Not Fair

I wish I still smoked. I am clicking through tabs at Printed Matter’s Virtual Art Book Fair in a state of bewilderment, wondering why I just don’t get it—people spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to participate in this.

Now in its fifteenth iteration, the fair is the annual fête for artists and writers in the small-press publishing world—the largest of its kind. Under normal circumstances, tens of thousands of visitors gather at MoMA PS1 in Queens over a weekend to buy and sell new and rare artbooks and ephemera from emerging and established voices alike. This year, due to the pandemic, the fair has migrated online. Programming features virtual panels, performances, and talks on subjects relevant to art publishing today, alongside e-commerce booths from publishers, booksellers, magazines, and more.

In theory, it should be a good time. My friends and colleagues show work here. I think many of them are inordinately talented. In practice, I am staring at a screen like I have every day for the past year because our government’s indifference to human life has killed half a million Americans and we can’t hang out in person.

Ah, capitalism—the show must go on! The opening night livestream features a campy soundtrack of jazz. Cacti dance across the page. Bright colors flash; lights sparkle. In the site header, I notice dice. This seems utterly non sequitur: I wonder why I find myself in Vegas when I came to look at books. I have been warned about the panic and anxiety triggered by the book fair from both vendors and visitors, but words only convey so much about the experience until you actually show up.

I click the die, half expecting it to roll across the page. It doesn’t. A new tab opens, which brings me to a randomized exhibitor’s page. I am suddenly transported to the cyberspace of the early aughts in a kind of literary Chatroulette. I click the die again. Someone has set up a playlist on their website in what I can only interpret as a nod to the profile song feature on MySpace. The early-2000s net nostalgia continues on the pages of Wave Books and Wendy’s Subway, where presses are recommended as if they were their “top friends.” In the bottom right corner of each exhibitor’s site, I watch people group-chat under screen names as if we’d logged back onto AOL Instant Messenger. I know these features are earnest attempts to make the fair fun, but they mostly serve to remind me of how alienated we are from one another.

Meanwhile, the die becomes addictive—what if the perfect book comes up next? My gambling prevents me from deeply engaging with any of the content promoted by publishers I might actually like. I migrate to the Exhibitors page, which features a master list of all the vendors, and navigate the fair that way, but I quickly realize that no matter the approach, there is little means of facilitating thoughtful engagement with the books shown here.

Unfortunately, I would call this year’s edition a failed experiment. The fun part of the fair is getting to skim through titles you want to buy but can’t afford and spending time with booksellers, which the very concept of a virtual fair prohibits. Online, we lose our ability to touch and handle things, which makes this capitalist enterprise less palatable, embodied, and humane. Edizione Multicolore attempts to subvert this—they set up a virtual table on their site—but, of course, it’s nothing like the real thing. The annual event at PS1 has inherent problems too, and moving the experience online does not make them any better.

I imagine some alternatives: What if the fair was just a really great party Printed Matter threw once a year with a champagne fountain and trays of pre-rolled joints where the book world got to mix with one another in Las Vegas? Then I remember the reason we are online in the first place—pandemic everlasting—and consider more modest alternatives. Maybe a series of socially distanced Tupperware parties—less exhaustive and more manageably divided by genre? Perhaps a massive catalogue featuring an excerpt of each book in the fair mailed out annually, where one could consider the titles from the comfort of an armchair, clad in a silk robe, sipping Costa Rican coffee? I recognize what I am trying to imagine is the two distinct purposes of the fair—socialization and bookselling—adapted to a format more apt to realize the aims of both, which our present circumstances indefinitely prohibit.

But if you’re looking to throw money around aimlessly, you’re in the right place. One vendor misspeaks (intentionally?) in a long-winded diatribe, referring to his audience as “customers,” then quickly corrects himself—“I mean readers,” which is followed by a knowing laugh. While throwing the die, I come across a title—Almanach Surrealiste du Demi-Siecle—from a rare-book dealer, marked at a cool $3,861. I want to buy Ugly Duckling Presse’s 2020 Pamphlet Series about work, translation, performance, pedagogy, poetics, and publishing, but $150 is more money than I will make writing this article so I add it to my cart but never click “buy.” I wonder how artists and writers, among the most underpaid people I know, are supposed to afford any of this—much less the millions of Americans who are currently in poverty and unemployed.

Graphic from a livestream hosted by Gato Negro Ediciones at the Printed Matter Virtual Art Book Fair
Graphic from a livestream hosted by Gato Negro Ediciones at the Printed Matter Virtual Art Book Fair

The fair prides itself on accessibility—admission is free and the virtual format, in theory, facilitates access to a larger global population. In practice, international publishers still constitute a minority of the fair’s considerable number of exhibitors. There are also logistical constraints that come with presses being spread across the globe. I want to preorder Gato Negro Ediciones’ Salones de Belleza, a collection of writing from the bilingual reading series I used to frequent at the public arts library Aeromoto in Mexico City, but international shipping costs $58.88, while the book itself is only $28. This is not a surprise—I went a year without mail in Mexico because its postal system plainly does not work—but I wonder how Gato Negro’s inability to fly physical materials to America will affect their sales. The same problem materializes when I try to buy from Hambre Hambre Hambre, a (very cool) lesbian publishing initiative out of Chile, when shipping adds another $30 to a zine’s $10 cost.

I scrutinize this claim of accessibility further—to what exactly? Granting free admission to a storefront is hardly philanthropic. The fair’s free public programming is abundant and features storied names in the world of arts and letters (Dodie Bellamy! Anne Waldman!), but the point of a book fair is to traffic books, and these books aren’t cheap to buy or to produce. When I consider the ethos Printed Matter was founded under—the belief that “large-edition and economically produced publications” could allow affordable work to “circulate outside of the mainstream gallery system”—I cannot help but feel that this praxis has taken a wrong turn somewhere: we are situated, more or less, in a very busy gallery, surrounded by some pretty expensive stuff.

Some presses engaged with this economy more critically than others: unsurprisingly, the most disruptive were the young radicals and the gays, heroes of my heart. Press Press offered digital editions of all of their materials free of charge. Queer.Archive.Work sold their new publication, QUEER MATTERS, on a sliding scale—free or trade for queers and people of color and $45 for institutions and others. Other places had sales.

The most fun I had during the five-day affair was being on Zoom calls with my friends—making my way through the poems I am reviewing in the quiet of dispersed holdings’ reading room; learning the history of cruising at Queer.Archive.Work; listening to the graphic artist Paul Soulellis talk at the Center for Book Arts; filling out a New Yorker crossword while Kit, Jeró, León, Andrea, and Robin streamed in the background in casual conversation about how Salones de Belleza came to be. In these moments, no one was trying to sell me anything. I found myself transported elsewhere, away from the slot machines and stylized websites: in community, blessed part of my life that money does not corrupt.

Lauren Stroh is a writer and editor in New Orleans.