A week before he’s slated to give a talk on zines and handmade books for the Honolulu Printmakers’ fall event series, Nexus: Print and the Artists’ Book, professor Charles Cohan is sorting through a big pile of loosely bound papers and pamphlets in the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s printmaking studio.
“I love paper ephemera,” says the veteran printmaker, spreading the pile out to the ends of a long worktable. “It’s all linked by one factor: that it’s all just handmade.”
Today is a rough draft, as his Oct 27 talk at the Honolulu Museum of Art School will essentially take the same shape. “I’m going to lay out about 150 books, and they’re basically going to go from the crudest, most raw kind of zine forms, to staple technology, to some letter press projects, up to the more fine art, handmade, master bookbinding aspects. I’m trying to represent as much of a range as possible.”
It’s a wide range. Having lived in Portland, Seattle, and Oakland before attending graduate school in Detroit, then teaching at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and finally settling at U.H. 20 years ago, Cohan has had ample time to build this collection.
“About half the zines are from here, and half are from other places,” he says, as students flow in and out of the studio, some stopping to thumb through the pile. “Have you ever seen that one before? It’s intense,” he says to studio manager Dave Randall (who also works as a teaching artist at Spalding House). Dave nods and laughs, “Oh, yeah I have!”
“To survey these makes a kind of interesting map of artistic production—from kitchens and garages to fine art printmaking studios and publishers, and everything in between,” continues Cohan. “I really just collect what people send me, and I do a lot of exchanging and trading.”
Much of that collecting and trading has been done under the auspices of Arm & Roller Press, a collaborative fine art press operated by Cohan since 1990. The zines and artists’ books that Cohan will present come from Arm & Roller’s greater collection of more than 1,000 pieces of art.
Those works are at once a random assortment and a highly biographical record of Cohan’s travels and relationships. Many of the artists who have collaborated with Arm & Roller are represented in the works on the table today, from Spalding House teaching artist Julia Cornell, to renowned mix-media artist John Koga, to Honolulu Printmakers director Duncan Dempster.
“For his graduate thesis Duncan did some tapes,” Cohan says of his former student. “He recorded printmaking sounds—Print Tones Volume One, and Print Tones Volume Two. So I am going to have some of his tapes to question: Is a cassette tape a book? It has a container, a case that opens…”
To further probe that line of thinking, Cohan will also bring along his vintage 1983 cassette of Daniel Johnston’s The Lost Recordings II—hand-titled by Johnston himself, a musician whose limited-run, lo-fi recordings definitely recall the zine culture aesthetic.
Cohan steps back, stares down at his collection, and starts asking it questions—call it a stream-of-consciousness form of preparation. “What’s the line between the zine and what we call an artist’s book? Why is a zine not an artist’s book in some contexts, or why is it in other contexts? Who is determining those contexts? Why are these different attitudes manifested in different material and structural forms in terms of how they are made and finalized? Why does this find itself realized in pamphlet form, where it can also be a poster? Why would this inherently need to function in this form right here?”
Curiosity piqued? Find some answers at Cohan’s talk, 6pm on Oct 27 in the Art School printmaking studio. And be sure to check out the other Nexus events happening this fall, like the talk by Honolulu Printmakers artist-in-residence Alex Lukas on Oct 28.