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Preview: Liverpool Book Art Fair, an interview with Simon Ryder

Preview: Liverpool Book Art Fair, an interview with Simon Ryder
Liverpool Central Library, 8th & 9th July 2017

Words & interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Liverpool has a strong crafts tradition, and an incredible flair for contemporary thinking, so it’s only natural that art forms combining the two thrive here. Why, then, is book art so incredibly difficult to find?

As somebody who went through university striving to define an artists’ book, I have really struggled to find a year-round accessible space to explore book art in Liverpool. It’s a section of the art world that can, at times, seem invisible here. So, as Liverpool Book Art Fair works its way through its fourth year, we couldn’t help but find out more about the group who are working tirelessly to make the book art scene in Liverpool visible.

I met with Simon Ryder, the founder of the fair, and the curator of most things Book Art in the city, to find out why he decided to set up in Liverpool, and how the first three years went. Because he thought Liverpool needed a hub for Book Art? Because he wanted to provide a platform for artists to find an audience? Because he felt best placed to deliver a flawless fair? No. None of the above. Simon Ryder set up Liverpool Book Art Fair because he loved Book Art. And that’s it.

He might well have achieved the other things, and he’s more than capable of creating a book art fair that competes with Edinburgh and Leeds. His past is testament to that. As well as a successful career in business, he spent fifteen years as Chairman of the Bluecoat leading to its successful refurbishment in 2008, ready for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture Celebrations.

His new project, Liverpool Book Art, is gearing up for its best year yet, so take a minute to hear from the man behind it:

Aimee Sheridan, Liverpool Book Art 2017

One thing that’s important to address here, is that Liverpool has got book art. It happens, it’s just not as visible as it is in some other cities yet…

Well yes. So in Leeds, Chris Taylor who runs it has got a full time job at the university, with an academic and institutional backing, and the guy at Edinburgh works at Fruit Market gallery, so he’s got institutional backing. I’m just a freelancer who got into it because I started collecting artist books because I’m passionate about them.

I started going to the Leeds and Manchester Artist Book Fair. I went to a couple in London, and there had been various attempts at small scale fairs here too. But I thought, well if nobody else is capable of organising a serious one in the city. And I kicked off the first one in the Central Library four years ago.

I knew that there was no point of just doing it as a one off, but when I started I thought “I’ll do it for three years”. Somebody said “why don’t you do it every two years” but it would take ten years for people to remember if we did it every other year. This year it’s running on July the 8th & 9th. This year I’m doing it on a Saturday and Sunday instead of a Friday and Saturday like the last few year. It’s an experiment so we’ll see what happens.

What is an artist book, and how do you bring it together as a fair?

When I approached Liverpool Central Library a few years ago, it took a couple of months of discussion, because they didn’t know anything about artist books. It was a gamble, but full credit to David Stoker and the team there, they eventually said yes.

I wanted to do a full two-day festival, and I know it’s a niche area, and not many people had come across it before, so what came out of that wasn’t my intention originally. I concluded the best thing to do was show, rather than tell, so we had an exhibition.

The first exhibition was to promote the fair, it wasn’t actually an exhibition in itself. And they allowed me to use the Hornby Room upstairs for the exhibition. The whole rationale for the first exhibition I did back in 2014, was as a promotional tool for the fair. Show rather than tell. You know, because finding words to describe what an artist book is, well; I’ve written blogs, spent hours, trying to explain to people, but imagery works a lot better.

And that’s continued hasn’t it? The exhibition element popped back up last year in the Hornby Room too.

The first exhibition was a great success, but it wasn’t intended as a selling show, it was just there as an exhibition. I think we accidentally sold something like 15 pieces out of that first exhibition, just because people said “I’ve got to have a copy of this!” And a number of them were editions. There was one which I didn’t buy myself and I’m still kicking myself. It was a simple folded book in image and text, all in German, and the whole thing fitted inside a match box. I think we sold five copies of that out of an edition of 35. That to me was book art.

It was a lot of work though, especially last year, the Shakespeare exhibition at Liverpool Central Library. The main difficulty was an open call to artists. Setting a theme meant that I was accepting ideas rather than finished work, so I didn’t actually know what size the works were going to be.

Somebody said they would be A5. But that’s A5 when it’s closed, and it was A4 when opened, so it was A3 in the end, fully folded out. So I could only design the exhibition once everything had arrived. This year will just be a fair, and the exhibitions are going to be every other year now. Within the next two to three weeks, we’ll have set the theme for the 2018 exhibition.

But even though there’s no exhibition for 2017, we’ll hopefully be doing much more in the way of workshops this year than ever before.