By the Book

Left: John C. Welchman, codirector of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Right: Poet and editor Anna Moschovakis at the Ugly Duckling Presse table. (All photos: Christina Catherine Martinez)

LAST THURSDAY NIGHT’S launch of the debut LA Art Book Fair at the Geffen Contemporary at MoCA took not just the building but also social-media sites and apps by storm, an earnest frenzy that had settled into a simple fact of life by the time I arrived on the scene Friday. Organized by Printed Matter as a companion to the NY Art Book Fair, the event hosted 220 exhibitors and sellers who came from all over the world, though the vibe was distinctly bifurcated according to the layout: More established galleries, publications, and booksellers were on the left half, while the micropresses, punk luminaries, independent artists, and sleepless staplers occupied the—okay, I’m sure there’s a better way to say this—separate-but-equal half of the space known as Zine World. There, AA Bronson sat in a folding chair in the corner, peacefully tapping away on a laptop, updating the fair’s Facebook page.

In Zine World, Guru Rugu (aka artist Adam Overton) might have helped you settle on one of many three-dollar zines from the Library of Sacred Technologies, taking special care to remove a rogue beard hair—“a sacred beard hair,” he clarified—from your new copy of A Dabblerist Manifesto. At the opposite end of the fair, the girls manning the table inside Gagosian’s two-room space gently shooed people away from the poignant, albeit somewhat misleading, display of books donated by Kim Gordon, John Waters, Ed Ruscha, and other friends of Kelley as a literary tribute to the late artist. “I know, I know,” one of them cooed to an irate man who had nearly pulled Helter Skelter off the shelf. As he left, she turned to her partner: “It’s, like, freaking people out that we have an installation made out of books, at a book fair, that you’re not allowed to touch.” A more straightforward offering was New York gallery Boo Hooray’s installation of Larry Clark’s stuff called, well, Larry Clark Stuff—rare T-shirts, posters, skate decks, and various effects from the filmmaker-photographer’s personal collection were up for grabs, a garage sale of cultural cachet. Two sexy young go-hards in leather jackets meticulously documented every inch of the presentation with a DSLR camera. “I can’t even believe it,” one said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

Left: Artist Luke Fischbeck. Right: Artist Adam Overton aka Guru Rugu.

You could only take so many laps around the space before you forked over for a new tome; thankfully (for my pocketbook), there was an eclectic program of talks and presentations that took up literally every hour of the fair. In the small, ad hoc Zine World Theater, the fledgling Art Book Review, cofounded by Andrew Berardini and Sarah Williams, hosted artists and writers expounding on the art books that have proved formative to their practices. “It really is great here,” said Anna Moschovakis, a poet and editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. “The space is so open, it just feels less hierarchical than New York.” Despite the lateral divide, all camps were indeed operating under the same roof, collectively representing the full gamut of what an art book can be.

On Sunday, about forty or so people sat in another makeshift theater on the Geffen’s mezzanine. n+1 senior editor Christopher Glazek took the microphone and greeted the crowd. “Hello. How many people here have student-loan debt?” A uniform show of hands. “Okay, now how many people here are in default on their student loan debt?” A slightly less uniform show of hands.

“Great! You’re in good company.”

Left: Sarah Williams, cofounder of the Art Book Review. Right: Werkplaats Typografie director Anja Wittels inside Werkplaats's “Books on Air” reading room.

Glazek and artist Sean Monahan were presenting their tragicomic pamphlet Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Loan Debt, available online as a free PDF download. (The savvy young audience were invited to follow along on their smartphones.) “Our original intent was not to create a satire,” Glazek read from the introduction, “just to map the possibilities for broke postgrads interested in taking a more adversarial approach to dealing with their student debt.” Words like “presentation” and “primer,” however, cast such a wide semantic net that, from the start, the audience’s expectations of being treated to either a performance, a practical workshop, or some heady mix of the two were all nervously cohabitating in a zone of approximates. The theater itself had turned into one of Barthes’s lexias— “the best possible space in which we can observe meanings”—and reactions were diverse, to say the least. By the third or fourth slide, which suggested pleading disability by cutting off a leg or foot because it’s “more visually striking” than cutting off a hand and “potentially more persuasive to a judge,” some people were still waiting for a viable plan of action.

“But isn’t there a statute of limitations on student-loan debt?” interjected a woman at the back.

“Oh no,” Monahan piped in. “In fact, there are debtors in their seventies and eighties who are getting their Social Security checks garnished in order to pay back student loans.”

The woman sat back down and silently regarded her limbs.

“It strikes a very unusual tone,” Glazek later said of the pamphlet.

Left: LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch. Right: Sean Monahan (left) and n+1 senior editor Christopher Glazek (middle).

That tone continued to nag throughout the day, which ended with a conversation, titled “Art between the Cracks,” featuring Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer and e-flux’s Anton Vidokle. The mezzanine theater was SRO, and people lined up against the walls and sat on the floor to hear the pair pontificate on the dangers of what they termed the “professionalization” of art education. “For most people now,” Lotringer said, “the moment they step into an art school they are dead, their life is over.” Then, unwittingly bringing the day full circle: “They will spend the rest of their life reimbursing the debt and that’s it.”

In an attempt to keep things from ending on a sour note, Vidokle praised the fair as a kind of informal education. “This is a really interesting gathering of people,” he argued, “because making artist books is so often a zero-sum game. Being at this art book fair has been more interesting for me than many of the art fairs I’ve been to over the last few years. There are things here that are alive, you know? Not just replicas of things that were once alive.”

Lotringer nodded emphatically. We all leaned forward, waiting for him to elaborate, hoping to close out the weekend with some gnomic summary of what it all meant. “Yes,” he said. “There is still some love somewhere for something.”

Left: Anton Vidokle in conversation with Sylvère Lotringer. Right: Artist Adam Villacin at his table in Zine World.