From their positions at the helm of Artspace, Sydney and Printed Matter Inc., Alexie Glass-Kantor and Max Schumann meet to confer on the artist book as both industrial object and a site of insubordination.
Max Schumann is standing in a modest wooden room near the entrance of Artspace in Woolloomooloo, a building that has refashioned itself to numerous identities: bulk store for a city newspaper, naval facility, film laboratory, and present home to various arts and cultural institutions. It’s midday. The light is streaming in from an uncurtained window, varnishing the Eve Fowler posters tacked to the walls in a glossy, white sheen. They make terse proclamations like RUB HER COKE and IN THE MORNING THERE IS MEANING and Schumann is smiling and nodding, and seems to like them a lot.
Schumann is in Sydney for a single day, following a stint further south at Melbourne’s inaugural art book fair. In September, Printed Matter—the New York-based non-profit he’s spent much of his life serving—will partner with Artspace and Perimeter to present the city’s first independent fair for artist books.
Printed Matter’s creation story doubles as a checklist for modern art’s textbook heroes (beginning with Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt). But the organisation eschews glassy-eyed preoccupation with the past by churning through the present, where, according to its records, it circulates over 32, 000 publications annually. To talk about all of this, and more specifically, the artist book itself as subversive territory (illegible, unstable, fugitive, wonderful) Schumann spent one hour on a couch in Artspace’s back office. Beside him, with many questions, was the gallery’s executive director Alexie Glass-Kantor.
ALEXIE GLASS-KANTOR You’ve been with Printed Matter for over 25 years … What were the intentions of Printed Matter back then?
MAX SCHUMANN I came to Printed Matter in 1989, but it was founded in 1976—there were a good 15 years preceding me of very rich activity. It was started by a group of artists and arts practitioners who were basically responding to the growing phenomena of artist book production. Artist books are not conventional art books—books about art—but rather books that are an artwork themselves. These weren’t singular or one-of-a-kind books, but rather books published in editions, a public art that was accessibly priced and widely distributed.
When I began, Printed Matter had just moved to Soho from Tribeca. Tribeca was an art resident district in New York in the 70s, but the commercial art market was starting to move to Soho, so Printed Matter followed it. In 1989, the organisation entered into a partnership with the Dia Art Foundation. They had a large space they offered to us for way below market rent, so we were able to expand into a large gallery-sized setting. Before that, we’d been in a modest storefront, jam-packed full of books.
GLASS-KANTOR It’s interesting how Printed Matter has traced the migration of cultural production in New York: Tribeca to Soho, Soho to Chelsea. The locations really determined the opportunities available.
GLASS-KANTOR Your founders—people like Lucy Lippard and Sol LeWitt—were interested in the artist book as a contested territory, one that allowed for self-determined expression.
SCHUMANN Many artists took to the artist book as a way to circumvent the marketplace of ‘high’ contemporary art. It was also a means to reach audiences in a really mediated way. As opposed to going to see art in the architectural or ideological space of a commercial gallery, people could engage with art in the context of their own lives. The artist book, on the one hand, is a public form of art. If it’s done in large editions, say 1000 copies, you potentially have an audience of 1000 people. In another way, it’s a completely personal, private experience. You look at books in an [isolated setting]. That was of great interests to artists, folding art into everyday, lived realities.
GLASS-KANTOR You’ve had a great seat in the box really, a quarter of a century at Printed Matter. I feel we need to talk about this: how closely do you define what an artist book is? How do you view other forms of publishing encroaching into the terrain of the artist book?
SCHUMANN Our mission stays pretty true to what it originally was. We want to facilitate and foster the distribution and understanding of artist books, and as such we’re much more than a bookstore. Printed Matter has always had educational programs, beginning with the window installations that Lucy Lippard curated for a decade—starting in 1979—often focusing on political and social themes. They were outward facing, seen by ordinary people walking by. We do exhibitions on artist books, pulled together around concepts, publishers, geographical areas and historical periods. We publish about four to eight books ourselves per year and do installations in a modest format. We have offsite partnerships and projects where we bring Printed Matter up close with other institutions, as we’re doing here at Artspace.
In terms of how the artist book has evolved, I don’t necessarily identify with notions of progress in terms of ‘moving forward.’ I look at the changes that have occurred over the years as very jumbled, mixed up. I see a lot of reinterpretations and reinventions. The field continues to completely expand and confound any attempt to define what exactly it is. We try to have a flexible scope of what an artist book can be, but I always come back to that basic differentiation of a conventional art book being a book about art, and artist books seeing the form embody the work itself.
With artist books, the artist takes on all the roles of producer. The artist plans and organises the industrial manufacturing. They become designer and decision-maker. I now see that design books, in some cases, qualify as artist publications too. For instance, we did a book with Sam Falls (STUDIO SPACE PRINT/TIME), which really was a collaboration between him and designer Duncan Hamilton. They were faced with the problem of how to reproduce Falls’ work in printed form. They were pastel rubbings, made with brightly coloured chalk on black paper against the floor, walls and windows of his studio. It was a real technical challenge with their printer. They decided to include the dialogue between artist and designer of how to produce the book within the book itself—the technical specs were there too. The book became partly a documentation of its own making …
The role of the artist becomes less about the ‘painter genius’ sitting in their studio, hovering above history and being endowed with some sort of magical genius that’s completely ahistorical, [laughs], and is only sustained by market mythologies of importance and greatness. In an artist book, value is intrinsically related to raw materials and production costs. The artist is cast in that role as an agent, as an economic producer. That puts them in a much more tangible, real, historical and political relationship with their culture. It’s the artist as producer, not just artist.
GLASS-KANTOR The artist determines what’s permissible and who gets to speak. There’s a level of agency that exists within the book space that’s interesting, particularly in a 21st century context of highly litigious self-censorship.
SCHUMANN It’s an alternative space. And there’s a cultural empowerment in reproducing your own work, as opposed to needing to be legitimated by the powers that be.
GLASS-KANTOR It’s an interesting contrast, because you’re working right in the centre of the commercial art market, through your location in Chelsea.
SCHUMANN I think our relationship with the art world reveals a bit of an internal contradiction. Lucy Lippard noted—in an essay around 1978—that the problem with contemporary artist books is that they are art. And art is often not accessible to the broader public. So these books are appreciated by a specialised, often economically privileged class of ‘art educated’ people. Her idealistic hope at the outset of Printed Matter was that artist books would circumvent or [remove] the need for galleries. Audiences would get their art fix in newsagencies or bookstores instead. The contradiction is that there isn’t that much of an audience for a lot of that material. A conceptual document is not as interesting to the broad public as it is to someone who’s trained and recognises how to read it. The broad public couldn’t care less about it! You do an edition of 1000 copies of a book and it’s not that easy to sell them—even if they are at a really low unit cost.
MUSEUM Can I interrupt? I’d like to know more about the non-profit element of Printed Matter and how that aligns with the idea of the book as a democratic object—one that exists outside the usual art-world pricing mechanisms.
SCHUMANN Printed Matter was actually set up as a for-profit business. They expected to make money. It wasn’t because they wanted to be rich, but they thought profits from book would funnel back into the production of more books, and to supporting the distribution apparatus. But they quickly found sales were too slow to support the business. They desperately needed subsidisation to be able to pay the rent and keep the doors open.
GLASS-KANTOR As a non-profit, you’re supporting the creation of an idea rather than a market economy. I mean, at Artspace, we wanted to work with Printed Matter on VOLUME | Another Art Book Fair … because we realise these things are proliferating globally at the moment. There’s an appetite for these collective forums, these cluster-fucks of artist book celebration. And something that [both our organisations are always questioning is] what do alternative spaces like ours look like 30 or 40 years on from their establishment? Artspace came from a squat. We were a protest space, an alternative living environment. And now we’re a different kind of institution. So, like you, it’s about maintaining a connection to our origins … [ensuring] art and objects and ideas have meaning and aren’t just co-opted by an institutional vocabulary. Something I love about the NY Art Book Fairs is the ability for makers to directly connect with audiences. It’s more than a transaction. It’s about exchange.
SCHUMANN Totally. And it’s about more than just the exchange of information, which happens in the digital sphere much more efficiently and less expensively. It’s also about community building and real, social experience. The physical space is important to us, whether it’s in our store or at the fairs, which are high-intensity, magnified, condensed versions of the store environment.
GLASS-KANTOR Even if it wasn’t sustainable as a commercial business model, I think there’s this enduring sense that Printed Matter matters. You say these conversations happen on the internet, but there’s still this real meaning and value that’s generated through direct, interpersonal exchanges.
SCHUMANN The possibilities that happen within a book will not be duplicated in e-books or on iPhones. There is still something unique and different about the way information is experienced in print as opposed to digital formats.
MUSEUM What are some of the most radical ideas taking place in artist books right now?
SCHUMANN Even though we’re witnessing a resurgent interest in publishing and the tactility of the book, we’re not afraid of other forms of publishing at Printed Matter. It began with artist audio, then video, and was shortly followed by artist computer publications. We still have things in floppy disc format that no one can play, unless you take them to some museum of old-fashioned computers.
We [like works] created in a reproducible, publishable format. The book, in being unique, but also in being multiple—existing up to 1000 times or more—is like an objectified form of art. Artist audio is reproducible too, widely circulated and broadcastable. It can be published over airwaves. And that’s true of internet-based projects too. We are educating ourselves on what forms of artist publishing are happening online. Right now, artists are engaging in multi-format publishing practices. Paul Chan has an imprint called Badlands Unlimited, where he releases books in print and e-book format, as well as free downloadable PDFs. Primary Information does the same thing: print and PDF versions. That means the print format isn’t placed ahead of these other formats, but in relationship to them, beside them. Sometimes I wonder if the early champions of artist books—Laurence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt—would be doing books now. Maybe they’d be doing digital projects.
We have a new website that looks to further us on that front. Those multimedia or inter-media engagements are typical of a lot of the new-generation publishers. They’re not anti-technology, and they also understand the value of books.
GLASS-KANTOR The death of things are so often decried, but it never happens. We should host a death of the death of things. These things—books—they always find a way to resituate and restructure. The artist edition has been a big thing for Printed Matter too, hasn’t it?
SCHUMANN They’re fundraising editions, I should clarify that. I was recently reminded that our legacy is not unique. It’s one that’s typical of many non-profit alternative and experimental art organisations, one of intense financial struggle. Around 1986 we started producing fundraising editions. The first was a Richard Prince Untitled (Cowboy) that he donated to us on our 10th anniversary—or rather, he allowed us to produce it at cost. Through the sales of it, we supported our general operating costs. Since then we’ve been producing limited edition prints, everything from a $7 Lawrence Weiner Learn to Read Art badge to a $10,000 Richard Prince print. We’ve done projects with Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Martin Kippenburger, Richard Tuttle and Jeremy Deller. Most of the non-profits call on their community of artists to support them in this way, but the editions aren’t our main purpose.
GLASS-KANTOR Do Printed Matter seek to empower the artist or the audience? Or is it always both?
SCHUMANN It’s always both.
SCHUMANN All art is based on some kind of contractual idea. You make it in order for people to see it. That’s true of the artist book as well.
GLASS-KANTOR Much of the appeal of the artist book is its accessibility. The fact it can be engaged with private, outside the space of the gallery or other public environments. Perhaps this is less intimidating for newcomers to the art world. What do you think of that?
SCHUMANN Yeah, I agree.
GLASS-KANTOR In some ways it’s not accessible though. You need a vocabulary to gain access. The ideas contained in some artist books are often quite complicated. The book is conscious of its space.
SCHUMANN That slogan I’ve mentioned that Lawrence Weiner leant to us—’learn to read art’—it [sums up] this inherent contradiction. The form is accessible, you encounter it all the time. But you open up the pages and you have a bunch of inscrutable text, diagrams and images. That said, I think that opening up of the book induces this mode of discovery and exploration. Embedded in the form is an invitation to discover.
GLASS-KANTOR Here’s a daggy story. I first came to Printed Matter in 1993 when I was 18 and I’d saved up to go to New York.
SCHUMANN No way!
GLASS-KANTOR I was at art school and I was doing really badly. I decided to save up all my money and go to America. In Australia, it was so hard to get good books at that time, to get anything. If you got a magazine, you circulated it with your friends. If you had a flyer from a show, you shared it with everyone you knew. I came across Printed Matter and I thought it was the coolest, most difficult, radical and exciting thing I’d ever seen. I bought a book of concrete poetry. It’s a gauntlet layer in a sense … I believe it provides an invitation to explore, but it’s not an easy one. I carried those books across three countries in my suitcase, and then brought them to Australia and shared them with everyone.
SCHUMANN 1993. That might have been the first time I did my stint as acting director! I had been there for three years or so, and I was the assistant sales dude. Within a two-week period the director, the manager and the assistant manager all resigned. I was thrust into the position of acting director.
This conversation appears in the High Flying issue of Museum, which you can buy here.
GLASS-KANTOR If you saw a self-conscious Australian lingering in the concrete poetry section, that was me! Another question: do books allow artists to explore in a better way than other mediums?
SCHUMANN The structure and the space of the book is different than other conventional forms of art. It has a mechanics, moving parts, multiple surfaces. The work can be deployed around that entire range. There are a host of cultural associations with the book that inform our heritage: history, religion, narrative, fiction, journals, memoirs, administration or science. The book is deeply associative. An old-school favourite of mine is Helen Douglas and Telfer Stokes. They used the book in this cinematic way. It felt like you were looking at an experimental film. Michael Snow did that also in his famous book Cover To Cover. More recently, there’s a project we co-published with Tauba Auerbach, a large-edition pop-up book on this epic scale. There were six different volumes and a slipcase that opened up into complex geometric sculptures. There’s the inter-media potential too. The artist Gareth Long took a translation of Don Quixote and [got it in] cassette form. He then played it to speech recognition software, which phonetically rewrote the entire novel. It’s a novel of gibberish. You can kind of read through it. It’s this massive project taking technologies and showing ideas of communication, reading, traditions of literature and screwing with them. It’s a critique of the digital utopian vision, where things somehow become more legible with the advancement of technologies.
VOLUME | Another Art Book Fair—the first independent artist book fair of its kind in Australia—is supported by Printed Matter Inc. and Perimeter Books. It runs from 11—13th September and activates every floor of Artspace.
Alexie Glass-Kantor is the executive director of Artspace, Sydney and the curator of Encounters at Art Basel Hong Kong. She was previously the director and senior curator of Gertrude Contemporary.
Max Schumann is the acting executive director of Printed Matter Inc., New York. He is also a practicing artist.
GLASS-KANTOR The Melbourne Art Book Fair, the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA Ps1 and VOLUME | Another Art Book Fair are all presented in galleries. Do you think these sites implicate, or create a particular kind of reading of the artist book?
SCHUMANN You mean, the fact artist books are meant to circumvent the institution, and we’re distributing them in the institution? Yes and no. To come up with an ethically or commercially pure mode of production and distribution isn’t going to happen … Museums are amazing spaces for learning, but their pre-eminence or their role as a pinnacle of cultural authority should be completely disavowed, rejected and refused. People should start their own museums. Their own museums are as valid and important, if not more so. The everyday folk law and outsider art and activist, interventionist or anti-art museums are much more valid than institutional museums … I mean at Printed Matter, we have a strong relationship with museums like MoMA, the commercial gallery system around us and our brethren non-profits, but also with anarchist groups who don’t even recognise art as a legitimate form of expression, who do really cool publications that we’re going to call art and distribute. The museum location reveals contradictions that exist all over culture. It’s good not to dismiss those contradictions—they should inform us—but there are advantages of working there. And we’re an ‘institution’ ourselves. We’ve been around for 40 years.
GLASS-KANTOR For me, spaces like Artspace are a bit like cinema. Cinemas don’t determine the content they house, but they’re the way we come together for the collective moving image experience. We’ve always been publishing, and I like the idea that institutions like us can support the spaces that artists create for themselves. If that means giving up the whole building for chaos and conversations and ideas and exchange, I think it’s a good thing … it’s a good shift for Artspace to say we have to stop deciding what artists need and start looking at what artists are creating.
SCHUMANN The artist book fair is a more legitimate representation of these activities than a book exhibition would be. When you put books in glass, under vitrines where people cant look at them, that’s not an experience of the book. The production and sale of books is absolutely part of the artwork. The economy of artist books is what differentiates them from painting, sculpture and installation work, even the de-objectified stuff that isn’t for sale. The sale of the book is the fulfilment of the piece.