Art

Rethinking What an Art Book Fair Can Be

The entrance to the Geffen Contemporary during last night's opening of the LA Art Book Fair. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
The entrance to Geffen Contemporary during last night’s opening of the LA Art Book Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — There are few events in the art world that allow the “little guys” to shine the way Printed Matter’s art book fairs do, and last night’s opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary in LA’s Japantown was a perfect example. Over 2,000 people attended the event, which featured 250 publishers, zine makers, and secondary book sellers. It was the first year the Los Angeles Art Book Fair (LAABF) charged a fee for opening night, and while attendance was down from the previous year’s very uncomfortable crowd of 5,000, the atmosphere was more relaxed and conducive to conversation and browsing tables. It also allowed the organizers to cover their expenses for the costly installation in the warehouse space. The remaining days of the fair will be free and open to the public.

Julia Klein of Sobercove Press
Julia Klein of Sobercove Press

“The New York and LA art book fairs are both the places that host the biggest concentration of art books, and it’s nice because [making books] is mostly a solitary activity,” explained Julia Klein of Chicago’s Sobercove Press, which has been exhibiting at both Printed Matter art book fairs for years. “The first year [of the LAABF, 2013] I noticed, ‘Oh, I get LA, LA has a different vibe.’ It was more laid back and more chill, and there’s more space here,” she said, referring both to the venue and the city. “LA has been different every year, while in New York it is always intense and lots of people.”

Klein said that for book publishers, the Printed Matter fairs are a rare chance to meet your public while taking part in an event that attracts large crowds and is more affordable than most. “It’s nice to have people touching [the books] and interacting with them,” she said.

The 2015 LAABF
The 2015 LAABF

The tactility of the fair is something Mara McCarthy of The Box gallery — who was there only to browse — also pointed out as an asset for LAABF. “A lot of other art fairs have had trouble setting up, but I feel like the Art Book Fair has brought a strong energy that can vitalize things. Both the other art fairs that are happening this weekend [in LA, Paramount Ranch and Art Los Angeles Contemporary] are energized because of this. The tactility of things, that you can hold items unlike the other fairs, energizes the other world — maybe they play some way back and forth.”

“When you’re here you can see that people get excited about books, and I’m sure there are artists here walking around and trying to figure out how to do that by themselves or with others,” McCarthy added. “There’s always an overlay between the art and book worlds. There’s the idea that maybe a fair can succeed here because this one has done so well.”

An installation by David Kennedy Cutler and …
An installation with sculptures by David Kennedy Cutler and wall work by Sara Greenberger Rafferty

Brooklyn-based artist David Kennedy Cutler, who normally makes large-scale sculptural work, created a special hands-on edition of five objects for the fair. High-resolution scans of a cuff, work glove, iPhone, three blades, and a piece of kale were printed onto aluminum and then formed back into the shapes of the objects themselves — works he calls “mediated image objects.”

A look at the printed and sculpted (left to right) kale, iPhone, and glove by David
A look at the printed and sculpted kale, iPhone, and glove by David Kennedy Cutler

These editioned sculptures, which are selling for $60 each or $250 for a complete set, are some of the smartest objects on display, capturing the zeitgeist of digital reproduction but maintaining a perceived connection to the artist’s hand and the bleeding of our lives online and IRL. The artist encourages visitors to touch the works, and the weight and feel of the iPhone 5 in particular is uncanny for its similarities to the real thing. “The iconography of the sculptures is stuff from my real life; it is tactile stuff you interface with every day, related to the body but outside of it,” he said. The objects come from “images of things instead of things,” which ties into the artist’s interest in “ways to make surrogates of real experiences.” Cutler’s editions get to the heart of what art book fairs often represent: the book, or in this case sculptural edition, as a surrogate for real experiences. The essence of touch is vital to that transmission.

The Actual Size collection on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive booth.
The Actual Size collection on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive booth

Yet tactility isn’t the only impulse on display at LAABF. Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) is a research space and group that collects ephemera from arts organizations, artworks, curatorial projects, and other aspects of the art world. Co-director Eric Kim explained that LACA is a combination of traditional and non-traditional archive. “The archives gives a different perspective and insight into how basically art is made and how it is presented,” he said.

LACA houses the collection of Actual Size and had items from the LA-based, artist-run space on display at LAABF. “In terms of Los Angeles, what we’re presenting today has some historical value in terms of what the art community has been like in the last five years,” Kim said. “Some of our archival material is about re-experiencing the happenings as they occurred in the past. For example, we hold performance documentation and house the archive of KCHUNG radio shows, so in that sense there’s basic historical value in our collection.”

Co-director Hailey Loman said the archive’s decision to take part in LAABF, which is a commercial event, was partly driven by their interest in the community that congregates there, accompanied by an interest in exploring what a book fair can be.

One of Adam Villicin's "dead wrestlers" on display in the zine room of LAABF
One of Adam Villacin‘s “dead wrestlers” on display in the zine room of the 2015 LAABF

That unique position of the Art Book Fair is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by visitors. Artist Sterling Bartlett, who was emerging from the zine section with writer Christina Catherine Martinez when I caught up with him, instantly knew how to respond when I asked him what made the event distinct. “First of all, it brings together high/low. Second of all, it brings together disparate, weird groups of people in the same room for long periods of time, which I think is kind of important.”

Martinez echoed Bartlett’s comments, adding that the spirit of the mashup made it a fascinating happening. “The disorganization of the event has built in a series of checks and balances, as it is really open and kids share their tables with other artists who didn’t get in last minute, and everything is up in the air,” she said. “The week before the fair you get inundated with all your friends talking about all the things your friends are going to have there. There are few places that you can bring your own stuff and set up.”

I asked them about their favorite finds from the fair thus far, and Martinez sang the praises of the queer Chicano Maricón Collective, which vibes off Cholo culture, while Bartlett cited Adam Villacin, who makes quirky zines about dead wrestlers or arcane bits of 1980s culture.

Edgar Bryan's Pizza books, left, and Erik Benjamins's Butts of Florence at the VIA publication booth.
Edgar Bryan’s pizza books, left, and Erik Benjamins’s “Butts of Florence,” which is literally images of the butts of mostly Renaissance and Baroque sculptures in the Italian city, at the booth of VIA

Across the way, Stacey Allen of East of Borneo was standing by her organization’s new publication by Alan Sekula, which includes the artist and critic’s only writing about LA. For her there’s a lot of benefit to the gathering. “We’re local, we love it. Our focus is Los Angeles art and its history, so it makes a lot of sense to come out and meet people who are interested in that but may not know we’re around and connect with the people who do know us,” she said. “It’s kind of cliche, but it’s obvious that Los Angeles has a hard time getting together, so even having one big weekend where all the publishers are in a room … then everyone can come and find new publishers.”

Warren Neidich's Book Exchange 2: The Hollywood Blacklist
Warren Neidich’s “Book Exchange 2: The Hollywood Blacklist project”

International publishers, like Bryn Roberts of DDMMYY/LeRoy from Auckland, New Zealand, said they came to both the NY and LA Art Book Fairs to be seen on an international scene, and because the fairs are a place where many projects get launched. Flavio Trevisan of Hex Editions in Toronto sees “making books as a way to make his [sculptural] work more accessible, since books are like portable sculptures,” he said. Then there are special projects like Warren Neidich’s “Book Exchange 2: The Hollywood Blacklist,” a large black bookshelf filled with volumes about or by Hollywood figures from the 1950s who were targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous anti-Communist hysteria. LAABF visitors are invited to bring a red-covered book to replace one of the items on the shelf, which they can then take home. The final result, Neidich told Hyperallergic, will be rows of red. He’s asking people to “think seriously about the blacklist and its consequences today.”

Some of the objects at Monograph Bookwerks including, left, The Washington Post 1968 obituary of Marcel Duchamp, and, right, Keith Haring-designed condom cases with belt clips from 1987.
Some of the objects at Monograph Bookwerks including, left, the Washington Post 1968 obituary of Marcel Duchamp, and, right, Keith Haring–designed condom cases with belt clips from 1987

For book lovers and those passionate about art-related ephemera, the secondary book sellers are sure to be a highlight. Monograph Bookwerks of Portland, Oregon, has some of the most unique collectibles on display, including Keith Haring–designed condom cases from 1987 ($150), original ACT-UP posters ($450), vintage editions of Interview magazine ($40), and gallery invitation cards from the 1960s and ’70s. One of the strangest objects is the original wire service printout from the Washington Post‘s obituary of Marcel Duchamp ($1,900). It’s a curious relic that highlights the seemingly mystical energy that many of the items at the fair possess. A number of these books, multiples, and objects aren’t things one necessarily reads or uses in a traditional sense, but rather something to be collected as a token of memory or expression of solidarity with an aesthetic, artist, collective, or project.

The Art Book Fairs meet the need for subcultures — even some that are normally anti-market — to demonstrate solidarity in the marketplace. In the art world, where the market plays such a prominent role, LAABF feels like a reprieve from the culture of exclusivity that drives most fairs. You can come, touch, ask questions, and potentially walk away with a piece of art history for under a hundred dollars. It’s about a belief that the art world remains accessible, personal, and flexible. When you return home with your cache of finds, you can connect to an artistic vision without the mediation of the white box or crowds — it’s in that private moment that art normally speaks the loudest.

The 2015 LA Art Book Fair continues at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 North Central Avenue, Japantown, Los Angeles) through February 1. Hyperallergic is the media sponsor.

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