Reclaiming the Means of Production: Self-Publishing in the 21st Century

Book Review

  • NO-ISBN: on self-publishing

  • Edited by Bernhard Cella, Leo Findeisen and Agnes Blaha
  • 506 pages, 497 color illustrations
  • Published by Walther König, Cologne, 2016
  • $35
  • The Newsstand

  • By Lele Saveri
  • 352 pages, 32 color and 256 b/w illustrations
  • Published by Skira Rizzoli, New York, 2016
  • $45
  • Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art

  • Edited by Sara Martinetti and Leontine Coelewij
  • 600 pages
  • Published by Walther König, Cologne, 2016
  • $59.95

Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair is a wildly popular event and it is just one of more than 40 artist’s book fairs that take place around the world every year.1 “When we began the fair [in 2006],” then-director AA Bronson explains, “we were highly aware of representing all the various forms of art publishing in the field: mainstream publishers, academic presses, art distribution companies, art magazines, small independent publishing companies.”2 In its first years, the fair had 70 exhibitors and some 3,000 visitors; by 2014 participation had ballooned to 350 exhibitors and more than 35,000 visitors.3 Despite the rise of online publications, blogs and PDF distribution options, artists and publishers continue to produce printed books, particularly zines (DIY publications cheaply made in multiple, usually by photocopier) and print-on-demand publications; art book fairs continue to display them, and visitors continue to buy them. Recently, a number of museum exhibitions have given critical attention to this phenomenon, its history and present, as do three important new books out this year— NO-ISBN: on self-publishing, The Newsstand and Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art.

NO-ISBN is a small but dense volume that traces the history of printed books and pamphlets from Gutenberg to the current self-publishing boom. Arriving sealed in a printed blue wrapper, the book cannot be thumbed through without a reader’s first ripping open the wrapper and being immediately forced into tactile engagement with disposable materials and the idea of the book’s status as an object. (The cover repeats the design of the paper wrapper but with trompe l’œil wear and tear.) Edited by sculptor and installation artist Bernhard Cella, media theorist Leo Findeisen and art historian Agnes Blaha, the book includes an illustrated catalogue of artists’ books and zines as well as essays by artists and theorists, including Sylvie Boulanger, Gilbert & George and Kenneth Goldsmith. Woven through these is a conversation between editors Cella and Findeisen that discusses the origins of the “No-ISBN” project in Cella’s Salon für Kunstbuch—a space founded in Vienna in 2007 for the consideration of books and book culture more generally.4 “I noticed,” Cella says, “that hidden in the mass of artists’ books is a subgroup of sorts; an amazing amount are published without an ISBN.”5 These include punk zines such as Raymond Pettibon’s Cars, TV, Rockets, H-Bomb—you name it (1985); somber books like Andrew Blackley’s 2008 Nuit und Niebla, which is built from online translations of the closing lines of Alain Resnais’ 1955 Holocaust documentary Night and Fog; as well as design-oriented projects such as Scott Massey’s freemag zines subtitled, “A mixed up Zine about nothing at all” (2008 and 2009).6

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  1. Bernhard Cella and Moritz Küng, “Actually it is quite simple: A book is a book. Artists are people and people make books,” in NO-ISBN: on self-publishing (Cologne: Walther König, 2016), 209. []
  2. AA Bronson, “On the community and politics of Self-Publishing,” in The Newsstand (New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2016), 51. To preserve this breadth, Max Schumann, Printed Matter’s current director, supplemented the standard fee-paying fair booths with a “Friendly Fire” section where exhibitor tables are free. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Gabrielle Cram, “NO-ISBN—The An-Archive as Subject,” in NO-ISBN, 259–260; Leo Findeisen and Bernhard Cella, “…more real than art—The Art of Assembling,” in NO-ISBN, 82–3. []
  5. Ibid., Findeisen and Cella, 82. []
  6. Register of books in NO-ISBN collection, in NO-ISBN, 11, 27, 24. []