Editorial: Three Letter Words, September 2014

Tan-bed orange; hand on hip; head turned towards the camera; lips parted in a sneer. Small pert white breasts and a thick white line show where briefs and bra and suncream have covered. Neither naked nor nude, but powerful without clothes. Her right hand, clasped to her waist, spells a ‘W’, her left hand clasps an double-ended dildo. The same hue as her slim, muscular torso, the dildo is both inserted into and protrudes from her pubis. She wields it.

This is self-publishing. This is the vanity press. This is expanded practice.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Lynda Benglis’ Artforum advert. The story goes that Robert Pincus-Witten was reviewing Benglis’s work in the November 1974 issue and the editor refused to include this image, so Benglis took distribution into her own hands. Parodying the ‘art star system’ and fundraising for the advert by selling T-shirts with the image, she reclaimed her power from the editorial board, from sanctioned critics, and found a place for artistic autonomy in the advertising space and within a gathered public of fans. This gesture, this publication, was a performance in itself, and it’s telling that it seems as contemporary and urgent now, as it did then.

This year would also have been the 10th anniversary of the London ‘self-publishers’ fair Publish and Be Damned. Since the first fair in 2004, which responded to a need for a place that curators and artists working in printed matter could share their work, the scene has changed rapidly, not least because of the opportunities offered by print on demand and other digital platforms. There has been an increase in ‘art book’ and small press fairs in the UK and internationally, with the establishment of Printed Matter’s New York fair demonstrating how a wider public might begin to develop for such projects.  Yet, despite some great overviews and numerous events discussing art publishing, focused critical reflection on individual projects tends to lose out to discussion of artists exhibitions and oeuvres, or stall at an over rehearsed discussion of potentials (‘cheaply produced, democratic multiple…’).

We still sometimes dream of artists’ books in supermarkets and petrol stations. However we don’t want to reflect upon past alternative structures but current and potential ones. We are cynical of the idea of shopping as democracy, nervous of dwelling too much on printed matter when confronted with dilemmas of free online content, and we want to begin to get a handle on what makes for a readership or communal experience, what makes a private or public gesture, and what might count for the oppositional, in relation to publishing practice today.

Benglis’s Artforum ad is brazen, shrugging, fake tan covering any chance of blush and flaunting its complicity. It exposed the editorial workings of the magazine, the manner in which contemporary art circulates, and, as a complex feminist act, its content went beyond mere Institutional Critique. It offers a model for publishing as political statement, artwork and art criticism all at once.

Over the coming few months Three Letter Words will be publishing a number of in-depth essays and interviews, each focusing on specific publishing projects by individual artists, collectives and curators among others. Encompassing online interventions, free papers, spoken word, paperback writing, potlatches, performance, reading groups, photo books, graphic novels, concrete poetry and things in between, these discussions will not attempt to define the nebulous area of ‘art publishing’, but provide a space to expand, interrogate and complicate it.

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Coming soon: Sean Ashton on UR, Charlie Fox on The King of a Rainy Country, Natasha Soobramanien Torpor, and Sasha Archibald on Stacy Hardy’s 52 Niggers.

Image: Lynda Benglis, Artforum t-shirt,  1974, cotton t-shirt with screenprint and airbrushed colouring, printed by Bill Weege at the Jones Road Print Shop. Available at http://books.simsreed.com/catalogues.php?catalog=la2013&stk=41570&catNo=11