Interview – Paper Visual Art

At a time when the Irish cultural scene is alive and kicking with predominantly literary journals, PVA is an initiative which has carved out a very special place of its own. With its origins as an art journal, it has since evolved into a space where contributions on visual art, contemporary culture and literature sit easily alongside each other, complementing each other in a dynamic and engaging fashion. PVA not only publishes journals, but also collaborates on producing books, and commissions online texts year-round. My bookish followers will recognise many of the writers from the world of literature that they have featured, and worked with, over the years – Sue Rainsford, Niamh Campbell, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Adrian Duncan, Claire-Louise Bennett, Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe, June Caldwell and Wendy Erskine, to name but a few – who feature alongside a whole host of fantastic art writers (in fact some of the above are both fiction and art writers), so I was keen to catch up with founder and co-editor Niamh Dunphy to find out more about this online and print platform which covers three of the cultural areas I most love to read about.

PVA is now in its 14th year, and going stronger than ever. Can you tell us about the journal’s beginnings?

I started PVA in November 2009. I was working at the time as an intern for different artist-run galleries in Dublin, including Pallas Projects and the Joinery, as well as for Circa Art Magazine, which closed that same year. Adrian Duncan (PVA co-editor) was finishing his work as an engineer and was starting to write and make art, and he joined PVA in early 2010. It was the start of the recession, but there seemed to be a lot of stuff happening. There were plenty of vacant spaces across the city so quite a few not-for-profit, DIY spaces were opening up. People didn’t really have much money but were making things happen anyway. It was, for me at least, an exciting time so starting something from your kitchen table seemed possible. I was a recent graduate of visual art and art history from NCAD and studied English at Queen’s University in Canada; I guess starting PVA was a sort of blending of the two. 

Nathan O’Donnell joined us in 2014 and is a brilliant editor, with so much energy and lots of great ideas that chime with, while also expanding, the ethos and aims of PVA. Sadbh O’Brien has been our very helpful publishing assistant since 2019 – she has brought a lot of ideas and enthusiasm and it’s great to have her on board. I think we all work very well together in doing our best to create high-quality writing, journals, and books. Other people that have worked with PVA over the years include Caroline Usher, Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll, and Barbara Kneževic: all were lovely to work with and brought great ideas to the project. 

From the outset we have also had great support from the arts and literature communities, especially our contributors and readers, which essentially makes PVA what it is today. In 2013, we received our first Arts Council award – the Arts Council have been very supportive over the years and we are very grateful to be able to keep the project going.

Image courtesy PVA

PVA’s scope has evolved over the years; from an online art criticism platform focused on exhibition reviews, to also producing printed journals and books containing texts (both fiction and non-fiction), reviews, and broader written responses to visual art practices, contemporary culture, and literature. Can you talk to us about this evolution?

We began originally as an online art journal, with a very simple WordPress website. There was an open call for submissions and somehow some excellent emerging writers started submitting, including the brilliant writer and critic Rebecca O’Dwyer, who is in our current issue and has written for us extensively over the years. In 2011, Adrian and I were invited by Stephen McGlynn to take part in a residency at the Guesthouse in Cork. We organised two events and produced a Cork-based, hand-made, handstitched edition of PVA, which I ‘designed’ on PowerPoint. The cover had to be hair-sprayed so the lettering on the cover didn’t smudge! For our second Dublin-based edition, I took some InDesign tutorials (via YouTube) so it was a little more polished design-wise. 

After receiving our first funding award from the Arts Council, we were able to work with David Smith and Oran Day at Atelier Projects on the design of our books and journals. There is a big difference reading something in print rather than online, and with the hardcopies our aim is to produce that which is enjoyable to read, on a line by line level, but also beautiful to hold. David and Oran have always been supportive of PVA and understand our visual sensibilities and ethos, which is reflected in the design. For Volume 8, they streamlined the design of the journal to create a more consistent editorial identity with a larger format, printed using a special mix of fluo ink, customised to improve legibility in different lighting/reading conditions. 

Regarding your question about the evolution of PVA, I think it just happened over time and from working with different writers, curators, and artists, as well as having curiosity in lots of different things – art, literature, visual culture, history, and so on. I think we all bring together different interests and skills to PVA, and I hope that is all reflected in what we do too.

Volume 13, published in December 2021, features contributions from artists and writers whose work reflects on, or emerges from, the land, while the recently published Volume 14 focuses on the subject of association football. When planning an issue, what comes first? Do you start with a theme, or does this emerge naturally once you have an idea of the contributors you wish to feature?

Since Volume 8, each issue, which includes reviews about exhibitions in Ireland and abroad as well as an essay on a public sculpture, has a theme. We usually come up with a few theme ideas before honing on a specific one. Previous themes include education, craft, music, borders, and so on. Often a theme presents itself: our borders issue, Volume 10, was produced during Brexit; Volume 12, our touch-themed edition, was released during the pandemic and in it the extremes of touch were considered (from the violent to the gentle, from broad to detailed, from human to robotic); and the current Volume 14 highlights the many systems of governance and representations of football as well as current political issues related to the game, in particular the World Cup, which is currently taking place in Qatar.

We’ll usually start with a list of potential writers when starting to put together a journal, but always leave things open. It’s happened many times that we’ve invited someone to contribute at the last minute because they are a good fit.

Your website states that ‘each published text stems from an active editorial interaction.’ With the crossover in the publications between visual art, literature and contemporary art practice, there is a very dynamic sense of almost curation, rather than traditional editing, about these publications. Could you talk to us about this active editorial process?

Often you read ‘art writing’ and it’s just nonsense and packed with theory that is unclear. We have always tried to publish writing that is accessible and readable for those working in the art world and for those with an interest in it. We work with writers often on several drafts before anything is published.

I suppose you could consider the theme of a journal issue to be curated in a way. We approach writers we think would work in the issue, but we don’t direct what someone should specifically focus on. If someone finds something interesting or is excited by a particular exhibition or artist, say, the writing produced usually reflects this energy and excitement. 

Volume 14 continues what is an ongoing series of commissioned texts on public artworks by writers usually more associated with the world of literature. Volume 13 featured a beautiful response to a public sculpture by poet, pacifist and fabulist Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe, while Volume 14 sees author June Caldwell, as well as artist Louis Haugh, take this a step further by contributing artistic responses to a game of football viewed as a public artwork. This series is bound to elicit alternate perspectives to traditional art criticism. Can you tell us a bit more about this series?

Yes, we invite people to write about an artwork who are more affiliated with literature. In the past we’ve had some great writers, including Rob Doyle, Niamh Campbell, and Ian Maleney. And as you say, there is definitely a different take on things compared to someone who writes about art often or for the industry of contemporary art.  

For us, this series works because it also allows us to engage with works of public art. This kind of practice rarely gets any critical coverage – you can’t really review a public artwork in the same way as you’d review work in a gallery, because it’s generally doing something different. It has a different relationship with its audience and its context. So by inviting literary writers to respond to these works, we hope to open up conversations about this kind of work, which is such an important part of contemporary art practice.

For our most recent edition, we changed tack a little on this by focusing on football. Louis Haugh and June Caldwell were asked to attend a League of Ireland game between Bohemians FC and Dundalk FC last February at Dalymount Park and to consider the game as a public artwork. We were really happy with the results. Louis produced a really extraordinary set of photographs of the game, the people and players, the atmosphere of Dalymount Park. And June wrote a brilliant essay. When we invited her she told us that the one thing that she is utterly allergic to, with total certainty, is football. Nevertheless, she accepted the challenge with a lot of enthusiasm, and really produced the goods.

Just published on November 10th was the latest in your series of guest-edited books. well I just kind of like it, edited by Wendy Erskine, is a collection of highly enjoyable, thoughtful and thought-provoking reflections, essays, images and more about art in the home and the home as art. Can you talk to us about how this book came about, and the process of working with guest editors?

Working with guest editors can be very enjoyable. Often they will bring in writers and artists we’re not aware of or haven’t read or published before. I think this publishing model is exciting because it’s very open and you’re always learning new things. We invited Wendy to edit a book last year. She’s been such a pleasure to work with and was enthusiastic about the project from the start. The question we put to people is always something like: if you could edit a book, what form would that take and what would it look like? We are always on hand to discuss content and support the editors. The technical stuff, copy editing, proofreading, and image research, is done in house. 

Design is very important to us and we always want to involve the guest editor in any decisions in this regard, so we organise a meeting or two with a designer to discuss different layouts, sizes, and designs together, how the book’s content can be reflected in the design. We worked with Wayne Daly from Daly & Lyon for this book, and he did a beautiful job. Wayne came up with the idea to have four different covers, with slightly varying colour choices. You might kind of like one more than the other! 

Image courtesy PVA

In 2016, we published our first guest-edited book, Having a Kiki: Queer Desire and Public Space, with Emma Wolf-Haugh. The book was an examination of public space and the built environment through queer, dyke, and transgender perspectives. Emma is a visual artist and educator who has produced zines and magazines as part of her practice and performances, and this is reflected in the design. Oran and David at Atelier projects worked closely with Emma. The design leans heavily on the graphic language of fanzines and cut-and-paste visual culture, and so there was an emphasis on visual contrast in the different page layouts. This was further enhanced by the fact that the individual sections/chapters were designed by different designers with minimal discussion/agreement around composition or typographic conventions. (This was a nod to Andy Warhol’s advice that the best way to approach collaboration is to completely ignore the other person).

Photo: Louis Haugh

So what does the coming year hold for PVA?

Next month, in collaboration with Pallas Projects/Studios, we’ll also be publishing the latest of our annual writing commissions for early-career writers. This year we’ve commissioned Sarah Kelleher, who is a really stellar writer and critic and curator. With this annual series, we’re trying to open up space for writers to reflect in a broad-ranging critical way with contemporary art practice. There aren’t many such opportunities at the moment to stand back and reflect upon the field. Sarah’s text will be published in print as part of this year’s Periodical Review, the annual exhibition at Pallas in December, and we’ll also publish it on our website. We’ve really enjoyed collaborating with Pallas on this. Working in collaboration with other arts organisations has been a really great way for us to expand what we do; we’ve worked with lots of great partners over the years on co-commissions, residencies, educational projects, seminars, and so on. We’ll be developing more of these kinds of projects in the coming year too. 

In February 2023 we will be publishing Running feet, sharp noses: Essays on the animal world, with contributions from Eileen Myles, Vona Groarke, Sara Baume, Niamh Campbell, Darragh McCausland, June Caldwell, Stephen Sexton, and many more. Wayne Daly has done a lovely design for us, and it’s really shaping up to be a wonderful collection of writing. We’re very excited about it. Next autumn, we will be publishing PVA 15, which will focus on the theme of ‘ghosts’ and will be guest-edited by Emma Dwyer. 

***

Thank you to Niamh for taking the time out to provide such great insight into where PVA is coming from, and where it’s headed to next. Visit them at https://papervisualart.com/ to find out more, and visit their online shop where you can pick up a copy of PVA Journal Vol. 14, well I just kind of like it edited by Wendy Erskine, and more from their fantastic and very colourful archive.

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