Two Books Rethink Publishing as a Radical Practice

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The definition of practice includes to carry out, to perform (often habitually), to be professionally engaged in, and to work at repeatedly to become proficient. Two recent books, Publishing as Practice (Inventory Press) and shelf documents: art library as practice (Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and b_books), take “practice” as their subject, applied to two aspects of book arts: publishing and librarianship. Both publishing and librarianship emerge out of authoritative institutions but, when considered as practices, they can be seen as shifting and malleable, open to intervention and evolution.

Publishing as Practice documents and reflects on the 2017–19 publishing residency at the Philadelphia bookshop Ulises, which hosted artist-publishers Hardworking Goodlooking, Martine Syms, and Bidoun. (Full disclosure, after covering the opening of Ulises in 2016, I have since worked with and befriended several of the founding members.) The softcover book with exposed sewn binding includes essays by the bookshop founders, photographs from the residencies, and interviews with and essays about each resident. 

Page spread from Publishing as Practice, Inventory Press, 2021 (image courtesy Inventory Press)

The residency was ​​“designed to explore publishing as an incubator for new forms of editorial, curatorial, and artistic practice.” Publishing as Practice offers a close, critical consideration of publishing spaces, physical encounters with artists as they practice publishing, and what it means to treat publishing as a practice that requires public engagement. As Ulises co-founder Kayla Romberger writes in the “Editor’s Note,” “On the ground, the personal encounter with artists was central to the public’s interaction with Publishing as Practice, but we hope these pages might provide a similar opportunity for the reader to immerse and engage in exchanges around shared interests in the book.” 

shelf documents explores another side of book practice, the library, where books are collected, housed, and institutionalized. shelf documents, like Publishing as Practice, emerged out of a project, from 2018 to 2020, of purchasing books by people who identify as women, BIPOC, or queer, and adding them to the library collections at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium, and the Packard Library at Columbus College of Art & Design. The 243 titles represent an act of “radical librarianship,” one that spurred the collaborative making of this book, which expands beyond the acquisition and intervention project.

Page spread from shelf documents: art library as practice, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp/b_books, 2021 (photo by the author)

In the same way that Publishing as Practice requires us to rethink publishing not as a stale industry, but rather as a living, growing, and changing practice that encompasses maker and reader, shelf documents asks us to contemplate libraries as sites for the continued life and growth of books. In order to do that, we must first consider “the library as a repository of knowledge ….” Writer and artist Laura Larson writes in the shelf documents preface, “… what does our library know? Why is this book in the collection and not another? I want [readers] to understand the hierarchical nature of the space.” Practice, and the space it requires, is not neutral. Publishing is not neutral and neither are libraries. Together, these books make excellent companion reading, offering the chance to probe the spaces in which we practice these aspects of book life.

In his contributions to both books, David Senior, head of Library and Archives at SFMoMA, explores the question of space, particularly who gets to occupy it and who gets to fill it. In Publishing as Practice, he writes about the relationship between physical spaces and publishing spaces: “For me, the act of publishing relates to a way of taking space in settings that have proven increasingly inhospitable, without asking permission, and on one’s own terms.” He echoes this sentiment in shelf documents, where his essay focuses much more the collecting practices of art libraries and how to equitably fill the space of the library: “The contemporary ethics of collecting mandates a critical inspection of the white imagination and the recognition of malignant biases in our field that alienate potential audiences, particularly related to race and gender.” In both books, notions of practice and space go hand in hand.

Page spread from Publishing as Practice, Inventory Press, 2021 (image courtesy Inventory Press)

For Ulises, the central concerns are, who gets to occupy publishing spaces, and what does it mean to offer that up to artists and the public. “What does it mean to turn over a storefront or program to a group of international artists and thinkers? What happens when the public attends?” Romberger asks. For the Ulises residency, each artist or collective took over its bookshop/gallery space, including but not limited to selling books and printed apparel, leading workshops, holding digital and physical performances, and inviting the public to shop, sit, talk, and think as part of the practice of publishing. This highlighted “the shop as a central aspect of independent publishing — not only a site of commercial transaction, but also a locus of social exchange.” In the case of the artists at Ulises, the social exchange of occupying space was the first radical act. While the book does include images from the residencies, it relies primarily on interviews, as well as excerpts from the publications produced during the residency to capture the experience.

shelf documents also incorporates its ethos into its design. The pocket-size book (only 4 by 7 inches) is an exercise in quiet disruption — advocating for a practice that productively unsettles the traditions and norms of the library space. As the book’s editors, Heide Hinrichs, Jo-ey Tang, and Elizabeth Haines, write in the introduction, “We want to stake a claim in a tradition of books that don’t quite fit, that gently destabilize the parameters of a library and the design of the bookshelves as much as the process of indexing.” This is the book’s conceptual approach, but also explains its usual size.

Page spread from Publishing as Practice, Inventory Press, 2021 (image courtesy Inventory Press)

In addition to the collecting practices cited by Senior and his notion of collecting spaces, shelf documents also considers the physical space of the library, how it is designed to welcome or discourage entry, and the space our bodies occupy in it. “We want to destabilize the parameters of the library as an architecture. We see the art library as a hybrid space for the practices of librarians, readers, artists, art students, researchers, educators, that blurs the lines between these categories.”

Divided into sections that reference physical spaces — the institution, the library, the book, the body — separated by line drawings on loose-leaf paper by Hinrichs, shelf documents approaches the practice of librarianship and the space of the library from multiple directions. The section on the library includes an essay by Elizabeth Haines that considers representations of “reading bodies” in art, notions of private and collective reading, and the hazards of sharing books, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many of these essays were written. “It requires rethinking the architectural paradigm of the library in ways that make space for bodily beings who use the act of reading to share their vulnerability, their hopes, their germs, their fluids, and their different tones of voice,” Haines explains.

The section on the book includes an essay composed of quotes selected by Sara De Bondt from standard typography manuals, emphasizing the “inappropriate language they use to describe mistakes and errors in typesetting, referring to women, childrearing, family relationships.” These sections interrogate the physical spaces within the library, raising questions about how book spaces function and who they serve.

Page spread from shelf documents: art library as practice, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp/b_books, 2021 (photo by the author)

But there is another section in shelf documents with a surprising title that doesn’t fit the “space” theme: listening. Its opening essay is a reflection by Marisa C. Sánchez on her teaching of feminist curricula. She writes, “We learn how to listen so that we can hear not only what we already know and recognize, but also that which we don’t yet know — what we have not yet experienced, and those places where we have not yet arrived.” Both these books call for a practice of active and engaged listening as a means of relearning how to occupy space, with books, ideas, and people.

Returning to the definition of practice as a repeated act in proficiency, a term which both books use in their titles as a call to action, Publishing as Practice and shelf documents: art library as practice are radical acts in listening as way to reshape our understanding of the institutional frameworks that have shaped publishing and librarianship, acts that propose a new way to practice moving forward.

Publishing as Practice (2021) is published by Inventory Books. shelf documents: art library as practice (2021) is published by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and b_books. Both are available online and in bookstores.

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