SONEL BRESLAV with Megan N. Liberty
I first met Sonel Breslav, Printed Matter’s new Director of Fairs and Editions, through the BABZ Fair (formerly known as the Bushwick Art Book & Zine Fair) organized by Blonde Art Books, which she began in 2012 as a vehicle for self-published and small press art and poetry books. On the occasion of Printed Matter’s thirteenth Annual NY Art Book Fair (NYABF), I talked with Sonel about the rising interest in art books and fairs, the challenges of exhibiting books, and how to balance programming, display, and commerce at the fair.
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Megan N. Liberty (Rail): I am interested in the ways books exist in art, library, and commerce spaces. It’s the beauty and detriment of the form; they are often left out of criticism because they don’t belong in any one space. This Rail section seeks to remedy that. It encompasses artists’ books, as well as exhibition catalogues and artists’ writings. It seeks to both narrow and widen the definition of an art book.
Breslav: Something that comes up so often is the lack of criticism of the practice. It’s this incredibly democratic and available medium—or material to work with—and because of that, there is this expansive community with a need for some kind of criticality around what’s being produced: the content, the relevance of it, and also to acknowledge the innovative forms and ideas.
Rail: The form needs to be seen, read, and touched. Maybe that’s where art book fairs come in, as another space where we can engage with books in all these ways, whereas in an exhibition you often only get to see one page.
Breslav: I do think there are exhibitions that have been exceptionally successful at doing exactly what you described. I am thinking of The Book Lovers (January 25 - March 9, 2013) at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts. It was a show of artwork and artist-written novels curated by artist David Maroto and art historian/curator Joanna Zielińska. They started the collection out of their own personal interest and built it into something the public could engage with. Everything was available to read in the space, but not to purchase. There was seating open to the public for free and the idea was that people would come and read. And come the next day and read more. I think they were considering what you are talking about, that there’s not just one way to experience and display a book. I am really interested in the book-centric exhibition form and thinking through the problems that you’re citing—I am going to call them problems, but they’re exciting problems—because the point of these types of exhibitions is to touch the work, to engage with the work, to be able to take something away from the show, to leave the space with a book.
Rail: A common alternative to the display of just one page is to use an iPad, which I am not totally happy with but is better—
Breslav: You’re interested in digital forms of artists’ books, right?
Rail: Yes, but less interested in a printed book being transformed into a digital iPad book and more interested in a book that is engaged with its own materiality.
Breslav: Display is determined by what space you’re seeing it in. If it’s a museum or gallery or institution, it’s very different than in the antiquarian section at a book fair. There, they will have the books in the open and you can have a lot of access to something that if it was in a different context would not be accessible.
Rail: There are many different types of art book spaces—galleries, libraries, fairs. We are in a moment abundant with art book fairs, which function as a nexus of these spaces, as a place of commerce, a place of community exchange, a place where you can physically hold things.
Breslav: I do think that there are a lot more artists that are interested in the form, who see it as a way to immediately engage with an audience. When I started Blonde Art Books, I was interested in slowing down a little bit and having more direct communication, rather than potentially just putting information out into the world via the internet where we don’t know who is receiving it. I wanted to work with artists and it felt like the most immediate way to communicate with them was through books. Publishing is incredibly collaborative. You are working with a lot of people and there is often a team of writers, designers, editors, photographers, and printers. As an event, the fair is really interesting because there is the potential for crossover, learning, and the sharing of resources. When I first did a really small fair at Schema Projects, I did it during Bushwick Open Studios because I wanted to create a space for publishers that was similar to what BOS did for artists. The participants were people that stayed in the fair for the next five years, people I didn’t have relationships with before, but the fair and their books allowed us to build a relationship.
Rail: We’ve been talking about personal relationships and the intimacy of books, how do you maintain that intimacy and personal interaction on the scale of The NYABF?
Breslav: It’s an awesome challenge. There are periodicals, antiquarian, unique objects, large editions, trade editions… It’s an enormous event. A driving force of the fair is discovery. I feel strongly that the fair is really a space for people to learn about something new, not only about a new artist but anything—it could be within science or comics; there is a whole range of content that is being produced for the occasion of NYABF. And ‘The Fair’ is an occasion for them to launch it. It offers a platform for people to present their best, their most wild and innovative thoughts and ideas. That’s what I am hoping, it’s what we expect. That’s also what the audience and the exhibitors deserve, that everyone is here presenting their best. There is still a lot of respect for the work—
Rail: As work.
Breslav: As artwork that has taken a huge amount of effort.
Rail: Are there any things that you want to do differently or an idea that you personally want to bring into it?
Breslav: The Fair has a long history now. There are a lot of relationships that have been built and it will be exciting to see what happens in the coming years. When you are working at an art book fair, it’s work. If you’re the publisher, artist, or whomever, it’s incredibly demanding and the days are really long. Something I have always tried to prioritize is exhibitors’ experience. Trying to do just very small things, listen and make changes and try to make the exhibitors feel supported by the institution of Printed Matter, by NYABF, by MoMA PS1, and by everyone that attends; that they feel appreciated for their work.
Emmy Catedral, the new Fairs and Editions Coordinator, and I are working toward making women publishers and people of color who are publishing more visible in the fair. Diversity and inclusivity is something that is part of our mission at Printed Matter and there can be more done to raise this visibility in the Fair, both in terms of exhibitors as well as audience.
Rail: I was thinking about the rise specifically of smaller fairs, and how to bring those communities and initiatives into something as well attended and popular as The NYABF.
Breslav: Devin N. Morris, the founder of 3 Dot Zine and Brown Paper Zine & Small Press Fair, does a really good job with his fair. As does Paul John, of Endless Editions, who just organized the second Brooklyn Art Book Fair. These fairs represent renewed interest and expansion of the art book audience. They also represent the potential of artists’ books and zines as they give voice and access to new and diverse communities. As with Printed Matter’s NYABF there are artist’s individual tables at these smaller fairs. I think people are really interested in this, meeting the artist and seeing what people are producing and having a more intimate encounter with the artist.
Rail: That phrase you used earlier, “sharing of resources,” is a great way to think about the art book world in general and this fair in particular. The book is a collaborative effort, as you’ve said, and so how do we share the resources of this fair with as many communities and people as possible? It’s such an amazing platform to have.
Breslav: Yes, because the fair itself is a resource in itself, made up of hundreds of people, and also a whole stock of diverse experiences on each table.
Rail: Another way the Fair engages with people and communities is through programming. I have been thinking about whether programming is a parallel strand at fairs, or if it coheres in some way with the commerce aspects of it. I wonder if they should be split into different days, or if there is something about all these things happening at the same time that’s necessary to create this sensory overload?
Breslav: You’re absolutely right, there are so many times I feel like I went to the Fair with the intention of going to a program and then I lost track of time and missed it, or the opposite, I’ve missed somebody at a table because I am in a talk. People from all over the world are coming to participate in the Fair and they have a lot to say and share. There are often really fantastic speakers and guests that want to do programming. This year we’ve had quite a few US premiere film screenings proposed about books and book projects.
Rail: Film and books are so related in their sequential qualities, yet always thought of as very separate.
Breslav: I agree. In 2016 I did a screening of an hour-long reel of book trailers in the basement theatre for the preview evening. It’s actually really fascinating how many artists and publishers use video as a form to promote their work. It’s sort of funny, suddenly there is this narrative form combined with this overtly commercial aspect.
Rail: That’s also a funny way to think about engaging with artists’ books in a way that’s not just in a case, a video of someone taking us through the book is very different from an iPad experience.
Breslav: I always found those videos to be really strange! Somebody else turning the pages, and you’re looking over their shoulder… These trailers were entirely something else, super imaginative, kitschy, and experimental. They weren’t one-for-one, they were more like an art piece that used the tropes of an attractive video—they were commercials. They were meant to attract you to buy the book. We didn’t include videos of someone just panning through, they seemed too formulaic, aware of the book, and of the body.
Rail: But I do think the awareness of the body in relation to the book is important. Even though it’s a dismembered body, which is what gives it the strange quality. But getting back to programming...
Breslav: One aspect of why it took so long for me to develop the BABZ programming is perhaps because of the idea that there was already so much to do! The goal is for the audience to come to the fair and spend their day there. To come, to come again. To arrive and to feel supported and comfortable and to find it easy to navigate the space, for people to be able to have a quiet meeting, or discover something or someone and to be able to have a conversation. Programming felt like a weird distraction from the tables and purchases. I don’t actually feel that way. I know that there is a value to the content that is being produced during a reading, panel or workshop and that afterwards visitors and participants go back into the space and circulate through and continue to interact.
Rail: This gets back to what you want to do with the fair, to make the exhibitors have a positive experience. The same is true for programming, when done well, the audience and the people on the panel get something out of it. It can be a great exchange.
Breslav: Absolutely, if just one thing brings someone to the fair—a book, a friend, a publisher, or an event—hopefully there is something else they see along the way that will bring them to a new place.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.