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Futures and Pasts

In classic cottage industry-style, there is a box on our kitchen table containing 150 copies of ATOMANOTES by Liliane Lijn, which launches today at Maggs Gallery, London W1.

As described in a previous post, ATOMANOTES continues a conversation that Liliane Lijn started in 1968 (long before I began Piece of Paper Press sixteen years ago, at the tail end of the last recession in 1994).

Each of the 25 titles I’ve published since 1994 has been made by hand. Which means that at some point either the artist or the writer that I’m working with on a particular title, or myself, or both of us, will have had to sit down with 150 sheets of printed A4 paper, fold each one three times, staple it and, finally, trim the upper and right-hand edges to make a 16-page book. This usually comes at the end of a conversation and a process that can last anything up to a couple of years.

The bit with the stapler and the Stanley knife is important not because it affords opportunities for craftspersonship (which the project has always broadly eschewed), but because Piece of Paper Press was intended to be cheap, sustainable and — in some ways — the least one could do to make a book; if that makes sense. Each edition costs as much or as little to print as the going rate for 150 double-sided photocopies, plus a small amount of labour, which has never been contracted out or bought in. The artist’s or writer’s contributions are impossible to cost. The format was designed so that it would not need funding to continue and could survive with virtually no infrastructure. Continuing this ethos the books are always given away free so don’t have to pay their way and don’t generate more than the most minimal amount of admin. Any other way and I have a feeling that the project would have collapsed years ago. Who would have the time? The flipside in these days of infinite digital ubiquity is obvious: producing something this ephemeral in such relatively small quantities seems to go against the grain.

But just because discussions about developments-in and the future-of publishing concentrate almost exclusively upon developments in technology (ebooks, ipads, google, blah blah — all of which, of course, as a writer, I am having to try and get to grips with) doesn’t mean that this is the only possible future. It is a banality to reflect that the illusion of continuous technological progress is just that; the same can be said of economic growth. So what other futures might publishing have? And what if those futures look more like the past?

A recent conference and publication out of the University of Wisconsin documents and explores one such future, which is happening now. The ‘Cartonera‘ phenomenon first emerged in Argentina during the economic crisis around the turn of the century, and has since spread across the South American continent.

A newish book, Akademia Cartonera: A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers, Academic Articles, Cartonera Publications Catalog and Bibliography (edited by Ksenija Bilbija and Paloma Celis Carbajal) was published to accompany the conference. In her opening essay, Johanna Kunin describes the emergence of the movement very succinctly as follows:

Eloísa Cartonera, in Argentina, was the pioneering project of cartonera publishers, created and promoted by a young writer and two visual artists in 2003, less than two years after the Argentine economic collapse that caused urban cardboard-pickers (cartoneros) to become a symbol of the suddenly increased poverty rates and urban marginality and vulnerability levels.

Cardboard is purchased from cardboard-pickers at a price higher than the value that cardboard-pickers usually receive on the market. That cardboard is then used as book covers, which are decorated with colorful stencil techniques by youngsters; inside, the photocopied pages of the books are hand-bound containing stories and poems. Acknowledged Argentine and Latin American authors grant permission for the publishing house to edit their books without asking for benefits. This has given great visibility to the project. In addition, by publishing the texts of young avant-garde Latin American writers, Eloísa Cartonera also provides a means of expression for authors who would otherwise struggle to have their voices heard. All the books are sold at an affordable price and thus promote “democratic” access to Latin American literature and to reading in general.

There are various online resources about the Cartonera that I’ve been discovering by browsing around the University of Wisconsin site. Best of all is the Latin American Cartonera Publishers Database, an introduction to which reads:

The Cartonera publishing phenomenon began in Buenos Aires in 2003 and was spearheaded by writers and artists interested in reconfiguring the conditions in which literary art is produced and consumed. They came up with a progressive new publishing model that challenges and contests the neo-liberal political and economic hegemony.

The database contains reproductions of scores of Cartonera publishers’ handpainted cardboard covers, including this one which is reproduced on the database homepage.

I shall be looking more closely at the scene in future posts, as I think it is truly visionary and one of the most interesting and exciting things to happen in either literature or publishing in recent years; to my mind a far more vital and forward-looking development than the iPad, for example.

But maybe I would say that because for the past 16 years once or twice a year I’ve sat down for a morning or an afternoon with a pile of printed A4 paper, a stapler and a Stanley knife. With me more often than not will have been an artist or a writer who will have spent a year or more producing a literary or graphic work that is suitable for a 16 page, A7 book. A few cups of tea and some conversation form the backdrop to a task that is a by definition repetitive, but which is also very social and above all is simple and functional.

This week, that occasional half-day of stapling and trimming has resulted in 150 finished copies of Liliane Lijn’s ATOMANOTES, a work which has had a longer gestation than any other I’ve published; 42 years. We’re giving most of the print run away tonight. Remaining copies will go to the scientists whose replies to Liliane’s questions comprise the bulk of the text, and to past contributors to Piece of Paper Press. I’m sorry to say that no ebook version is available. Liliane has posted an animated preview of a near final draft on her website, but it must be said that this is a poor substitute for the real thing; ephemeral though that may be.

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