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SASKIA GEVAERT

Interview by Piero Bisello


Piero Bisello Your father Yves Gevaert started to publish books in the 1970s. Can you tell me where his interest in printed matter came from and how he decided to create a publishing house focused on artist’s books and editions?

 

Saskia Gevaert In the early seventies my father was employed by the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and organised some of the first conceptual art exhibitions in Belgium, showing artists such as Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Hanne Darboven, Sol Le Witt, On Kawara and Marcel Broodthaers who he’d known for some years already and who he still regards as one the most important figures in his life. Even before leaving the institution for what I believe were personal reasons, he had worked on the so called catalogues of those exhibitions and that’s probably where his interest in founding his own publishing house came from. Later, he also became a keen book collector and antiquarian specialising in 19th and 20th century publications. But to be honest, it all might as well have been just a family vocation, since his father was a lawyer specialised in copyrights and his grandfather ran a printing house where he would play as a child. If you now consider what I do now and see that my sister works as a book binder, books just seem to be a genetical disease in our family (laugh).

 

PB What about you? Have you always been interested in publishing books or did this come in a later stage of your life?

 

SG My father never really made a distinction between family and professional life and as a result I grew up surrounded by all the artists he was collaborating with, listening to their discussions when they were hosted at our house, meeting them at openings. But later I felt I had to leave my father’s environment and, still a teenager, decided to study science. I was mainly interested in palaeontology as a link to anthropology and the big questions about origin of human life, but ended up studying geology and specialising in geochemistry of volcanoes, doing field research in Indonesia, Japan and Central America. After fours years of PhD studies though, I realised that I couldn’t handle the narrow specialisation and solitude required to do scientific research anymore and so I quit the academic world and science. For those years however, I had never completely stopped being interested in art and almost by chance, during an opening, I was asked to assist in the set-up of Harald Szeemann’s exhibition at Palais des Beaux-Arts. This moment marked the beginning of a two-year experience first as an exhibition assistant and later as a publication coordinator in Brussels and Luxembourg, where I really started to learn how to make books and catalogues. Only after, in 2008, I decided to work on my own publications. The opportunity came from my father who proposed me to publish two titles in collaboration with him: the book by Olivier Foulon Projet pour un Château and a project of four prints titled Cut from the Visible with John Murphy.

 

PB I understand your father is still involved, though unofficially, in Gevaert Editions and for some projects you still collaborate with him. However, what do you think your approach differs from his in those publications that are entirely managed by you?

 

SG I think my background does make a difference in the way I make decisions about publications. Also considering his education in art history and literature, I would say he is more of a “concept guy” (laugh), all his projects are somehow linked to ideas of writing in arts and to conceptual inputs. Even though I share some of these interests with him, my scientific education makes me in a way more “instinctive” in my decisions. Besides, contrary to my father, I often like to take care of book design and layout myself, even though these formal aspects are made in such strong collaboration with the artists that I could never consider them entirely as a work of mine.

 

PB I am very interested in hearing how the dialogue between artist, publisher and book designer happen during the development of a project and how the specificity of each changes the process. Can you give me some examples from your own experiences?

 

SG Probably the differences have to do with time and how the artist is engaged in each step of the production. For example, it’s incredible how Rodney Graham is able to come up with new proposals or alternatives, which makes the process quite demanding as for him it seems that there is always a “better” and new way to complete the project. In the case of Koenraad Dedobbeleer on the contrary, the discussion is often fairly quick because his ideas and demands are usually clear from the beginning and they rarely change. But whatever the pace is, my duty is to respect and follow the decisions of the artist while being aware the result will eventually meet a certain public whose role I honestly find myself more and more conscious of.

 

PB Do you think a publisher acts as a filter between the artist and the reader of artist’s books?

 

SG As a publisher, you are never innocent, not even when you work with novels. At the same time, I don’t like to be called a coach or curator, terms borrowed from other fields that have recently been used to describe my profession. It is clear that each publisher has its own identity, but our role for me is closer to what a good film producer is doing: putting together the best expertise that is required for each project.

 

PB What do you think your identity as a producer is?

 

SG People tell me that in my publications they always perceive a strong care for the physicality of the object book. Besides, the beginning of Yves Gevaert Editeur, with its direct link to the conceptual art scene, has indeed survived till today in my work, shaped into a particular attention to the intellectual and literary side of the arts and their translation into printed matter.

 

PB What about your selection process of new projects or new artists to collaborate with?

 

SG I am very often the one who asks artists to work with me and Gevaert Editions. Even if it’s not easy, I always try to understand whether the work of an artist would be effectively expressed through the printed medium or not, so when I visit an exhibition and I love the artwork there, I am not always convinced a collaboration with that artist could function. On a less pragmatical way, I would say that I need to be “poetically” or “naively” engaged with a project to decide to invest the required energy in it, a feeling that can come from very small and subtle details of the proposals.

 

PB Can you give me an example of one of these little details that convinced you to go for a specific collaboration?

 

SG In the she by Sylvie Eyberg, the decision to reproduce scans of existing texts at 1:1 scale, keeping the look they had when she came across them in French and English editions, hiding them in the folding of the book in such manner that they would act as a two-way mirror with regard to the reproduction of her work (a combination but also an “alteration” of the same texts), triggered a whole set of very exciting questions for me. The same can be said for the only image she choose to reproduce, in greyscale or in black, in mirror or not, in the centre of the book. From a quite simple proposal and playing with the construction of the object book, she was offering an extremely complex and interesting matter to the reader.

 

PB You just presented two recent works by Jef Geys: Mary Davenport/Lea De Luxe and Tekst Mary Davenport. Can you tell me about them? What did you like in these projects that made you decide to publish them?

 

SG Tekst Mary Davenport consists of a printed facsimile of a diagram Jef drew in 1975, held in a cardboard tube along with a contemporary digital transcription in Dutch, French and English of the same text. Mary Davenport/Lea De Luxe is a hand-annotated picture inkjet printed in edition of eleven. They both deal with social-economical, political and aesthetic issues through the use of specific figures such as plough and luxury horses. The story of how I came to these projects is quite long and has to do with the friendship between Jef and my father. To make it short, I can say that for both of us it was important to go back to Jef’s work after many years of missed collaborations. For Lea De Luxe, he came to Gevaert Editions with very precise ideas and he even took care of the printing himself, whereas for Tekst Mary Davenport we were the ones proposing him to both make the facsimile and the digital transcription. The latter took quite some time and a few attempts before he was satisfied with the rendering of the text.

 

PB Do you think his 1975’s text deals with contemporary issues and distributing again in a digitised form was a way for the artist to take it to our present age?

 

SG I don’t think Jef was particularly conscious of that, even though I must say that all his pieces from the seventies were indeed dealing with questions that are still here in 2015. This is something that always astonishes me in his work: the fact that even though it is often linked to a specific historical and geographical context, its parameters are completely transcending time and space.

 

PB Talking about formal quality of Tekst Mary Davenport, the transcription’s plain, digitally printed text seems to me more strongly connoted and linked to time than the original handwriting.

 

SG The idea was to translate one into the other trying to be the most neutral, a process that I realise locks you in a prison made of your own thoughts about what you think neutrality is. And still, my attempt was to make the text more accessible and readable while keeping some of the visual elements of the original handwritten piece, all this without turning this digitised transcription into a self existing piece.

 

PB When I see the hand gestures on photos like those of Jef Geys on his Lea De Luxe or that Olivier Foulon decided to include in his book Projet pour un Château you published in 2008, I wonder if the relationship between the flatness and the physicality of images will be explored by artists in a different way when the world will be even more overwhelmed by screens and images.

 

SG What I find interesting in Lea De Luxe is that Jef worked on a poor quality image, deformed by its enlargement and therefore highly manipulated even before the gestural interventions were added on it. The pictorial quality of so called bad images is something that’s really fascinating to me because it shifts the centre of attention from representation to its intrinsic quality, or its physicality as you say, its status and how we receive it. But the confrontation between form and content is something that’s been investigated for centuries and what I can probably say about our age is that there seems to be a higher awareness on how images are manipulated and manipulating.

 

PB Getting back to hand gestures, recent graphic design trends use them extensively, even on platforms such as the web where they can be treated as any other visual element, therefore flattening what used to be treated as a sign of corporeality. How do you see these changes influencing books?

 

SG I do see that the digital revolution has brought a stronger need for flat images while the quality of them has changed incredibly into something I have difficulties to adapt to. Besides, I tend to be wary about trends in general since I always see the risk of them being used for pure marketing purposes. It is also a matter of keeping a critical eye about images and their quality since once we adapt too much to the characteristic of the most popular ones, it is almost impossible to feel receptive to the others. I see it with my son who is very much used to high resolution screens and therefore he is not as much responsive to printed images. And coming to books, I am really convinced that those are living matters, they evolve, they have a life on their own which allows you to think about the intrinsic quality of images and feel critical about the current sacralisation of them.

 

PB And there’s barely any image of books on Gevaert Editions website. I guess I already have my answer about you believing in the online experience of books…

 

SG Yes, I have a big conflict with images and my website might give a hint of that conflict (laugh).

 

PB What about artist’s ebooks?

 

SG Honestly I don’t think I could produce any of those. I do believe it could be challenging and I have seen beautiful things made in that field, but I still need to consider books as objects in a very sensorial way, their weight, the smell of the ink, the feeling of the paper in your hands. I am not sure it’s good or bad, but I feel very linked to the tradition of book making and anything digital is still just a tool for me, not a goal. And this is not to say that I refuse technology, in fact since I became a scientist I’ve spent most of my life on a computer. It is rather the belief that I would not be able to defend or explain an artist’s ebook as much as I am with physical artist’s books. At the same time I am happy to hear that more and more text is available online, especially when it comes to scientific publications and novels, an ecological way to avoid the overproduction of printed matter which is something that does worry me.

 

PB You mention the importance of the tactile experience of artist’s books. Do you think their quality also comes from their rarity or accessibility of their experience?

 

SG No, not especially. Let me share an anecdote from my life story: I was raised with this idea that contemporary art, and especially conceptual art, was made for an elite. As a teenager, this attitude made me furious. Right now, I’ve accepted the fact that what I make doesn’t interest everybody and even if I would love to produce more copies and distribute them more extensively, I don’t think I could afford it. In this regard, if deluxe editions or a small numbers of copies allow me to economically produce the book in the way me and the artist envision it, I feel this is the right thing to do. At the same time, there is the big question of distribution, which is quite problematic in this business since much of it, just like it happens in the case of art galleries, goes through the participation to what I think is not the right platform and context to explain my work: artists’s book fairs. What I prefer is still to work with a few selected bookshops, even though I see that this sort of old fashion channel is disappearing.

 

PB Besides distribution to private buyers, I see a paradox with artist’s books and how democratic they can be: as you say they are fully experienced when you can touch them and browse through their pages although, in order to do so you would have to buy them since, when displayed in the context of institutional exhibitions, they’re often kept in inaccessible glass boxes. The problem in this case is that of preservation and in this regard I would like to ask you what conditions you impose to museums when you lend one of your publications for a public exhibition.

 

SG Even for my deluxe editions, I always produce what I call an exhibition copy that everyone can touch, whose preservation I don’t care about. This is not limited to museums but whoever is interested in experiencing them is welcome to do so at my studio.

 

PB Who is the typical buyer of Gevaert Editions books?

 

SG They are definitely not the same people buying other type of art like paintings or sculptures and the few times I did produce more “decorative” framed prints, I saw that the type of buyers changed completely. In fact I often hear so called normal collectors despising those interested in buying artist’s books and limited editions, as the fact that investing money in an art piece with which is not easy to financially speculate or that is not easily displayed on a rich house wall was something reserved to poorer collectors. Artist’s book collectors tend to be very knowledgeable about the technical aspects of book-making and the expertise behind it, often extending their interest to what is not contemporary, looking for an artisanal aspect that is not always easy to find in books produced nowadays. And then there is those people interested in the work of a specific artist who cannot afford a piece.

 

PB Artists’ books are said to contribute much less to an artist’s fame than other mediums such as painting or sculpture. Do you think publishing houses can effectively promote an artist that is not being represented by a strong gallery/dealer at the same time?

 

SG I think it is important that an artist interested in printed matter can be also represented by a gallery, though I did publish artists that were not. It is of course a matter of how influential the publishing house is and its ability to distribute the books. But galleries and publishers don’t have the same job at all and in my case the real purpose is producing rather than promoting. It happens sometimes that the collaboration between an artist and a publisher can “stimulate” the artist’s career, not by advertising it but by providing him or her with the right material to work with. I believe that is what happened with Rodney Graham and my father in the eighties when he made his book collection available to the artist for the production of new pieces.

 

PB We spoke about the importance of visual culture and images nowadays, something I consider so overwhelming that it will also influence so called pure writers or those working in the world of literature, pushing them to consider book design and layout as crucial aspects of their writing. From the point of view of a poet for example, do you think there’s any interest to make limited editions of a text in which they, just like artists do, would have total control over the book form?

 

SG First of all it’s hard for me to make a distinction between who is a writer and who is an artist and what should really matter is the work in itself. Having said that, I think this scenario of a writer wanting to make an oeuvre totale would be very exciting even though I don’t think there would be much at stake for him or her in terms of visibility. The world of books is really divided in fixed boxes: mass diffusion, poetry, art books, artist’s books, etc. This is especially true in terms of distribution channels rather than actual differences in content.

 

PB Talking about an oeuvre totale conceived by a writer, do you think there is such a thing as a book design that would help the reader focusing only on the words and make them forget it is a book they are holding?

 

SG I think there’s no formula and the most honest composition depends on the text itself, which as a designer I always read before shaping, since it is precisely that shape that would change the overall experience of the text. We spoke about achieving neutrality in the example of Jef Geys’ work I just published and how this eventually leads to a deadlock. So after all, why wanting to be neutral?

 

PB Maybe as a way to find out the best way not to be. The last question is about the future: what are you busy with at the moment and what can we expect from Gevaert Editions in the next months?

 

SG The works in progress are with Vaclav Pozarek and Koenraad Dedobbeleer. Besides, I am about to finish another collaboration with John Murphy on a sort of extension of a past publication. And for the far future, why not a children’s book or a scientific book about volcanoes (laugh).


http://www.gevaerteditions.be/

 

 

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Saskia Gevaert, studio view, 2015

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Olivier Foulon, Projet pour un Château, 2008, photo: Kristien Daem

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John Murphy, installation view, 2014, Epreuve. (Voyage Towards the Edge of the Night), 2013, Cut from the Visible, 2008, And Things Throw Light on Things, 2011

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John Murphy, Cut from the Visible, 2008, photo: Kristien Daem

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John Murphy, Cut from the Visible, 2008, photo: Kristien Daem

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Rodney Graham, The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story, 2012, photo: Kristien Daem

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Rodney Graham, The System of Landor’s Cottage. A Pendant to Poe’s Last Story, 2012, photo: Kristien Daem

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Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Numerous Unsettled Questions, 2011

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Sylvie Eyberg and Asger Taiaksev, the she, 2014

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Sylvie Eyberg and Asger Taiaksev, the she, 2014

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Sylvie Eyberg and Asger Taiaksev, the she, 2014

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Sylvie Eyberg and Asger Taiaksev, the she, 2014

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Jef Geys, installation view, 2015, Mary Davenport-Lea De Luxe, 2014

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Jef Geys, Mary Davenport-Lea De Luxe, 2014

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Jef Geys, Tekst Mary Davenport, 1975-2015