An interview with Magali Avezou

A book can be very simple, sometimes only three pages. There’s a book by Stefano Graziani called Salto Grande Estasi in which we follow, page after page, a man launching himself on a big ski-jump. It’s between a short film and a rebus, just very funny.

Magali Avezou began archipelago in 2015, with an exhibition of photo-books in a diminutive picture framer’s studio. Somewhere between an exhibition and a mobile library, archipelago is now a curatorial device providing an alternative platform spanning photography, performance and publishing.

One such is the ongoing Burning with Pleasure, which foregrounds artists who use publishing as a part of their practice, bringing together recent books which are either self-published or sourced from small publishers around the world. Iterations of Burning with Pleasure have taken place at Flowers Gallery, Seen Fifteen, Matèria, DKUK, MC2, and Photofusion, as well as at Offprint and the Unseen Photo Fair.

Another project is Constellations – short-lived bookshops created to suit specific topics and locations, with the aim of creating new and unexpected connections between books, people and places. Through concept, format, image treatment and textual articulation, featured artists and publishers Avezou features explore and extend the artistic possibilities of publishing, with all publications available for sale.

My first impulse to create archipelago came from wanting to develop art projects in an alternate manner and I could not find the space or the format to do it in traditional positions, in particular for printed matter. 

Seeing more and more artists taking advantage of the possibilities of narrative and producing innovative books outside of traditional distribution channels, Magali became interested in how to present such works in more approachable and engaging ways.

That’s how I started Burning with Pleasure, exhibiting a selection of contemporary artists’ books and making them accessible to browse by the audience and activating the space through installations and performances and events. The idea was to create a space that would be inhabited by the works and the audience equally – a friendly environment, not a holy one. Managing to do this is maybe what I am most proud of. I saw people staying for hours in the exhibition, browsing and thinking. The audience was surprisingly receptive to this format and someone even told me that it had brought them back to making books.

The idea was to create a space that would be inhabited by the works and the audience equally – a friendly environment, not a holy one.

As to why the book remains so vital to our experience of photography, Avezou points to the tactile element of these tangible vessels: 

I feel the book format is extremely rich and seductive. It’s a material object that you can touch and exhibit, while still affording its price – unlike a print. So there is obviously a democratic element here. I also think the book allows us to create a much longer and possibly more complex narrative than the wall. Thanks to the page element, the book is a very interesting medium conceptually: notions of time and space can be played with in a joyful or serious manner. I often suggest to students that they bring their photographic project to the book format as it opens up possibilities they hadn’t thought of.

Considering how advances in desktop publishing have influenced the nature and ambition of photo-books, Magali acknowledges that while these changes have broadened access to publishing and simplified much of the process, these benefits are not without drawbacks.

Common software, the Internet and globalisation have homogenised the photo-book aesthetic by spreading the same designs and typos everywhere. Additionally, losing the direct relation with paper and the materiality of the book may inhibit experimentation. When you look at a page using InDesign, lucky accidents like two images juxtaposing through the page can’t happen.

So, how has the book managed to remain relevant in an age of PDFs and online viewing rooms?

The experience of browsing and touching a book has nothing to do with looking at a website or flipping through a PDF. It involves the reader in a physical way: touch and smell are here, as well as the rest of the body, which creates an intimate relationship to the object. As far as my experience goes, I have never developed any affection for online viewing. I have with many books, because of their materiality. 

And then, there are those notions of spaces and time that are completely different: on a screen, the user decides how much time they will dedicate and the experience is more volatile, while a book is sequenced to guide you through a narrative and hold your attentionWe should take advantage of this different medium that the screen is, to invent something new – not transposing books and exhibitions.

When encountering new photo-books, Avezou says she looks first to the book’s material nature. Paper and format come first, followed by innovation and surprise in the narrative structure, then the use of ‘the language of the book,’ in terms of design and editing.

I am not interested in photography portfolios in the form of a book.

Despite the difficulties of putting on exhibitions in the current climate, Magali remains interested in creating new audience experiences and could imagine moving into publishing. However, the present situation has deepened a serious questioning that was already under way, regarding the relevance and sustainability of such activities.

I have become more and more frustrated over the years at how small and closed the art and photography bubbles are, often very disconnected from daily life, and very egotistical. I don’t know yet what will be next, but I would like it to be more engaged with the everyday.

This is not about activism, more about integrating art with the daily functioning of a community.

Asked to further explain how this engagement with the everyday might manifest, Avezou states that she often finds art to be unnecessarily isolated, in terms of where it is shown, as well as the topics it deals with.

The sanctity of exhibitions comes from the history of art and culture and the social need for distinction. I feel this format and the traditional places of art are too often lifeless and dismissive of wider society. My hope is to work with art in a much more socially engaged way. This is not about activism, more about integrating art with the daily functioning of a community.

That said, Magali acknowledges that change is afoot, with arts organisations more and more open to becoming spaces for communities to meet around art, rather than simply being where individuals are passively exposed to so-called great art.

Regarding the changes she foresees in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Avezou suggests that while there has been a huge increase in publishing in recent years, and while this has been a very creative period in which a community of book-lovers has arisen, this model was already unsustainable, and is even more so now.

On top of this, the fairs and other events at which this community was meeting, both in Europe and beyond, are now cancelled, which means the community is trying to survive on the Internet without the direct connection that was so essential.

More optimistically, she notes: 

Books have traditionally been a format of resistance and creativity. And adversity has always been a boost for artists’ creation. So, let’s hope the quantity of books published decreases but gives way to a few really great creations.

Header image: Installation shot of the exhibition Between The Lines curated by Magali Avezou at Roz Barr Gallery in 2016. Credit: Jan Krecji

All Rights Reserved: text © Nick Scammell & Magali Avezou; images © Magali Avezou unless otherwise noted.