Late 90s. Print was probably already dead then. It had taken too many phone calls to find a cheap offsetter. Indie bookstores feared the big boxes cutting in on their Thirdspace. Distributors, bowing to shelving and stocking requirements laid down by the chain store, put limits on the sizes of independent magazines. (This was around the time Metropolis magazine dropped from full tabloid to its current shelf-friendly size.)
Still, I was blissed out on the print shop’s Thomas Paine authenticity. I figured it’d gloss my tracks with a meaning and texture not found with rapid digital printing. The details: the smell of ink, rich and bitter like coffee, the Berkeley Co-op apron worn by the grizzled anarchist, the cranky press he quietly turned, and his punk rock partner’s punctilious manner. I can’t remember if I printed 500 or 1,000 copies. Some sit in a box in the basement. On my last visit home I opened it up: A hundred ochre-covered pamphlets, surprisingly un-yellowed a decade on.
And now? Print is dead, again. As publishing empires collapse, the market bets on journalism’s odds of survival. Consensus says books are a lost cause. Are folks ready to cotton to Kindle? Has twitter killed the blog, the book, and the building? (I ask in a mere 83 characters.)
As go buildings, so go design magazines. This past year saw shelter and trade titles stumble and fold under the double deadweight of slow building starts and curtailed ad revenue. A year after Lehman’s collapse, missing consumer design rag Domino is like missing cotton candy—a vague remembrance of a cavity-inducing indulgence, so sweet at the time.
Indeed, I have to stop myself from falling into the vat of saccharine nostalgia that surrounds the publishing in the grand scheme, architecture publishing, and my own little niche of zinedom. Staple fold reminiscences, no matter how open hearted, tend to lead to a single polar standoff: print versus digital. But dividing publishing into two camps leaves us empty handed. Even the Gray Lady, the New York Times, splits her time between the two realms, pacifying those who stand and read the paper on the subway and those who glean their info online.
Meanwhile a number small architecture and art publications are sneaking into the space between the two modes. They are dependent on both mediums. They rely on social networks and digital technologies for form and content, but ultimately these wee volumes find their way into readers’ hands. For Gary Fogelson, Phil Lubliner and Soner Ön, the Brooklyn-based trio who makes up The Holster, publishing is performative. It calls attention to the act of making, even if that act is really just stapling some laser printed sheets. The collective commissioned sixteen artist to create PDFs, then set up their print-on-demand imprint, Demand & Supply, at zine expos and book fairs. Armed with laptop and printer, they publish in real time, straddling the gap between intimacy and automation.
Ephemera obsessions are de rigueur within certain circles of the contemporary art world. In 2001, the darling Hamburger Eyes established DIY publishing as the go-to format for photogs wanting to capture the grit of everyday life. And galleries/retailers like New York City’s Printer Matter and LA newcomer Ooga Booga curate short run editions into a kind of artistic lifestyle. That architecture should eventually re-embrace self-publishing after years of the book-versus-blog discourse is welcome, if not entirely unsurprising. The discipline is known to be a bit tardy.
Within the field of architecture and ubiquitous computing the Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series was relatively early adopter print-on-demand services, even as design students had been using the technology for one-off books for awhile. The publication is the outcome of a discussion on the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC) mailing list, which then grew into a 2006 symposium at Urban Center and Eyebeam in New York. Unlike the Supply & Demand series, it uses the mainstream online publisher lulu.com as its printer and distributor. PDFs are available for free on the Situated Technologies website, making the decision to read online or in hard copy a personal choice.
I am tempted to call these new publications “zombies,” following Todd Gannon’s assessment (Log, Fall 2008) of Archigram and other sixties practitioners unbuilt work that persists in its influence after facing a critical death. Especially since that groups’ publications provide the emotional, if not intellectual or formal, underpinning of today’s self-publishing efforts. Or as he puts it in the essay, “Return of the Living Dead: Archigram and Architecture’s Monstrous Media:” “In nine and one-half eponymous pamphlets released from 1961 to 1974, Archigram took advantage of the highly reconfigurable space of the printed page to manipulate forms, juxtapose elements, and orchestrate architectural experiments impossible in other media.”
But given that experiments in other media could now be taken to define much of architectural practice, I prefer to call these half-breeds “mutants.” Living between paper and screen, mutants are part of publishing’s evolution, even if a specific characteristic proves too unwieldy to pass on to the next generation. Some mutations are sneaky. As is the loud paper broadsheet, published as half issue, half catalog for the “A Few Zines” show that opened at Studio-X in January 2009. Designer Chris Grimley used the column width of a blog post to organize the page. Without being explicit, the broadsheet triggers digital references.
An iPhone is the mutant appendage needed to read Standpunkte One. Aptly entitled This Will _ This, the first issue features a single essay by John Harwood and Jesse LeCavalier who conceived the pamphlet with graphic designer Guillaume Mojon. (Standpunkte Magazine itself is out of Basel, Switzerland and edited by Reto Geiser and Tilo Richter.) A shiny black cipher, the publication is full of totemic black and white graphics. Yet, a 2D bar code reader app brings the pamphlet to life. Encryption is at the root of this first issue. A scan of the cover graphics takes you to www.thiswill-this.net. Where the editorial statement reads: “You will not to be able to read this, at least not all of it. This is fine with us.” By placing the phone a filter between the web and the printed page, This Will _ This, frustrates the act of reading, but still maintains the need for a book object. It explores, as the editors write, “the thresholds and overlaps between material and immaterial media.”
It is impossible to state that mutant publishing will bring traditional print media back from death’s door. That economic model needs to independently reassemble its DNA. (Then again, it may reanimate quicker than we think. Tina Brown’s online Daily Beast just announced that it is teaming up with Perseus Books Group to create rapid-print paperbacks.) But these mutants—esoteric pamphlets operating at the riff of “material and immaterial media”—show dynamic signs of life and happily elude any nostalgic impulse.