Monday, June 20, 2016

On Subversive Publishing and "The Tongue-Like Organ of a Bee," An Interview with Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press

Founded in 2008, Siglio is an independent press in Los Angeles “committed to various kinds of subversions” and dedicated to publishing uncommon books and editions that live at the intersection of art and literature.

Sig – li – on
1. an inverse to a boundary. 
2. a small, unauthorized marvel as opposed to an ecclesiastically recognized miracle. 
3. the tongue-like organ of a bee. 
4. Obs. a perverse taxonomy, e.g. a wunderkammer
5. Archaic. The third rung on the Medieval Ladder of Awe;
         a. Delecta b. Canmena c. Siglio d. Mirabilius e. Elatoria f. Inefiblio g. Agis.

"The word 'publisher' comes from the Latin publicare 'to make public' but I quite like the German word better—Herausgäber, or as in my female case, Herausgäberin—which has in its roots the act of giving."

SM: In "On the Small and Contrary," you write about Siglio Press as an act of resistance "to the literal, the authoritarian and the facile, as the result of an undeterred ambition to share a work of art that might otherwise remain unseen and unread...". I too often feel dismayed at the flattening effects of mass publishing. Can you tell us a bit more about what it means for Siglio to respond to this climate "one book at a time"?

LP: Siglio belongs to a very vibrant community of small, independent publishing houses that operate outside the mainstream which gives all of us the ability to be idiosyncratic, eccentric even, in our passions as well as our methodologies. It also demands that we are nimble, resourceful, relentlessly inquisitive about how to do things differently—and to very high standards. (There is no lowest common denominator in this alternate universe.)

For Siglio, there is perhaps an even greater degree of idiosyncracy and nimbleness since I actively seek out uncategorizable and unwieldy works. That means the list is eclectic and thus the press has diverse readerships (readers who are interested, say, in John Cage’s chance-operation determined Diary may not be interested in Joe Brainard’s scandalous and funny recontextualizations of the comic strip character Nancy—though there is a small tribe of readers who make the leap from one Siglio book to another). This also means that there is no uniformity of design or format, no significant accumulation of titles in a single genre or category, no single marketing strategy to reapply with every title. I’m breaking the most significant rule of mass publishing simply in my lack of desire to repeat a particular success, but also, I should add, in my trust in “the reader,” her voracious curiosity, her sense of adventure, her own desire to lean into the expanse, into the unknown.

That’s why I am empowered to experiment, to take on the risk and the challenge of advocating for writers and artists I believe in, putting work into world—finding the right form and cultivating an audience for it—that might otherwise be invisible or misread or vastly underappreciated.

From Joe Brainard's Nancy 
SM: In another interview with Artbook you write about the way a book can render a visual artist's work in an entirely new form. How a book honors the artwork while also embodying a resistance against other book forms that diminish a work's scale and vision. Can you tell us a little about the process of making a book at Siglio? Do you often partner with artists whose work is entering book form? Or writers who are pairing their texts with design? Are there many makers who produce both their texts and their images?

LP: Most of the artists and writers I publish create hybrid works in which the literary and the visual are absolutely inextricable, but that manifests in extremely different ways. For instance, the artist-poet Robert Seydel created “journal pages” authored by his alter ego Ruth Greisman in A Picture is Always a Book. These are luminescent and startlingly original writings—typed up on paper purloined from old photo albums, adorned with drawings in colored pencils, oil pens, white-out, and ink stamps. If transcribed and typeset (i.e. removed from their physical context), they are still powerful, but their object-ness, the evidence of the “hand” imbues them with further layers of emotional complexity and aesthetic magnetism.

Compare this to the photo-narrative works of French artist Sophie Calle. Her provocative  investigations (calling all the people listed in a stranger’s lost address book in The Address Book, or furtively following a man to Venice in Suite Vénitienne) unfold in linear, classically typeset text paired with photographs that seem to document or surveil but also point to the inscrutable, the oblique, the poetic. Calle’s work is an entirely different species from Dorothy Iannone’s exuberantly sexual and joyfully transgressive autobiographical writings which she weaves into brightly colored, super-graphic, über-embellished ink drawings in You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My FriendsThen there is Karen Green’s Bough Down, an unusual and haunting narrative constructed of crystalline fragments of prose interspersed with her miniature collages. Made not to illustrate the words but as a parallel process of invocation and erasure, each collage—and the creative act of making it—evinces her reassembly of life in the face of devastating loss. The text without the images (and vice-versa) is utterly incomplete.

There are also artists like Joe Brainard, Jess and Richard Kraft who incorporate text, poetic nonsense and narrative suggestion in their collages of appropriated material (particularly comics). Or Ray Johnson, a collage and mail-art artist, who played with language, the form of the letter, and the means of dissemination and distribution. Most recently, I published a collection of artworks by the armless (and legless) 29-inch tall 18th century artist Matthias Buchinger. His gorgeous portraits, coats of arms and landscapes are composed of texts so tiny as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. In other words the drawings are literally made of language.

These are writers and artists who are working far beyond the boundaries of either the literary or visual arts and instead inhabit the often indescribable space between them, inviting readers to read and to look in very unusual ways. Many are also acutely aware of the particular opportunities the medium of the book affords them—not as a transparent container, but as space that—with precise decisions about materiality, design and reproduction—shapes the reader’s (very intimate) experience of their work. 

Detail from Matthias Buchinger

SM: Siglio books “challenge the reader to engage in multiple, diverse, and perhaps unfamiliar modes of reading.” But most of the experimental texts these days still inhabit objects that work two-dimensionally (though there is clearly an argument for the way that book is always a three-dimensional experience). For me, many of the books from Siglio seem to be leaning towards a three-dimensional reading process. I’m thinking of Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen, in particular. I wonder what you think about the way a text has to shift in consideration of forms that prompt the viewer to approach the reading process differently, and perhaps more spatially? Do you think text that inhabits a new spatial form necessarily needs to be briefer or fragmented?

LPSpatial dimensionality is the raison d’etre of Between Page and Screen which is an “augmented reality” reading experience. On each printed page, there is a very simple, elegant geometric design—no words at all. When you open the book in front of your computer screen, your camera reads the code, in effect unlocking words which now appear floating above the pages of the open book in your hands: you see yourself reading a text (a series of love letters between P and S) which is animate, responsive, mutating and—simultaneously—there and not there. There’s no other Siglio title like it.

From Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen

And yet, every Siglio book asks the reader to read in quite a different way, sometimes approaching the page itself as a field that defies left to right, top to bottom (as in Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera or Jess’s collage poems). Sometimes the reader is confronted with empty space, a kind of reverberating silence (as in Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women). Or the reader is asked to turn the book, to read along the edges (as in Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake). There is stunning variety in the formal choices about how text and image hold the page and accumulate into pages of a book: it all depends on the substance and concerns of each particular work. 

In a kind of antithesis to brevity and fragmentation, Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L is a single, unbroken paragraph over almost 160 pages. Danielle and I collaborated on the design and typography, thinking quite a bit about the white space (wide margins and leading) so that we could infuse the reading experience with a seeming evenness and relentlessness of sprawl itself. It is a very playful, very innovative work that, with different typesetting and layout, would conjure a quite different experience for the reader.

SMHere’s maybe a longer question. I had a conversation with book artist Julie Chen back in 2013 about the way art books might only be accessed by a select audience. I asked Chen: 

Where, in an ideal world, would an audience encounter your work? What about the argument that few people encounter an artist's book in their lives? Are the book arts then not a form dedicated to the masses?”
She responded, of course, with a question: 
“Why is a limited edition perceived as being inaccessible when there are a number of copies available for viewing (as opposed to other types of art such as painting and sculpture where there is only one)?” 
And then an answer: 
“While I do want my work to be experienced by as many people as possible, it is intended to be an intimate experience between the reader and the book. The technical complexity of what I am doing, and my belief that the materials, media and structure of the piece all contribute significantly to the experience of the reader, along with the content, means that my production is generally necessarily limited to relatively small editions. But I do feel that they are very accessible by art standards.”

This seems a conversation that is hanging around fine art in general these days, but I wonder how you think it applies to Siglio books and to reaching a modern audience with very few copies? Where, in an ideal world, would an audience get to know Siglio books?

LP: Siglio books are widely available as Siglio’s got fantastic distribution from Artbook/D.A.P. They’re in independent, museum and gallery bookshops, in specialty retailers (like curated design shops and the like), from online retailers (better to go to Powell’s and The Strand than Amazon—don’t get me started), or even better, directly from the source. As an enticement, I give a little gift when anyone purchases a book directly from Siglio—the latest edition of “Siglio Ephemera”—because these sales are critical to the survival of the press.

Julie, as an artist making hand-made books, is challenging the assumption that “the book” as a medium presupposes wide dissemination, but I am publisher publishing books for which dissemination is key. (The word “publisher” comes from the Latin publicare “to make public” but I quite like the German word better—Herausgäber, or as in my female case, Herausgäberin—which has in its roots the act of giving). These are quite different endeavors.

My mission is to cultivate the widest and most diverse audience possible for each title and that requires engaging with all of the mechanisms that make that possible—less expensive offset printing coupled with high production values so that the book is both beautiful and relatively affordable; active distribution and good communication with booksellers so that it’s not only broadly available but also has a small legion of advocates on the front lines; and a marketing strategy based on inspiring substantive reviews so that readers not only know that the book exists but are intrigued by the conversation surrounding it.

In other words, I want to make it as easy as possible for a reader to find out about the book and want to experience it for herself, buy it without looking to hard for it, and be utterly thrilled to have it in hand. 

In an ideal world, I’d just hope for a few more readers.

SM: In tracing the history of books that partner text and images, I often point to illuminated manuscripts, dictionaries and almanacs, concrete poetry, and flux kits. I’ve really enjoyed discovering other book forms like Forrers Reallexicon and My Book House through your work. Are there other lesser-known examples you can bring to our attention?

LPWell, I love all of the things you love! That gamut from illuminated manuscripts to Fluxus publications has influenced me greatly. On the latter front, Dick Higgins and Something Else Press figures very large, particularly with regards to his ideas about “intermedia” and his way of rethinking the space of the book while using mass production techniques. Hansjörg Mayer publications also have had an impact. And I love Wallace Berman’s Semina which has directly inspired the Siglio Ephemera series, particularly in giving it as a little gift.

Really the entire Siglio list is an attempt to fill in the blanks and extend that lineage. Several books are reclamation projects of sorts—the compendiums of works by Dorothy Iannone, Ray Johnson, Joe Brainard, and Jess, the complete Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage, and certainly Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women. Others are about introducing completely unknown writers and artists to a potential readership. I’ve published (and co-published) three books by Robert Seydel whose completely hybrid work in part inspired me to start Siglio. When The Paris Review wrote last year that “Book of Ruth is one of the great avant-garde novels of the twenty-first century,” that was a pretty satisfying moment.

Details from It Is Almost That

It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers mirrors the macrocosmic impulses of the press in one book. I started with a deep commitment to Charlotte Salomon’s work which I knew would have to be a cornerstone. A vastly underappreciated and little known artist, Salomon completed her magnum opus Life? Or Theater? A Songplay at the age of twenty-six just a few months before she died in Auschwitz. This is a truly extraordinary work—a multi-layered visual novel composed of almost 800 goauche drawings, some with vellum overlays of text, others with the texts painted in. It tells a multi-generational story (from multiple points of view) about a Jewish family during the Weimar Republic and during the rise of the Nazis. It’s been relegated to “Holocaust” art, dismissed as “illustration,” sometimes compared with Anne Frank’s diary for its autobiographical nature, but it is a mature, wholly innovative, highly complex work of real genius. Both English editions are long out of print, and I basically used my entire rights budget for It Is Almost That to pay for one chapter (and that’s after they gave me a 90% discount!). I think it’s one of the most important works of art and literature of the 20th century.

I’m planning to start something online (maybe Instagram) about books I love, books I perhaps wish I had published, books I’ll never part with. I can tell you a few of those I’ll include early on: Annette Messager’s Word for Word, Tom Phillips’s A Humument, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and of course several books published by Christine Burgin whom I admire tremendously—Robert Walser’s Microscripts, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, and Zoe Beloff’s The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle.

From A Humument

SM: I've also learned a lot about visual works from exploring the feminist portal that Siglio hosts along with It Is Almost That. Is there a correlation that you have found between feminist art & writing and experimental texts? Can you point us to a few in the portal that are your favorites?

LPThanks for noticing (and delving into) the feminist portal which is really the brainchild of a former (and amazing) Siglio intern Googie Karrass. Our intention has been to create a sprawling, inclusive space that promotes heterodoxy, embraces contradiction and repetition, injects a little chaos and points in multiple (and ever-multiplying) directions. It absolutely resists any impulse to be authoritative or definitive. Though It Is Almost That was necessarily curated, it also proceeded from a resistance to certain ways of conceptualizing and categorizing work, particularly by women. Instead, I thought a lot about the ways in which the works conversed with one another, bristled against each other, augmented and refuted each other.

Eileen Myles said in her review of It Is Almost That: “Because the frame is image+text, we’re reminded that all of us generally do more. Female artists don’t just stay in their disciplines; we experience, we forage, we play. Intuitively and practically speaking, It Is Almost That is, in effect, a handbook. It, by presenting female art history, shows us how to be an artist.” I think embedded here is the answer to your question—hybridity, experimentation, process are, if not essentially female, then perhaps essential to a way of working that breaks with traditional (read: male) categories and methodologies.

SM: Thanks very much, Lisa.

Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio press.

Sarah Minor runs the Visual Essayists series here at Essay Daily. 

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