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Mexican-born, Amsterdam-based conceptual artist Ulises Carrión is perhaps best known for his 1974 text “The New Art of Making Books.” In this text, Carrión defines this new art as one that rejects literary aspects of the book in favor of a rigorous exploration of the book’s material, sequential, and graphic elements. While Carrión achieved success as a Mexican literary writer early in his career, by way of concrete poetry, he developed an intermedia arts practice marked by a thorough, yet broadminded analysis of systems and structures of communication.
Very consciously, Ulises Carrión worked on pre-existing concepts, materials, technologies, processes and forms to give new visibility to the forgotten ghosts and ignored phantoms of our myths and ideologies. Moreover, all his work is based on the idea of mechanical reproduction. But, and this is decisive, he never ever repeated anything. Quite the contrary. Before he got bogged down by repetitive procedures, he gave a farewell to launch new expeditions into unexplored territory.
Carrión arrived at visual art practice through his interest in print culture and media, which led him to engage with mail art and eventually performance, film and video. He was closely involved with the In-Out Center, an alternative Amsterdam gallery which drew artists of diverse cultural backgrounds, whose work in some way commented on Dutch art and society from their own cultural perspective.
Through this trajectory, Carrión rejected the traditional focus on individual artworks in favor of a broader concept of “cultural strategies.” Challenges, like Carrión’s, to the conditions of social and economic exchange within established art galleries and museums were widespread in the 1970s. However, whereas artists like Hans Haacke pursued an “institutional critique” from within, Carrión and others forged a parallel, less market-oriented framework where artists themselves took on the roles of curator, critic, and distributor.
Perhaps Carrión’s most radical cultural strategies were his “public projects,” which go the furthest in decoupling his practice from the institutional frames of art and literature. Though the intent of the projects varies, each of their strategies place these institutional frames in contradistinction with a more diffuse field of social action.
Ultimately, Carrión’s emphasis on cultural strategies that operate within collectively and autonomously organized frameworks offers an important model for both artistic practice and art-historical study today. Principally, these cultural strategies were instrumental in forging new ways of ‘making public’ and ‘making a public’ that did not depend on geographic proximity.
In 1975 Carrión pioneered an artist-run bookstore and gallery called Other Books and So in Amsterdam. This was the first bookstore dedicated specifically to artists' publications: visitors to the shop could browse a selection of artists' books, magazines, postcards, sound works, and multiples produced by experimental artists and writers from around the globe. Over its four-year run, Other Books and So held over 50 exhibitions, including solo exhibitions by Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow, Dorothy Iannone, and Jiri Valoch and group exhibitions on artists' books, mail art, and sound poetry and related practices.
A postcard announcing the opening of the shop described it as "a space for the exhibition and distribution of "other books, non books, anti books, pseudo books, quasi books, concrete books, conceptual books, structural books, project books, plain books." Carrión's playful list of the shop's contents emphasizes that his interest was not necessarily in art or in books by artists, but rather in unconventional experiments with the book form originating from a variety of disciplines. In 1977, the shop moved to a slightly larger space at 259 Herengracht. Programming at Other Books and So's new location emphasized Carrión's deepening involvement in Mail art: many exhibitions were devoted to mail art, and the shop published the 12-issue mail art periodical Ephemera, edited by Carrión, Aart van Barneveld, and Salvador Flores.
Carrión conceived of Other Books and So not as a commercial enterprise, but as an artwork in itself; as he stated, "Where does the border lie between an artist's work and the actual organization and distribution of the work?" As reflected in this sentiment, Other Books and So was part of a growing number of artist-run initiatives in the 1970s.
Carrión understood these initiatives within a broader shift in artists’ practices, acting autonomously from critics and the academy. As he writes, “Artists have started publishing books and magazines, distributing them, managing galleries and other art centers, organizing cultural events that involve various media and specialized professions. In other words, they have abandoned the sacred realm of art and entered the wider, less well contoured field of culture.”
Despite its short run, Other Books and So served as a key meeting place for international alternative artists' networks and as a reference for later generations of artist publishers.
In 1987 Carrión created his book *For Fans and Scholars Alike* in the genre of self-conscious codex, its pages are layout templates populated with punctuation and abstract, not quite legible marks. The book creates a set of structured pages, but their function is to call attention to such structures, rather than to use them in a vehicular way. The communication cycle is short-circuited. Carrión is intent upon showing the graphic language of book form and appreciating the aesthetic and rhetorical properties of these forms. Thus the call to attention for both fans and scholars, those who love the book form and those who use it. Carrión's output was limited, and his life brief, and the well-realized perfection of this small work makes it a reference point for work in the book format that references books as subject and object.
In The Century of Artists' Books, Johanna Drucker cites this book as an exemplar of textual self-reflexivity: Carrión "composed pages which are organized in graphic terms but do not contain any specific verbal or visual messages. The book displays a self-conscious level of organization as a structural feature of a work, but not necessarily tied to the production of meaning in the pedestrian sense. But the book is neither nonsense (silly gibberish) nor without sense (meaningless)--instead it presents structure as meaning, as the sum total of means of producing meaning, and thus offers structure to our view for analysis".
“Written language is a sequence of signs expanding within the space; the reading of which occurs in the time. A Book is a space- time sequence. Books existed originally as containers of literary texts. But books, seen as autonomous realities, can contain any written language, not only literary language, or even any other system of signs. A book can also exist as an autonomous and self-sufficient form, including perhaps a text that emphasizes that form, a text that is an organic part of that from: here begins the new art of making books.” -Carrión, The New Art Of Making Books.
Carrión on ‘What a Book Is’: A book is a sequence of spaces. Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment - a book is also a sequence of moments. A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.
A writer, contrary to popular opinion, does not write books. A writer writes texts. The fact that a text is contained in a book, comes only from the dimensions of such a text; or, in the case of a series of short texts (poems, for instance), from their number.
A literary (prose) text contained in a book ignores the fact that the book is an autonomous space-time sequence. A series of more or less short texts (poems or other) distributed through a book following any particular ordering reveals the sequential nature of the book. It reveals it, perhaps uses it; but it does not incorporate it or assimilate it.
In the old art the writer judges himself as being not responsible for the real book. He writes the text. The rest is done by the servants, the artisans, the workers, the others. In the new art writing a text is only the first link in the chain going from the writer to the reader. In the new art the writer assumes the responsibility for the whole process.
In the old art the writer writes texts.In the new art the writer makes books. To make a book is to actualize its ideal space-time sequence by means of the creation of a parallel sequence of signs, be it linguistic or other.