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Why has there been such a boom in art book fairs?

The last weekend of January will bring us the LA Art Book Fair, which itself is an outgrowth of the NY Art Books Fair, both organized by Printed Matter. These are just two of the many annual art book fairs held around the world, which seem to multiply every year. Why are art book fairs so popular?

In an article at the Aperture website, Yannick Bouillis, director of the art book fair Offprint Paris, suggests that art books provide a kind of refuge for artists:

Although artists have less and less control of how their work is sold and exhibited [today], they can maintain their independence through publishing.

It seems obvious that artists and curators are pressured to fulfill the objectives of governments and cities, and that demanding galleries are no longer able to stand up for young artists in a market that is subject to global capitalism. In other words, when it comes to art nowadays, government and companies speak first. Somewhere between soft-power strategies, economic policies, and the luxury market, art no longer seems able to speak its own name.

In this context, publishing seems to offer an authentic, autonomous space within the art community. Books and other publishing artifacts such as magazines, posters, and tapes are—in comparison to artworks—relatively free from public and market concerns.

Is Bouillis onto something? Is this the primary reason art books fair have become so popular, or are other factors at play?

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I think this is spot on. It provides for a quasi-autonomous space in which the parameters of the possibilities for production, formerly attributed (or at least connected) to the white-cube format, are condensed into the form of a book. This is also furthered by the formal qualities a book provides for: as combined platform for reflection, documentation and production/publication, mirroring the constellation of qualities in the post-conceptual age.

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Are you suggesting a popularity based on the number of publishers wanting to participate? In terms of institutional programming? Or measured by footfall to the fairs?

In this quote you’ve used from Bouillis he is talking about the popularity of publishing among artists, not so much the popularity of art book fairs… Shouldn’t a question about popularity and art books address the audience – the wider publics – rather than the motivation of the artists? Or are you indicating that within communities of art publishing they are often one and the same? Swapping as much as we sell…

The popularity on the part of artist-publishers to take part in these fairs might not only be due to a growth in such publishing, but rather the continued lack of other places to distribute their work. The increase in fairs may simply reflect that it has become increasingly difficult, and a novelty, that anyone but big businesses can have any kind of purchase on the architecture of the cities they take place in. The number of publishing fairs in London might be a response to the closure of independent bookshops resulting from the property bubble…

It’s nice to think of fairs as a space which an art community that positions itself as oppositional to the status quo of the art world can gather (‘Find Comrades!’ – Breton via Eva Weinmeyer, Spector Books, 2014). It may be true that publishing can be a space for artists to produce and distribute work independently from the gallery system and certain institutional demands. But publishing has long been a part of expanded arts practice and art publishing is defined by being embedded within the art world (no?), and so to a certain extent has always supported and provided a certain intellectual kudos to the system and the status quo, as much as, or even if it opposed it. These fairs themselves tend to take place in institutions – MoMA, Tate, ICA…

Considering this embeddedness, what does it mean to claim that it is a space that is ‘relatively free from public and market concerns’? Please let’s be mindful of celebrating activity that ends up being the preserve of the young, not only because they are radical (or young), but because it is unsustainable. And that a publication offered for free or low cost to a connoisseur is not necessarily a denial of the luxury market, but can be a form of marketing, or a niche form of collecting in itself. For many artists involved in publishing their activity operates in a sympathetic relation to the art market, not distinct or at odds with it (Other Criteria! Maurizio Cattelan!). In what way can it be really said that ‘governments speak first’? Perhaps now only now through their lack of support at all? The public sphere in the UK is diminished by false austerity measures, public funding for the arts reduced and reduced. Surely capital, unregulated by government is the driving and limiting force of the art market? If we are talking about publishing – making publics – can we please try and unpick what a public concern might be, and might limit, as differentiated from an art market one?

Not that I don’t want what Bouillis says to be true. I want more art publishers to mean more dissenting voices within the art world. I don’t want more publishing to simply indicate acceleration.

35,000 people visited the Printed Matter New York Art Book fair last year.
In the UK, where visitor numbers are a large part of how public funding is accounted, this is itself may account for the increased institutional programming of these fairs…

But perhaps that is to approach the question of popularity back to front?

Who were these people? Do they genuinely represent a new, more democratic market for art? Did they go away empowered and seeking to know more of the alternative approaches to art that these publications offer? Or was it just a day out, a free festival?
With a reported 350 booksellers, antiquarians, artists, institutions and independent publishers at a fair, are the crowds the sign of a growing audience for work that is oppositional towards the art market, or is it simply that there was something for everyone, whatever their politics?

Perhaps I am picking holes. I don’t want to dwell too much on the sincerity or not of the political aims of growing number of art publishers. Perhaps the aim of dissemination – that publishers will sit for hours in an airless room in the heat of late September New York, sell only enough to cover their flights if they are lucky, but do so in order to expand their readership outwards beyond a closed art community does indeed signify a wish for not only a different way of working but a different conception of what it is to put art work into the world.

Printed Matter has always done important work supporting and disseminating under represented artists and subjectivities. A market has been established in the US for artists publishing, which in turn it helps sustain as an alternative. Bouillis inclusion of the exhibition ‘Disarming Design from Palestine’ as part of Offprint in Paris last year likewise suggests a politics to the publishing he supports.

Can the question be changed? Not – why are art book fairs so popular? But instead – what might we be able to do with them when they are?

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