Writer in Residence · 02/18/2013

Accentuate the Negative

The press I want to discuss next is the newest so far, just a few months old, in fact: Negative Press. The name does not denote English diffidence — its founder, Roelof Bakker, is Dutch, although resident in London since the Eighties.

It derives from the fact that Bakker is a photographer, with a reel of awards to his credit. The press was set up to publish one specific project, and its planned continuation is almost an after-thought, or maybe after-shock, of the success of that project.

The project was called STILL, and based on an award-winning series of photographs of that name. The full title of the resulting book is: STILL — Short Stories Inspired By Photographs Of Vacated Spaces. The vacated spaces are in a near-derelict building in North London, previously Hornsey Town Hall. I believe the building is undergoing refurbishment as an arts or theatre centre now, but at the time had been unused and empty for many years. Not quite empty — ‘vacated’, rather — since quite a lot of detritus and fittings remained — desks, pigeonholes, clocks, paperwork and posters — eerily redolent of once-bustling activity, work. But work is always more than work; it’s companionship, casual closeness in shared purposes, cameraderie, even fun. These still echo in the silence.

After completing the series and gaining his award, Bakker had the idea of tuning in to these echoes linguistically as well as visually, by commissioning a number of writers to select one photograph, and write — not about the photograph directly, but obliquely, allowing the image to act as trigger.

The writers’ roster is nationally eclectic, including writers for whom English is a second language: the talented German-Swiss Myriam Frey (an astute choice for the project as she is an architect and surveyor as well as writer, particularly responsive to mass, proportion and light); and fellow Dutch writers Deborah Klaassen, and Jan Van Mersbergen, writing — incredibly — in English for the first time, with verve and wit (I had recently read the translation of his novella Tomorrow Pamplona from Peirene Press and admired it).

The results — the combination of images and fiction — are stunning, both in published book form, and as an exhibition and reading in one of London’s most venerable bookshops, Foyle’s. You can see details of both on the Negative website.

And the response too has been stunning, I gather, with the print run sold out by Christmas (a matter of months), and a second print run underway. Now a digital edition is planned, slightly enlarged in the process to include winning entries in the story competition set up after the exhibition/publication.

Such far-from-negative results clearly shouldn’t go to waste, and Bakker has already lined up some equally fascinating projects. The first is a similarly based image/text work, the text this time non-fiction, on another award-winning series: The Strong Room, photographs of ‘secure storage’ archives, accompanied by an essay by artist Jane Wildgoose on the theme of archives, their importance to our past and future understanding of ourselves.

Coincidentally hearing about this project after reading, the day before, a review of a book by Ben Kafka — The Demon Of Writing (MIT Press) — about the hugely significant role of paperwork in its most mundane, bureaucratic mode — forms, accounts, files — in political and social life, made this project even more exciting. For paperwork is here to stay, will go on defining us as it morphs into future archives, as an essay by John Barth, in Final Fridays, reminded me earlier in the week. Barth draws attention — as have others, including Robert Darnton in The Case For Books — to the superiority of old-fashioned paper and ink over digital media in terms of physical durability, i.e. as archival entities. So not just our pasts but our future pasts will have their life, and decays, in current strong rooms.

This Strong Room project is projected for this winter, I believe.

Also projected are two more liaisons between image and text (the raison d’etre of Negative Press, I gather): the first English translation of a classic Dutch novella, although rights negotiations are still in progress, so I don’t know what the novella is yet (I’m intensely curious; there are a number of Dutch writers I admire, such as Cees Nooteboom, Hugo Claus and Harry Mulisch. One of theirs? I’d be delighted); and a collaboration between Nicholas Royle (Manchester Royle) and the artist David Gledhill. This too excites me a great deal, but although the images have a firm existence, the stories haven’t yet made it to full archival status on paper — they exist in the cerebral folds of the Royle imagination. It’s just a matter of time…

So from a single-project endeavour a succession of, to me, fascinating and certainly stunningly presented text/image collaborations are coming into existence. Watch this space and see the negatives develop.

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posted by David Rose