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The palatial collection of the Library of Inextricable Books continues to grow, but it does not do so without consultation or participation. Almost as administering librarian does Esther de Vries partake in the correspondence and conversations to seek advice and gather new acquisitions. Here we find Esther de Vries in conversation with Linda van Deursen, responding to the ongrowing collection.

Esther: As a graphic designer, you work together with Armand (Mevis). Your designs use visual material provided by the artists – reproductions that represent something outside the design, in other words. Yet ultimately, the books you made that I’ve included in The Library of Inextricable Books do more than just present works of art. They are almost autonomous translations of someone else's work, in which form and content combine to yield a new meaning: a new perspective to see the work from, for example. I’m curious to hear how you would define an ‘inextricable’ book. And do you have any book (or books) that you believe should be included in this collection?

Linda: Inextricable, I had to look up the word: in Dutch it’s onlosmakelijk, and then it’s actually easy to understand what we’re talking about.

Esther: Entangled, maybe that’s a better word.

Linda: Yes, maybe. I think it’s very hard to get – maybe not from a designer’s point of view, but it’s hard for outsiders to understand what it might mean. I guess you’re specifically interested in publications in which design takes on an active role – supports or clarifies the art works in some way. And in doing so, it also takes more risks; looking for visual means within the rather conventional book format to question this format. Usually these interventions are quite visible. And often people may experience them as annoying or distracting. In our own case, we were often criticised of subsuming the artists’ work. So maybe we are even interpreting the work, from our point of view.

It’s a difficult position. It’s important and stimulating to keep an open mind when you’re editing or working on a book. This can lead to unexpected visual forms. And yet as a viewer or reader, I’m specifically attracted to books that have very little ‘design’ going on. That’s when I really feel free to look them through and form my own opinion. This quirk has always puzzled me. Armand (Mevis) and I have often spoken about this dilemma. Both of us love working as designers: to really push boundaries and fulfil an interesting role in this process. But at the same time, we generally both dislike design that gets in the way.

It feels as if I have two positions: that of maker, and of consumer/reader/viewer. This doesn’t mean I have a problem with heavily designed books; it’s simply that as a reader I’m not particularly interested in them. It sounds terrible, but I want to be upfront about this.

Esther: But do you think entangled books are always that heavily designed? Or could we also find examples that are more toned down?

That’s a good question. Looking at your examples, they’re obviously all quite interesting in a formal sense: very much there. I’m also referring to our own work, because the examples you chose from our work have a lot of presence too. But we also make books that are quieter, and I wonder if these are as interesting. Some of these quiet books also have strong moves or gestures, but perhaps they’re less in competition with the work – less dominant visually speaking. Like other books we did for Aglaia Konrad (Elasticity, 2003; Desert Cities, 2008). And I made a book for Ryan Gander once that has a more toned-down quality, but I really like it: it’s actually one of my favourites (Heralded as the New Black, 2008).

Aglaia Konrad, Elasticity

When you’re starting out as a designer, beginning to work with books, you tend to be rather reckless. You need to find a platform for your own work. Maybe it’s also about covering territory: showing people you are there. You experiment more, testing the boundaries of what you can do or want to do. It’s about exploring the medium. And then later, when you’ve gone through that phase, you’re confident enough to do less extreme things, more subtle designs. I think it’s a classic development that you often see in people’s work: when they start out they’re very experimental, and then they calm down and become a bit less temperamental as they progress. I think it’s still the same way of thinking, but it looks different – more subtle.

Esther: Couldn’t you see it from a slightly different perspective: that as a designer, you don’t so much ‘do whatever you like’, but rather depart from specific content. You see possibilities in this content – show things that would otherwise remain hidden?

Linda: That’s what Paul Elliman once called ‘silent editing’. As a designer, there is a lot of invisible work that you need to do, but will never be credited for. You’re talking about the pre-work here.

At the start of our careers, we had a very strong formal drive. We explored all sorts of formal aspects, looking for ways to express ourselves: typography, image making, collage… At a certain point, we started to get more closely involved in the pre-work. As a designer, you understand that some aspects of the artist’s oeuvre are more suited to a book than others. You may even ask the artist to make special works for the publication: or suggest a way to present the work, through photography for instance. We often take on the role of the editor. This means you have less work to do towards the end, since everything was more focussed to begin with.

Esther: Yes… the better the material, the less you have to do.

Linda: Take Julia Born’s books for example, they’re all really based on this kind of heavy editing in the beginning. To take even a single element of the work maybe – the essence of that work – and then make the book. They’re always ‘single-subject books’ in a way.

We may make books with a number of different ideas going on at the same time – even clashing occasionally. But with Julia it’s really this single line of approach, one angle.

Esther : Leaving editing aside for a moment, maybe we can focus more specifically on entangled design. I was recently looking through this book again (Carlos Amorales, Los Amorales, 2001, designed by Mevis & Van Deursen). The typeface, the capitals, these poster-like pages: all the parts fit.

When do you see this happening? So many books are made, but with so many of them you could use a different type of paper or a different font and it wouldn’t really matter. It’s nice, but it could just as well be some other option and that wouldn’t seriously affect the book’s content, or the experience of reading it. This feels like a missed opportunity.

Maybe I’m more appreciative of books that really spiral out of control and totally miss the point in some way, but nevertheless try to find a balance in this process. This is the kind of book that I would call entangled. Sometimes you feel this even without knowing how it’s done, or whether you like the book. But these books have this quality of ‘everything as a function’. I think a lot of your books have this quality.

Carlos Amorales, -los Amorales 2001

Linda: I understand your point. Maybe these books are more like works of art.

It’s not a case of the design framing or elevating the art, but rather of working with it. But still I think this aspect can be more toned down: it doesn’t have to be extreme in a formal sense.

Although I also like it when designers push the envelope, formally speaking. It’s exciting to have something in your hands that you can’t fully grasp at first glance. To also have to put in some work as a viewer to understand how the book was made, how it was put together. But you don’t come across books like this that often.

Students sometimes say to me: ‘I’ve been studying this book of yours and I know there is a rationale behind it, but I can’t find out what it is.’ And then I tell them: ‘Oh, it’s simply this idea.’ And they’re like: ‘Aha, now I see how the design works!’

We often adopt this particular conceptual approach to design – an idea of how typography and images should work together. It’s a system that you have to work within, and the layout is how it plays out. People sense it but it can be hard to detect. Armand may be even more conceptual than I am. He comes up with radical ideas like the one used for Barbara Visser’s book (Barbara Visser is er niet, 2006).

Barbara Visser Barbara Visser is er niet, 2006

I am more into narration, taking someone on a journey. I love storytelling. That may sound old-fashioned, but it doesn’t have to look old-fashioned – or be experienced as such.

Esther: What could be the value of books of this type, or this approach to design?

Linda: There are many aspects to this. One is energy, or joy. There’s a confidence and faith in the experiment.

These books work against all these rules and conditions set for book design: all these values that are deemed important. When you work this way, you’re also questioning this aura of the book. You’re basically saying: ‘It’s not sacrosanct.’

We were in a position to work with very young artists who weren’t yet established. The moment they started working for major galleries, the entire work process changed however – it no longer had the same energy.

Esther: which circumstances do you need to make an ‘inextricable’ book?

Linda: We first started making books at a time when the traditional roles within production and publishing were disappearing. We go to handle everything, simply as a result of developments in technology. That gave us full control over the publication. You also saw new types of publishing houses appearing that were financed by art collectors. We worked a lot with one particular publisher: Artimo, which was run by Gijs Stork. Gijs chose the artists, many of whom had just left the Rijksakademie (people like Meschac Gaba, Carlos Amorales). He brought them in touch with us, and then basically let us do our thing: he placed a lot of trust in us. And the artists were interested in the process: in many cases it was their first publication. Some of the artists were very hands-on, but most of them weren’t. They were like: ‘This is your job, your thing.’ They often showed up with a bag full of work – literally, plastic bags – or CDs full of images.

In Carlos Amorales’s case, at first we had a hard time fully fathoming the work by simply looking through the material. I remember our first proposal actually make him quite angry. It was only after he started talking about this work that it turned out he had beautiful stories to tell – stories that were valuable in understanding what his work was about. I said: ‘That’s really interesting – there’s much more to it than what you read in those images. You should write about them. Why don’t you write long captions for each photo: more like photo journalism?’

After a few months I asked him: ‘How are you doing with the captions?’ And later on, when it was starting to get urgent (because the book had to be published concurrent with an exhibition at the Migros Museum in Switzerland), he came by and said: ‘It’s impossible, I can’t do it…’ – he had two sheets of paper – ‘… this is all I have.’

But when I read what he had written, I really liked the words. So I said: ‘We’ll just use them as headlines rather than captions.’

I started by placing these words on the page. And since I knew the timeline for these photos, I started combining the words with the images, trying to make interesting combinations. It was fun. I remember Stuart Bailey, who was working in our studio at the time, looking over my shoulder every once in a while, laughing and saying: ‘I want a poster of that page!’

The book for Carlos Amorales made it clearer that the project had this kind of bravura. It was very outgoing: it looked at this theatrical world of wrestling, the campiness of that world. I think those shouting headlines – this news-like framing of images – worked.

One of Carlos’s friends, Gabriel Lester, once told him after this book was made: ‘Now I finally understand your work.’

That’s the best compliment you could get. I think that in order for us to pull this off, we had to understand the work, and Carlos needed to work to help us understand.

It was easy to make. I even became a bit too enthusiastic: at one point I had made 300 pages. Gijs came by and asked: ‘Do you really need to make that many pages?’ After looking it through with a critical eye and narrowing it down to about 200 pages, it was a lot stronger and more concise. So Gijs was very hands-off, but every now and then he had a valuable perspective to offer.

Esther: So the preconditions for making a book like that are: leeway from the publisher, but also a willingness to work together, to experiment. And at your end, a willingness to really try and understand the work.

Linda: I think that’s crucial: you need to develop a perspective on the work. As soon as you have that perspective, you both have a means to get the artist on board and to make a design that aligns with this view. That’s really important since it means you always have something to return to.

Esther: What do you see as your most entangled book, apart from the examples I picked?

Linda: I like that you picked Meschac Gaba, Library of the Museum of Contemporary African Art, because I think we have a very clear position in that one: a clear take on his work. Whenever Meschac Gaba had an exhibition, he would take it as an opportunity to realise another aspect of his imaginary Museum of Contemporary African Art. So the work is kind of political, and it’s creating these loosely organised museum spaces. Everything looks improvised, but by labelling it as such, it becomes – in a Marcel Broodthaers way – a museum. So it made sense to treat this book as an extension of this approach: as a catalogue for this museum. We just played along. We designed an identity for his museum – quite minimal, basically these two lines – and printed it on stationery with a carbon copy backing, once again a reference to the bureaucratic environment of the museum.

Meschac Gaba, Library of the Museum Volume 1, 2001

His installation documentation was also quite casual: they were photos he had taken himself, bad quality pictures. We were like: ‘How can we make a book with these pictures?’ Eventually we came up with the idea of overlaying them with typography, so they looked like items that had been published and produced by the museum: posters, invitations, book covers. All of a sudden it no longer mattered whether the images were good or bad.

We understood and wanted to support his work, and at the same time we had to make some bold decisions. Can you imagine how radical it was to put typography in a picture supplied by the artist? As a designer you’re not supposed to touch the work itself. But Meschac Gaba got it.

This shows how concerned we are with conventions, and how hard it is to break them.

Esther: I think it serves as a good argument for this specific approach to design.

Linda: I think we were fortunate to be working at that period in time. Because considering what you see today – with all these book fairs… and the books you encounter there. They’re all immaculate, perfect, but they’ve become quite conservative again. There’s a kind of a new conservatism in books. Or maybe conservatism isn’t the right word – it’s more how they all seem to agree on something established. This has once again made it harder to come up with other approaches. And artists are also aware of these new standards. The beauty of the book – it’s such an important element nowadays. Everything is perfect in terms of typography, the choice of paper, the dimensions, the tactile value, everything is super-well-addressed. When we started designing books, we knew next to nothing about these qualities – books weren’t that ‘studied’ yet.

Esther: I think what you were just describing is the new coffee table book.

Linda: Yes. I didn’t want to use that word, but: exactly.

Esther: Is art the only field where you can find entangled books?

Linda: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s happening in literature, is it?

Esther: Well, I saw this one book (YELLe, Norbert Beule) designed by Melle Hamer. And we also talked about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing earlier.

Linda: Yes, that’s a very important collaboration between a designer and an author (Richard Hollis and John Berger). But what was interesting about that book, I think, was that it started out as a series of television programmes. To translate that… if it hadn’t been a television series first, it would have looked totally different. So maybe with that in mind…

Esther: Maybe with entangled books, this other medium is often just around the corner. In the case of the Meschac Gaba book, a museum; in the case of the Carlos Amorales book, a boxing poster, a road trip.

Linda: Yes, like this book Will Holder designed: For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat That Isn’t There (curated by Anthony Huberman). That’s a typical essay book, similar to Marshal McLuhan’s collaboration with Quentin Fiore on The Medium is the Massage. I think that form, in which the text is supported by images and graphic elements, is similar to an extent. At the same time, Will pushed all the art back to the end of the book, in the form of postcards – something I wouldn’t even dare propose. Will entered into dialogue with the author and the author’s images. That takes guts, and it’s typical Will Holder. I love that book.

For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat That Isn’t There, 2009

Esther: I found it liberating: the sense of humour and the lightness that came in with this heavy topic.

Linda: Will always has this slightly cannibalistic approach to work, in which he has to ‘eat himself through the subject’, in a visibly and visually interesting way. It often becomes a dialogue too. This dialogue is the only way he can make a book. He has to go through this process.

Esther: Perhaps making an ‘entangled book’ is about a relationship as it is. You can only make a book like that after establishing a real relation with the artist and the work. Otherwise it’s impossible.

Linda: Yes, working together with someone, engaging with the work, trying to find how you’d like to approach this book: that’s what excites me. It doesn’t mean that everything I want to do is set in stone. If someone says: ‘Hey, this doesn’t work for me,’ I don’t mind rethinking my proposals.

But sometimes I’m really convinced this is the way to go, and I can’t understand why other people are still hesitant. I remember making a book for Geert van Kesteren (Why Mister Why, 2004). I think he was looking for the perfect classic photo book, which we refused to make. And when we brought over the book, he didn’t seem particularly excited by it. He really had to come to terms with what we had made. It was only after people praised him for it and the book started winning awards everywhere, that he began to appreciate what we had done, and our collaboration. This eventually led to another book (Baghdad Calling, 2008)

It can often be rather heavy to specifically engage with the things that you don’t like. For example, I find aesthetically problematic aspects of work quite challenging: ugliness! These often turn out to be the best projects. I would hate only having beautiful images to work with. I think I’d be lost.

But returning to your question: why don’t we see these books more often?

I don’t know. The art world is inherently conservative (not towards art, but towards design), the publishing world is conservative, maybe the book itself is conservative as a format. After all, we’re talking about a 500-year-old medium. But it is interesting to remember how experimental it was at the very beginning: how bookmakers explored and tested the technical possibilities. I draw confidence from this. Every new medium goes through a very fruitful, experimental phase. Television was fantastic in the beginning; early films were amazing.

I always try to see this medium as if I’m working with it for the first time. Really look at it with fresh eyes – see if this can lead me to new approaches to design. In every book I work on, I try to do something I’ve never done before.