Every great museum has at least a few vitrines dedicated to the remarkable object that is the artist’s book. Since the poet William Blake illustrated Songs of Innocence and Experience in the late 18th century, artists ranging from Matisse to Ed Ruscha have approached the medium with reverence.
Los Angeles–based painter, sculptor, and printmaker Christopher Kardambikis is one of them. For the past decade, he’s been promoting artist’s books and zines through Encylopedia Destructica and Gravity and Trajectory, two publishing endeavors he co-founded. He’s now raising funds for Pulp Atlas, a project that will enable 12 artists to each create a unique edition of 12 art books and exhibit them across the US, UK, and Canada this fall.
What does Kardambikis do when he’s not printing other people’s work? This year, outside of his regular studio art practice, he’s following a self-imposed “Book-a-Month” challenge, which is exactly what it sounds like. We sat down with the artist ahead of the New York Art Book Fair, where some of his books will be available, to talk about the form.
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Laura C. Mallonee: Why do you make artist books?
Christopher Kardambikis: I’m a bibliophile, so I want ALL THE BOOKS. I want them in my house and near me and on my shelves and stacked next to my couch and I want to look at them and flip through them and re-read them. But I want you to have and to love all the books too. I want to publish creatively designed books with a group of people. I want to do so regularly. And I want to develop an engaged and excited community around the work.
LCM: When did you become interested in artist books?
CK: I’ve had a love of books in general and comic books specifically since I was a kid. My interest in developing visual narratives and storytelling started there. I liked holding books and being lost in books and being able to move through time by turning pages back and forth. Seeing documentation of Raymond Pettibon zines when I was in high school was big. I wanted to explore drawing in undergrad, and this presented another way to work with drawing. I took a bookmaking course [at Carnegie Mellon University] and was immediately hooked on the physical process of binding books by hand.
LCM: Who are some artists whose books inspired you?
CK: It wasn’t really individual artists at first, although looking at Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon was very important for me. It was projects, institutions, libraries and a history of zines that provided the initial spark. So going to Printed Matter for the first time really turned my head inside out. Seeing the Carnegie Mellon University collection of artist books. Agnes Denes’ Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space printed on transparent and graph paper just stunned me when I stumbled upon it in the library. The early Dada reviews are interesting for helping to establish an international network of people and becoming the primary method of disseminating new ideas through Europe’s avant-garde. Projet MOBILIVRE in Montreal. Quimby’s in Chicago. The Marvel Comics Bullpen of the 1960s and ’70s.
Now inspiration is more interacting with artists and friends doing great work in zines, artist books, and commercial publishing like Darin Klein, Louis M. Schmidt, Sadie Barnette, Tim Schwartz, Jim Rugg, J. Pascoe. And looking at presses like Publication Studios, Badlands Unlimited, and Paraguay Press, who are all doing different things.
LCM: What is it about the medium that encourages community?
CK: This goes back to a history of bookmaking and publishing and zines. Think about Dada publications in the late teens and early ’20s, Sci-Fi Fanzines of the late ’30s, music zines of the ’70s, or any other type of zine. Part of the reason they’re made is to reach out to and find other people with similar interests outside of your immediate circumstances. The printing of books and the press was developed to quickly make multiples and share information — distribution and discussion and reaction. It’s all part the DNA of books.
And my interest in this is tied to my interest in collaboration. Being able to brainstorm how to put a book together or problem-solve design issues with someone generally pushes me outside of my usual process and provides me with new ways to make things work.
LCM: Do you think much about the audience?
CK: The book as an object is immediately understandable. Everyone knows how to pick up a book and read it. So that immediately opens the form up to people who are “outside” the art world. These are artworks that can exist and be legible in a context outside the gallery or museum. The construction of the book and content and everything can be very complex or experimental, while the printed object can become legible and approachable by being bound within a book space.
LCM: What advantage does the book space have over the gallery space?
CK: The book is just a very different experience than the gallery — and to be clear, I don’t want to say one is necessarily better than the other. But my interest in creating book work centers largely around issues of distribution, context, and legibility.
Physically, zines are produced with an edition size that allows more copies of that physical object to exist. Thirty people can own my work and interact with it and even share it. I can take those zines to the Art Book Fairs or Zine Fests or mail them to bookstores in different cities and countries. They have been at comic shops, coffee shops, record stores, and libraries. These are all places where someone who doesn’t typically interact with the art world could actually engage with my work, no matter how complex or what the imagery is. In contrast, a complex (or not) installation in a gallery or a museum that requires posted didactics and attendants to guide a viewer through — “Can I step here? Can I touch this? Are pictures allowed? Can I walk behind this?” — has a few more boundaries to deal with.
Books and zines also live in someone’s space differently than a painting on the wall. They can still be showcased and exhibited but also cared for and shared. I regularly buy several copies of zines that I really like just so I can give them to friends. If I have a book on the shelf (or stored in an archival box for unique artist books) that is important to me, then I want to share it with you.
LCM: Why did you start the Book-a-Month project?
CK: I wanted to explore an expanding space — the book space, the page space, outer space, Los Angeles as a space. And each complete book started to point to a few different processes and different territories I could move in. I think of it as a series of experiments that allow me to explore my interests and studio capabilities. My schedule is tight, my budget is low, and I have materials and processes I want to use. So in some ways, it’s problem solving as bookmaking. I have materials A and B. I want to construct images with elements X and Y, and I am losing time. What can I do?
LCM: So how do you begin each month?
CK: I usually start with a mess of elements. I might have a set of visuals I want to work with, or a book format I haven’t used before, or some scrap test prints from the letterpress that look like they would be interesting if I scanned them at high-res and blew the images up. I’ll have the idea quietly percolating in my head for the first couple weeks of the month. Then I’ll spend about a week and a half working on InDesign and putting together the visuals and making lists and mock-ups, then about two weeks of physical construction and a few late nights at the end of the month to meet my self-imposed guideline. Eventually, with enough editing and play, the book coalesces around a central theme.
That being said, I made the March book, Sol Variations, in two days. I’ve also been working on a large book of drawings, an edition of one about 60 pages, since March and won’t be completed until probably December.
LCM: How has working on these books helped you push forward your ideas?
CK: A project like this allows me to follow formal and thematic curiosities while finding the limits of what I can do in my studio. It’s about developing the craft and being fully engaged with the work for an extended period of time — the daily routine of working in the studio and the creation of temporary constellations of ideas and images. For SUNSPOTS, I initially wanted to explore NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory website and the images of the sun that can be collected with that. The book became a way to visually explore a history of how we see ourselves in the solar system. For Sol Variations, I had been playing around with making abstract ink and pastel drawings and was interested in using the Van de Graaf canon for page design. For The Color Out of Space, I wanted to use a simple saddle-stapled booklet format I could print at any commercial printer and alter the form to create unexpected moments of color unfolding into a larger space than the book initially provides.
LCM: Let’s say I want to learn a little more about artist books and how they fit into the longer view of art history. Are there any resources you might be able to point me toward?
CK: The Century of Artists’ Books by Johanna Drucker is certainly a good starting point. I always point toward Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture by Stephen Duncombe. Zine Soup is also a fantastic book to see a large collection of zines and artist books from around the world.