Photo credit: Desilu Muñoz
PRINTED MATTER, INC., New York City’s nonprofit nerve center for all things artists’ books, is bringing the second annual LA Art Book Fair to MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary campus this weekend. The younger sister of the NY Art Book Fair (founded by Printed Matter’s AA Bronson in 2006), the West Coast sibling event launched auspiciously last year, drawing a giant, enthused turnout with minimal advance publicity. “LAABF14” promises to be an even grander gala, with a greater sense of local collaboration, a veritable curriculum of talks and workshops, and stronger international presence among exhibitors. The three-day fair opens on Thursday night and runs through six p.m. Sunday.
“Artists’ books” are publications that treat the medium of the book itself as an artistic platform or environment in its own right. With origins in William Blake’s illuminated poetry manuscripts of the late 18th century, the form experienced a contemporary renaissance among conceptual artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, who developed homemade books (often mimeographed or Xeroxed) as an affordable and collaborative alternative to the staid gallery system for circulating their print works in multiple. Printed Matter (primarily a not-for-profit retailer, but also an imprint, exhibitor, and bibliographer of artists’ books founded in the midst of the conceptual moment in 1976) offers a broad view on the current state of the art in its annual pair of fairs, which showcase contemporary intersections of art, printmaking, and independent book publishing from all angles. LAABF14 will feature 260 exhibitors from 19 different countries: a cornucopia of presses, artists, galleries, secondary sellers, and others who will be displaying recent work, peddling their wares, and commingling over the fair’s three and a half days. Stock at the bicoastal fairs typically runs the gamut from the high-end arty (signed, numbered editions priced in the thousands) to the dirt-cheap DIY (fifty-cent zines sold by anarcho publishing collectives), with myriad waypoints in the experimental, the obscure, and the out of print. In addition to artists’ books and print multiples (and all manner of t-shirts, tote bags, signage, and other ephemera from mini presses and galleries worldwide), fair goers to LAABF14, it may go without saying, can also expect to find a hearty stock of conventional art books — publications on or of art, that are more traditional in their orientation to the book-as-medium. Although the fair is above all a market (bring cash to transact with vendors not wielding iPhone credit-card readers, you will want to buy things), it is beyond that a swap meet, social center, teach-in, and general gathering of the vibes for lovers and geeks of art and books.
The curator of LAABF’s sophomore installation is Printed Matter’s Shannon Michael Cane, a former exhibitor at the fair who stepped into the curatorial role following AA Bronson’s recent retirement. Cane says that he aspires to maintain the grand scope and heterogeneous spirit Bronson cultivated over his eight-year run as the founder/curator of the NYABF — a run that culminated with the launch of the inaugural LAABF last year — with a particular eye toward opening the events to first-time exhibitors. While the fair began as a curated invitational, over the years it evolved toward an open application process, a format Cane has embraced to allow new presenters to rotate in while still letting him shape a cohesive balance of publishers, artists, book sellers, distributors, antiquarian dealers, social collectives, galleries, institutions, magazines, and zines. “I’m trying to keep as much of AA’s building of the fair as I can,” Cane told me, “but also trying to give it a fresh start. Partly, that means I’m trying to say no to certain people that have already done it. There are only so many spots. Sometimes I’m just put in a situation where I say to myself, ‘Okay, this guy has been coming to our fair for X amount of years. I really like what they show, but I should be giving someone else the opportunity.’”
For this year’s fair in Los Angeles, Cane received 600 applications for 260 spaces. Of those spaces, 100 alone belong to a massive zine-exhibition wing known during Bronson’s tenure as “Zine World,” and rechristened this year by Cane as “(Xe)rox Paper & Scissors.” The zines and independent publishers are a part of the fairs’ history that is especially important to Cane. He began attending the NYABF as an exhibitor for his own zine They Shoot Homos Don’t They?, a self-described “homo art almanac” that released five issues in 2005–07. “AA invited me to participate in the fair,” Cane recalls of his first experience with the NYABF in ’07, “so I traveled all the way from Australia with a couple boxes of this journal I made and was sat in a booth in New York City next to people like Nieves [Zurich] and LTTR [New York]; all these people I’d read about and had bought stuff from online, then suddenly I’m in the old Dia building sitting next to these people and swapping publications with them.” This sense of camaraderie and creative exchange amongst usually isolated independent publishers is precisely the spirit that Cane is now trying to preserve and engender as curator. “I come at curating it as an independent publisher,” he says, “and zines have always been a big part of our fairs, because that’s where the origins of artists’ books are: affordable, Xeroxed, multiple publications. That’s the essence of what an artists’ book can be.”
Beyond the (Xe)rox Paper & Scissors room, LAABF14 attendees will find the huge exhibition space in the Geffen’s front halls stocked by exhibitors from all over the world. Printed Matter has done greater outreach to international presses and galleries for the fair’s West Coast installation, as Los Angeles presents a far easier flight than New York for exhibitors from Asia and Australia. (One international exhibitor to look for will be New Territories Studio, a Shanghai-based distributor that will be bringing rarities from China’s indie-press underground, “most of which,” it promises, “have never been shown abroad.”) The Los Angeles fair also, of course, offers a chance for Printed Matter to showcase and collaborate with native Californian presenters. Stacey Allan, co-founder of L.A.’s East of Borneo, an online contemporary arts magazine and book publisher that participated in the inaugural fair and will be back again this year, says that it feels “really overwhelming to see all this publishing activity from all over the world in one place” at the fair, “and so encouraging to see how much interest there is out there.” East of Borneo will be collaborating with KCHUNG radio, Solomon Bothwell’s low-power AM station based in Chinatown (and recently in residence at The Hammer), and Little Tokyo gallery The Box on a free opening-night concert in the Geffen courtyard featuring the Los Angeles Free Music Society, an avant-garde noise collective from Pasadena founded in the early 1970s; the show ties in with an anthology that East of Borneo published last year, of texts culled from the group’s archival newsletters. The rest of the weekend, KCHUNG will be hosting four bands a day in the courtyard. Other L.A. exhibitors (among dozens) will include Ooga Booga, Chinatown’s superb proprietor of artists’ books, mix tapes, cute trinkets, and various other objets d’art; Siglio press, who will be debuting two exciting new volumes by Ray Johnson, the too-little-known Black Mountain-educated performer and correspondence artist; and Public Fiction, the Highland Park gallery and print studio, which will be throwing the fair’s closing “sign-off” slash panel discussion slash film screening on Sunday. Among traveling antiquarians and presses, I will also personally be looking out for Division Leap, a kindly purveyor of rare poetry books and assorted arcana from the mimeograph era, based in Portland; and Publication Studio, Matthew Stadler and Patricia No’s vibrant print-on-demand imprint that pays homage to Olympia Press’s historic Traveller’s Companion paperbacks, also based in Portland. When I reached Division Leap’s Adam Davis for comment on what it’s like to sell at the fair, he enthused bluntly: “Fuck the naysayers — anybody who fears that print culture is dead should come bathe in the enthusiasm of the West Coast installation of the world's greatest party for print.”
Davis’s ardor is well justified: last year’s inaugural LAABF was something of a runaway success, that surprised organizers and attendees alike by drawing a bristling turnout mostly on last-minute, word-of-mouth publicity. “The New York fair had grown into such a monster,” Cane recalls, “that last year a lot of L.A. locals were telling us, ‘Yeah, you’ve got this cool thing and it’s very New York centric, but don’t expect the same crowds here, it’s just not that type of place.’ Even the MOCA was saying, ‘Well, let’s estimate that 5,000 people will turn up.’ And then, of course, on opening night people were just blown away, all the locals couldn’t believe that people came — and then they came back the next day and the next day. I think the final number for last year was something like 15,000 people over three days.” Having attended the fair on both coasts, hometown bias notwithstanding, I have to say that the West Coast version offers a far preferable browsing experience. The 200-plus exhibitors at the LAABF get spread out comfortably across the Geffen’s commodious campus, allowing attendees to easily walk, talk, browse, and (crucially) to rest while taking in the sensory overload. By contrast, the New York fairs, while equally spectacular in terms of the beauteous books on display and for sale, are crammed, hand-sanitizer-lubricated events at Long Island City’s beloved, but small, PS1, where just making a loop through the exhibition space becomes an arduous, verging on claustrophobic, undertaking. (For comparison to last year’s L.A. numbers, 2013’s NYABF received 27,000 attendees over three and a half days, a figure likely to boggle the mind of anyone who has visited PS1). “It was such a great vibe,” Cane says of how last year’s L.A. fair at the Geffen gave people room to breathe, socialize, and simply relax and hang out. “It almost felt like a music festival — people just coming and hanging out and interacting and making connections and contacts. And of course buying stuff as well, but it felt more just like this big community drop-in center, which was such a good atmosphere. We were really excited about it.”
To round out the fair’s 2014 program, Printed Matter is debuting two popular features of the New York fair this year in Los Angeles. First, MoMA librarian David Senior will be curating an extensive program of talks, workshops, and readings throughout the fair, known as “The Classroom.” As Senior’s program is entirely culled from the diverse exhibitor pool on hand, The Classroom works as a helpful and instructive loom for braiding the fair’s highly eclectic offerings together. Second, on Sunday the fair will be hosting a librarians’ conference at the Japanese American National Museum adjacent to the Geffen, for library workers in the arts and anyone else interested in reflecting on emerging trends and themes within artists’ book culture. And as if all this were not enough, five exhibitions will be mounted on the fair grounds throughout the weekend; I am especially anticipating Queer Zines, an exhibition of material that has come to light since the publication of the great catalog of the same name edited by Bronson and collector Philip Aarons in 2008, and coordinated with the release of a companion volume that will be launching at the fair.
In a dialogue at last year’s LAABF with Semiotext(e)’s Sylvère Lotringer, e-flux editor Anton Vidokle hazarded an interesting thesis: that Printed Matter’s art book fairs of recent years have grown to be more stimulating engagements than major art fairs because exhibitors at the book fairs are mere hobbyists rather than professionals, at best breaking even (more often losing money) on their various micro printing operations. “Anyone who’s published a book knows it’s a love project,” Cane assents when I run Vidokle’s notion by him. ”When I was publishing my journal, I never sat there with a calculator to figure out how much money I was losing.” Happily, in this same spirit of altruism and love-labor, LAABF14 is entirely free and open to the public.
Robert Dewhurst is a poet and poetry scholar who lives in Los Angeles. He is the publisher of Scary Topiary Press, a poetry chapbook series, and was the editor of Satellite Telephone (2007-’10) and co-editor of Wild Orchids (2009-’11).