A DIALOGUE BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
PRIMARY INFORMATIONS MIRIAM KATZEFF with Maya Harakawa
Founded in 2006 by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff, Primary Information is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary arts publishing. Working with historical and contemporary material, the range of their projects testifies to the continued relevance and future prospects of the genre they champion. Primary Information’s three most recent books illustrate the breadth of their practice. Removal Technician reproduces a zine by California-based artist Alex Hubbard from an earlier, lesser-known period of his work. Album reprints all 10 issues of the eponymous photo-based zine started by Eline Mugaas and Elise Storsveen in Norway in 2008. Color-corrected and printed on glossy pages, the book gives the carefully culled images of this cult zine their visual and popular due. Finally, the George Kuchar Reader is an anthology of historical materials including scripts, drawings, correspondences, filmstrips, and ephemera that crafts a complex portrait of the late filmmaker. Maya Harakawa met with Miriam Katzeff at Primary Information’s Dumbo offices to discuss these new books, artists’ publications, and the potential theoretical implications of cross-generational publishing.
Maya Harakawa (Rail): It’s striking to see how formally dissimilar your three most recent books are. Comparing Kuchar and Album, for instance, there’s a considerable difference in the quality of the paper, and the role of texts versus images is also quite different. Can you talk a little bit about those formal choices that you take into account when you’re making different books that are based on different materials?
Miriam Katzeff: When we crafted our mission statement, we wanted to leave it really open-ended with regard to what kind of material we could tackle, so a potential project could be an artist’s writings or it could be an entirely image-based book. The thing that we’re pretty consistent about is that we don’t want to publish catalogues. We want to create things where the viewer or reader could experience the artist’s work kind of primarily through the book, rather than just seeing reproductions of an exhibition or event that happened elsewhere. And when we work with historical material, it’s really important to us that we are creating facsimiles and keeping very true to the original spirit of the project. Because of the way that paper has changed over time, you often can’t match paper exactly. But we don’t want to make a hardcover book out of something that was originally a soft cover, for instance.
In Alex’s case, the zine was originally a black-and-white Xerox, so we wanted to make something that was more durable, but, at the same time, we didn’t want to change the raw quality of the publication. For Album, when you have a book that’s this scale—it has 440 pages—you need something that will be created with longevity in mind. We don’t put out that many books per year, so each book can’t be haphazard; we don’t want to make a book that’s going to fall apart in 10 years.
Sometimes we work with outside graphic designers. There was very little graphic design involved in Album because the look of it was generated by the original material, so I was able to do most of the design work myself. But we worked with a really talented designer on the George Kuchar Reader, and he had a really challenging task in kind of collating all of these different formats—hand-written notes, comics, re-printed text, emails—and making them all visually cohesive. And because this book is really text-based, the paper does become incredibly important. When we work with an outside graphic designer we want their input: we really rely on them to bring something to life and make it enjoyable. This paper choice was really his, and I’m glad that you noticed. [Laughs.]
Rail: So the formal aspects of the book become an important part of the story that you’re telling with the book. It’s not just about the content, but about how a book functions in relation to the content, and how emphasizing that relationship can highlight how books function differently in different contexts.
Katzeff: I think part of the appeal of publishing a book in 2015 is that I can find anything online: I can track down a text, I can find a good copy of something on a PDF, but my ability to retain information on a screen is still going to be less than what I read in a physical book. So as long as you’re making that physical book, why not really go above and beyond so that people want to spend as much time with this as possible? With our books, you can flip through year after year and read something new, or it becomes important in a different way. We just want to make sure that as much of this gets read as possible.
Rail: These three books are really different in their historical periods and in their content. Could you talk a little bit about how you choose what projects you want to work on?
Katzeff: When we first started Primary Information, we always knew that we wanted to do contemporary projects. But our first projects were historical reprints because most artists, if you ask them, don’t have a book project in their mind, fully formed. I think a lot of artists want to make a catalogue because that’s what is being offered to them, so that’s the kind of book they think about. So for us it was really important that the first books we put out were very good examples of the types of publication that we would want to work on with contemporary artists.
When we do the historical reprints or the kind of editing of historical materials as in the case of George Kuchar, we think: Is this book influential? Is there an audience for it? Is this material accessible? If it is accessible, is it affordable? A lot of times you can find something on Amazon but it’s like $100 starting out, and it’s not even in good condition! And so that means, yes, the material is out in the world, but it’s really meant for a collector. We think that a large portion of our audience should be students or people that might not be familiar with the material, but when they encounter the book, they may think “Oh! That name is familiar to me. I’ve always wanted to check this guy out!” And if it’s affordable, maybe they’ll take the risk and buy the book to learn more.
With our contemporary projects, we feel like we are introducing the artists we work with to a larger audience. An artist could be showing with three different galleries, but that could mean that they really only have a community of 1,000 people who are paying attention to their shows. Our books can give them another audience.
Rail: What got you interested in working with artists’ publications?
Katzeff: James [Hoff] and I both spent time at Printed Matter, so we each had our own love of artists’ books. And we knew that there were tons of publishers out there who would do a catalogue with an artist, but one of the problems with catalogues is that in order to have one, you kind of have to be at a certain point in your career. There are all of these great historical publishers who made artists’ books as a means of exposure, or who were making artists’ books with very young artists who didn’t yet have galleries. When we started doing this, in 2006, there really weren’t publishers in the U.S. that made books like that and were willing to work with a younger artist, or an obscure artist, to make artists’ books. I mean, I love catalogues, but I didn’t feel like I would be fulfilling any function by making them.
Rail: It’s also just two different types of knowledge. The catalogue has become its own institution in a way. It’s a marker of authority and legitimacy, but an external, institutionalized legitimacy as opposed to art objects or primary sources where artists are speaking about themselves on their own terms.
Katzeff: Or if they aren’t speaking about themselves, then maybe the community they’re a part of. Like the first publication we did was Real Life, an anthology of a magazine that was edited by Thomas Lawson and Susan Morgan. They founded the publication because they wanted to write about the work of their peers, but they were also really young, so mainstream art publications rejected them. In Real Life, there’s a lot of writing by artists, but a lot of times the articles are just about their peers. You can really learn a lot about an artist by what they have to say about something else, someone else, someone else’s work.
Rail: What do you think would make an artist want to work with you? What’s the appeal for them? I mean, I don’t know if artists always want their voice out there. There are obviously pros and cons in choosing a particular way to have your voice heard.
Katzeff: [Laughs.] Right, and I think for a lot of artists it can be very daunting to think about making an artist’s book because it’s permanent. And so in some ways it’s easier to make an exhibition because if it isn’t popular, then it just disappears online into the realm of JPEGs. But with a book that can circulate over time, people can constantly be discovering it, and that can be daunting.
And then in terms of how we view the artist, we feel like we’re doing a service for our audience by making this material accessible. We feel like we’re doing a service for the artist by giving them this exposure. But we also compensate the artist for their labor—they get an artist fee from working with us, they get comp copies and then they get royalties out of the sales—so we want to be a good opportunity for an artist. So if you’re an artist starting out, maybe it’s not a ton of money, but I think most people are happy to get that check. I think they like the concept of royalties. [Laughs.]
Rail: Another perk of circulation.
Katzeff: Yeah, I mean, I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want the exposure. I think for a lot of artists, the marketplace seems really scary. If you’re a young artist working today, you want to make work, you want to have a gallery, but there are so many different types of galleries to choose from. What does it mean to show with one gallery versus another? What kind of artist are you within this world? Books are so neutral in comparison to this loaded exhibition marketplace—sadly, it is a marketplace. So if you make a book, it’s something you can give to friends; it is promotional, but it’s also community-oriented, and you don’t have to grapple with all those other issues.
Rail: I wonder also if artists are interested in this historical dialogue that your practice sets up. A contemporary artist’s book is about publishing in the present, but you’ve also created a historical context—with the historical reprints—which that publishing comes out of.
I really like that dialogue between past and present. I think it asks a lot of really interesting and important questions about what contemporary practice means—the contemporary isn’t ahistorical or atemporal, right? The term is used in a kind of a generic way, but what contemporary means as a theory or as an actual concept is complex. And I think that suggesting that the present and the past having a dialogue is part of what the contemporary is, that’s a much more nuanced way to think about that term. It isn’t a definition, but it’s a framework that’s useful.
Katzeff: When you work with artists on books, whether it’s an artist’s book or a catalogue, oftentimes artists who are obviously very visual can’t articulate what it is that they like about a book. So instead they’ll just bring you other books that they like even if they still can’t articulate it, and you notice they might not think of themselves as book people, but they are cherishing some part of history. The book that they make might not necessarily look anything like their historical example, but they’ll be doing similar stuff kind of unknowingly.
I feel like for some reason contemporary only means the last five years—it’s totally crazy. But I would say that the contemporary for most artists is at whatever point they moved to whatever city they’re working, so it’s that transition to Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, or wherever. When they are first able to look at contemporary art, I think, that is when contemporary art begins for them. But that being said, people are constantly picking up on historical precedents unconsciously.
Rail: Another thing that interests me about what you guys do is the question of what it means to reproduce historical material. I’m not really interested in the ethical dimension of this question, but rather the theoretical point about how reproductions function vis-à-vis an “original.” A really interesting part of how artists’ publications function, as widely circulated multiples, is how they complicate the distinction between reproduction and original. Like, what would the “original” even be in the case of a magazine like Real Life or Avalanche? So I wonder if what you guys are doing with the facsimiles is an extension of this theoretical problem. Maybe the books you distribute shouldn’t even be thought of as reproductions in the first place.
Katzeff: Totally. We’ve reprinted a lot of Something Else Press’s material. When they were operating in the ’60s, the importance of a book and its possibilities seemed a lot greater. People really depended on books for their entertainment, for their culture, for their education. So you could have door-to-door salesmen selling books, or you could find books in the supermarket. Not just tacky romance novels, but real books! So bookmakers were thinking about their publications in these grander terms. Obviously when you do editions of 1,000 it’s kind of a different thing, but the audience that we are trying to serve aren’t the people who can afford the one of the five remaining copies of a legendary artist’s book.
When we worked with Elad Lassry on his book, he came up with a very special project. It was an entire body of work On Onions, a series of images of onions and eyeballs that became a book of the same title. But the images that were contained in that book don’t exist anywhere else; he made them especially for the book. They won’t appear in a gallery; they won’t appear in a museum; you can’t really find them online. He made an entire series and said: “I’m going to prioritize this book.” But also we, as the publishers, are going to print as many copies as we can, meaning that owning a copy of this book isn’t really that special. And I think that’s very appealing: that idea of purposefully utilizing the reproducibility of the book. I wish that we could produce even more copies. I wish our edition runs were even larger.
Rail: Do you think of yourself with a particular title? As a publisher? As a curator? As an ex-commercial gallery worker?
Katzeff: Right now I think of myself as a publisher. I’ve never been fond of the word “curator,” yet I like the verb “curate.” As part of our responsibilities we are editing, and part of these responsibilities involves curation to a certain extent. I just like to think of myself as a publisher in service of artists and the community. That feels like a title that is less likely to be loaded.
Katzeff: Seriously. It’s a great title!
Rail: But you guys have done curatorial projects?
Katzeff: For the most part we try to stay away from those because they really put an emphasis on a particular geographical location and time frame. We make these books, records, and PDFs to get away from emphasizing location and time. I feel very privileged that I can go see an exhibition, that I can go to MoMA’s library, that I can really experience the best of contemporary and modern art by living in New York, but we don’t want to perpetuate that.
Rail: Perpetuate that privilege?
Katzeff: Yes. So the idea of doing events or exhibitions is not as a appealing for us. However, if people are asking us to do something and we think it could have a lasting component—like it could live in a museum’s or institution’s archives—then that’s a potentially interesting proposition for us. Working with their material while also making a publication would be a more appealing project for us. If we can do an exhibition that involves some of the material that we’re trying to promote in our own publications, that’s also appealing.
Rail: In my research for this interview, curating did come up a lot as a descriptive term. I wonder if that just reflects a bias towards how people think about the parameters that should define what you guys do, as opposed to how you actually think about yourselves.
Katzeff: For some people, our range of publication is a form of curation. Some people may think of us as doing reprints from the ’60s and ’70s because that is what they enjoy. Some people might think of us as doing contemporary projects. But when you look at it all together, there are some unusual choices. We don’t even necessarily need to be fans of what we publish, but it is more about giving the art world, or the larger audience, important material that has fallen out of print or wouldn’t otherwise have a larger, more diverse audience.
Rail: What do you feel differentiates your historical work from an archive? Or what’s its relationship to archival practices?
Katzeff: The biggest challenge is when you go through an archive and find something which is truly great, but for whatever reason you can’t include it. We are trying to keep a very light touch with the historical material, so we aren’t going to add an extra section or fun ephemera even if we find something amazing. I was working on a reprint of Carl Andre’s Quincy, and I was fortunate enough to have the original negatives, which included photographs that didn’t make it into the book. I was amazed by this material. So seeing these images did give me this greater understanding of the project in its context, but you can’t publish everything. We can’t publish every single historical art magazine or artist-run publication, but sometimes we want to. You can kind of fall into an archive. You start thinking that you should publish everything. It is almost like archive-induced psychosis. But when we did the Art Workers’ Coalition project for PS1, the majority of the material that I found for that project was actually in MoMA’s own archive.
Rail: Wow! That’s so interesting.
Katzeff: Yes, because all of the material was totally critical of MoMA! But it’s their amazing library that allows me to reprint that material. I guess for me the thing that will change the most is that as more people will get around to digitizing their whole archives, we won’t have to visit. Theoretically, we won’t have to visit.
MAYA HARAKAWA is a Ph.D. student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the social media manager of the Brooklyn Rail.