send an email to the (fantastic) employees at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery so they can retrieve them and set aside some desk space for you. You can then examine pamphlets (that were once freely available to any BC Ferries customer) for an hour or two. Even Henry Rappaport’s website makes no mention of his book Dream Surgeon, which Intermedia Society published. This was all probably to be expected, but it seems pretty sad to me.

Reading list

Acconci, Vito, Mac Adams, Eleanor Antin et al. Image Bank Post Card Show. Vancouver: Image Bank, 1977.

Bontogon, Eric, Margot Leigh Butler, Ana Chang et al. Out of Place. Vancouver: Association for Non-Commercial Culture, 1992.

Butler, Margot. Moving. Edited by Sandra Edmunds. Vancouver: Association for Non-Commercial Culture, 1992.

Edelstein, Susan. Close your eyes and count to 100 . . .. Vancouver: Association for Non-Commercial Culture, 1992.

Harris, David W. Pamplemousse: an act. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1960.

Heinrich, Soren, Brock Tully, Sherry Merk, and Diane Prytula. With “Hope” We Can All Find “Ogo Pogo.” Edited by Sherry Merk and Diane Prytula. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1982.

Hoffman, Avron. Chicken Teriyaki: Haikus, Odes, Treaties, Lunch Hour Poems, etc., et al. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1981.

Itter, Carole. Western Blue Rampage. Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 1990.

Itter, Carole. Word Work. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1974.

Jankola, Beth and Malcolm McTaggart. The Way I See It. Intermedia Press, 1974.

Jones, Amy, Margaret Naylor, and Jill P. Weaving. Letters from Home. Vancouver: Association for Non-Commercial Culture, 1992.

Kemble, Diana. Immersion. Vancouver: Western Front, 1983.

Lander, Tim. Faces: A Poem. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1975.

Mootoo, Shani and Monika Kin Gagnon. Shani Mootoo: Photocopies and Videotapes. Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 1994.

Rappaport, Henry. Dream Surgeon. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1974.

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