Rags We Love #2: The Best of the 2011 NY Art Book Fair

At first glance, Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair at PS1 struck me as a tented coming-of-age party for upstart indie press and zine culture, complete with of all the spoils: buttons, bundled numbered issues, punkish rock music, and mustachioed collaborators. There were tables lined with handsewn, painted, carved, matchstick, recycled, peel-out artwork. Just around the corner, there were “art world” publishers with slick monographs and glass cases full of inky preserves. The variety in presentation alone was enough to spend a day navigating sensory details without touching a thing. Few of the booths provided expository text, and as a result, much of the journey was exquisite yet impossible to retain. As I wandered from a lacy magazine rack of Japanese Femzines to the clean, subversive Bookmobile, up and down catalog listings—all the while surrounded by mystifying radical axioms like Autonomedia’s “Substructing the Planetary Work Machine”—I felt as if my brain had caught fire .

There were a few exhibitors that, even in the thick of things, piqued my interest.  Many offered bold solutions to problems of money, access, and the art world.  Some re-imagined and re-contextualized the book form itself. Others simply made funny stuff commenting on making funny stuff. These stuck with me, indelible.  This is my own custom catalogue—the best of what I saw.  And in the spirit of DIY, all photos in this piece were taken by Cluster Mag staff smartphones!

The Present Group call themselves an art subscription service. Co-founder Oliver Wise explained to me that their mission, in part, is “exploring new models to support contemporary artists.” Somehow, The Present Group has figured out how to deliver exciting contemporary multimedia art directly from three selected artists to anyone, in return for a low yearly subscription fee. In doing so, he told me, they’ve managed to work around many problems with the production and distribution of art: the distance between artists and their audiences, the often unnecessary presence of collectors and other middlemen, and—perhaps most elusive—the difficulty of getting artists paid. Wise positioned this goal, of sustaining driven artists, very close to the beating heart of The Present Group: “More and more, [artists] are expected to put their work out there for free, and there’s sort of no light at the end of the tunnel. You get exposure and exposure and there’s no point where you end up getting paid.”

The Present Group also hosts artists’ websites. Like subscribers do for artwork, the Group’s artists pay a yearly fee for hosting services. A quarter of that fee goes to The Present Group’s artist grant fund, which awards $1,000 to a San-Francisco-based artist nominated and selected by the same artists who contributed to the grant.

Accessibility seems to be the general watchword for the Group, which not only sends its subscribers artwork, but also seeks to provide a sense of the artistic context and vision within which that artwork was born. This goes hand-in-hand with the promise that The Group makes to its artists, offering assistance and support from the very genesis of their work. Looking at the artist samples on display, it was clear that the love the Group seemed to be putting into the project was coming out tenfold.

For Wise and The Present Group, things should be gifted because they are meaningful and need to be shared, but also because giving is its own process of creation. Wise stood in front of an exhibition table supporting a box and baggies full of tags that read “I want you to have this.” The display was the Group’s Issue 17 by Steve Lambert, an interactive artwork that encourages hanging the tags on items in your home that you might be done with and then giving them away. It’s a beautiful concept: every day is art Christmas.

By the time I found the Badlands Unlimited booth, after hours of sensory and intellectual assault, I could barely stand up. They were positioned in a corner of a small room on the top exhibition floor at PS1, but I was immediately drawn to the sheer, tricked-out bravado of their booth.

For one thing, there were screens everywhere and a sign that said “We accept Bitcoins”—for a moment I forgot I was at a book fair. Otherwise, the Badlands table looked like many others: bright hardbacks, books of poetry, and single-edition collage magazines—but there were also iPads and a Kindle and garbled digital languages. Every book or e-book published by Badlands is inspired by, interacting with, or created for digital media platforms. Creator Ian Cheng, whose graphic e-book Spring Break is available for iPhone or iPad, told me, “We like to say we make books in the extended field. We find that the e-book, while it won’t replace paper books, has been under-explored because of its novelty… The e-books that are out there are basically direct scans or translations of the physical books, but we want to understand what the e-book could be in-and-of itself.”

For example, Badlands sells a three-dimensional e-book, Mans in the Mirrors, that they claim was influenced by Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle—and mescaline. It was created for platforms like the iPad not only because there it can utilize the digital touch interface as a playground for spooky and hallucinatory free-association mechanics, but also to experiment with a visual third dimension that dances the ‘book’ entirely away from the print medium. Mans in Mirrors is all about images that the eye snags on when in a hypnogenic state. Just as Michaux’s drawings beckoned readers to delve into the unconscious, the strange, and the subterranean, the collaborative team at Badlands has pooled these art world conceits into a virtual microtour—an entirely new way of seeing beyond the liminal.

Perhaps one of the best things about these titles all being offered in e-book format is that Badlands has furnished a pricing overhaul in which art objects and books are affordable again. With this expansive vision and its comprehensively novel business model, Badlands is exploding the form — not to create a dialogue with new media, but to dump this existing one-way dialogue into an echo chamber.

Badlands is exploring digital forms on every level. Paul Chan has evolved the textual font to a whole new form that creates a codified phrasework. He said to me, “I’ve been making fonts for over ten years… with my fonts, when you type a letter, you don’t get a letter. You get a phrase.” He showed me a font that he created called Oh Doctor Ebing. The sentence preceding this one, when typed in Oh Doctor Ebing, reads as follows:

He said, “I’d like to think that when you’re typing [in] this font… you’re saying what you want to say anyway. Because I have 21 of these, and they’re all more or less sexually-based forms.” Some of his fonts are available for download here.

Chan’s experiments with the word neatly parallel what Badlands Unlimited is doing with the book: it’s not just revision, but also a wrangling with the fundamental thing — an engineering feat.

All the sweet caustic wonders of Retard Riot belong to Noah Lyon. His collection is a cabinet of pithy twisted funhouse images, many of which comment on consumerism, commercialization, pop culture, the state of the nation, everything sucking, and so on. The text in his work is as depictive as his images are — scrolling, punching, slapping, slipping, curling, and doing just about every other thing a cartoon does. His books operate primarily in the vernacular of parody. Taking in his table as a cohesive vision, it was easy to see just how deeply this comic point of view penetrates his process.

There are layers and layers and layers of joke embedded in Lyon’s stuff. When describing his books, for example, he writes, “Retard Riot books are published by trolls on acid-free paper that is unfriendly to the environment.” There is also mention of the Keebler elves.

The question seems to remain, what is Retard Riot? Lyon showed me some of his buttons, like “ANGRY MIDGET GRANDPA,” and “DUMB SHIT MAKES MONEY.” He said, “I like words. I like pictures. I hate stuff. I have a lot of problems. I make a lot of stuff that I’m like…’Surely nobody will buy that,’ but people do anyway.”

Lyon told me about being a punk rock 13-year-old and starting to draw these things and make tapes. He kept breaking tape machines. This led to Retard Riot radio, which led to the RR ‘zine in 1999. “It really all comes from music,” he leveled with me, “and I’m just trying to illustrate it most of the time.”

His drawings are very auditory, and though they definitely fit within the genre of the ‘goofy doodle,’ they’re often quite complex.

One of his most emblematic images is a mashup drawing of Ronald McDonald and Hitler entitled 32 Unhappy Meals, and at last year’s Art Book Fair, a tiled wall of that very same Hitler McDonald served as the backdrop for his exhibition table. Lyon defines himself by this aesthetic of illustrated t-shirts, low-brow buttons screaming “I’M FARTING RIGHT NOW” and “FAKE BAND,” his self-produced music and DIY-as-fuck palm-sized zines. It all reeks of alternateen spirit. Stranded in the sea of high-minded, self-proclaimed “art books” that dominate the Art Book Fair, it reassured me just to know that some people are still having fun.

Thanks to The Present Group, Badlands Unlimited, and Retard Riot for taking the time to speak with us.