art book publishing

The Algorithm and The Field

In his 2011 TEDTalk, director Amit Sood introduces Google Art & Culture (GAC) as an online project born of the earnest “desire to make art more accessible…and to supplement the museum experience” for anyone with an internet connection. With a mind already on art publications as a kind of democratising supplement to art viewing, my curiosity about the potential of GAC was instantly piqued. By 2016 the project was updated to include the virtual exploration of spaces, both of institutions and cultural sites around the world. Using the technology that has become simply pedestrian in Google Street View, an interior recording of New York’s Guggenheim Museum means that Sood’s idealistic vision can “imagine…accessibility for a kid in Bombay who’s studying architecture, who hasn’t had a chance to go to The Guggenheim” (“Every Piece”). I am imagining the opening and democratisation of objects in space. I am excited.

 

I choose to view the GAC Project as a hybrid between a virtual art museum and a vast web-based publication: one which amplifies digitized pieces of material culture through a public interactive portal. Excited as I am, however, GAC raises some important and perplexing questions about the future of sharing, displaying, and looking at art – or indeed, the meaning- and value-making of art entirely. “The Field of Cultural Production,” as coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, consists not only of the artists or artefacts in relation to each other, but also of the players in the field: “the producers of the meaning and value of the work – critics, publishers, gallery directors and the whole set of agents whose combined efforts produce consumers capable of knowing and recognizing the work of art” (qtd. in Squires 55). These agents work to build either market (economic) or cultural (symbolic) capital, depending on their “position” and motivation in the field (56). In traditional publishing, there is a clear and a unified gatekeeper in production: the publishing house, with its acquisitions body of editors and marketers. In the case of GAC, what is the impact of the agents who play a part in the framing and filtering of online content: the GAC editorial team, the partner institutions… the algorithm itself? What happens to the field of cultural production and the symbolic capital of art if a “producer of meaning” is an algorithm? Exploring the complexity of framing and filtering cultural artifacts in GAC may stand as a kind of case study, or early map, of the vast and uncertain field of what digital and online cultural production might become.

 

 

In the first place, let’s consider the partnering institution – the museums, galleries, foundations and archives – who must choose to partake in the project and share some or all of their collection for scanning and display. By becoming a part of the “Google Cultural Institute,” a partner is provided access to the patented gigapixel Art Camera to digitize paintings, the Museum View for producing 360º tours, and the Collection Management System to be plugged into an institution’s homepage for creating and showcasing art on a customizable interactive platform. It’s a formidable trade: access and display of hundreds of pieces from a collection in exchange for a world-class digitization, presentation and archiving package. Currently, Google has digitized and collected approximately 6 million art objects in partnership with about a thousand institutions (“Every Piece”). And yet, out of 6 million images, a simple search does not produce Da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa, a substantive body of Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre, or a shred of Bill Reid, to name a random few.

 

At the time of GAC’s launch in 2011, Tate Media creative director Jane Burton points out that “Google Art risks giving a very skewed image of creative output through time and around the world. At minimum…a large tranche of twentieth-century modernism will be absent because of high reproduction fees or other obstacles” (Proctor 216). As I may have noticed gaps in a North American perspective on what “essential art” should be included but is missing from a virtual world museum, I can only imagine what canonical artists or works might be missing from the contingent representing art coming from China, for example. Furthermore, Sood makes explicit the fact that all of the art “belongs to the amazing museums, archives and foundations that [Google] partners with. None of [it] belongs to Google” (“Every Piece”). This means that those who choose not to participate have chosen to filter their collection out of the publication.

 

We’re then faced with the issue of completeness: only those artworks which belong to the partner institution’s collection may be documented and shared; if it does not consist of a wide body of an artist’s work (which is often the case for contemporary art, for instance), the rest of an artist or movement database ends up sparse. Additionally, small institutions like artist-run centres don’t own the rights to the artworks they gather for exhibitions, so can’t bring the same weight to Google’s bargaining table. The filtering that happens on the part of member institutions isn’t so much curatorial as it is a question of that institution’s means and model – the breadth or control of an institution’s own collection becomes a measure of its value as a cultural producer.

 

 

How about the publishers of GAC itself? Perusing the main page, it is obvious that the wizards behind the Google curtain exercise editorial direction over the content. The front page is decorated with disparate magazine-style digest and stories such as “Surprising Facts: The Last Works of Vincent Van Gogh” or “Fashion in Focus: How to Make a Kimono” (Google Arts & Culture). There are also a variety of “Theme” channels, which group individual story posts by curatorial contributors. Topics within the Themes range from popular Western artistic mediums, trends or icons to lesser-known or international movements. The impression is that the display of well-produced “articles” are desperately trying not to present content from only one particular era or aspect of art: “Tribal Chinese embroidery” sits next to “Inspiring British Women Musicians.” It isn’t difficult to see that GAC is trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience: the entire world. One might even think the project as trying to reframe Bourdieu’s field. The mainstream and the niche are presented on the same platform with the same level of disinterestedness (that is, perceived as being unconcerned with consumption or economic capital) as a way of enticing the viewer with pure cultural capital or taste (Squires 55; Curation 294). Taste can be exercised by the viewer as well. Like so many online pinboards, GAC allows viewers to save works they like and organize them as they please (fig. 1). Suddenly, the field includes the public-as-curator, not public-as-consumer; the dream of accessibility is taken to a new level.

 

Fig. 1: Selected works from the Google Arts & Culture search results “the field”. Curated by Emma Walter. Screenshot Nov. 25 2017  Source: www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/favorite/group/AwKSlJFUehcTIQ

 

As I do not personally possess machine learning (just human learning), my grasp of how the main GAC algorithm works is still forming and rudimentary, but this is what I’ve gathered.  For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the coding substructure of the GAC as “the algorithm,” but I acknowledge that this is a minimizing view of GAC’s engineering. Regardless, when each artwork is initially added to GAC, it is tagged with “creator”, “medium” and “topic” tags, whereupon it is grouped with other images with matching tags (“Tag Items”). This can be considered a “semi-supervised” learning environment for a training algorithm, as “association rules” (code based on the patterns of relationships between things) will develop on their own and the algorithm will take over organising the body of GAC (Flach 14). The various filters which can aggregate channel content by popularity or by colour, for example, are patterns found through user interaction (click-rankings of images tagged with “Leonardo DaVinci”) or visual recognition (the images tagged in “oil painting” with the highest proportion of red hues) (18).  In action, this grouping seems like an automated and reductive way of filtering and framing a collection of art.  It’s easy to disregard an algorithm’s potential as an “agent in the production of meaning” – algorithms don’t have feelings or taste.

 

This dismissal is a human, self-aggrandizing idea. Taste is merely the way certain choices define an entity in relation to others: “it’s about separation by making statements that distinguish us from those ‘above’ or ‘below’ us in the perceived hierarchy…Having internalized various elements of taste, we then ‘self-select’ into a certain class” (Curation 294).  With association rules, algorithms study hierarchies taught by user clicks or visual information and produce classifications, just as artefacts in Bourdieu’s field are defined by their relationship to other cultural artefacts via the agent (Squires 55). While the algorithm that controls the GAC database is relatively simple, the technological possibilities linked to it, the Experiments, signal ways in which algorithms can be compelling agents in meaning-making.

 

Fig.2: The Algorithm and the Field. t-SNE Map Screenshot, Nov. 25 2017. Source: experiments.withgoogle.com/arts-culture/t-sne-map

 

By 2016 GAC had hosted a series of “Experiments”, collaborations between programmers and artists using machine learning and the GAC database. For instance, digital interactive artists Cyril Diagne, Nicolas Barradeau and Simon Doury used the t-SNE algorithm (originally developed to recognize, pick out, and debug static images) to create t-SNE Map, which clustered the images in the GAC collection by visual recognition only. Clustering is a way in which an algorithm groups data or digital objects without any attached metadata; by assessing similarities between different data sets, it creates association rules on its own, unsupervised (Flach 14). The result is a literal – albeit virtual – cultural field (fig. 2). Zooming in, we can find an Alaskan Mask clustered with a kerosene lamp and an Egyptian Djed-Pillar, and as viewers we can’t help but imagine the dialectic between these things (fig.3). Is this choosing and arranging of art objects any different than what a publisher or curator does? Facetiousness aside, virtual space and algorithmic processing are now inextricable parts of our contemporary culture. As Nancy Proctor writes in support of the GAC, “We need to move beyond false binaries and futile contests between the ‘real thing’ and its online representation” (221).  This holds true in the ways we envision art publishing moving forward – that the digital framing, filtering and amplification of artworks will not only enrich the field of cultural production, but grow it into a vast and beautiful plain, open to all.  

 

Fig.3: A carved Alaskan mask, kerosene street post lamp, and Egyptian pillar: the t-SNE Dialectic. Screenshot, Nov. 25 2017. Source: experiments.withgoogle.com/arts-culture/t-sne-map

 

 

Sources

 

Bhaskar, Michael. The Content Machine. Anthem Press, 2013.

 

Bhaskar, Michael. Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess. Piatkus, 2016.

 

Diagne, Cyril, Nicolas Barradeau & Simon Doury. t-SNE Map. Arts & Culture Experiments. experiments.withgoogle.com/arts-culture/t-sne-map. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

 

Flach, Peter. Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithims that Make Sense of Data. Cambride Unviersity Press Textbooks, 2012.

 

Google Cultural Institute. Google. 2015, www.google.com/culturalinstitute/about/partners/#organize. Accessed 23 Nov. 2017.

 

Proctor, Nancy. “The Google Art Project: A New Generation of Museums on the Web?” Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, Apr. 2011, pp. 215–21. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2011.00083.x.

 

Sood, Amit. Building a Museum of Museums on the Web. TED Conferences 2011, www.ted.com/talks/amit_sood_building_a_museum_of_museums_on_the_web. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

 

Sood, Amit. Every piece of art you’ve ever wanted to see — up close and searchable. TED Conferences 2016, www.ted.com/talks/amit_sood_every_piece_of_art_you_ve_ever_wanted_to_see_up_close_and_searchable. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

 

Squires, Clare. Marketing Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

 

“Tag Items”. Cultural Institute Platform Help. Google. 2017, https://support.google.com/culturalinstitute/partners/answer/6063675?hl=en&ref_topic=605675. Accessed 23 Nov. 2017.  

 

Thompson, Hilary H. “International Law and Its Vision of the Ideal Museum.” Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, Jan. 2008, pp. 5–10. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2008.tb00289.x.

        Who is art for? Walter Benjamin provides an acceptable overview: Art (with a capital A–craft is a whole other matter) began as ritual objects used in the cult of God(s), then as ritual objects in the secular cult of beauty. In the age of mechanical reproduction, art existed pour l’art–for it’s own sake, or the sake of those making it (Benjamin 223). The 20th century exploded this notion and suddenly Art was up for grabs: to be reactionary; a “rendering aesthetic” under Fascism and a politicization under Communism (242). Today, in Late Capitalism, Art continues to be politicized between the Market and the Outsider.

In parallel to the age of mechanical reproduction came the the public exhibition of art and, subsequently, the exhibition catalogue. I’m endlessly curious about exhibition catalogues: they both fascinate and repel me. I don’t resent the reproduction of art in catalogues. Creating a book in support of an exhibition is opening the art to the opportunity of democratization; an art object on its own “simply is in no position to present [itself] for simultaneous collective experience” (Benjamin 235). However, the main problem I have with the exhibition catalogue-status quo is that the gatekeeping which exists in the art world is equally present in publishing; therefore the average exhibition catalogue experiences a kind of crippling double-whammy of elitism. It is difficult for an exhibition catalogue to exist as a cultural artefact without also being a commodity. In the field of cultural production, according to philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, books are both cultural artefacts and economic products. However, he posits that a book’s “cultural capital” is the inverse of its economic value, or audience size (Squires 55). I’m worried about what happens to the quality and integrity of an art object –in this case, an exhibition catalogue – when it is produced primarily with its economic, and not cultural, value in mind.  Beyond the age of mechanical reproduction and moving tentatively into one of digital reproduction and open access, who is the exhibition catalogue for? The players in the market, or the makers on the fringe? It depends on perspective and intention.

 

Exhibition catalogues began exactly as catalogues of art exhibitions: a physical remainder of an ephemeral event. Over time exhibition catalogues have become more than just documentation of each piece, especially in the last half of the twentieth century as conceptual and relational aesthetic practices have grown beyond the art object to temporal and public experiences. In many cases, the exhibition catalogue is the key remaining trace of the original artwork or artworks in relation to eachother. The same is true for new media and video art projects: the challenge of representing moving pictures in a paper book is no small feat. We can trace a shift in the nature of an exhibition catalogue from one of documentation to one of elucidation and expansion of the curated experience. In the extreme, exhibition catalogues evolved as essays that don’t talk about the art, or the artist, but a separate topic which, sitting in parallel, serves to illuminate the exhibit. In general it is common for a standard printed exhibition catalogue to “supplement the exhibition and create discourse around it…This has become all the more important with the rise of curating and the waning of serious criticism” (Hill).

 

An example of this form is Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories. The 2016 catalogue of Yuxweluptun’s 30-year retrospective at BC’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) was curated by Karen Duffek and Tania Willard and produced as a co-publication of MOA and Figure 1 Publishing. The catalogue includes eighty reproductions of Yuxweluptun’s work, six essays, one short story, and numerous parallel references of other artists’ works. All this material culminates in a dazzling full-colour, hardcover coffee table book which serves to contextualize Yuxweluptun’s career of artmaking and political activism in the historical and present setting of Indigenous Peoples’ struggle in Canada.

Who is this book for? When Chris LaBonte of Figure 1 visited the PUB600 Management & Marketing class, he used this particular book as an illustration of Figure 1’s co-publishing practice and stated that the list price of $45.00 was strategically chosen to be “accessible” to many different people who might have been interested in the show – read: Indigenous or settler activists, scholars, and supporters of Yuxweluptun. In LaBonte’s view, those who are moved by the work in an exhibition often want to commemorate their experience with a beautiful souvenir, the catalogue. In a sense this notion is corroborated by Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker’s reimagining of the Darnton book circuit. They suggest that books are purchased for reading, reference, decoration, or, as may be in Yuxweluptun’s case, because of the “power conveyed in the book itself, an incalculable, inarticulate, but none the less potent factor in the mixture of motives that makes people want books” (Squires 54). Yuxweluptun is an important and long-standing member of the Vancouver art community; the locality and politically-relevant slant to his work means the exhibition catalogue is suited to its market. Indeed, according to LaBonte, the book has been a good seller.

In general, however, $45 may not be an enticing list price for a catalogue of a non-local artist. Comparable titles and formats offered through the Vancouver Art Gallery bookstore average $43. Looking at art galleries across the board, about 2-5% of visitors actually buy the accompanying catalogue; even less so for popular shows with wide audiences “composed of regular museum-goers who may feel they know the artist and occasional visitors whose interest in art is less serious” (Dobrzynski). The main sales channel of the book, the gallery gift shop, also needs to be considered in relation to the average Vancouver exhibition admission ticket of $18. I’m not completely convinced that the average museum-goer would spend $63 (before taxes) on an art experience.

 

So again, we ask, who is an exhibition catalogue for? In a Los Angeles Times article that lauds a 3-volume, 17-pound, USD$350 compendium “Matisse in the Barnes Foundation” as an example of a catalogue bravely “[keeping] print alive in the digital era,” publisher Thames & Hudson president Will Balliet is quoted saying “‘It’s a fantastic piece of book-making…It appeals to a collector’s instincts. You experience an artist’s work in a museum, and it has an impact and it hits you and you want to take a little piece of it home if you can.’” (Miranda). But by “collector”, Balliet really means an art collector, art patron or donor: a figure in a specific seat of privilege and representative of only one slice of the art-viewing public. Collectors may indeed get pleasure from art, but they are also key players in maintaining and perpetuating an environment that looks at art foremost as a market commodity. In Yuxweluptun’s case, the retrospective show and impressive catalogue are not only markers of his cultural success, but his economic, too: the “List of Works in the Exhibition” is an impressive one, the name of each piece’s collector conspicuously present. The collective interest in Yuxweluptun’s work, the discourse around it, and the production of the catalogue are all pieces in a system which reinforces an agreement of the work’s value.

 

In contrast Pierre Bourdieu defines a successful cultural work by the level of “disinterestedness” it achieves: the “fulfilment of values that have no bearing on economic or political profit,” or what he saw as the broad audience appeal (Squires 55). Under his definition, Yuxweluptun might be seen as selling-out. However, if this is true, disinterest in popular culture translates as a kind of elitism that only serves to stifle broader visual literacy and contradict that pure vision of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction: one of distribution and democratization. In the age of digital reproduction, we are faced with the unique ability to distribute widely and democratize freely. As Octavio West points out, adaptation to digital forms will be coming, whether we like it or not, as newer generations are naturalized to digital technology. So how can the exhibition catalogue respond? I can see few pragmatic examples of how the overlap of digital and print sensibilities may serve the documentary and expansive properties of these books.

 

A simple example is the exhibition catalogue FSMYDSL produced for artist collective Instant Coffee’s “prospective retrospective”  at the Western Front in 2012. Given the collective’s lo-fi and all-inclusive politics, they opted to leave the physicality of the catalogue up to the viewer: it was and is available as a free PDF download from Western Front’s webpage. Though a relatively unsophisticated format, no design quality is lost in the PDF, as is the fear with converting exhibition catalogues to ebook (Miranda). Similarly Sylvana Dangelo asserts with her art project Zine Club, making printable PDF books marries internet distribution, open access, and a new way of bookmaking. There are a few obvious issues with this: neither Western Front nor Zine Club makes money from book sales; the essays or artwork distributed run the risk of experiencing copyright infringement. But if the goal of these organisations is gaining a kind of cultural capital and democratisation of the art document, they are arguably successful.

 

While still regularly producing print catalogues, MOA also has a section of its publishing energies devoted to “Online Exhibitions.” A striking project is the Borderzones.ca website, which acts as a catalogue or “webzine” of the “ideas behind the exhibit”. The original group show, which ran January 23 to September 12, 2010, was a marker of MOA’s new direction into the space between anthropological curation and contemporary art, the first of what was to be “bold, engaging, and sometimes disturbing future exhibitions [exploring] themes such as cultural encounters, contemporary issues, and First Nations, Asian, and other world arts and cultures” (Shelton). The site has the content one might find in a standard exhibition catalogue: project briefs, artist profiles, critical essays focused on select projects. But there’s also much more.

In a piece for CanadianArt Richard William Hill, Research Chair of Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University, sets the task of exhibition catalogues to go online in order solve the problems of the limitations of print: comprehensive documentation of installed work or video of temporal performances. Borderzones meets this call is in its media and interactivity. Each page is a trove of content, videos, audio recordings, and installation views of the work. This is no small gesture: most often exhibition catalogues are published before the show opens or is even installed. It’s nearly impossible to include accurate representations of situational works which were completed just before the opening; it is not uncommon for catalogue essays to be reviews of work “the writers had only seen pictures of or, worse, only heard described by the artist” (Hill). Besides smoothly including professional reviews produced after the show opened, the Borderzones webzine ran a contest in which attendees were invited to submit critical reviews; the winning writers received exclusive MOA benefits and their reviews were published on the site. Though new content did not continue to be added to the site after the show closed, Borderzones.ca still stands as a hub for viewers to engage the ideas, and read, watch or listen to footage produced for the exhibit. In this sense, the multimedia capability of a web catalogue is able to transmit the original exhibit in a way a static book could not.

 

Physical exhibition catalogues exist as traces of art shows long closed – but despite being a distributable object, they are still tied to place and so are primarily discoverable in real space only. Ideally, digital exhibition catalogues have the ability to sidestep economic barriers to art and transcend spatial or temporal limitations: they have the potential to be accessible any time, any place, to anyone. As technology evolves to support content in compelling ways, I’m excited about the ways in which the exhibition catalogue’s ability to document, archive, and engage cultural artefacts will allow access to art more than ever before.

 

Sources

 

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. 1968. Harcourt, Brace & World, 2007.

 

Borderzones.ca: The Ideas Behind the Exhibit | Exhibition Notes | MOA University of British Columbia. http://www2.moa.ubc.ca/borderzones/exhibition.html. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.

 

Dangelo, Sylvana with Bath, Hepher and Wilk. “The Handmade Take: Book Arts in the Dystopian Present.” 2016 Alcuin Society Book Design Awards, 25 Oct 2017, UBC Robson Square Theatre, Vancouver, BC. Panel Discussion.

 

Dangelo, Sylvana. Zine Club. http://www.sylvanaisthebest.com/zine-club/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2017.

 

Dobrzynski, Judith H. “Cataloguing The Changes: Museums Start To Shift From Traditional Exhibition Catalogues To Print-on-Demand and Online Versions.” Judith H. Dobrzynski, http://www.judithdobrzynski.com/7969/cataloguing-the-changes. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.

 

Duffek, Karen and Tania Willard. Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories. Museum of Anthropology at UBC, 2016.

 

Instant Coffee. Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little – Western Front. https://front.bc.ca/events/feeling-so-much-yet-doing-so-little/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

 

Hill, Richard William. “The Catalogue Is Not the Exhibition.” Canadian Art, http://canadianart.ca/features/the-catalogue-is-not-the-exhibition/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.

 

LaBonte, Chris. “Figure 1 Publishing and P&L’s.” PUB600 Management and Marketing, 19 Sept. 2017, SFU Harbour Centre, Vancouver, Canada. Class lecture.

 

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Unceded Territories. Museum of Anthropology at UBC http://moa.ubc.ca/portfolio_page/lawrence-paul/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.

 

Miranda, Carolina A. “Bulky, Heavy, Pricey – yet Flourishing. Art Catalogs Keep Print Alive in the Digital Era.” Los Angeles Times, 18 Aug. 2016. LA Times, http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-art-catalogs-20160810-snap-story.html.

 

Shelton, Anthony. “Director’s Welcome.” Borderzones.ca: The Ideas Behind the Exhibit | Exhibition Notes | MOA University of British Columbia. http://www2.moa.ubc.ca/borderzones/exhibition_director.html. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.

 

Squires, Clare. Marketing Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. 

 

Vancouver Art Gallery Store. http://shop.vanartgallery.bc.ca. Accessed 28 Oct. 2017.

 

West, Octavio. “The Printed Nature of Books.” PUB800, 3 Oct. 2017, https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/10/the-printed-nature-of-books/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2017.

When a book is created, it is not made in a vacuum. It is crafted by the writer, the publisher, the people who support and influence the work, and the people who read and enjoy it. Reading, while a solitary activity, has always been a catalyst for sociality, bringing people together in book clubs, in smokey cafés, and in communities – but the social life of the book should not be limited to the stage of post-production. The impact of books on reader’s social lives have shifted as books have changed over time, but nowhere is this impact more present than in the small-scale and art book publishing communities. Small-scale publishers like Publication Studio, founded by Matthew Stadler and Patricia No in Portland, Oregon, in 2009, create books that depend on the sociality around them: their print-on-demand style production fosters a community of people who care about the work and, through their enthusiasm, bring the book into existence. Because they are only able to make one book at a time, the entire production process and the reading experience becomes a shared one. Art book publishers like Perro Verlag Books by Artists are supported by readers/artists and organizations during the entire creative process of the book. Rather than creating a book based on a predetermined market, these small publishers are instead creating new spaces – and in turn a market – with the creation of the book: they are turning the entire production process into a social reading experience. What happens around the space of artisanal publication is the fostering of a new kind of social life of the book, one that doesn’t just comment on the work after its creation but also participates in this creation and in turn carves out a space for it. This paper will explore the social life of books, with a particular focus on the micro-press and art book publishing, and how innovative and collaborative production processes create a new kind of social space for book lovers.

Publication Studio was founded in 2009 by two people who knew nothing about business but knew a lot about books. Matthew Stadler and Patrica No came together over their shared frustration with the lack of diversity in commercial publishing, and the difficulty that talented writers faced in getting their work published: “Some of the best writing is not commercial enough to ever get published” Stadler said in a talk he gave in Guelph, Ontario. He continued: “even the best-known writers produce high-quality work that can’t clear the bar of commercial publishing. Their editors can’t calculate the audience, the gamble on a print run can’t be made and either the work is lost – i.e. “revised” into commercial viability – or else it circulates in the samizdat world of manuscripts passed hand to hand” (Stadler). Stadler and No identified that the primary problem with how traditional publishing determines which works will be accepted for publication – and which won’t – is the difficulty in determining who the market is. In other words, they need to find the space in the public readership for the book before they can commit to publishing it. The mindset comes from both a financial limitation – publishers can’t print thousands or even hundreds of books without knowing there will be readers and buyers of the book – but this is also a chicken and egg problem: do you find a public first and then create the book for that space, or do you create a book and in turn make space for it?

pubstudio

Michael Warner’s essay “Publics and Counterpublics” gives an important definition for the understanding of what a public is and how it is created. He distinguishes between the public as a “social totality,” as a public space, and as the kind “that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation – like the public of this essay” (Warner). Stadler says that in addition to publishing quality work by writers and artists he admired, the main goal of Publication Studio was to take part in the creation of a public: “The public is created through deliberate, willful acts: the circulation of texts, discussions and gatherings in physical space, and the maintenance of a related digital commons. These construct a common space of conversation, a public space, which beckons a public into being. This is publication in its fullest sense” (Stadler). Publication Studio does this by providing not only quality printed books, but also by providing their books free online in their digital reading commons. All of their books are uploaded as ebooks, with the same layout and formatting as their print counterparts, with the ability for readers to annotate and leave comments in the margins: “It’s the digital equivalent of the margin notes found in all our most dearly beloved bound books at home” (Stadler). This marginalia, in both digital and print forms, is a transcription of the conversation generated by the book, extending its life beyond the initial publication.

In order to understand what Publication Studio does differently, it is essential to place it within the context of other, more traditional publishing models and alongside the history of book-making practices. A useful system for understanding the traditional process of book-making comes from Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker in their essay “A New Model for the Study of the Book,” which is a reinterpretation of the communications circuit put forth by Robert Darnton in the early 1980s. Adams and Barker identify five ‘events’ in the creation of a “bibliographical document” – which accounts for books as well as other published works including ephemera and pamphlets: publishing, manufacturing, distribution, reception, and survival (Adams and Barker). This circuit is generally understood as a linear one, with some instances of overlap: the book is edited and published before it is printed and distributed and reviewed and so forth. Publication Studio blows this model up, or at least does not follow this process in a strictly linear way. Many of the production processes of creating a book at the Studio involves a great overlapping of these categories – the reception of the book and its manufacturing often happens concurrently, and its survival is proven as more buyers request a printing of the book. This mode of creation is what differentiated Publication Studio from other commercial publishers, and it is in this way that Publication Studio reconsiders how the book lives and breathes as an unfinished and collaborative object.

This blasting apart and remixing of these systems of creation allow for a more malleable social experience. Part of the act of creating a public through publication is in the creation of a social sphere for the work, not limited to the final stages of a book’s lifespan. After struggling with possible solutions for the problems they identified within the publishing industry, Stadler and No spent their savings on an old digital printer and binding machines, and a friend loaned them space in a store-front during the shop’s closed hours. Their first printed work was a catalogue for an art show by two artists they admired, with recycled manila folders as covers and hand-stamped spines. They printed it at a friend’s digital print shop and made ten copies, selling all of them. The next book they made was a novel called Revenge of the Decorated Pigs by Lawrence Rinder, a museum curator who had many stories to tell about “the high stakes world of artists, collectors, and museum curators” (Stadler). They made one book, sold it, and with the profits made two more, sold both of them, and so on.

The machines they bought were only able to make one book at a time, meaning the traditional method of publishing – where many many books are made at once and then shipped off to stores and made available to the public – was not an option. This extremely small scale allowed them to take their time with each book, and, with lower overhead, clear much higher profits off of their publications, which benefited both the authors and the publishers. Their books are all perfect bound and cost four or five dollars each to produce: every one is printed on demand, by the request of anyone who wants a copy. In this sense, Publication Studio is “more like a bakery or a corner café than it is like a traditional bookstore [which is] full to the rafters with stacked books, old and new, awaiting readers or a home” (Stadler). With Revenge of the Decorated Pigs, Publication Studio teamed up with artist Colter Jacobsen, who created unique drawings for a special limited edition of the book. After assembling and binding the forty-eight issues, Publication Studio held a celebratory dinner for both Rinder and Jacobsen, laying out pages of the book on the table while they ate, joined by others in the community. The book was stained with wine and food, and diners were encouraged to doodle on the pages, leaving an imprint of the social gathering that happened as a result of the book’s publication. Following the dinner, they wheeled the machine into the dining room and bound the book right there, an physical artifact of the celebration. Publication Studio had created a public for the book, which grew as more and more people requested a printing, but had also engaged with that public in a social setting in order to create another edition of the book, one that stood as a testament to the sociality of the book.

dinner

Seeing the effects of this publishing model on both the writers and the readers, publishers and artists in other cities began opening up their own sister Publication Studios, following the lead of Stadler and No’s work in Portland. There are now thirteen other studios around the world, including one in Vancouver, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Sweden, and Hudson, NY. The studio in Bourdeaux, France, had a particularly transformative influence on Stadler’s own methods and how he relates the creation of the book to the creation and maintenance of a public. He describes his experience of being invited to Bordeaux to help set up a pop-up studio in the image of the Portland Studio by his friend Thomas Boutoux, a teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts. Along with Boutoux’s colleague Benjamin Thorel and philosopher and chef Fabien Vallos, he led a class of students in the study of publishing and book production, which was paired with cooking sessions led by Vallos. Stadler says, “I’ve always talked about the social life of the book, and found ways to integrate food, drink and sociality into the gatherings that make new audiences for books. But I had never worked with a chef or thinker as insightful as Fabien. Thanks to him, food and drink were built into the very DNA of Publication Studio Bordeaux” (Stadler). He describes the production schedule in Bordeaux beginning with a visit to the market, where Vallos would select the ingredients for the evening’s meal, which would also serve as the launch of the day’s book: “Every day, every new book had a launch dinner in Bordeaux.” As he describes it, Vallos used very little tools in the kitchen, limiting himself to a knife, a toaster oven, and a basic work space, focusing instead on the simplicity and possibilities the ingredients themselves afforded. This, Stadler says, mirrors exactly the way that Publication Studio creates books: very few tools, and very basic ones at that, with simple but quality ingredients to create nourishing and impactful works. This is the ultimate merging of the creation of a book and the simultaneous creation of a public space: the book and the meal were made in tandem with each other, new each day, with the help of the chef, the artists, and the readers. The social existence of the books made in Bordeaux were stretched to last as long as the entire life-span of the book, from conception to consumption.

Other examples of micro-publishing and art book publishing – which I differentiate in this paper for the sake of acknowledging the different kinds of content being created, but with similar modes of creative production and social-making – point to similar methods of the creation of publics and social spaces for the life of the book. Perro Verlag Books by Artists, established in 2005, “grew out of collaborative drawing sessions, comics exhibitions and barbecues at Lucky’s Comics in Vancouver” (perroverlag.com). The art book publisher drew their inspiration from mimeo magazines from the 1970s, in which artists used the printed page as a space for collaboration. Of their studio, Verlag says, “We recognize the importance of unstable thoughts and impractical, possibly visionary intentions. Our studio is a laboratory of disruptions, our print shop a stage for timely, unbalancing acts” (perroverlag.com). All of their books – which includes a collection of collages by James MacSwain called Eruption, letterpress prints of visual poems by Jo Cook, and obscure images and texts from Bucky Fleur titled Discours de la Poésie Épique – are handcrafted and made with the artist’s intentions in mind. Perro Verlag also created the Hell Passport Box Set, a collection of “24 visual art chapbooks by 24 artists riffing on hell, holes, holiday suicides, sewers, zombies, ghost tracks, evil eye families, premonition rip-offs, bone hounds, contamination, papist’s passports, larval womb rats, scum, & scab-nosed demons” (perroverlag.com). The series is comprised of work by Canadian artists across the country with varied approaches, and was printed as a limited edition of twenty. While they do seem to print more than one book at a time, each work is a process of creative collaboration between the artist and the publishers in studio, creating one-of-a-kind letterpress designs and painstakingly catering each book to its own specifications. This type of art book publishing would not exist without the community and creative social structures that sustain it – the artists participating in the creation are also those who ‘read’ and buy the books, and participate in its social life; through unconventional publishing processes, a public has been created, not sought after.

Another noteworthy example of a catalyst for the social life of the book comes from Vancouver’s Project Space, founded by Master of Publishing graduate Tracy Stefanucci. Project Space is a publisher, bookseller, and is the host of Vancouver’s Art/Book Fair, which happens annually in October. The project previously occupied a space in Vancouver’s Chinatown, where Stefanucci and art director Jaz Halloran opened a bookshop and gallery space to house art books and other creative works. The space itself has since closed, but Project Space’s lasting legacy comes from the art book fair, the first of its kind in Canada. The fair created a much desired space for micro-publishers and art book publishers to share their works and bring artists and readers together. The publics created through the work published by Publication Studio, Perro Verlag, and other publishers of their kind came together in one space, overlapping and creating a new public, one that is essential for the life of the book and the supporting socialities that came from them.

The social life of the book should not be limited to the final stage of the book’s life: consumption. Reading may be a solitary activity, made social by talking about it after reading it or by attending book launches, but as small-scale publishers and art book publishers demonstrate, the social space can expanded as part of the creation and production of the book itself. When readers participate in the full life-span of the book, the result is a disruption of the concept of the book as a finished object: the book becomes a tool for creating new meanings and new publics, through the sustained and active participation of the communities that contribute to its creation.

Works Cited

Adams, Thomas R. and Nicolas Barker. “A New Model for the Study of the Book.” The Book History Reader. Ed. by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleary. New York Routledge, 2006. Print.

Perro Verlag Books for Artists. “About.” Web.

Project Space. Web.

Stadler, Matthew. “What is Publication Studio?: A Talk for Guelph, Ontario.Musagetes. Web.

What is Publication? A Talk by Matthew Stadler.” Publication Studio. Vimeo.

Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics.Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 88, No. 4. November 2002. Web.