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A New Bookstore in Philly Offers Much More than Books

The Ulises bookshop, which opened this past weekend in Philadelphia, focuses on books as a lens onto contemporary art.

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Liz Barr, “I’m literally obsessed with Kim Kardashian” (2015) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHILADELPHIA — What is the role of books in the evolving contemporary art scene? How does publishing manifest as a curatorial or artistic practice? The Ulises bookshop, named after the conceptual book artist and theorist Ulises Carrión and which opened this past weekend in Philadelphia, plans to address these questions.

The shop celebrated its opening on Saturday, November 12 with a DJ, locally sourced Kombucha, and a community of artists, book enthusiasts, friends and family, all gathered into a minimal warehouse-style room. Bookshelves mounted to the wall displayed books like works of art with their covers facing out.

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The Ulises bookshop in Philadelphia

Ulises fills the gap in Philly between established arts institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art, which have publishing houses and large bookshops, and slightly more alternative exhibiting performance spaces that focus more on programing and live events, like the Fabric Workshop, by building a space that focuses on books as a lens onto contemporary art.

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The opening night of Ulises

The founders of Ulises believe curators tend to operate in a kind of “triangle” — of exhibitions, public programing, and publishing — and imagines what would happen if publishing was placed at the top of this triangle rather than as a secondary offshoot of exhibitions. One of the ways the shop will do that is through its quarterly programming. In addition to carrying a regular stock of books, Ulises will curate a reading list and series of events and artworks around a theme each quarter. This first one is “Active Voice,” which “seeks to address the performative and embodied potential of the voice and its ability to reify and limit political and social realities.” The “Active Voice” list, put together by former Performa curator Mark Beasley, includes iconic texts like Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech (A Politics of the Performative) (1997) and Roland Barthes’s Image Music Text (1977), and expands the definition of the book and the idea of “reading” by including records by Yoko Ono and Max Roach.

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The reading list section of Ulises

The quarterly theme model, unique to Ulises, allows the shop to both compensate for and utilize its small space. As a new shop, it can be hard to compete with the existing bookstores by simply offering rare artists’ books and zines. The theme allows for a specific and in-depth look into an issue, with a community element of a reading list, so that visitors can think critically around an issue with their peers.

The shop also includes hard-to-find small presses, such as Sternberg Press, known for art criticism, theory, and artists’ books, and which is currently not available anywhere else in Philly. On opening night, the books for sale ranged from higher priced full-color monographs such as Camille Henrot: Elephant Child and Not Nothing: Selected Writings by Ray Johnson 1954–1994 to DIY zines like Liz Barr’s I’m literally obsessed with Kim Kardashian (2015) and more political books like Black Transparency The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance.

Metahaven, "Black Transparency The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance" (Sternberg Press, 2016)
Metahaven, “Black Transparency The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance” (Sternberg Press, 2016)

Flipping the curatorial triangle, as Ulises plans to do, involves expanding and redefining what it means to read as an artistic practice and communal activity. As Ulises continues to build programming and develop future quarterly themes, it will broaden the definition of reading to fit its own burgeoning book community in Philly, perhaps inspiring an environment for a new type of book.

Ulises (31 E Columbia Ave, Philadelphia) is currently open Saturdays and Sundays, 12–6pm.

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