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Catalogue Essay

Catalogue essay


MAMA, Rotterdam

May 11 – July 22, 2018

View exhibition here

View list of works here

Catalogue available here

The decision to name this exhibition Catalogue came after much consternation. Between the two of us who run Publication Studio Rotterdam there were assuredly many opinions. Sitting down to write this text now, beginning by naming the document ‘Catalogue Essay’—a file format within which italics are patently not permitted—feels like a tautology at best. Catalogue essay, Catalogue Essay, Catalogue essay.


Slight tonal variations of this nature, however pedantic on paper they may seem, are rather customary to a network of eleven studios, upheld by twenty-nine people, across seven countries and five languages, who despite their social, political and geographical differences somehow manage to share a name. That there are then at least three meanings to the word ‘catalogue’ is no coincidence. A compilation, to archive, a tool to advertise sale. For a name as didactic as ‘catalogue’—or, Publication Studio—there is a certain versatility you have to work to demonstrate. At the same time, there is a freedom within practice that allows each iteration of this umbrella ethos to determine itself. It is this treatment of the malleability of a name that led us to arrive at Catalogue. Because despite all the possible and varying manifestations there is still a certain social bound that ties its users together through the act of self-identification. As such, the exhibition is at once a display of Publication Studio, a catalogue to browse. At twice, it is an archive of ideas, penned (in the word’s most general sense) by our community of writers, artists, thinkers and makers and made public through the act of publishing.


If we are to take this social definition of publishing to the limit at which Publication Studio has worked for it to mean, then we can consider this act of translation from printing studio to art institution as too a type of publishing. How might we then apply our publishing practice to a different set of conventions, of aesthetic methodologies and histories, and how might we come to imagine the exhibition-form as a site of publication, not made only temporarily audible by its own duration, but rather a site of public record, inscribed as it were, into a political consciousness?


To do so we might first have to understand that it might not be possible to frame publishing as an aesthetic practice in this case, when the artworks we are framing can already be thought of as enacting their own gestures of publication. The belief that artworks may speak for themselves is a position held onto strongly throughout the history of art. That an artwork can have agency—and this being different to what the artist, curator or writer think of it—is a type of momentum that moves beyond the usual commentators and toward a general public. This logic might not be so different to the possibility of resonance attached to something published in the newspaper, broadcast from the TV or formatted within the scrupulously managed pages of a book. After all, public education (a category to which art belongs) and mass media are considered to be the organs of modern political consciousness.


While an artwork may not necessarily have an equally didactic message at heart, it is didactic in the sense that it too has a formal logic of address. As in publishing, certain conventions can help this along. The relationship that formality has to dissemination makes clear the possibility of knowledge present within an aesthetic form, as it illustrates how artworks can be fed into something that is not just an individual learning process. Actual knowledge garnered from aesthetic practice is contingent on the process of spectatorship, where both the artwork and the spectator value themselves as meaningful entities. This is to consider the act of addressing as one in the same as being addressed. In terms of publishing, this play between communicability and resonance seems key; it is a structure for distribution that allows differing modes of thought to eventually travel.


Each artist in this exhibition is busy within the discursive space around the production and dissemination of work. They engage in various ways with the unstable notion of the public sphere—the distribution and circulation of information, or the return to the museum as an actual site of public debate, for example. As such, they are formally translating questions we often ask ourselves as a publisher around the movement of goods and peoples across borders, both from the perspective of commercial enterprise and the sociopolitical possibilities within institutional practice. It is then no surprise that each of the artists have published with us before. By choosing to select artists from within our network we have aimed to reverse the usual role of the catalogue as something that follows an exhibition, instead treating it as a starting point and a means to illustrate a certain shared ethics of practice. ‘Catalogue’ then has a forth meaning: a community from which to draw.


Through working to organise a self-sufficient economy that allows us to publish what we love and believe deserves attention without regard to markets or abstractions, such as ‘potential audience’ and future sales, is to share with art the belief in a cultural field made resolute by practices of speculation intent on generating alternative avenues for social life. As our choice of name might suggest, to begin cataloguing these practices is to ensure their circulation.

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