Western Morning News, Saturday, June 23, 2012
The Library of Independent Exchange is a rare combination of old and new. It uses traditional methods to spread contemporary ideas, and it does so with an effortless manner that feels just right.
Formed by Christopher Green and Mark James last year as a fringe event to British Art Show 7's visit to Plymouth, the library was first installed in a vacant retail unit in Stonehouse before moving to Plymouth College of Art and Design's Viewpoint Gallery for a "pop-up exhibition". With projects at Spike Island and The Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol last month, L-I-E is a library that doesn't keep still.
"Ultimately, the idea of the library is that it sits in one place, at the moment it's all in boxes so we really want to find a space in Plymouth and keep it open," says Mark.
It is currently a raw collection of more than 300 creative publications including artists' books, editions, monographs, journals, catalogues, zines and more, when the library is operating with a permanent physical home, it aims to bring the best examples of contemporary arts publishing and print to Plymouth.
Christopher explains: "It's a free resource that people are able to use outside of an institution. We've developed workshops and talks so there's still this opportunity for people to exchange ideas, giving them this sense that they can stay in Plymouth, that there's a chance that things can develop.
"Once you've graduated from art school you certainly don't immediately have to flock to London or the next biggest city. Whilst I'm sure this is a mantra being uttered in various forms by creative projects across the UK, in Plymouth it is increasingly becoming a statement of truth rather than hope."
Mark and Christopher are not Plymouth tourist board employees in disguise and both have their own reasons for putting energy into this project.
Mark grew up nearby but was not enamoured by Plymouth as a youth and left to study further up the country, the further the better. A BA in photography was followed by an MA in curatorial practice.
Christopher has moved to the city from London where he kept a studio after co-founding Lyndhurst Way, an artist run space in Peckham South of the river. Their reasons for moving, or moving back, to Plymouth may not have had that much to do with the creative possibilities of the city, but their reason for staying certainly do.
"It's my city. I like that there are still things to achieve here," says Mark.
A sense of fun is apparent in everything the library does. "At the moment we're really enjoying the fact that we can play as artists and curators, we can play with the idea of how you show a collection, that's really interesting."
Entering the library is a guaranteed pleasure for any bibliophile; the publications are displayed face out to "give them the reverence they deserve" and, Mark adds with a tongue in cheek expression, to "encourage people to judge the books by their covers".
Printed matter serves as both content and decoration against white walls, with minimal furnishings of bare wood and glass. Mark and Christopher seem to be as essential to the project as the resources they're providing.
"I think it helps to be on hand to talk about the things we've got and why we've got them. The publishers have been so generous in giving us these things, it feels like we're indebted to promote them in a nice way. We're happy to have these things and we like them so it's fun to talk about them."
In a more sober tone Mark reinforces that "we shouldn't be bigger than the library, the library should be bigger than us" and an independent L-I-E seems to be a long-term aspiration.
While their presence supports the experience of browsing the collection, their work behind the scenes, enables it. Generating lists and sourcing the collection before they opened in the Millbay area of the city took four months and the boxes have been steadily growing since. Sourcing the printed matter of artists and designers is an inexhaustible pursuit, but the publishing houses that print them are finite.
"We forge great relationships with people," says Mark. "One told us he'd spent a really wet afternoon in Plymouth in 2003 or so, and of course we could have the book."
These links are developing within the local community, nationally and, increasingly, internationally as well. This makes browsing the texts exciting because material sourced from Devon and Cornwall occupies the walls democratically next to material that has made the pilgrimage from New Zealand, Japan, The USA, and from all over Europe.
A mutually beneficial tension is created between all parties involved. Publishers see their books getting positive exposure, Plymouth is recognised as a city of creative interest and L-I-E and its users get access to a wealth of material, which isn't available anywhere else in the city, and sometimes the country.
The library offers free access to contemporary ideas within the active creative community. The exhibition guide recognises that "Plymouth is a city that is out on a limb; the last, and so often overlooked". Independently printed material, ranging from posters to manifestos, have historically been used to disseminate ideas and spread information while avoiding traditional gallery systems. L-I-E is keenly aware of its historical footing, a fact reinforced by their recent nod to American Pop-artist Ed Ruscha, who was contacted directly for inclusion in the library's Ten Favourites from their personal collection feature.
Ruscha is cited in their guide as "one of the key proponents of the Artist Book" having created 16 of them since 1962. He is a great patron for the library, as relevant to the history of the artist's book as William Blake, though we'll forgive them for not having his Ten Favourites.
Another person we'll forgive is New York based artist and publisher AA Bronson who told L-I-E he couldn't possibly pick ten books. An understandable response from the president of Printed Matter inc whose collection is modestly estimated at 15,000 titles, the largest collection of artists' publications in the world.
Mark and Christopher are liberal about the future of this project; it is evolving with every incarnation it assumes. What L-I-E ultimately becomes is dependent on the people that use it, how they use it. It is a project that will accommodate. If people want to work at the library, it will produce more desks. If people want to pour through the texts leisurely it will produce sofas. If the scheduled events reach capacity, the library will move to a bigger unit, and if people want to sit in private booths and play on their e-readers then it will probably shut down, but I doubt that.