“Publishing Against the Grain”

Sean O’Toole

January 19, 2018
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town
November 18, 2017–January 29, 2018

One of my earliest writing gigs was for Casper, a short-lived little magazine founded in May 1998 by artists Luis Felipe Ortega, Daniel Guzmán, Gabriel Kuri, and Damián Ortega. I was vacationing in Mexico City and during a two-week stay with Kuri was co-opted into writing about Osaka’s noise music underground for one of the magazine’s eventual thirteen installments. My expertise was tenuous: I lived in Japan at the time, had attended a couple of live shows, and owned copies of Matt Kaufman’s ribald zine Exile Osaka. Kuri though was an encouraging editor. Months later, I received a decorated A5 envelope containing a staple-bound issue of Casper, my wonky article included among its mix of original and plundered content.

This ludic way of creating a community and sharing ideas may seem quaint in the age of social media, but it nonetheless persists. Included among the thirty-eight mostly print magazines in “Publishing Against the Grain,” a surprisingly diverse showcase of independent publishing from five continents, is Stationary. Published by Mimi Brown, of not-for-profit Spring Workshop in Hong Kong, and distributed by word of mouth, Stationary first materialized in 2015. The launch issue was guest edited by artist Heman Chong and Christina Li, and included contributions by author Yeo Wei Wei and poet Quinn Latimer; I also wrote something, an essay about urban sounds drafted on the fly while honeymooning in Japan.

The strange and temporal communities formed by small journals, experimental publications, websites, and radio, all mediums showcased in this exhibition, represents one possible lens for reading curators Alaina Claire Feldman, Becky Nahom, and Sanna Almajedi’s archive-orientated exhibition. People come together and strategize about publishing, they act, and through this doing create artifacts that might also resonate beyond the timeframe of their production. Take Casper as an example. It is included in the synoptic exhibition “Below the Underground: Renegade Art and Action in 1990s Mexico,” currently on view at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.

The broad reach of “Publishing Against the Grain,” which aggregates little magazines from Brazil, Canada, Iran, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Uganda with varying degrees of affinity to the art world, invites relational comparison. My summary outtake: materiality still matters to independent publishers, whatever their location, as does the idea of a curious reader. The exhibition takes shape around a selection of reading material from nineteen publishers, including artist-book publisher Raking Leaves (Sri Lanka) and web platform Our Literal Speed (United States), some of who also nominated additional publications for display. It is a familiar form of curatorship by fiat, but nonetheless yields a material richness that is laid out on old school desks for browsing and accessible through wall-mounted electronic devices.

The nominations obviously function as declarations of affinity, but just as often they map kinship and influence. White Fungus, a Taiwan-based culture magazine established in New Zealand in 2004, nominated musician John Olson’s one-off Life is a Rip Off (USA), a compendium of record reviews written every day for one year. Berlin-based Art Against Art, which is edited by Taslima Ahmed and Manuel Gnam, selected three books: Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism: A Guide to our Future (2015), artist Roy Ascott’s Telematic Embrace (2003), and The Transhumanist Reader (2013), edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More. Fillip (Canada) nominated Art-Language, a journal established in 1969 by Art & Language. The vast discursive output of this pioneering group of British conceptual artists was a central pillar of a 2015 survey exhibition at Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art; by comparison, the Cape Town selection is fractional and underwhelming.

Tone is an important register of independent publishing. Art-Language championed philosophical rigor and dispassion in their writing. It is a stylistic attribute shared by Saleh Najafi, an Iranian scholar and translator who regularly contributes to Pages, a bilingual Farsi and English print journal sporadically published since 2004 in the Netherlands. Post-internet publications are tonally different. The writing in Art Against Art, which launched in 2015 with a mission to disrupt stuffy criticism stuck in the “comfort zone” of late-twentieth century rhetorical forms, is variously breezy, shrill and snarky: “Bland stylization in art has existed forever,” writes dealer Kenny Schachter of Zombie Formalism in issue two, “and nothing in the foreseeable future will change that, ever.”

The exhibition offers broad insight into the diversity of contemporary art criticism, although this purpose is secondary to the larger curatorial purpose: mapping the vitality of free speech in various geographical regions. Brazilian magazine PISEAGRAMA, founded in 2010 and underwritten by that country’s Ministry of Culture, investigates themes such as public transportation and self-organization. Past contributors have nonetheless included Columbian artist Abel Rodríguez, whose fine botanical illustrations also appeared in Documenta 14. Identity not territory undergirds the community championed by feminist art magazine SALT (UK). The two magazines chart dissonant viewpoints and approaches to design, but each materializes a very simple truth about independent publishing. “Little magazines are where most of us are published for the first time,” wrote Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer in a 1980 obituary to the literary genre published in Contrast, now also defunct. “I don’t know how writers would ever get started without them.”

Publishing, Libraries & Archives, Subcultures & Countercultures, Art Criticism

Sean O’Toole is writer and curator based in Cape Town. His recent chapbooks include The Object and The Green Interior, both 2023.

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Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
January 19, 2018

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