Artist, curator, healer, and writer AA Bronson is the executive director of New York’s Printed Matter and the NY Art Book Fair. This year, the third annual fair, at Phillips de Pury, runs October 24–26, coinciding with the ARLIS/NY Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference, which takes place October 23–26. Here Bronson talks about artists’ books and the purview of the fair and conference.
BECAUSE THE NY ART BOOK FAIR is a nonprofit fair, our idea from the beginning was to be as inclusive as possible: We wanted to include everything from Taschen to the independent, poverty-stricken artist. We gave out a lot of free stands to people who couldn’t afford them, and charged as little as possible. This year, there are quite a number of antiquarian or vintage book sellers; there are DAP and RAM, both major art distributors; there are a number of small publishers from all over the world; there are quite a few alternative institutions that have publishing programs; smaller nonprofit spaces; and also independent artists and artist groups—people like Red 76 from Portland, for example. If we could find another category that wasn’t being represented, we’d make every effort to jam it in.
This year, there are 143 exhibitors; it was 123 last year and 70 the year before, which means it’s now double the first year. A number of things have happened simultaneously to make the field more salient. One is that book and art-book designers have been influenced a great deal by artists’ books, so we’re getting used to seeing mainstream catalogues that are quite unusual. The format of the book has become much looser over the past five to ten years. But more than that, I think there’s been a generational shift. For example, here at Printed Matter, two-thirds of the people who shop are under thirty-five. The norm at book fairs is that everyone’s over fifty—when you go to a book fair and look around, it’s all old people. When you come to the NY Art Book Fair, you see a huge population of young people. I think that bodes very well for the publishing and art worlds in general. But it also says something about young people themselves—they have a level of interest in books that nobody was quite aware of before.
New York used to be a center for art books, but over the years we’ve lost a number of great bookstores: Wittenborn, which used to be across from the Whitney; Jaap Reitman, which was a great bookstore in SoHo in its day; Hacker Art Books on Fifty-seventh Street—we don’t have any of the great bookstores of the world now. We have the shop at MoMA, where the number of titles has decreased; the shop at the Whitney, which is pretty sad; and the shop at the New Museum, which is very pretty, but it has nowhere near as many titles as it used to. We felt we needed to resituate New York on the map as a center for art books.
In Los Angeles in 2005, there was an ARLIS conference on artists’ books. We sent a person from Printed Matter, and she came back and said it’s ridiculous—you have to drive everywhere, and it’s totally inconvenient, and yet the conference was a huge success. LA isn’t exactly a center for art librarians, so we thought we should be doing that here in New York. She pulled together a group of librarians from MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library, and we chatted about this possibility. At a certain point, we forgot about it, but in the meantime those librarians kept talking, and suddenly it reemerged, and they came back to us again and said, “OK, now we’re ready. Will you join us?” We agreed, and off it went.
The initial group of four began inviting other librarians—one from the Metropolitan, one from the CICP, etc.—to join a steering group. Each one then devised a session. It’s put together in a funny patchwork sort of way. Printed Matter’s proposal was for the keynote, which is Hans Ulrich Obrist talking with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Joseph Grigley. Somehow it’s become a coherent program; librarians are a pretty collaborative group, so it cooked well.
The explosion of the visual zine in recent years has been amazing. It’s possible to produce them cheaply, in smallish quantities, without it costing an arm and a leg—and people buy them. This year at the fair we’re doing an exhibition of queer zines. It’s the biggest exhibition component we’ve taken on in the three years of the fair, and we’ve produced a 270-page catalog to accompany it. There are over one hundred titles in the show, and the catalog is very inclusive. There’s also a special section of queer-zine exhibitors—it’s sort of the theme of this year’s fair. I think the popularity of queer zines may have something to do with Butt magazine; Butt proved it was possible to do something that situated itself midway between being obscure and being mainstream; it also proved that there was an audience that would buy something like that. It’s interesting how many there are: Kaiserin from Paris, Dik Fagazine from Warsaw, Piss Zine from Milan, Kink from Madrid, Handbook from San Francisco (one of my favorites), and then of course all the New York ones—Pinups and Pin-Up, Straight to Hell—and then individual artists' zines, like Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Shoot. It’s become a big field.
What artists are doing today is prompting us to revise our thoughts on what’s been done in the past. For example, the output of Ed Sanders’s Fuck You press on the Lower East Side, which involved quite a number of artists (Andy Warhol did one of the covers; Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts is its most famous edition), has been totally overlooked as an artists’ publication. Because we’re used to looking at the Ed Ruschas and Bruce Naumans, there’s a lot of material that hasn’t received historical attention. Today, we’re revising the history of artist publications; what is happening right now is extremely diverse, it’s no longer a single field.