Banner Repeater: An interview with Ami Clarke
Banner Repeater is a reading room with a library of Artists’ Books and experimental project space/gallery, with a small bookstore on a train platform in Hackney, London. The material in the library is being developed into an online archive: BookBlast. The arts programme includes exhibitions with newly commissioned works, group exhibitions, and open call outs, with lectures to open up key ideas in art for further discussion. The relationship to the early network of distribution of the railways is central to how Banner Repeater operates, in a busy thoroughfare of passing traffic of over 4,000 passengers a day. It opens at 8am – 11am to take advantage of the packed platform to distribute artists publishing for free, six days a week into a main artery of the city of London. It was founded by Ami Clarke in 2010.
Ami Clarke is an artist whose practice is informed by and investigates the increasingly performative conditions of code and language in hyper-networked culture. Ideas that come of publishing, distribution and dissemination that lead to a critical analysis of post-digital production are shared in her practice as an artist and inform the working remit of Banner Repeater.
Ashley Janke: How did your process as a working artist lead you to opening your art space Banner Repeater on Hackney Downs train station, platform 1?
Ami Clarke: I began life as a sculptor, video maker and writer, whilst also working for architects for a time, well before running Banner Repeater (BR), and it makes sense to me to see it in terms of how we might think of a technical object, sited within the ebb and flow of the commuting public, enmeshed within the public transport networks. Banner Repeater provides a site, rich in a historical sense, as well as providing an opportunity to reflect on more recent technologies, in relation to writing, publishing, and of course distribution networks.
There’s been a tendency towards work throughout the arts programme that speaks of this human enmeshment with technology, as multi-media assemblages, that is often explored through a very expanded idea of publishing, that I’ve come to call Publishing as Process. Drawing on ideas in the field of network culture, and publishing, it focuses on how important precedents such as ideas of authorship, intellectual property, and copyright, inform the constitution of a reading public, and a subject that emerges through market relations.1 These ideas have recently reached a very interesting point of convergence through what it might mean to publish through the blockchain.
AJ: How do you choose the artists you work with in your program?
AC: There’s a variety of ways that we support artists, most often to develop new works, but also supporting artists and curators to realise their ideas without further collaboration. They all tend to come about through conversations, so it is quite an organic way of working. At times, we will approach someone with a specific work in mind, such as asking Jacolby Satterwhite to exhibit his video Reifying Desire 3.
It’s also great to be able to ask artists to respond directly to the site and items in the archive, and often we end up working with people who’s practice is particularly open to thinking through network culture. The ideas behind Publishing as Process, that take their cue from historical precedents in publishing are really pertinent to how we work as artists today. Many of the works we’ve supported have explored recent shifts in art production, both textual and visual, that tend to make visible the changing conditions in our co-evolution with technology.
AJ: How is your space funded?
AC: Banner Repeater was set up initially with an award from Arts in Empty Spaces, a local government scheme in 2009. We’re run for the most part, voluntarily, but fundraise towards maintaining good working practice with regards paying artists, writers, speakers, performers, technicians, and when possible, project management fees,
We fundraise in a variety of ways, receiving support from Arts Council England with four funding grants from 2010-16, as well as The British Council, the Elephant Trust, the Goethe Institut London, The Bryan Guinness Trust, and we were fortunate to win the Chelsea Arts Club trust artist led space award. All of these funding streams are dedicated to supporting the commissioning of new works, and exhibitions from artists, writers and cultural producers.
We have specially commissioned a print portfolio of artists’ works ranging from Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost, as well as local practicing artists, to raise funds throughout the year. We hold a bi-annual fundraiser, where some of our prints as well as other prizes are raffled to raise funds for the arts programme. We are very fortunate to have two annual benefactors on an on-going basis.
AJ: How do you define your relationship with archiving? How do you see the process of creating an archive relate to the process of a curator?
AC: The library provides an important bibliographic resource that all visitors to BR can browse, alongside a digital archive of Artists’ Publishing in development. Both of these projects have a desire to share the amazing material that we hold here, to make it available as a resource. We have many students visiting the archived material. At another level, and on a daily basis, it’s really rare that you get such a captive audience as those passengers waiting for a train so keen to browse the books. We’ve also found that people are hungry for something else to read, such as the free material we distribute, rather than the rather right wing free newspapers littering the railways, these days – some of which are published by the same people that fund the Daily Mail, lets not forget.
When we began BR back in 2009/10 there was a lot less awareness of how online protocols were affecting people’s everyday lives, and I wanted to develop an easy way of thinking through these complexities via something accessible such as the history of publishing. Network culture is incredibly complex, and the way it affects our lives is difficult to discern, but has recently been seen to contribute to what has been called a ‘post-truth’ state of politics. The capacity to analyse news productions distributed primarily through social media, with clickbait headlines getting the most hits, feeds back into the kinds of news produced, and we can begin to see certain new behaviours emerging that directly challenge ideas of democracy. It’s pertinent to remember that these ideas were practically considered conspiracy theory, prior to 9 months ago, until the Brexit and Trump presidential campaigns.
The archive also often creeps into the exhibition space and there’s always been a strong symbiosis between these two rooms. Most recently, the exhibition ‘A Throw Of The Dice Will Never Abolish Chance’ drew on Stephane Mallarmé’s poem of the same name, as a speculative site where several books appeared as material articulations. Unusually, a book of mine appeared in this, titled Ami Clarke, Author of the Blank Swan (2016) and the book Elaine Sturtevant: Author of the Quixote (2009) acted as two parts of the speculative puzzle. Yuri Pattison’s work also placed Phillip Zimmerman’s ‘Pretty Good Privacy’ book in two new custom server case works, drawing on his Banner Repeater Un-Publish commission in 2015. This exhibition acted as a site for two open workshops, where we invited some amazing speakers: Tom Clark, Paul Purgas, Alessandro Ludovico, Karen Di Franco, Ruth Catlow, Ben Vickers, Tom Pearson, and Malavika Rajnarayan, Prayas Abhinav and Satya Gummuluri of surfatial, where ideas of publishing as process framed further discussion on Thinking through the Blockchain and what it might mean to publish, and write through the block. The audio from these is captured in another stage of the puzzle at www.x-fx.org.
AJ: What have been some of the difficulties experienced in digitizing an analog (materials) archive?
AC: The complexity of our archive is extraordinary. The simple exercise of making items available to search criteria obviously requires some form of data management. The problem with artists’ books is that because they are so very varied, it is a nuanced and sophisticated task to develop a correct and apt categorisation that is also user friendly. The reductive process of data production is really not very useful in this instance, because it simply doesn’t help explain things better. It’s vital to maintain a level of complexity, but it’s actually how you access that information which I think is most interesting, and blockchain starts to think through these ideas, drawing on previous kinds of archival practices.
AJ: How do you think the representation of people in an archive affects the historical narrative which is created later?
AC: This is a good question. As we are well aware, through feminist, queer and critical racial studies, that a prevalence of white male heteronormativity in many of the narratives that dominate US and European histories. Who writes the history, and who is included in archival projects, matters, when these go on to inform future writers. The archive has developed primarily through donated material and we’ve introduced material through residencies in places such as Mexico city and Johannesburg, as well as hosting a display of Polish artists’ Books that were kindly donated to the archive, too. There is still much work to be done on improving this. The digital archive is very much about bridging some of the more obvious geographical distances that might exist between, say, Aeromoto in Mexico City, and the archive here.
I spent many years trying to develop a project with Hackney Libraries that became the Activating the Archive project at Hackney Archives, with a borough wide call out for artists’ publishing in Hackney. It was an attempt to bridge a gap between the library going public in the area, and the artist book producers in the borough. It became a fantastic exhibition some of what was happening in Hackney, with an article in Hackney Gazette on publishing as an art form, which has got to be a first. Hackney Archives kept some of those publications that had been produced in Hackney for their collection, which I very much liked the idea of as this would then inform the historical reading of Hackney in the future.
AJ: What do you think are the social and political effects of creating an archive that is accessible to the public, online or otherwise?
AC: The digital archive is clearly invested in these ideas a great deal. I think it’s of utmost importance that we take these projects upon ourselves; rather than letting Google or whoever else, take them up. There’s a clear case of a conflict of interest in something like the Google Book project that tried to get everyone to send Google scans of all the worlds books. In various ways, some to do with copyright, it became clear that Google as a for-profit company, was possibly not the best gatekeeper of the entire worlds books collection. Ben Lewis’s video Google and the World Brain summarises some of the concerns that arose, very well.
The digital archive, BookBlast has been seeded through cataloguing the material in the library since we opened back in 2010. The aim has been to generate an interactive user-driven database that constitutes a working research model: a catalogue and analysis of historical and contemporary artists publishing. We’ve chosen the principle of a wiki style approach with a user/editor interface applied to the idea of an archive. What this means is that the project introduces the possibility for users and producers to create their own metadata: crucial information, structuring a new model in retrieving information, to further understand, disseminate and share through the database. Through an emphasis on including anecdotal accounts as well as specialised information, cross-referenced and co-edited by users, we hope to provide a refined as well as contributive learning experience from many voices and histories. The project is on-going.
- N Katherine Hayles, “How We Became Posthuman,” 1999 ↩