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John Bently and the Liver & Lights Scriptorium: a brief history

I began the Liver and Lights series of books back in 1983 with my two colleagues from art school, Stephen Jaques and James Blundun. We had collaborated on two previous books (and a film) when we were still students in the late seventies, inspired by many things including artist manifestos like Blast and Die Blue Rieter and the pervasive Punk DIY ethos of the time. Bound in old curtains from our slum flat in Herne Bay, these rough and ready constructions were the prototypes of the early Liver & Lights publications, which were themselves a sort of manifesto containing our somewhat overheated opinions.

 

 

In 1987 I struck out on my own, creating the first of many books about Deptford, Liver and Lights no. 8, The One True G'Love. This marked a new beginning and a wholly different approach for me, the whole project more a campaign than a book. For the subsequent exhibition and performances, I constructed a character. called Joe Soake. A composite of various local homeless people and through his mouth I gave voice to all the things I detested about our shallow uncaring world. This was the on yer bike eighties and the abject conditions of Thatcher's homeless upset me deeply. My derelict alcoholic antihero Joe is transformed by love and art into a reluctant Messiah, the antithesis of all things Thatcherite, thrusting and materialistic.

 

 

I made an exhibitions worth of paintings allegedly done by him and a constructed a book of his 'recently dicovered' writings, illuminated with found objects from his life: a beer can and a fingerless glove; holy relics of dereliction. At the launch, I performed excerpts from his life (the Soake Opera) with my brother Peter and an actress called Sue Kingerlee. The scene was set. For the next ten years I would make books in this way-creating characters, social commentary, performing, moving on...

 

 

I had this feeling that the book could metamorphose into infinite shapes and directions. I had found my place. I made books specifically for galleries, as interactive installations and as community projects. I made books out of every possible material and method. I pushed I pulled I talked I walked books. Liver & Lights no.14 The book of discarded things was an edition of 100 entirely made from rubbish. I got a big grant and spent a year in Fife collecting stories (L&L No. 24 Fife Heroes) Another big arts council grant for The Year of The Artist had me making a book entirely from found handwriting dropped in Harrow (Liver and Lights No 27 Concerning the poetry of lost things), although, not liking what I'd found on their streets, Harrow Council banned it from their libraries. I made a hundred entirely different book structures to contain a hundred slightly different versions of the same poem (No.23 100 books). I tried to tour this as an exhibition. It was a criticism of state tyranny (Iran had just executed some poets) and it was cancelled in three of the venues. Three Cheers for the galleries that were brave enough to put it on (Customs House, South Shields and Croydon Art College)

 

Throughout the Nineties I performed the books live with Cellist Harvey Eagles and in the Noughties I performed them with Ollie Briggs and Alan and Phil Outram in the electropunk The After Rabbit and most recently with the primal rock-theatre of Bones & The Aft.

 

One of the positive offshoots of this book activity has been the creation of a loyal community of loyal subscribers who fund the books in return for not very much more than my heartfelt thanks. Inspired by them, so far the Liver & Lights series has been 48 issues in twenty nine years, a lifelong exploration of the possibilities of The Book and there are still so many ideas stacked up in my head waiting for me to try. Some of the books have been blinding successes and others have been abject disasters, although the loyal subscribers seem to differ on which these were! The series has been my whole life and I'll keep going with it until I die...