Interview with Layla Tweedie-Cullen by Graphic magazine
Published in Graphic issue #33: Bookshops 2015
How did you start your bookshop and where did the name come from?
I initiated split/fountain shortly after returning to New Zealand to live after eight years overseas. I studied graphic design in the Netherlands at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and Werkplaats Typografie, and after that I moved to the USA to take up an offer of a design fellowship position at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When I returned to Auckland my immediate response to the local situation was that there appeared to be a paucity of independent publishing projects that encouraged and sustained open criticism around design. In Europe I encountered a breadth and depth of design practice that didn’t exist in New Zealand due to our small population size. split/fountain was founded as a platform for facilitating collaborative projects and for presenting art publishing happening both locally and internationally. Although initially based on international models, the project has developed in unexpected ways due to the unique local conditions in Auckland. split/fountain is more than a bookshop, as the name’s reference to blended ink technology suggests, it merges at least three forms of production and dissemination—art, design and print—through its operation as project space, exhibition venue, niche publishing house, design studio, reading room, and pocket-scaled laboratory for urban aesthetics and collaborative thinking. The project’s title also alludes to Duchamp’s infamous fountain—split/fountain sees its gradations between commerce, art, ideas and printed matter as speculative, experimental, and adaptable.
Please tell us a brief history of your bookshop.
Since opening at the end of 2008 split/fountain has operated out of two Auckland locations. The first venue was a storefront space in an historic retail area on Karangahape Road, next door to a laundromat, and in the vicinity of a numerous galleries and artist run spaces, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, and the largest concentration of adult shops in the city. split/fountain started out as a bookshop but has evolved considerably over time, there is now increased focus on split/fountain publishing, exhibitions and events. At the beginning of 2012 split/fountain moved to the second level of a commercial building. The opening press release stated: “When an identical project recurs, in a different location, we must think of it in a fresh manner, see it under a somewhat fresh angle, apprehend it in different relations from those in which it last appeared”. In contrast to the retail store, or a white cube gallery, the new space felt like a commercial office and was also considerably larger. The neutrality of this new venue has encouraged a far more experimental approach by artists who have subsequently produced projects in the space.
What kind of books can be found in your bookshop?
What are their characteristics in comparison to those that other art bookshops have?
Most of the publications we stock are not available anywhere else locally because we are interested in representing small and independent publishers, artists’ books and projects by designers. There are very few art bookshops in New Zealand and they appeal predominantly to mainstream sensibilities with books from high-volume publishers and distributors. split/fountain offers a small, curated selection of titles that complement the split/fountain programme of exhibitions and events. We are particularly interested in publishing that is critical, intelligent, open-ended and experimental.
Who are your key customers?
Designers, artists, writers and curators frequent split/fountain regularly. Students are also an important component of split/fountain’s clientele; they often assist with events and exhibition setup, and are interested in pushing the parameters of design as a discipline as much as art.
Do you also publish books? If so, for what?
Publishing is an important part of the split/fountain programme, and plays a central role in communication and engagement with a wider audience both in New Zealand and internationally. We regard design and publishing as a medium for critical activity rather than a commercial language, our aim is to represent a broad perspective that is responsive to the various models of multiplication and distribution of artists’ ways of working. distracted-reader is one of our most recent publications, a series edited with writer Allan Smith. Each issue has a changing format to best suit the material being presented. distracted-reader does thinking as making, and print design as speculative thought. This approach allows split/fountain to promote the idea of reading as a form of collaboration, and encourage artists and designers to break down the boundaries that exist around the theories, practices, and philosophies of art, design, and architecture. The first two issues presented selected art and design practices by young and emerging artists who would not necessarily receive attention from commercial dealer galleries or large public institutions. We launched issues #1 and #2 at split/fountain in Auckland and also at Motto Berlin in June 2014. We are currently working on issue #3.
What kind of activities do you do other than selling books? Why?
split/fountain has a regular programme of exhibitions and events in our Auckland space, but also presents nomadic exhibition projects that use transience as a methodology for generating change and new ways of thinking. These projects enable us to reach diverse audiences and participate in a wider cultural dialogue. Recent projects include Temporary housing + shelter at the Tokyo Art Book Fair (produced in collaboration with Whatever Press Tokyo, S/F project at the Physics Room in Christchurch, and distracted-workshop at the 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design Brno in the Czech Republic. These projects explored publishing as a form of performative action; as a site for group coordination in space and time, embedded in the creative process, with the potential to expand spatially and temporally beyond the printed page. distracted-workshop in Brno was collaborative installation as part of the biennial’s Off Programme, and was an extension on the split/fountain publication series distracted-reader. A cumulative exhibition that aimed to facilitate socially engaged, transformative art practices, it consisted of a social meeting space with furniture constructed from wooden shipping pallets and plastic buckets; a reading room; a fashion collection; and a series of participatory artist projects. These included Chaos reduction basket by Anne Fenton, a collectively-built sculptural form, evolving slowly and continuously throughout the duration of the exhibition; Type Workshop by Nell May, a blackboard for visitors to practice writing letter forms from May’s typeface Evan (based on the mistakes made by children in handwriting exercises); and Starting something we cannot finish a workshop by Xin Cheng encouraging visitors to improvise with an eclectic range of materials including hooks, string, rope, wire, rubberbands, sticks, and tape, to explore how spaces and functions are transformed through play. Seattle-based designer Jayme Yen and I collaborated on an experimental identity that included a hand-drawn asterisk and a series of black and white posters added to with coloured spray paint and pencil. The interdisciplinary nature of the project was crucial; distracted-workshop expanded on graphic design and presented projects by both designers and artists investigating different disciplines and methods of working. Our belief is that some of most inventive and widely relevant arts experimentation and discovery is going on in the merging fields of design, print culture and architecture. From this matrix, the new art and design to emerge has informed and energized our work for the distracted-workshop project.
How would you evaluate the current trends in art book publishing (in your city or country as well as around the world)?
Since 2010 split/fountain has regularly participated in international book fairs including the Tokyo Art Book Fair, The New York Art Book Fair, and the Vancouver Art/Book Fair. These fairs attract large numbers of visitors and seem to increase in size each year. The focus is on printed matter with very little representation of digital publishing. This indicates that people still place considerable value on the physical object of the book. At the end of 2014 Auckland gallery Michael Lett hosted a small one-day book fair as a platform for local art publishers to present their work. Initiatives like these are important; there are very few art bookshops left in New Zealand, and therefore limited distribution outlets. Despite this independent publishing seems to be growing. There is an excellent discussion about the democratisation of design in the catalogue Graphic Design Now in Production; produced as part of an exhibition co-organized by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The authors write that recent innovations have transformed the means of manufacture and circulation, and that mobile devices, print-on-demand systems, low-cost digital printing equipment, rapid prototyping and web-based distribution networks have created new opportunities for designers, writers, artists and everyone else to take up the tools of creative production.* Publications produced through these means are not high volume mainstream productions and as a consequences book fairs have become an important venue for independent publishers to present their work. Increased access to these tools for production has most likely contributed to the current boom in art book fairs in places like LA, New York, Tokyo, and cities throughout Europe.
Who are your favorite publishers and why?
While studying at the Werkplaats Typografie I collaborated with Roma Publications to represent their work in the publication Dutch Resource: Collaborative Exercises in Graphic Design. Since this time they have been a favorite publisher, and have definitely influenced my work and split/fountain publishing. I like their collaborative approach and the clean, stripped- back design style employed in their publications. Paraguay Press is another favorite, so is Dente de Leone – 100 Chairs in 100 Days and its 100 Ways by Martino Gamper is one of split/fountain’s all time best sellers.
Online booksellers and e-books are thriving these days. How do you predict the future of art-related bookshops?
In New Zealand bookshops have struggled to compete with online stores; Parsons, the main art bookshop in Auckland, closed down a few years ago and there is now a very reduced opportunity to view art books locally. The few art bookshops that continue to exist are mostly connected to galleries, primarily offering publications relating to their exhibition programme. I think bookshops of the future will be more open-ended, more about a social experience. Books as objects have such a long history that they are unlikely to disappear in a hurry. Artist books in particular have a distinct physicality, scale, variety of paper stocks, images, and even smell; all things that are highly valued and can’t be duplicated in digital form.
* Blauvelt & Lupton in Graphic Design: Now in Production, p9. Published by Walker Art Center, 2012.
Image captions (left to right, top to bottom):
1. split/fountain space on Karangahape Rd, exterior view, 2011. Image by Layla Tweedie-Cullen (LTC).
2. split/fountain space on Karangahape Rd, interior view, 2011. Image by Asumi Mizuo (AM).
3. split/fountain space on Dundonald Street, exterior view, 2012. Image by AM.
4. Newspaper Reading Club Daily by Fiona Connor and Michala Paludan presented on The Loft was Made for No one, an installation by Blaine Western and Michael Parr, split/fountain 2012. Image courtesy of artsdiary.co.nz.
5 & 6. Bare Walls, Empty Room, installation series by Dino Chai, split/fountain 2012. Image by AM.
7 & 8. distracted-reader #1 and #2 (front covers), split/fountain publishing 2013.
9. distracted-workshop a collaborative split/fountain exhibition as part of the Off Programme at the 26th International Biennial pf Graphic Design Brno, Czech Republic 2014. Image by LTC.
11. S/F Project at The Physics Room with Xin Cheng, Blaine Western and Michael Parr, Christchurch 2013. Image courtesy of The Physics Room.
12. Temporary Housing + Shelter, a collaborative exhibition by split/fountain and Whatever Press at the 2012 Tokyo Art Book Fair. Seating and tables designed by Xin Cheng. Image by AM.