Making Things Up: TONY WHITE

Mathew Clayton
Jun 5 · 15 min read

Welcome to Making Things Up an occassional series of interviews with people producing creative work in new and interesting ways.

First up is an interview with the writer, artist and publisher Tony White . . .

© Chris Dorley-Brown, 2018

Can you explain what Piece of Paper Press is and how it came about? It feels like it wasn’t something that appeared accidentally — more like an attempt to find a creative solution within certain parameters?

I started Piece of Paper Press in 1994. It was designed as a low-tech and low-cost platform for publishing new writings and visual works by writers and artists. Each book is made from a single A4 sheet, printed on both sides, then folded, stapled and trimmed by hand to create a roughly A7 book. Titles are usually produced in an edition of 150. There are no deadlines. They’re published when they’re ready, and never for sale, but always distributed free. The readership was always part of the design: the artist or writer gets 50 copies to give away, while I send the rest to an evolving mailing list. Or we give them away at an event (as happened with Shklovsky’s Zoo by Joanna Walsh, which we launched at the Bookartbookshop).

Joanna Walsh, Shklovsky’s Zoo, 2015, POPP.029. Cover registration test, ‘Piece of Paper Press: Artworks and Ephemera 1994–2017’, Site Gallery, Sheffield, 2018. Installation detail. (Photo: Chris Saunders)

A few copies are held back for archival purposes, but broadly speaking when they’re gone they’re gone. It’s a pre-digital model. There’s no online version. Prior to that, in 1991 I’d set up a programme of events (screenings, readings, and new live art works) at a gallery called The Showroom, which was then in Bethnal Green. As that came to an end, I was looking for a way to continue that kind of commissioning relationship but without a dependency on bricks and mortar, perhaps using print. I was thinking: what is the least and the lightest thing that I could do that could still be called a book? How could I make it sustainable? By which, in the recession of the early 1990s, I meant cheap, undemanding of resources, and infrastructurally light — a model that could be repeated without needing to grow. It would never need to find a readership, to break even, or need funding. Dignifying something so ephemeral with the name ‘Piece of Paper Press’ was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it had a pleasing ring to it and, as the curator Matthew Higgs once pointed out: it spelled ‘pop’ — kind of. I printed the first one and gave it away. People seemed to like the idea and the format, and within a week or two half a dozen artists or writers I knew were on board.

Steven Hull, Carnevil, 2015, POPP.030 (detail) ‘Piece of Paper Press: Artworks and Ephemera 1994–2017’, Site Gallery, Sheffield, 2018. (Photo: Chris Saunders)

And so it has continued. If it had been any more complex than that, I’d have given it up ages ago. Still, I never expected it to last 25 years. In that time I’ve published nearly forty books comprising new works by writers and artists including Michael Moorcock, Joanna Walsh, Sheena Rose, Steven Hull, Liliane Lijn, Ian Bourn, Elizabeth Magill, Joolz Denby, M John Harrison, Courttia Newland, Tim Etchells, James Pyman, and many more. Some of them genuine mini-masterpieces. It’s been very exciting that Piece of Paper Press has had renewed critical recognition in the past few years. Firstly by being included in the newly revised 2015 edition of Stephen Bury’s authoritative Artists’ books: the book as a work of art, 1963–2000. Then in 2018 we exhibited all of the publications from Piece of Paper Press’s 25 year history at the Site Gallery in Sheffield, as part of Tim Etchells’ Strong Language programme for Sheffield’s literature festival Off The Shelf.

Your artistic identity seems to spring from three places: as a writer of literary fiction, as part of the lineage of British post-war counter culture, and as a contemporary artist (albeit one that works primarily with words). Is this how you see yourself? Do you find working with these traditions (and their associated practices) has helped give shape to your work?

Interesting question. Given shape, yes, absolutely. I’m a writer first and foremost, and the other things are influences or products of the writing, or occasionally the subject matter. I did go to art school and study Fine Art, so I may have retained particular ways of working, knowledge, and friendships from that. If it weren’t for public libraries and the arts education I had, I wouldn’t be a writer now. For someone of my background and circumstances at the time, going to art school was not easy, but I did a foundation course in my home town of Farnham, and eventually a Fine Art degree at what was then Sheffield City Polytechnic. But for some reason your question makes me think of the Poll Tax Riots. I was in Trafalgar Square on the 31 March 1990. I’d wandered along to see what was going on, blithely unaware that there might be a riot. In the event, I turned up shortly before the height of the battle and accidentally found myself with an incredible view of this great, turbulent panorama — the surges and scatterings of huge numbers of people (like murmurations of starlings, I thought at the time), the mounted police, the missiles thrown, police vans used to split the crowd — and all of this from the podium at the top of the steps beneath the Neo-classical portico of the National Gallery. Today that podium is still a viewing platform, but it’s fenced off from the street. It’s no longer the National Gallery’s main entrance, just a way out; exit-only. But back then you could just walk up off the street. So there I was, watching the Poll Tax Riot from this ornate gazebo, with the public square and this historic struggle on one side, and the gallery on the other: a unique vantage point, right in the thick of it.

Alongside more traditional publishing, I’ve been commissioned to create literary works in places where you might expect to find public art, such as my Missorts project — a GPS-triggered soundwork for the city of Bristol that’s set in the Redcliffe area around Thomas Chatterton’s birthplace (which is now archived here). My interests in performance art definitely influence how I approach live readings, whether at bookshop events and festivals, appearances on the grassroots live literature scene — all of which I love doing — or with bigger one-offs and collaborations with musicians such as my performance with Irish musician New Pope for the TULCA Festival in Galwaya couple of years back, or with The Holborn Cenotaph which began as my contribution to a collaborative event in the chapel at King’s College London in 2014, but has turned into an ongoing tour: a satirical work of fiction that has to be updated every time it’s read.

I’ve collaborated with some great musicians and composers including acid house pioneer Richard Norris for the Free University of Glastonbury (that one was thanks to you, Mathew!), bassist Simon Edwards, Jamie Telford, Johny Brown, and (albeit remotely) with Gibby Haynes, as part of a huge, psychedelic puppet show by LA artist Steven Hull for the Glow Festival in Santa Monica.

Coming back to your question, perhaps more than any of my previous novels The Fountain in the Forest synthesises these three positions you suggest — literary fiction, counterculture and the art world, or a kind of avant garde practice, at least — into a single work. In as much as it’s a literary thriller that uses the counter-tradition of the Post Modern detective novel and an Oulipo-inspired ‘mandated vocabulary’ to explore the legacy of the Battle of the Beanfield: the crushing of the Stonehenge Free Festival on 1 June 1985. Maybe this is also what the critic Sukhdev Sandhu meant when he called me a ‘somewhat centrifugal writer’ in his recent Guardian review. I had to look it up, and it turns out it’s a term used by the 20th century critic Northrop Frye and others, which I think means work or an approach that is outward facing, and engaged with the wider world and society. If so, I think that’s exactly right.

Although you primarily work as a novelist on your own you have also worked collaboratively with a number of organizations — I am thinking specifically about Blast Theory, the Science Museum and Resonance FM. What have you found most fulfilling about these relationships?

Those are each very different kinds of relationships. Firstly, collaborations are frequently part of how I work. It certainly wouldn’t have been possible to write The Fountain in the Forestif not for a series of collaborations and research undertaken over a period of a decade or more. My first use of a mandated vocabulary came out of a collaboration with the Irish artist Alan Phelan for the Irish Museum of Modern Art: a short story called ‘Include Me Out’, which Phelan subsequently adapted for film. Then my novella Dicky Star and the Garden Rule was commissioned in 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, as a companion publication to a touring exhibition by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson, and it turned out to be a dummy run for The Fountain in the Forest: taking me to the mid-1980s and testing whether the mandated vocabulary method could work at the scale of a historical novel or novella. A further ‘loose collaboration’ (his words) with the artists Stuart Brisley and Maya Balcioglu, and the historian Dr Sanja Perovic of King’s College London inspired my use of the French Republican Calendar, which was the final piece of the jigsaw that enabled me to begin writing The Fountain in the Forest.

The artists Blast Theory — Matt, Ju, Nick and the team — have incredible expertise and a deep understanding of technology and interactivity, creating immersive and ‘mixed reality’ works that really get under your skin. Combining forces with them on a couple of big projects — most recently our libraries live-streaming work A Place Free Of Judgement – has been truly mind-expanding. The first thing we did together was Ivy4evr, a week-long, real-time, interactive SMS drama for mobile phones commissioned by Channel 4 and broadcast in 2010. That was incredibly challenging: writing one half of a script that the reader/viewer/player would complete, to create a drama that rewarded the reader’s involvement. It was a conversation: Ivy texted you, you texted back, etc. and the more you replied the more you heard from her. The drama was fast-moving and highly personalised — tailored to each individual — and it played out in the very intimate space of their mobile. If you got really close she might also email you something by her favourite band, or a shonky animation she’d made with her dad’s digital camera. Yet Ivy4evr had to be completely automated, safe, Ofcom-compliant, data protected, and able to operate at scale. It was marketed to Channel 4’s Saturday morning T4 audience. Condensing all of that story and (invisible) infrastructure into the very constrained space of several hundred personalised and apparently seamless text messages? Without a doubt, such collaborations have made me a better writer.

My relationship with Science Museum was a residency. I was writer in residence at the Museum as part of its arts programme, directed at the time by the curator Hannah Redler. I’ve had a couple of residencies: I was Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and more recently ‘creative entrepreneur in residence’ in the French Department at King’s College London. The Science Museum residency gave me time and space to write and research, and a way to open up the Museum to other writers through a series of free writing workshops. A story that I wrote during that residency Albertopolis Disparu was published by the Museum in 2009, but over the following couple of years that short story became the opening chapter of a novel about climate change and human rights, a ‘documentary novel’ (in the words of curator Daniel Jewesbury), called Shackleton’s Man Goes South. When the Museum found out about this, they said, Well maybe we should publish it. I found that such an interesting idea. At a time when the physical square-footage of the book trade had been shrinking, here was an opportunity to put a book directly in front of readers, Museum visitors who were already interested in science by dint of where they were. I saw the commission as a chance to experiment, to take a political novel about climate change to this mass audience, and to work creatively with Science Museum staff. Alongside publication there was an exhibition about the novel in the Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery. As part of developing that, the Museum gave me access to audience analysis — numbers, movement, dwell-times, age-ranges, etc. — and I also worked with the exhibition design team to create a display designed to catch the eye of a general readership (in a gallery that the data had shown to have a greater proportion of adult visitors than other parts of the Museum). I was very pleased to have been able to bring in Jake Tilson, whose work I’d admired since his designs for James Pennington’s legendary Aloes Books, who created a ‘melting’ logotype, a bold graphic identity that would work equally on the cover of the novel or as a huge wall vinyl in the Science Museum.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South, Atmosphere Gallery view, 2013. © Science Museum

A key innovation with Shackleton’s Man Goes South was that the display incorporated one of the Museum’s networked, touch-screen information kiosks, which we converted into an ebook dispenser — the first of its kind. It was a time-limited project. The exhibition and publication of the novel was originally commissioned for one year, but was then extended for a further year, during which time Shackleton’s Man Goes Southwas available exclusively in print from the Science Museum shop, or in ebook free from the Museum website or in the gallery. Who else at that time would have published an experimental novel about climate change, migration and human rights, and published it so big?

And your involvement with Resonance FM?

I’ve been involved with Resonance for a long time, and in fact I’ve just stepped back from chairing the board of directors. If readers don’t know it, Resonance is an incredible project: a non-profit community radio station broadcasting on FM and digitally that is devoted to the diverse artistic and creative communities of London, broadcasting new and experimental music, sound art, radio art, books, comedy, literary and spoken word programming, hundreds of live sessions every year, programmes about art and programmes that are art. I was a trustee from 2008, and chaired the board from 2010–2018 with all that entails, although my first involvement with the station goes back to the early-00s when I worked in a small department of the Arts Council England national office, called the Interdisciplinary Arts Department. At the time — 2000, 2001 or so — I was involved in the development of a pilot funding programme looking to support new forms of publishing, recording and distribution across the arts (known internally as ‘Pubs and Recs’), and subsequently managing those awards for the department alongside a group of colleagues working in other art forms. Ed Baxter of London Musician’s Collective (LMC) came to us because the then Radio Authority had announced that a community radio pilot scheme would be granting a dozen FM broadcasting licences to community groups. It was the Radio Authority’s swan song, their parting gift to the nation before being subsumed by Ofcom. The LMC had only recently run a temporarily-licensed experimental station called Resonance FM as part of the John Peel-curated Meltdown festival on the South Bank, so they had the experience, the knowledge and the networks to put in a bid. Initially launched as part of the Radio Authority’s pilot, and with a small amount of seed funding from the Arts Council’s ‘Pubs and Recs’ programme, Resonance quickly became one of the most successful stations on this growing community radio scene. Like a kind of arts centre of the airwaves, but with a reach and impact that immediately went far beyond anything that could have been anticipated, and becoming one of the most consistently innovative radio stations anywhere. Thanks to Ed and the team, and the fundraising efforts of programme makers, listeners and high profile supporters such as Stewart Lee and Bob and Roberta Smith, Resonance remains a genuine wellspring of creativity, diversity, experiment and expression that is also completely accessible and commands huge audiences, whether on FM in London, online, and more recently on DAB and with its sister station Resonance Extra. It’s the only radio station where you’ll hear long-form experimental soundworks and programmes in London’s many languages, as well as regular and informed programmes about children’s books, the London theatre scene, comics, computer games, you name it. Still run on a relative shoestring, Resonance has given hundreds of people training in sound and radio production, and offered hundreds or probably thousands of artists, writers, musicians, composers, etc. the opportunity to make radio. When I was invited to become a trustee, I felt that if any of the skills, knowledge and experience that I’d picked up over the years might be of use, then it would be a real privilege to do so. As indeed it was. I hugely enjoyed my time as chair, and remain a huge fan of the station, and of all the people who make it what it is. Turn on, tune in, and make your own radio programme :)

What are you working on at the moment? What have you got coming up in the next twelve months?

As some readers may know, The Fountain in the Forest is the first in a trilogy of novels, and I’ve carved out some time right now to work on part two. The trilogy is mapped against this slightly overlooked period in recent British history, the ninety days between the end of the Miners’ Strike in March 1985 and the Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June, but set in London today, and all points in between. Ninety days: ninety chapters. And the whole trilogy is written using a mandated vocabulary, so each chapter must be written using all of the solutions to the Guardian newspaper’s Quick Crosswords from that same day in 1985. When I was researching the novels and started re-doing these particular crosswords that I’d first completed more than 30 years ago, I hadn’t been prepared for this Proustian rush of memories and associations that they opened up. The trilogy is written chapter by chapter in this way, with the story, the characters’ names, locations, everything coming from the mandated vocabulary. I can reveal that readers will be seeing more of Detective Sergeant Rex King in Volume II, but because I completed all the crosswords before I started writing page one I also know, for example, that we’ll be back on the Riviera in Chapter 22, and that early in Volume III a particular character from The Fountain in the Forest will return — a terrifying prospect.

Aside from that, I have a few articles being published in the coming weeks. Since stepping down as chair of Resonance I’ve had more time for reviewing. And I just published an interview with the pioneering artist Liliane Lijn on 3:am Magazine about some little-known and extremely tantalising early works of hers made in Paris in the late 1950s using erased jigsaw puzzles, that seem to offer the faintest premonition of the central jigsaw puzzle motif in Perec’s novel Life a User’s Manual.

A while ago the British Council commissioned me to write an article about A Place Free Of Judgement, my libraries live-streaming project with Blast Theory, for a series of online and print publications about new approaches to public art, edited by the curator Claire Doherty called Where Strangers Meet. I’m just waiting to see the final proofs, so that will be published later in the spring.

Of course, I’m doing events and readings through the year as ever — mostly for The Fountain in the Forest– to which all are very welcome. See my site and the usual social media etc. for events listings. Coming right back to where we started, there may also be a new publication from Piece of Paper Press before the year is out, as there are a couple of great ones in the pipeline. I can’t wait.

Where can people find you online?

Find me on my website on Twitter @tony_white_/ on Instagram @pieceofpaperpress/ or sign up here to get occasional invites to my events and launches.