NY Art Book Fair: An Informal Survey
by Alexios Moore
Entering the PS One courtyard always makes me a feel a bit like a mouse entering a maze. The exterior walls are formidable, and there is a moment where you find yourself wondering “am I going the right way?” before you passing safely into the courtyard and climbing the stairs which is, in itself, a bit of a happening.
It was clear from the group gathered on the stairs, sipping coffee and noshing on muffins, that the New York Art Book Fair brings in a crowd. Organized by Printed Matter, the fair brings in over two hundred international presses, booksellers, antiquarians, artists and publishers from twenty countries. The sheer volume of ephemera is overwhelming, and my criteria for pausing at a table long enough to actually read any of the material involved a constellation of factors: utility of display, eye contact, and a genuine interest in discussing the work. Banged and bespectacled art school interns did not fare well in this formula.
I decided to work my way from the first floor to the third (I never made it that far). On my way down the hallway I passed one of the leftover installations from the Greater New York Show.Preserved Forest, by David Brooks, is a section of decaying rainforest set in concrete. It is a startlingly literal statement, but in the context of the fair, it also functioned as a reminder of both the living source of paper and its inevitable decay. We tend to think of books as fixed, sculptural objects, but the pages and the ideas within eventually end up as grist for the mill (you name the mill).
The first space I entered featured an exhibit celebrating the tenth anniversary of PPP editions, a Fluxus inspired publisher of books that explore “the intersection of photography, book-as-art, and their shared history.” Proofs and original photographic prints lay in neat, glass display cases while their reproduced offspring were stacked in orderly columns, awaiting purchase at the far end of the gallery.
I gave the cases a polite scan and moved to the back table where I picked up a copy of Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration, 2010 by Wiliam E. Jones. As an object, the book is very compelling. The word killed, set in the pixilated font of an early dot-matrix printer, is set in the corner of a pleasingly textured, clothbound cover. The book reproduces a suite of images rejected or “killed” by the Director of the Farm Security Administration, including images by Walker Evans, Theodore Jung and Carl Mydans. Inexplicably, the images were marked for rejection by a random hole-punch. Baldessariancircles interrupt the chest of a smiling farm boy, and mar the wooden siding of a corn shed. Knowing that their placement was unintentional does little to mitigate their generative power. The hole in the wall is a portal. The boy’s chest marks an absence. I found myself less concerned with the FSA’s criteria for the images’ rejection than the relationship of the puncture to the images, which all seemed compelling enough to deserve archiving in the Library of Congress.
Booksellers dominated the next space. Framed Warhol and Haring prints lured in potential customers, drawn in by the dazzling colors and comforting familiarity. I picked up a copy of a Great Bear Pamphlet from 1966: Injun and Other Histories: Two Scenarios for an Incomplete Pageant of America by Claes Oldenburg. Dick Higgins, a composer who studied with John Cage, published the series of twenty staplebound pamphlets through Something Else Press. The irony is that despite the intentionally cheap production, and the intent behind the work–to disseminate ideas outside of art institutions— the thin, paper pamphlet sits on a shelf accruing value. The text is loosely structured after the script for an elementary school play, and filled with post-modern antics:
The Injun sinks his tommy into Crusoe’s head. It turns into a bird and they kiss. The boy grows up to be Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States.
The narrative mixes fictional and historic characters with stereotypes, mocking the intent, form and legitimacy of historic accounts. The flashes of vivid and comical images made me wish that they had been painted, or perhaps I am alone in wanting to see a tomahawk planted in Robinson Crusoe’s head.
The adjacent bookseller and publisher, Division Leap, had wallpapered their space with old punk flyers with the sort of abrupt, almost-jarring titles you might expect: Kill Your Pet Puppy or Razorcake. Some of the early zines can cost upwards of two or three-hundred dollars. It seems to me the value of these cheaply produced, DIY projects are predominately as cultural record. They resonate as primary texts from a sub-culture whose current appeal rests on a perception of resistance and authenticity, and the symmetry of aesthetic and ideology. Or maybe we want to be able to just not give a fuck, and make things just because we want to. Subcultures are no longer tied to geography or to any significant cultural resistance, and there is plenty of nostalgia for the late seventies/early eighties, just as there was plenty of nostalgia for the 50’s in the early eighties.
I picked up a copy of Adam Davis, published by Division Leap in an edition of fifty. The artist compiled and printed the results of an image Google search of “Adam Davis” with some minor image alterations. The results (a mug shot of a nose-ringed drunk, a soldier in tactical gear, a boy laying on a bed—fist hovering in the foreground) highlights our postmodern lovers: identity and technology and their myriad offspring: privacy, reproducibility, and virtual geography. It is a simple exercise, but one that might help to develop a meta-consciousness around our Internet habits and how they are beginning to alter our perception of ourselves.
Also on sale at Division Leap’s table was Public Phenomenon: Informal modifications of public spaces by a Chicago based group of artists known as Temporary Services. The team has released a number of short compilations from their “large archive of compelling phenomenon.” The phenomenon ranges from parking place savers to roadside memorials to block club signs and homemade basketball hoops. The cover features a traffic cone, with “I Will Tow Your Ass” scrawled on its safety orange surface in black magic marker. The project is loosely organized anthropological research without commentary or analysis. Presumably this archive, like the Library of Congress has its own set of criteria, not based on the quality of the image itself but on the level of invention involved in the design of the “informal modification.” There are some compelling juxtapositions in the book: the bright primary colors of children’ furniture in the street and the potential for impact is particularly compelling. I was surprised that sneaker on telephone lines was not included, but then I remembered that there aren’t telephone lines anymore. The book could have easily been titled Things Bourgeois Art Students Find Fascinating about Inner City Culture, although I enjoyed it and I made good use of my block’s milk crate basketball hoop.
I moved on to 38th Street Publishers’ table where I picked up a copy of Seth Price’s essay “WAS IST LOST”, which is German for “what’s the matter?” The book is a cheaply reproduced pamphlet, about reproduction, specifically in music but he makes a number of expansive and dramatic arguments including: “…there’s no longer such a thing as a copy.” Using sampling as an illustration he ties the concept of originality with institutional and aristocratic cultural power, and makes a number of compelling arguments around temporality and the democratization of production via technology like the personal computer, the sampling machine and the spray can. Price has a gift for analogy which he employs generously in an antiquarian style:
The gesture of graffiti must preserve that which it seeks to destroy. Were it to entirely efface its object, its particular critique would vanish. None, after all, is worse shod than the shoemaker’s wife.
I pocketed my find, climbed the stairs and passed The Classroom where I heard Price being referenced by Bosko Blagoyojevitch during an “informal conversation” with Michael Capio organized by Onomatapee, a foundation that “aims to question the parameters of our (designed) culture through research and conversations”. There is something oddly theatrical about these kinds of events; it’s difficult to have an informal conversation in front of an expectant audience. I managed to follow about 80% of their condensed dialogue which ranged from the utopian potential of artistic communities to the question of whether new technology was democratizing production or fostering conformity. I was tempted to take notes, but it’s probably better that I didn’t; it probably would have ended up looking something like the Unabomber Manifesto.
I left the classroom. The hallway was crowded with folks waiting for the next event, billed as “RANDY Magazine: In your pants”, and as intriguing as that sounded I decided it was time to head home. One mind can only process so much text and so many images in a day. I walked over the Pulaski Bridge as the last spurt of marathoners, straggled across the bridge, many of them walking. Next year I would train properly; the art book fair is a marathon, not a sprint.