Boekie Woekie, the longest running artists’ bookshop performance

2.06. 2019

In 1975, Ulises Carrión wrote the manifesto The New Art of Making Books. In the manifesto, the Mexican writer, curator, and conceptual artist expanded upon the traditional book form as a three-dimensional site of experience rather than as a container of texts.

The manifesto begins with the dismantling of notions of the book: “A book is a sequence of spaces. Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments. A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.”

A new book era had begun and Carrión urged artists and writers to use newly available printing technologies to bypass traditional book markets as well as to form networks and communities in which to distribute independently. Carrión (1941, San Andrés Tuxtla, Mexico – 1989, Amsterdam) was a key figure in post-1960s avant-garde. Upon arriving in Amsterdam in 1972, he became part of the founding of the art venue, In-Out Center (1972-1975) and in 1975 founded Other Books and So, one of the first artists’ bookstores in the world. In 1979, it became Other Books and So Archive.

Today the artists’ bookshop, Boekie Woekie is carrying forth where Carrión left off and is the longest running artist’s bookstore in the world. The shop now has about 7,000 titles which are almost exclusively self-published or small press books.

The small book shop at Berenstraat 16 was at first only technically allowed to be called a gallery as the founders had art degrees and no background in the selling of books (such is Dutch law.) The labyrinth of publications of varying shapes and sizes makes up the vast collection that seems to exude the history of the place in the many scattered layers of books and publications. The shop is now a relic in the neighborhood in an area now vastly different than how it appeared just thirty years ago. Although the books are cataloged, the brimming shelves and tables are an exhibition in themselves with the search and discovery as part of the unfolding experience.

Some of the artists’ books can be seen as exhibitions in themselves, or rather like the soft imprint of larger material work, an underlayer of vision that can only be found and told in book form. In a conversation with one of the founders, the German artist Jan Voss, I was told in more detail about the shop’s history and his vision of the function of the artists’ book.

What were some of the motivations behind founding the place?

The motivations behind founding the place were more multi-fold than one would perhaps think. Of the six people who founded the place, only two were from the Netherlands while the others came from far away places. Running it now is Henriëtte van Egten from Amsterdam and Rúna Thorkelsdóttir from Iceland and myself from Germany.

In 1985, we needed to find a place. Besides the fact that we had in common boxes full of our own books, we also had Iceland. Iceland was the common link among us in one way or another. Dieter Roth, who had been living in Iceland, was my teacher in Düsseldorf and inspired me to start making books. His books were the first we started to include in the shop that was not our own. Although in 1985 we knew each other individually because we had been making books, we didn’t see this as a real venture. If you had said to me then that I would be sitting here 30 years later in the same book shop, I would say you are mad. Our real motivation was to show our presence in this city and to become identifiable as artists.

Were there other art bookshops at the time?

There were places that had an expanded art books section, but not an artists’ bookshop. We all had a memory of Other Books and So, opened by Ulises Carrión in 1975 where we all had our works. It was open for two years and was never established before or after but just came about as an impulse of the time on a one-man scale. The booksellers were not the ones that were so important but it was young art historians who were using the printed matter as a platform from which to explore and find their way into the world of art history.

I went to the Düsseldorf art academy and I noticed pretty quickly that drawing was something I would be doing. In those parameters, that was what you were expected to do. You drew and it was a confused world in which labels of good and bad are all over the place. It became clear that drawing in a sequence was quite compelling to me and of course, if you have a sequence of drawings, books become a natural answer. I became a student of Dieter Roth. One of the first things he did in Düsseldorf was to buy an offset machine in the late 1960s. Figuring out how it worked and the consequence of all that led to the door of opening Boekie Woekie really.

You can also have the beginning story as was replicated in Amsterdam what then was only ten years earlier. I hadn’t progressed much really. I bought an offset machine and basically, we are still running it. So in the first five years, we were only selling our own works – you could also call it a five-year performance. You could hardly call it a bookshop as it was more a display window. It was ridiculous.

After those first five years, we had come down to three owners, Rúna, Hette and I.

On the first of January, 1991, we moved into this location. The thing is that we are not booksellers; we are artists. Our artistic material is the people with whom we talk and in the shop I treat those people who come in as my material. In the sense that they go to the “artist bookstore” of the town, they don’t really need me. It is not all material anymore. It is performance really.

Are there any books that are of special significance to you?

The Dieter Roth works, of course, but if I give it more thought it is simply the multitude of human endeavors that have evolved into something becoming this little package sliced of the world of a book. This complex thing that a book is with so many faces and so many incredible motivations that can be seen outside the context in which books are happening in our world. An artists’ book exists because it doesn’t count on the newspaper or the television or will be propagated in some professional manner; the thing that will make money as opposed to the thing that makes someone’s craziness go so far to make someone actually do it. The tip of the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg – that is what is visible here. It is making visible this urge for people to have something to say in a way that is penetrating to the ears of the people they are actually speaking to – this enormous choir of ambition and strife and being the human not content with what there is anyhow but who gives that extra thing to it. It is a celebration of being who we are – a celebration of the endeavor.

This article is part one of three articles in a series based on artists‘ books and the multidimensional relationship between the book form and contemporary art.

Erin Honeycutt


Boekie Woekie website: https://boewoe.home.xs4all.nl/