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This article was originally published in the April/May edition of The WG News as our debut “Off the Wall” column. It was written jointly by Hrag Vartanian and Kyle Chayka.
You may have experienced it at a newsstand, on a friend’s bookshelf, or through a chance encounter at a local coffee shop, but no matter what the venue, there’s a new-found energy in the world of indie art publishing, and north Brooklyn is its hub. From small-press runs of art publications and handmade artist books to DIY zines and a menagerie of other visual projects, we’re in the midst of a mini-renaissance of art publishing.
If you don’t know the names of Pen15 Press, Wild Isle, For the Birds collective, Birdsong Collective, Burn Books and Brooklyn Arts Press yet, you probably should. These groups are producing indie art books worth a look, and form the center of Brooklyn DIY arts publishing. Yet even given the ready scene of indie publishing and willing artists and writers, creating and selling good work remains a day-to-day battle in the cacophony of Brooklyn creative production.
“Brooklyn is over-saturated with artists, which can be overwhelming, but I look at it as a world to collaborate with,” says Jess Poplowski, one of the co-founders of Wild Isle, an artist book and music publisher. The group is named for the area of Brooklyn itself, which Poplowski sees as a vibrant island of creativity.
A graduate of Pratt University, Poplowski studied printmaking, and brings her aesthetic talents to the seven-inch records, books and cassette tapes — yes, cassettes — produced by her indie outfit. Soon, Wild Isle will be producing its third book project, featuring a letterpress printed cover and photocopied pages.
Like many DIY publishers, Wild Isle is excited about blurring boundaries. In addition to commissioning visual artists to create art for tapes and records, the group is about to publish their first “artist mixtape,” a series that invites local artists to compile music they love, and love to listen to while they work.
Brooklyn Arts Press is another local publisher headed by Joe Millar, who shares Poplowski’s love of visual richness, but comes at it from the literary world rather than the informal, playful world of artist zines and books. Founded in 2007, Brooklyn Arts Press has published several small-run, full-color art books, each one devoted to a single artist.
Millar acknowledges that there’s a surge in indie publishing, and sees it happening with independent groups all over. “With the Internet you can have immediate publishing, followed by immediate consumer response… there’s a lot of encouraging developments in terms of small groups forming in order to publish what sort of literature they feel lacks representation in the arts,” he says. “I’m always excited to hear of the formation of a new indie press, because you know it’s all about their love of books, their artists, and the process.”
Venues for Indie Art Books
As the range of groups producing art books grows, so do the venues. If most of the publishers say that they sell mostly online (where overhead is cheap and access is ubiquitous), they still love the physical spaces that support their work and stock their wares.
Writer and editor Kate Wadkins curates an artist book showcase called Brain Waves at Storefront Gallery, located at 16 Wilson Avenue in Bushwick. The project came out of her own passion for the field of zines and art publishing.
“I started Brain Waves because I am connected to all these amazing artists, writers and culture-makers in Brooklyn who do projects that are under-recognized,” Wadins says. “Brain Waves is a place where I can collect and disseminate that work to a larger audience, and in an art context, which I think is crucial,” she says. Storefront Gallery’s own mission to support emerging talents dovetails perfectly with Wadkins’ goal for Brian Waves, namely to raise the format of the indie art book to a new artistic level.
Another good starting point for getting informed about local indie art books is Desert Island on Metropolitan Avenue, near Union Avenue. The store presents a wide array of art books, many by artists who publish their own works, without outside help. The store also publishes a free all-comics newspaper entitled Smoke Signal, which gives readers a great taste of local talent on the scene.
But before greater recognition happens for the publishing community, the producers, sellers and fans know there is a lot of work to do. “There’s so much culture-making happening in north Brooklyn and most of the time it seems fairly fractured,” says Wadkins. “I wish there were more central locations for this stuff to happen.”
This lack of unity is something a number of indie publishing movers and shakers recognize. Aimee Lusty, co-founder of Pen15Press and soon-to-be head of exhibition programming at the Booklyn Artist Alliance in Greenpoint, touched on the issue. “I feel [indie publishing] is lacking a sense of community because there are really few permanent venues to show this type of work, and independent book fairs only happen so often. It’s rare that independent publishers really get together,” she says. “I think this sense of community should be something we can all work towards in the future, whether it be organizing more book fairs [and] micro-symposiums or collectively opening an unbiased exhibition space.”
Tommy Pico of Birdsong Collective is familiar with all the trials and tribulations of a small-run publication. The Williamsburg-based collective began three years ago, and they continue to produce a range of serialized zines and one-off printed projects. Over the years they have managed to build a small and devoted following, and recently received an important nod from the mainstream “establishment” when their anniversary party was listed in the New Yorker. “‘Popularizing’ Birdsong is an eternal struggle,” Pico explains. “It’s a nebulously defined thing, it’s not an art/photo zine with attractive naked people in it. Also, especially in this city, there’s so much going on that it’s hard to get people to come out for anything.”
Making It Work
The economics of the industry is something that each art book publisher faces in his or her own way. They all understand that a solid art book is not the only thing you need to succeed. “When it started, Birdsong was not difficult to fund because it was just photocopies,” Pico notes. But, “now that we have screen printed covers and digitally printed full color art, it gets more expensive.” With the expense comes difficulty attracting sellers. “It has taken me three years to get one of the buyers at St. Marks Bookshop kind of excited about getting a new zine, or to get the peeps at Bluestockings bookstore to recognize me,” he says, explaining that it was a struggle to build the network Birdsong currently enjoys, which includes distribution to a number of major cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and even Montreal.
Brooklyn Arts Press has produced six art books so far, but they plan to release another five in the upcoming year. “We’re publishing our first book of lyrical short stories, our first poetry chapbook, and have just ventured into publishing e-books… dipping our toes in the water to see what the future of the press, and publishing in general, might look like,” says publisher Joe Millar. “We rely on each book to make enough sales to cover the creation and expenses of the next book. So if an art monograph of collages doesn’t sell, let’s say, then there’s two poetry books we’re scrambling to fund. I don’t pay myself, and our editors get paid in book copies, gratitude-unto-death, and the occasional lunch. Each book is a risk, in that sense, but if you love it, you’ll work to sell it.”
Aimee Lusty agrees and she is equally committed to funneling proceeds into more and more projects. “I can’t speak for everybody in indie publishing, but for the time being our projects are funded out of pocket and the occasional freelance silk-screening job. We put all that money and any profits from sales back into the print shop and towards producing more,” she says.
But a good product is not the only key to success. “As far as recognition goes, it’s always an uphill battle for any small press,” Millar says. “Our books have been well reviewed and we’ve had some authors who are veritable Jedis of self-promotion.” Brooklyn Arts Press recently signed on with Small Press Distribution, which could mean more exposure and, hopefully, more sales.
Gabe Fowler, the owner of Desert Island, runs his bookstore as a utopia for indie art publications. The shop carries a wide assortment of comic books, graphic novels, zines, ephemera and artist projects. He reassured me that there’s certainly a market for these small-run artworks. “Well-made visual books are portable artworks, and New Yorkers are savvy enough to realize it,” he says. “I sell a lot of work with
more tactile or innovative printing methods, ranging from one-of-a-kind collage books to comics with silkscreened covers. For me, there is absolutely no boundary between a handmade artists’ book and a comic book, and I’m interested in mixing those worlds as much as possible.” Fowler views the current Brooklyn scene as “wildly eclectic and active” and he sees his store as a “net that captures this activity.”
“In most of the DIY outfits I see forming, there seems to be a focus not only on zines, but other limited edition materials: music, posters, small print runs. That’s exciting to me because I think the art community would benefit from broadening our idea of what art is,” Wadkins says.
Where to Find Indie Art Books in North Brooklyn
- Book Thug Nation (100 N 3rd Street, Williamsburg)
- Brain Waves (Storefront Gallery, 16 Wilson Avenue, Bushwick)
- Desert Island (540 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg)
- Spoonbill & Sugartown (218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg)
- Word (126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint)