Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Rise of Art Publishing, Kit Hammonds

Artist-led publishing is on the increase, stimulating a growing number of both DIY and institutional publishing events, Kit Hammonds investigates
A small crowd of people gather around the beer and bowls of monkey nuts served among the shelves in Donlon Books for the launch of Succulent Legume. Later, in a now heaving crowd, performances get underway – a mix of music, semi-nudity and slapstick gymnastics – a live equivalent to the collaged melange in the pages of the fanzine itself.

This is one of many launches at Donlon Books in the East End of London that demonstrates one of the key roles in artist-led publishing – bringing people together. The bookshop owner, Conor Donlon, and Ele Brown who works in the shop, run events there under the moniker X marks the Bökship. Like some return to the (in)famous Better Books store, or a hangout for beat poets from the 1950s, Donlon taps into a redundant tradition of independent book stores that operate as much as a hangout as a storefront.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, to find a social undercurrent to this activity, particularly if one thinks of how the media in general is used today. Social networking has transformed the way in which the media, in particular textual media, penetrates our lives.

Fever Zine is one such example – its publishing editor Alex Zamora being an avid participant/user, whatever the appropriate term may be for those operating within social networking software. The zine itself is fairly traditional, but its deployment is one that capitalises on the potential for intermedial presentation, rather than being a translation of it directly onto the page.

Pablo Leon de la Barra has published zines since 2006 at irregular intervals, producing not only macho not rough, a mix of art, architecture and men, but also releasing special issues for events such as a tour of the Copan Building in São Paulo during the 2007 biennale opening, or issuing a bootlegged version of Suely Rolnik’s The Geopolitics of Pimping at Subvision Festival, as part of the micro-programme at annual self-publishing fair Publish and Be Damned.

For all of these people, the publication takes a central role in consolidating such networks and events into a cohesive if schizophrenic whole where more than one, seemingly unconnected idea might be pursued alongside another.

Last year my students pointed out an interesting point of intersection between the new potential of personal computing, access to affordable video equipment and artist-led publishing in the form of Radical Software.

As a group, Radical Software operated beyond the page, the zine acting more as the manifestation of a critical dialogue, itself in dialogue with actions, performances and interventions. The history of the artist group – the surrealists, situationists, dadaists, bauhaus – often appears to include publications, all radical in design and content and quite at odds with marketing and mainstream publication: mouthpieces, voices from behind the sheets, messages between the lines of the media. The underlying message of Radical Software marks an early incidence of the move towards open-source ideals of licensing creativity. No surprise then that the founders of the magazines were students of Marshall McLuhan, and that the leftist politics of this quasi-manifesto encouraged the use of current technology to take control of the media as an act of counterculture.

Such a heritage helps consolidate some of the vital signs by which we can gauge the state of health of current publishing activity. Not just its production, but also its visibility and agency within broader social concerns.

From the inside, the mass of self- (and associated genres of) publishing seems to be a sea change of sorts. This may be just a perception. But this year’s Publish and Be Damned certainly saw a change in the number and make-up of stallholders. Likewise the fair itself attracted unusual attention in the mainstream media – in particular from the hoary old cultural establishment, Radio 4, with two of their journalists, perhaps ironically, reporting on the publications. Underlying this interest however, might be a more questionable point about the focus of attention falling on publishing of this kind, its DIY nature perpetuating the current social image of low budget outlets in the climate of a recession – what I like to call ‘austerity chic’.

Institutions are equally savvy to this current discourse around experimental forms of published books. Art writing appears to be another cohesion in the making, as universities develop it as a growth industry. Notable at the vanguard of this work is the art writing MA at Goldsmiths. Headed by Maria Fusco, also editor of The Happy Hypocrite and 2009 writer in residence at the Whitechapel Gallery (which, in September this year, hosted its first London Art Book Fair, a public event organised with an international ‘art fair’ model of sophisticated commercialism in mind), the course focuses on the experimental use of text and image, particularly outside the mainstream press.

Further afield, FR David, a periodic journal edited and designed by Will Holder for De Appel, Amsterdam looks at text as a medium in which experimental work can take place; criticism and creativity brought together.

The word on the page, as opposed to on-screen, seems to be burgeoning, while that of image on the page may be on the wane. It would be relatively easy to sketch out a cause and effect; as archival and promotional material moves into the more immediate database retrieval systems on the internet, the traditional catalogue with images and essays no longer feels a necessary component for the development of art history in quite the same way as it used to only recently. And in some respects art magazines suffer the same humiliating redundancy.

However, art has long fought to ensure a continued life for redundant forms of representation, and so debased as this may be, it opens up an opportunity for the book to become an experimental site, more than a record. It is not the work of art itself that has been dematerialised – in fact the work of art has become specifically rematerialised even if only as a commodity. No, it is the archive and the document that now appears to be evaporating, unshackling the book to perform its own gig.

Event publishing is not limited to the avantgarde and underground, but can also be found prominently in another art form, the comic book. Since the turn of this century, the term ‘event publishing’ has been used to portray a large-scale series, normally crossing over titles from within the same stable, or, as they call them in the industry, universes – in short, their own continua with their own characters and natural laws accommodating the mutations, space travellers and psychic phenomena particular to them.

Almost inevitably these story lines spread out over as much as a year, revolve around calamities, the end of the universe, or even the end of the multiverse – that is all reality. These relatively cheap publications are naturally a huge industry, but the need for even pulp classics to reinvent themselves for an era of new media is proving surprisingly successful, and there are more similarities with the economy driving the art world than may at first appear. In effect it is driven by collectors, albeit normally teenage ones.

Cynically, one could see these effects as an attempt to reinvigorate crime-fighting characters now old enough to be pensioners while also maintaining a highly profitable enterprise. With a little more critical freedom however, one can also see this as part of a trend towards publishing being more than simply a media operating on the page. What is absolutely clear is that the transition of comics into a digital format is not taking place. While there is an extremely healthy transference of characters from cartoon drawings to storyboards to Hollywood movies, there is little or no call for reading through a VDU even when it seems like a medium which could easily absorb it, technically at least. Instead, they are burgeoning in the caucuses of comic conventions when fans create fanzines and slash fiction. Previously distributed under the radar in photocopied manuscripts, they are now circulated in a free economy online just as easily.

The argument for the internet supporting book trades, what has been coined the Long Tail Theory, has been widely discussed, not least by the artist Mark Leckey in his recent performance lectures. Economist Chris Anderson’s proposal that certain businesses, namely Amazon, thrive online not because they make available mainstream titles at a discount, but because their strength is to alter the balance by profiting from the provision of difficult to find and niche books which would otherwise be inaccessible to the specialist reader. While the theory itself remains contested, there does seem to be a noticeable effect on the market that is buoying up off-mainstream production.

George Orwell describes in his betwixt war essay ‘Books Vs Cigarettes’, how working class people at that time still saw expenditure on books and reading as a luxury despite improvements in education, while the same people would think nothing of spending two pounds (at the time a significant sum) on a day trip to Blackpool, or equivalently large sums on beer and smokes. The idea of books as a leisure pastime rather than a source of information might appear odd, leisure now being held up almost solely as a social activity. But if anything, books are forming a bridge to relatively achievable areas of experimentation and discourse now increasingly dependent on the way in which technology is driving how we come together to drink and smoke, and often, simply to talk.

Kit Hammonds is a London-based curator and a tutor in the Curating Contemporary Art department at the Royal College of Art. He is also co-founder of Publish and be Damned an a trustee of Book Works

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