Michalis Pichler's Publishing Manifestosby Megan N. Liberty
Edited by Michalis Pichler
(Miss Read, 2018; MIT Press, forthcoming 2019)
Michalis Pichler's edited anthology, Publishing Manifestos, intended to celebrate and archive ten years of the Berlin-based art book fair Miss Read, asks two central questions: what is the function of art fair catalogues and what can they be? “Are accompanying publications just better calling-cards?” Pichler posits in his introduction, “Or could a book fair catalogue be used more effectively?” Publishing Manifestos takes this challenge head on, including not just documentation about the past decade of fairs (which have included over 200 exhibitors and a day of programming called “Conceptual Poetics Day”), but also over forty essays and excerpts of texts related to self-publishing, publishing as performance, and other artist’s book practices, making it an invaluable anthology that charts the complex history or artistic bookmaking. As Pichler puts it, “Another way to deal with the habit of printing a catalogue is to produce a discursive publication.”
The texts, arranged chronologically (1914 – 2018), offer a timeline of the shifts in thinking about the nature of both books and publishing. The first is an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), which includes a “Book” section that begins, “Book was there, it was there. Book was there.” The excerpt is difficult to follow and interpret, as is much of Stein’s writing. But the choice to open with such an excerpt is telling; Stein is an established modernist literary figure, one who is associated with redefining narrative structure and publishing—setting a clear model for the rest of the texts in the book, which include well-known touchstones of art book publishing such as Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books (1975), Clive Phillpot’s Artists’ Books Fruit Salad Diagram (1982), and Lawrence Weiner’s 1989 notes on book and catalogue design, as well as texts by more contemporary practitioners of experimental publishing, like Pichler, Paul Chan, Alessandro Ludovico, and Paul Soulellis.
As a starting point, many of the authors outline their perspectives on the role of books in their artistic practices. One such example included is the 1976 issue of the art magazine Art-Rite, which asked 50 artists and art professionals to provide their thoughts on artists’ books. This offers snippets from iconic art book practitioners and thinkers like Lucy Lippard (“One of the reasons artists’ books are important to me is their value as a means of spreading information—content, not just esthetics. In particular they open up a way for women artists to get their work out without depending on the undependable museum and gallery system [still especially undependable for women]”); Sol LeWitt (who stated that books, “are not valuable except for the ideas they contain”); Adrian Piper (“Suppose art was as accessible to everyone as comic books? as cheap and as available? What social and economic state of things presuppose?”); and Lawrence Weiner (“THEY [BOOKS] ARE PERHAPS THE LEAST IMPOSITIONAL MEANS OF TRANSFERRING INFORMATION FROM ONE TO ANOTHER [SOURCE]”). These comments reflect the thinking around artists’ publishing as a democratic, accessible, and ephemeral practice during the conceptual art movement in the ’60s and ’70s. Other texts focus on the special qualities of typography and page design, like poets Steve McCaffery and bpNichol’s Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book Machine (1992), which highlights the “physical experience of print as word and ink and the book itself as a physical object” in prose and poetic texts
Pichler’s selection of essays, spanning over a hundred years, allows us to see what’s changed in thinking about publishing over the years (and what’s remained constant). Paul Soulellis explores “web culture articulated as printed artifact” in his essay “Search, Compile, Publish” (2013). He emphasizes the rise of self-publishing practices and print-on-demand services like Lulu and Blurb as being central to this interest in web publishing, but still maintains that even with these forms of digital native publishing, “the end result is the tactile, analog experience of printed matter.” Likewise, Alessandro Ludovico, whose iconic book Post-Digital Print – The Mutation of Publishing since 1894 (2012) is excerpted in this collection, includes an appendix that breaks down “100 differences and similarities between paper and pixel” including categories for production, real and virtual space, and gestures. Soulellis, Ludovico, and other contemporary writers and practitioners of (post-)digital publishing, which refers to publishing that rethinks the print/digital binary, illuminate the crossover between print and digital publishing. As Ludovico writes about his book, “this book is a comprehensive example of post-digital print, through a combination of several elements: print as a limited-edition object; networked crowdfunding; computer-processed.”
The title Publishing Manifestos suggests a “manifesto” of what publishing is, but in fact this anthology is much more open ended. As Pichler notes in his introduction, “While it remains unclear from the title, if the focus is 'the publishing of manifestos' or ‘manifestos of publishing’, not all of the texts reproduced here are manifestos in the strict sense. Some are proclamatory, some are playful, and some just push the borders.” At first the texts seem to conform easily to the second reading, ‘manifestos of publishing.’ But many blur this line, focusing more on appropriation strategies or conceptual writing, which can be used in artistic publishing but also act as larger practices of artistic production. This multiplicitous reading of the title and thus the status of this physical book as both an empty container for proclamations and itself a proclamation about the container, fits with the very nature of books as both conceptual and physical objects, an artistic tool and a richly layered historical object.
Perhaps the most telling example of how relevant and necessary such an examination of this media is, is that this collection itself is evolving from an art fair catalogue into an academic anthology; MIT will publish a revised expanded edition of the book in Spring 2019, with a more developed table of contents that will include more international and non-Western texts, as well as forthcoming texts to be published for the first time. Like the state of artistic publishing, this book remains in flux, unstable and mobile, ever evolving and expanding.
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.