Artist and writer Max Guy spoke with artist Paige Landesberg about the intersection of visual art, the written word, self-publishing, the art market, public institutions, and other platforms through which creative work circulates. Landesberg is the author of 5 books, most recently Artwork vs. The work of artists: Reimagining Creative Work, all of which are available online at Printed Matter. Support for this interview is provided by Common Field’s Field Grant Program.
Max Guy: You originally wrote Artwork vs. The work of artists: Reimagining Creative Work as your thesis paper at SAIC. What if anything changed about the text when you published it?
Paige Landesberg: This was always going to be an artist book. I graduated from SAIC with a dual degree in Studio Art and Visual and Critical Studies. The Visual and Critical Studies program requires students to produce a written thesis before graduating. I’d say ninety-nine percent of the students choose to do a traditional thesis project, say a fifty-plus page essay. I think that irked me from the beginning, because not only do I not have a desire to write a fifty-page essay but I also don’t think that anyone cares to read one. Critical writing in academia has such a small audience and critical essay text is very scary to interact with for a lot of people, including myself. I always feel a little daunted when I’m confronted with a really challenging dense text.
As someone whose practice is rooted in both critical writing and in studio practice, it was important to me to use my own visual language to make this material more interactive, more approachable, and more generative, and to dismantle this overly esoteric academic writing style. Beyond that, from a very straightforward place, I wanted it to be distributable, to be able to hand it out to people and for them to be interested. This is a way that artists can claim space without having to be granted permission; a platform to circulate ideas, to really easily distribute things and to use visual language to dismantle the hierarchy of text over image. So in this book, and in all my books, I think text and the design or the imagery hold equal importance to the larger idea. Neither one is prioritized.
Max: What about your education necessitated the publishing of Artwork vs. The work of artists?
Paige: Both the book and the thesis were rooted in this question that I had toward my peers’ approach that really frustrated me. I don’t think that art school is teaching artists to question where and why their work is in the world. Oftentimes, when a student is showing their work, it’s assumed that there will be a gallery space for it to exist in, or that there will be a place for people to see this artwork and people will care about it. My publishing was rooted in a desire to talk about the cultural work that artists are doing. Where do and don’t we see it, and where else could we see it? Ultimately, I want people to be having conversations about the limitations or the constraints of working within art world institutions, even though obviously there are benefits to working in them. What are some artists and organizations doing to try and move beyond that set of constraints, and actually think about the knowledge-sets that artists have? The expertise of an artist is something much bigger, more abstract, and rooted in a desire for discourse around cultural and critical ideas. And so I challenged myself to devote a part of the book to revealing the constraints of the art industry.
This book came out of my dissatisfaction with my education and my feeling that it was fucked up that everything about being an artist relies on these institutions, including schools! As I wrote in the book, the only reason I’m able to do this project is because of my access to these institutions, which is only an illustration of this insular, vicious cycle, where we’re not able to get out of this dependency on the industry in order to have a role in society.
Max: Your essay does not specifically address cognitive capital, but while interdisciplinary work may not find itself back in the art world, what do you make of it landing in other microcosms, say, an academic-industrial complex? If not SAIC, what if it is Northwestern, and Caroline Woolard–one of your case studies–is then presenting these projects at a university or a liberal arts school, where that same interdisciplinary model will be implemented (exploited)?
Paige: I mean, I think that’s a good thing. To be clear: I don’t condemn artists who exclusively work in the art world. I talk about this in the book, for someone such as Caroline Woolard, what makes the work successful is that she is able to operate, and her work translates into so many different spheres. She’s able to work with a housing co-op and also work at SVA and all of these different spheres; different types of universities, but also with low-income communities that have nothing to do with higher education, but also at the New Museum. I think that my role as an artist is to be a translator, that I’m really working with language, and if I’m doing a good job then I’m sending a message that then can be translated to another group of people in a way that’s relevant to them.
Max: A portion of Artwork vs. The work of artists is dedicated to institutional support and categorizes them in two lists – support by art world institutions and institutions outside of the art world. Some of the institutions seem very easy to distinguish, others seemed to blur the line. You have Eyebeam, in the communities outside of the art world. You include MIT Press, which publishes books on artists, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as institutions outside of the art world.
Paige: I guess these are organizations exclusively devoted to supporting the visual art world and these are institutions that are in some capacity involved in the cultural sphere, but also have a larger audience as well that is not necessarily in the visual arts. I would consider Eyebeam to be a tech organization. Not to say they don’t work with art, as they obviously do, but they have a separate audience as well.
Max: I’m also wondering about the private institutions that have come to mimic museums as resources. For a private foundation, as an example, that comes to hosting exhibitions and providing for artists.
Paige: That’s a perfect example of this tension. Let’s talk about this hypothetical space: great, I am happy that those places exist. I am happy that there are wealthy people that want to exhibit their artwork, share their art with the world, and pay artists to make art! I’m not against that as a practice and I’m not going to say, “Fuck wealthy people that just want to show off their art!” Because it’s better there than it is in their personal at home gallery. That’s great. But there does become a whole set of problems presented with that model. Primarily, that those become the group of people that have the most power in the art world because they have money and space to show artwork. They become the de-facto writers of the art-historical narrative. What they choose to exhibit is a reflection of their value set, their priorities, their purchasing, and their taste. This is a form of monopoly over the industry, where artists, whether consciously or not, become – not to sound overly dramatic – reactionary to the industry as if it were any generic industry; because it is, and we forget sometimes.
As in other industries, the demand dictates the supply, which eliminates space for diversity and for nuanced types of work. The whole MFA phenomena is another example of this, right? The fact that all artists nowadays need to have an MFA in order to surpass a certain threshold in the art world, and go through those programs which are all taught somewhat similarly. It’s a homogenizing agent in the industry, it creates a barrier and dictates what work is “good” and who can participate as a player. Certain people write the script and certain people don’t. I am suggesting a way to reintroduce diverse and nuanced work by a variety of artists, through alternative modes rather than continuing to do so in the same standardized processes.
Max: What questions developed for you, after publishing this book? Was anything left unanswered?
Paige: While doing this project, I developed a really strong anxiety about suggesting solutions to a problem – which I’m not trying to do. I chose case studies that I thought were are interesting or experimental models worth talking about, but those models can be problematized in a hundred other ways. So I don’t believe there is a true solution, and it was really hard to write for that reason; I could talk to anyone about the project and they would have a million ways of asking, “Well what about this thing? What about when you see this in the world?” I can’t cover it all. It’s this enormous conversation that I’ve opened. I hoped to present it as a set of paradoxes, which feels harder to do when you’re actually writing. When you’re writing it feels more like you’re speaking a truth than when you’re painting and things are left much more abstract or subjective. I tried as much as possible to present this as a set of ideas in tension with one another that I believe people should be talking about or thinking about, as opposed to creating a binary between the art world and the rest of the world.
Something that I really didn’t deal with, which I am still learning the answer to, is the difference between not-for-profit and for-profit art spaces, specifically between galleries and museums. Even though museums are not for profit, they have a board, whose requests and desires they are responding to. Once, I was hired to work on a project for a museum that existed in a large part to make the board happy and make them look good. It was a historic museum project that featured a lot of board members. Working on that project, I learned firsthand that even non-profit museums, nothing can go past the director of the museum if it’s at all controversial to the board’s desires. If it even might offend or contradict something that another board member wants, it’s vetoed because the board members pay for the whole museum to run. In a sense, it still faces the same operating problems of, for instance, for-profit gallery spaces. I’m still learning about the technicalities of different types of art spaces, what they offer and what they lack.
Max: How did you begin publishing?
Paige: My background for most of the time I was at SAIC was in sculpture. I was doing a bunch of metalworking, in particular, some woodworking and casting. It was mostly concept-driven work. The audience for conceptual sculpture is pretty small, to begin with and the places where it could exist in the world are few. It’s alienating to a lot of people, and there’s a very, very low chance of anyone buying it. Because even if they like it, do they have space [for it] in their house? Can they afford to pay me enough that I would actually be able to pay for what it costs to make the thing?
I got really excited about printmaking in particular because it was like, “Awesome! I can make 200 prints and sell them each for 15 bucks.” People understand what a print is, and you know what people understand more than they understand prints? Books. Even if they don’t care about what it’s about, they don’t see it and feel alienated. It’s a totally ubiquitous object. You know what you’re supposed to do when you see one. I love that about books. I think that being in the Visual and Critical Studies program at the school is what inspired me to not just create image-based prints but to actually think about how can I communicate these ideas that I’m using in writing through printmaking in a way that I can actually distribute. Making artist books was the answer for me.
Max: One of your books, The Value of Art, functions as “bootleg” of sorts. Can you talk about your approach to design and designing all of your publications?
Paige: The text from The Value of Art, was taken from a book that was originally published by a bank on the topic of how to manage your wealth when making art purchases of over ten thousand dollars. I took all of the text from that book published by a bank and redesigned it, queered it a bit, and printed it as my own artwork. I approach design as an opportunity to bring curiosity and play into the project. This book is also a perfect example of that because the text was written professionally by the bank, and my choice to use that text comes from a place of criticality, but the design is very ridiculous! I super-enlarge some of the text, I mess up the colors in the research charts, some text gets flipped backward, and some images are overlapping one another. Those decisions are all that a designer might call “bad design choices,” but I embrace crude amateur design methodology, again, as a way of combating an overly academic approach and creating a tension between the place of elite, serious culture and a more generative, ridiculous, for no reason, playful, culture.
Max: What is your approach to editing and copyediting self-published works? Works that straddle the line between zine and small-press.
Paige: Artwork vs. The Work of Artists has a more traditional research editorial writing approach than my other books, and I’ve illustrated and designed around the text. I approach my other books differently, but in all of them, I’m really conscious of how much text is on each page. The amount of time a person spends on each page should be really thoughtful, I would almost never give two full pages of text next to each other if it’s all important to absorb because I don’t think that you can hold someone’s attention for that long. The way the text moves is very visual. In other books, my own voice is not as present in the text. For instance, the book, The Value of Art, in which all of the text is appropriated from a wealth management book, the relationship with written language was very much aesthetic. It was like, “How can I change the way this text looks in order to give hints to the viewer that there’s something not quite normal about this document and or maybe this document isn’t quite as serious as it presents itself?” Because all of the text is actual information on financial investing. So it’s a very dry, serious text. My relationship with that is just visual.
In another book titled Propositions, in which all of the text was collected from a survey that I distributed online, I took the first 10 responses to each question and edited them slightly to become prompts or propositions rather than responses. The whole book is an accidental conversation between 10 anonymous people on these 10 subjects, and in a sense, the voices of the individuals are fully preserved. I don’t necessarily endorse any of the opinions that are expressed in that book, it’s a bunch of anonymous voices together. I also have a photo book which has pretty much no text at all in it.
Max: So in a way Artwork vs. The work of artists is unique, in that the text is “your own.”
Paige: Definitely. Artwork vs. The work of artists takes a less abstract position on its subject and attempts to present the reader with the information and tools to come out with their own perspective. I try to preserve a level of openness for the reader to decide for themselves at the end. Again, by saying in the conclusion that I’m not presenting truths or solutions but rather tools for discourse. The other books are a bit more conceptual in their delivery and much more open. I would like to do more or more books like Artwork vs. The work of artists in the future, it was just such an incredibly demanding project that took really an entire year from the start of the research to the production, even with so much help! I’m waiting for the time and money to make another book with that of rigor. But yeah, the other ones are different; each one has a different relationship to text from another.
Max: Where do you print your books?
Paige: I print them in different places, which has actually been a great thing about bookmaking. So that book was printed at SAIC, but the other ones have all been printed in various places and I reprinted most of them for the Chicago Art Book Fair. When I was preparing, I was in L.A. and had to find various people to work with. I ended up finding Heavy Gel which is an awesome screen printing studio in L.A… And so these accidental collaborations and communities are built on always finding more places to make work. Every book utilizes a different mode of print, which means every book is printed somewhere different.
Max: You mentioned publishing digitally and it seems that in order to get your ideas out, PDF or E-books would actually be a very useful for wide distribution. But it also seems publishing can ground you in certain communities.
Paige: I have most of my publications available online as full-length readable PDFs on Issuu. I’m also trying to navigate this dilemma of wanting my books to be in bookstores, but the model of consignment is such that it’s incredibly unprofitable. It’s like, negatively profitable. So I’ve had to sell a ton of books before I can make even a hundred dollars and I don’t really have the resources to make enormous edition sizes. I don’t have that many books, to begin with, so this is the dilemma, right? You want to be in bookstores because you want to get the wide audience. But you have to make a choice, do you want your books to be profitable? Or do you want them to be widely distributed at the expense of paying yourself? I’m still trying to figure out a sustainable way of dealing with this problematic model of artist book distribution.
Max: Who are other publishers that you’re looking at? Do you take them as examples or inspiration?
Paige: One of my original inspirations for self-publishing has been Temporary Services. I really identify with the content that they write about, they also are working in an idea-based way, through several iterative projects, their publications are really cheap and beautifully designed. As people, they are highly approachable. I was reading their books at the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at SAIC, and one day I went to their website, found their email, and contacted them. Marc Fischer, who is half of Temporary Services responded, “Why don’t you come over to my house and I will show you how the risograph works?” we established a close working relationship early on. He was definitely one of the first people where I was like, “Oh man, I could totally do this”
Max: What other projects are you working on now?
Paige: Right now I’m working on redoing a series of screen-prints. I’m also in conversation with people who might want to sponsor a reprint of the Artwork vs. The work of artists which would be very exciting to do a truly larger edition size maybe, 500 to 1000 copies. And I’m working on writing some articles for The Seen journal, to be published online. I’m not sure yet what the date of publication will be. Other than that, I’m sort of figuring things out right now, but my books are purchasable online at printedmatter.org and also Artbook at MoMA PS 1 and Motto Berlin.