A house for radical thought
IPP Project at blank projectsBy Sean O'Toole
08 September - 01 October. 0 Comment(s)
In September, artists Francis Burger and Jonah Sack launched the Independent Publishing Project (IPP), a research initiative aimed at surfacing rare and obscure contemporary and historical examples of independently produced South African publications. Their project, which is ongoing, kicked-off with a library-like installation at blank projects, in Woodstock, that included books, booklets, zines and leaflets from a number of private collections. The material ranged from literary magazines with an open-door policy to artists to experimental graphic design posters and self-published artist monographs. 'Consumable but not commodified, these works traverse closely-knit networks as if by word of mouth, existing as intimate instruments of personal agency and freedom of thought', offered Burger and Sack in their jointly authored exhibition notice. After an initial visit to the gallery, I initiated an email exchange with Burger, Sack and Josh Ginsburg, a key collaborator.
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SO: During the process of sourcing material for the IPP, you sent me an email in which you described your interest in independent publishing, as both medium and strategy, as 'part sentimental, part haptic or tactile, and part political'. Can you unpack each of the three categories a little bit, especially the first and third. Sentimental how? Political in what sense?
JS: I wonder if you should tackle this one, Francis, since it was your formulation? My thoughts: Sentimental in the sense that people who are interested in print, in books, magazines, etc., are often accused of being nostalgic. The appeal of these formats has something to do with their history — both personal and other. I’m not sure what you meant by political, but for me it points to the ability of print to be quite precisely directed — directed at specific audiences and readers — and so an ability to link people who are otherwise disconnected.
FB: The second category is fairly simple but attached to the first. As Jonah says, the sentimental aspect points toward nostalgia, but a physical nostalgia, for the object itself in your hands. The political aspect for me has to do quite specifically with the agency that independent publishing allows, again, as a medium that changes hands within a generally tight network or community, or at least begins that way, and as a strategy that facilitates the feasibility of production on your own terms.
It’s political on a radical level because it’s about freedom, and not necessarily in a diluted state of endless choice, since you become your own censor. It’s a freedom of thought: both in terms of the structure of a book or booklet to act as an exhibition space of your own making, and in terms of the privilege implied by an active disinterest in whether or not the product will be saleable, likeable or intelligible. Books have this capacity to house and distribute heterogeneous and radical thought without scaring people off, since there’s often a quiet, personal engagement with them, which comes back to the tactile and the sentimental.
SO: Still related to my first question. This interview is being read online. It is unlikely that it will ever be consumed in a different format. Was it a tussle to exclude the micropublishing that happens online? Although the barrier to entry is nominally less, when one speaks to independent publishers using digital media the same frustrations emerge as have been traditionally voiced by print publishers.
JS: It wasn’t a tussle. We considered it briefly, when one of the potential participants wanted to submit an e-book. In the end we felt it was too far from our main focus. Partly this is a result of a simple lack of interest (on my part, anyway) in digital publishing as a process and as a product, but, mostly, it is because the constraints imposed by physical publishing are much more interesting.
FB: I think the point of decision here was made easier by familiarity – neither of us works heavily online or in digital arenas, and this translated into logistics (designating a computer for online browsing, creating a web space to isolate project specific items etc., all requiring a skill set and a slice of budget that we didn’t have readily at hand). Also, we imagined that as much as they may be hidden amongst mountains of similar content and data, online publications are generally accessible. An offshoot of the project for me has, however, been an increasing recognition of online publishing as a really exciting space. The project will develop as an online resource in time and I see that space as an opportune site to start collecting and linking to online media.
SO: Sifting and paging through the accumulated material on display, I was struck by the sheer volume of your collection. How many examples did you collect? Did you apply any censorial or curatorial limits on work to qualify for display?
FB: We’re on 644 and counting.
JS: Yes, some limits. It had to be South African, or have significant involvement by South Africans. It had to be a multiple. It had to be independently published. It couldn’t be an artist’s book in the sense of a book-as-artwork. Malcolm Payne challenged Francis and Josh on that last one, but I think we all know what we mean when we talk about this kind of artist's book: the stereotypically precious, hands-off, aura-filled artist's book. Not that I don’t like them, I make them; it is just that this wasn’t what we were looking for.
We allowed these constraints to be loosened here and there, because more important than these limits was a sense of what we were looking for. We were happy for there to be a strong core of work that matched what we were interested in, and a halo of other work that was somewhat more peripheral to our concerns. And what we were looking for is hard to describe (and differs slightly between us), but it might be described as the point where zines, journals, comics and one kind of artists' books start to overlap.
FB: I appreciated the challenge from Malcolm on the exclusion of artists' books: we decided in conversation that we’d stop using the term 'high-end' and use 'hi-fi' instead, as a less antagonistic way to differentiate. I just want to add one thing here about our process of collecting: both Jonah and I have an indecisive character, but what’s important is that it’s an informed indecisiveness. A good image to explain this a bit more clearly, which comes from Josh, is an inverse mind map, where you start with all the small things and wait for a central node to appear in time, if at all.
To a large extent it’s about trusting in a process and letting things arrive unexpectedly along the way — numbers 638 to 644 are fanzines from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society of South Africa, they’ve been in existence since 1969 — and developing systems simultaneously to track this haphazard development in more comprehensible ways.
SO: Chronologically, the archive you’ve amassed starts with Knobkerrie, a satirical magazine from the late nineteenth century; however, much of the work is from the post-war period onwards. Given the way censorship helped isolate critical thought, especially during the high apartheid period (1948-1990), I’m curious whether you’ve noticed, even if anecdotally, a shift in how these small publications have been conceptualised and specifically address the social in the period after the first democratic elections in 1994? It is obviously a broad question, so perhaps you might want to choose one or two apartheid-era independent publications that you feel championed critical thought and imagination, and compare them with one or two small publications made after 1994.
FB: I wouldn’t say that there’s a clear shift, but it’s an interesting and complicated question for a few reasons that are particular to the project. What it brings up, for me, albeit in a roundabout way, are issues around history and proximity, since it exposes the capacity of an archive to either string up or break apart particular lineages of thought and activity. At the moment, we’re knee-deep in the details of the collection and the choices that marked its construction.
A case in point is that the historical (being a rough and internal designation of pre-1990 publications) items that exist within the collection have already been kept: the collector has made a judgment. A social, or politically engaged focus may have already been seen as a marker of relevance and value for the collectors themselves.
What did come up, on an anecdotal level and within conversations with collectors leading up to the show, was a sense of a kind of shuffling of coordinates around the early to mid 1990s to try and maintain a direction on the part of the publishers and authors who remained independent from the state-supported publishing industry. You mentioned this in relation to the copies of the environmental journal New Ground (1990-1995) that you loaned to us.
For a range of reasons, my inclination was, however, to use what we had to illustrate the lack of a distinct shift, and to examine the possibility of the archive to flatten chronological narratives and hierarchies, and emphasise the perpetual urgency of creative criticism. We could pull out matches on both sides, from whichever angle, placing the almost stubborn whimsicality of Sebastian Borckenhagen’s The Man is Disappearing (2011) alongside Gus Ferguson’s Herding of the Snail (1978), or the mix of passion, responsibility and editorial benevolence of Ntone Edjabe’s Chimurenga (2002-) with that of the older ‘little magazines’, like Sipho Sepamla’s New Classic (1975-1978) or Mothobi Mutloatse and Mike Kirkwood’s Staffrider (1978-1993). The list could go on.
SO: The exhibition included a photocopier. How many new publications were created during the run of the show? Please list them. Do they also get indexed, or are they somehow separate from the archive?
FB: At the end of the exhibition there were five complete publications: a two volume set of collages and drawings titled Long Faces by Stuart Cairns; a small untitled collection of comics by Sebastian Borckenhagen; WC by Jared Ginsburg and Kyle Morland; and Jonah’s own Notes on Isometric Space. We also linked with the Johannesburg based collective CUSS and had copies of their first print issue, Convening Spirits, arriving near the end of the show.
There are also still a few things that are almost finished, or at least still on the go, that emerged from the workshop aspect of the show. I’m working with Trasi Henen on a comic and with Athi Mongezeleli Joja on a conversation-based map about art and politics in South Africa. Bianca Baldi is working on a collection of chance-spreads from a randomly selected set of publications from the collection. Unathi Mkonto started a small, illustrated zine of sketches and diagrams, and Nathan Gates started playing with glued together blocks of encyclopaedias as a kind of book sculpted object. Stuart Cairns still has to finish his book of collaged explosions, AirDeath, and a collection of poetry by Ryan van Huyssteen titled Still Life still has to be printed. We’re hoping that new works that emerge after the fact will still find their way into our archive. In fact, in mid-October, James King arrived with a beautifully printed monograph/discussion on Sebastian.
SO: Can you talk a bit about the layout and form of the exhibition space/office you created in Blank Projects?
JS: We knew we wanted a hybrid space, so that we could show work and make work, but the specific layout emerged in the process of setting up. The shelving concept kept evolving, and was solidified just before the opening. We were searching for ways to make the space inviting to work and spend time in. It was important that the books looked accessible, while also somehow indicating that they are somewhat precious — worth pausing over, and worth being careful with. The cardboard stands seemed to achieve this, through a combination of crudeness and delicacy. We also had to protect some of the more valuable items, and create a space for the archiving process, hence the library cubicle with its doorway, signifying restricted access.
FB: It was surprisingly functional as a workspace. Galleries are often difficult spaces to spend large amounts of time in, though we had a few bewildered passers-by confusing us with a badly run bookshop.
SO: I’m wondering, given the participatory form of your exhibition/presentation, did any of you visit the Chimurenga Library in the Cape Town Library during Cape 09?
JS: Nope (sheepishly).
FB: I did, and also had a friend who was involved with the elaborate set-up for the project. Their idiosyncratic indexing system had a big impact on me at the time, combined with the use of a similar system in Chimurenga 15. We were in conversation with Ntone Edjabe early on in this process and are still hoping to find the space and time to overlap more with them.
SO: You have co-opted Josh Ginsburg to help archive the print material. Are you planning to establish some sort of digital database that people can access online in the same way as Siemon Allen is archiving South African music?
FB: Definitely. Siemon’s archiving process and its functioning was a valuable sounding board for us (though the online version of the record archive is still under construction I think), as was David Paton’s artists' book archive and the Chimurenga library’s online archive. What’s important is that the items that we’ve collected as a temporary library are made readily available in an accessible and user-friendly space. It’s another project, in a sense, but one that is of real interest — to put these publications into use. About Josh’s involvement: he is our resident librarian but also an in-house collaborator at the shared studio that hosted our planning meetings, so it was a mix of co-opting and self-election. It was an obvious move given Josh’s archival practice, and one that will carry the project beyond what Jonah and I would have done on our own.
SO: Josh, any plans to intervene in this archive through one of your performative tours?
JG: There is no immediate plan to perform this archive in that way. The idea with this project is to create a publically navigable resource, one that allows fluid access to titles while also nurturing a quotient of disorder or flux. The ambition with this aspect — the flux — is to facilitate the emergence of unexpected combinations between publications. We want to see what the archive can tell us, what it can generate. The collection of discrete publications, fragments I call them, at Blank has already provided a platform for an array of rich narratives to surface. This has largely been a function of a series of conversations hosted in the space with a cross section of practitioners. The core experiment with the digital archive is to test the extent to which it can continue these conversations and facilitate others, both in the real (actually talking through ideas) and digital worlds, through the collections or connections that emerge over time and through use.
Facilitated by Jonah Sack and Francis Burger with Josh Ginsburg, the Independent Publishing Project involves the participation of Stuart Cairns, Sebastian Borckenhagen, James King, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Christian Nerf, Nathan Gates, Trasi Henen, Jared Ginsburg, Kyle Morland, Lance Herman, Bianca Baldi, Unathi Mkonto, Ryan van Huyssteen, Sjaka Septembir, Rangoato Hlasane of Keleketla! and Jamal Nxedlana, Ravi Govender, Zamani Xolo, Lalya Leiman and Amirah Tadin of CUSS Monthly and others.