An Alternative History of Publishing
Distribution, the Network, and what art book and zine publishing means to me
Much of this lecture owes it’s content to Alessandro Ludovico’s Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1894, specifically chapters 2 and 6. I say this to acknowledge the work that came before me on these histories, and to acknowledge that moment where there are no footnotes it is because it comes from this book.
A single sheet, hand-painted only on one side in the style of an illuminated manuscript. The text is subordinate to the image, and occasionally there was no text at all. Often the text was not all in Latin, but in the vernacular of the area in which this object of learning was spread. The format is akin to the more contemporary form of the comic book in its inextricable relationship between image and its ability to communicate. This is the Biblia pauperum or the Pauper’s Bible. These sheets which eventually moved to woodcut and then movable type printing, were made specifically to help educate the mostly illiterate churchgoers and to bridge stories from the New and Old Testaments. I want to start our conversation of alternative publishing here. Although one could also argue for an alternative publishing that starts with the Gutenberg Press. But by beginning with the pauperum we can argue that alternative publishing, which is really alternative distribution of printed matter (here used loosely) came before mass publishing, and is not truly beholden to it. And while I do not have much in the way of possible alternative forms of publishing in Ancient China, the advent of paper, moveable type, woodcut printing, paper money, and paper as a form of knowledge distribution can all be traced there. For example, Wang Chen’s Nong Shu is considered one of the first mass produced books and was done with woodblock printing in 1297. So while the ways we understand this history of alternative publishing may be quite western centric, the actual technologies have their origin outside of the west. By beginning our history as far back as we can go an understanding that printed matter in all its forms as a technology is one of the backbones of that history begins to take shape. While we may be thinking about alternative publishing outside of the mainstream it is also inextricable from it, and instrumental to the way in which the west came to be.
Moving from the Biblia pauperum into Gutenberg’s invention for mass producing books, pamphlets, ephemera, etc., which was not so much new, but rather a synthesization and improvement of previous technologies such as now oil based inks, a way to mass produce moveable type, and the machine which brought it all together. Even with all this in mind he was actually unsuccessful in his lifetime and prone to financial troubles, but slowly his invention would change the fabric of European society. With this invention Europe saw changes in everything from mass communication and literacy to religion and new forms of nationalism. It led to the Protestant Reformation and the practice of self-salvation, the removal of Latin as the dominant Lingua Franca in favor of a rise in vernacular languages, and has been a necessary tool in many radical movements ever since. While the technologies all change and proliferate, and we shift away from the original printing press it is with Gutenberg we find the technological turning point in the West which propels our discussion forward and one could argue is the “beginning of self-publishing”.1
Before we speak of artists its necessary to say that it was primarily radical movements which took up the revolutionary possibility of mass distribution of ideas through the printed form in our alternative publishing history. In the mid-17th century you have the Ranters, a group spread throughout England with no central leader, who were viewed by the church as heretical. They were against the authority of the Church as well as the general government, followed Mosaic Law (the law of Moses comprising the first five books of the Hebrew bible) and held "that a believer is free from all traditional restraints, that sin is a product only of the imagination, and that private ownership of property is wrong.”2 Integral to their ability to spread their ideas in spite of suppression and backlash was the distribution of pamphlets and acts of self-publishing which allowed them to disseminate their ideas in a way that made it difficult to remove. It’s easy to find and eliminate a handful of pamphlets or books outlining ideas, it’s much more difficult to find a whole print run of pamphlets distributed within a decentralized network. There were also the pamphlet sponsorships of the French Revolution where printers would subsidize printing costs for revolutionary pamphleteers. And both the French and American revolutions saw massive amounts of self-publishing occur before—and even supplement and bolster the ideas of—the events themselves. Originally distributed anonymously, the most famous example of these effects would probably be found in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Then again in the early 20th century these technologies would augment and inspire the Mexican and Russian Revolutions.
Another important example of self-publishing at the end of the 18th century is William Blake who wrote, printed, and hand colored many of his own works, which still endure today. Other notable artists who went through alternative routes to publish their own work were Jane Austen who had to pay to have Sense and Sensibility published, Walt Whitman who designed and published his first edition of Leaves of Grass, and a couple decades after this you have Marcel Proust pay to publish Swann’s Way after rejection, and Virginia Woolf and her husband founded Hogarth Press to self-publish her own and others works, with many of the first being printed by hand.3
Beginning in the early 20th century we start to see artistic movements pop up which incorporate publishing and printing as important companions to their artworks as well as artworks in their own right. It is in these early art movements that acts of publishing as well as distribution of information as a component of art begin to form, contributing to the shifts in our understanding of art and its roles in society that would continue to shift throughout the 20th century. Yet through all of those shifts, the printed form in general and publishing specifically stay important. I would also argue that it is precisely this form of making, the book, the poster, the pamphlet, that has bolstered the entirety of 20th century western art, and helped mold it into what it is today. Without the integration that occurred between the artists and the public through these distribution models built up in print we would not have a lot of the work that is now present in our canon. That is to say, publication’s relationship to writing helped create networks of thought that laid the conceptual groundwork for art as we theorize it still today.
One of the earliest modernist artworks that take the form of the book is Stephane Mallarmé’s Le Livre or The Book which was never finished and wasn’t published in its original French until 1957. The best way to understand it is in Mallarmé’s own words which he sent in a letter to Paul Verlaine, “[B]ut I am possessed by it and I will succeed perhaps — not in producing this work in its entirety … but to show a fragment of it completed, to make its glorious authenticity flicker from one position, indicating the totality of the rest for which a life is not enough” Within Le Livre we find an artwork whose intersections occur between production costs, how it would have been performed, experimental poetry, typographical curiosities, audience considerations, etc. While a bit beyond the scope perhaps of what is to be discussed here, as work it links for me performance, poetry, publishing, and the book form itself.
From here we follow a few of the usual players of early 20th century modernism. Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, all interconnected and incestuous, and all linked by an engagement with publishing and printing as forms of information distribution and artistic experimentation. First and foremost all of these movements invested and believed heavily in the publishing of manifestos. This practice has since become a staple of artistic practices, not just radical ones. While we wouldn’t see a more committed integration and articulation of art and life as intertwined until closer to the 50s and 60s, the seeds of that engagement were born in the avant-garde of the early 20th century, and most explicitly within their publishing efforts.
Beginning with Futurism, the artist Filippo Marinetti was one of the major forces, and was involved in many of their experimental publishing efforts, primarily typographical and design experimentation. That isn’t to say it was solely within the realm of the page that experimentation happened. An interesting note on Marinetti is a distribution action Marinetti took in 1910 where he climbed the Clock Tower in Venice and dropped leaflets upon the city denouncing its romanticist tendencies. He was also the editor-in-chief of both Poesia in 1905 at the beginning of Futurism and then Lacerba in 1914 which championed typographic experiments, and as an example we can specifically look at Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà. He would later be an important contributor to the Futurist journal L’Italia Futurista which among other content published photographs from their Teatro Sintetico Futurista (Futurist Synthetic Theatre) performances (another relationship between the printed page and performance). However, some of the Futurists would come to endorse Fascism and fascist tendencies, which would go on to taint its image and appeal for many, including other members. Many socialists, anarchists, and communists who were involved with Futurism walked out in opposition to Marinetti and the fascism he represented at the Milan Futurist Congress in 1924. Another important “Futurist” artist was Valentine De Saint Point who not only opposed Marinetti and his misogynistic rhetoric (pushing him even to shift his language later and declare her “Director of Female Action” which she later spurned stating she was no Futurist) but wrote both the Manifesto of the Futurist Woman as well as the Futurist Manifesto of Lust which in the latter she writes, “Lust is a virtue that urges one on, a hearth at which one revives one’s strength.” She also pioneered what she called Metadance which pulled from cinema, moved in 1924 from France to Egypt and protested war and colonialism in Cairo, and would later establish a review named Le Phoenix which sought to consolidate Christian and Islamic beliefs through art which was later shut down due to pressure from the French and British Intelligence services.4
Partially parallel to Futurism you had Dada, whose publishing efforts can be seen and have been described contemporarily as early precursors to zines. Dada’s publications were often ephemeral and short lived, and challenged the conventions of mainstream publishing through their designs and distributions models. In their time they produced journals in Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, and Tbilisi. Once again we see many sympathetic printers play a role by assisting Dada in getting around censorship and funding issues to facilitate their self-publishing efforts. Dada were also early proponents of the manifesto, and their playful use of language and typography was a stark contrast to Futurism while still operating in the avant-garde vein of breaking from norms and preconceived formats. Dada was against anything established, solidified, conventional, and/or sensical. For them nonsense and play were the ultimate tools to work not only against these artistic conventions, but the meaningless Great War and what they saw as a march towards meaningless violence and massive death. And their influence more than many other movements is still present today, although primarily this came through in the rediscovery of Duchamp’s work by artists in the 1950s which led to Neo-Dada movements and Conceptual Art which contributed not only to the contemporary understanding of art book practices and forms, but to the way we talk about art at all.
Perhaps the most well known and celebrated of the three of these groups is Surrealism. La Revolution Surrealiste edited by Andre Breton and published from 1924-29’s first issue mimicked the cover of the well known magazine La Nature in order to trick readers into accidental engagements with the publication. And as Surrealism grew in popularity we saw in 1929-30 the publication of the journal Documents by Georges Bataille, which in its more extreme approach went against this popular Surrealism later pushed by Breton in the journal Minotaure. What all of the Surrealist work in print had in common, however, was the simultaneous push against print convention while reflecting those conventions back out. I’m keeping my discussion of Surrealism short, but include it to point to the consistency with which early avant-garde movements engagements with publishing, writing, and book making had when it came to what it could accomplish.
Since the late 19th and early 20th century the possibilities of economic publishing with artistic engagement has grown beyond just the letterpress these early avant-garde movements were fond of. There was also the mimeograph a compact and early form of the photocopier that used a stencil much like the risograph which is much more common today. The mimeograph’s early use was primarily by Radical leftist movements. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) went so far as to declare it their unionized printing facility. When exiled, Leon Trotsky used the machine to print his Byulleten Oppositzi a political “zine” which allowed him to spread information in opposition to Stalin and in support of the oppositional left. Alternatively, one of the most wide known examples in the United States was the Science Fiction fanzine, where we derive the name zine today (the first use of the word is apparently 1965ish). Beatitude the first Beat Movement zine was also printed this way.
In the U.S.S.R. (most prominently in Poland and Czechoslovakia) there was a movement called Samizdat which was an underground press distributing dissident literature and other banned materials. The mimeograph was part of this process, but when unable to access the machine (it was banned or hard to come by in many places in the U.S.S.R.) they also used typewriting and handwriting to make the copies. Usually no more than a few copies—usually around 5—at a time, and if you received a copy you were then expected to make more. The mimeograph’s accessibility, portability, and ease of use for the average consumer allowed for some of the first major strains of alternative publishing to flourish in a way that wasn’t specifically associated with an established art movement or artists proper. Differing not only in distribution networks but in content and most importantly quality. The fanzine and Samizdat are two sides of that coin, and their influences can still be seen quite clearly in contemporary self-publishing and alternative print culture.
In the late 50s and early 60s the Fluxus movement began to grow all over the world, following in the footsteps of Dada, and incorporating far more kinds of printed matter as a necessary component. There were multiple Fluxus publishing houses, the most famous being Something Else Press started by Dick Higgins; a work by Genpei Akasegawa in which he printed 1000 Yen banknote replicas and was subsequently arrested for forgery, after which he created 0 Yen banknotes in response; the Fluxus Newspaper which primarily were anthologies but were experimental in their own right—Issue 4 included tear out posters for the Fluxus Symphony Orchestra and was distributed by sending bundles of the paper to different Fluxus members who would then distribute it, parallel to the European Mail-Order Fluxshop in Amsterdam; from 1965-1971 Phyllis Johnson published Aspen which was a multimedia magazine which included not only printed material, but it came in a box and could include phonograph recordings, booklets, postcards, and even once included a reel of Super 8 film; and most importantly perhaps there was the Eternal Network initiated by Robert Filliou and George Brecht, one of the first conceptual models of the network in the art world and an important conceptual framework when thinking about the networks we engage with every day and how to work against, within, and around them.
Parallel to the Eternal Network, the Underground Press Syndicate was formed by multiple counterculture newspapers and magazines, as well as the Liberation News Service which saw western leftists and third world liberation forces come together to distribute information around the globe, creating a real sense of a global initiative full of like-minded people. Around the same time Stewart Brand started The Whole Earth Catalog which presented access to tools and resources that could allow someone to live differently than one previously thought possible and functioned as a catalogue that included maps, professional journals, courses, specialized utensils, early synthesizers, etc. And important to note by 1969 every sizable city or college town had at least one underground newspaper, although many were gone by ’73. Often alternative publishing formats, groups, publications do not last long but it is not in a long lasting practice that their quality or importance comes, but rather in their long lasting influence and transformative potentials.
Beyond the letterpress and mimeograph you also have offset printing, Xerox, risograph, laser printing, digital forms, etc. The least accessible of all of these is probably offset printing, but offset is arguably the most cost-effective and versatile. And there are some small presses which have offset printing available such as Fata Morgana Press in Chicago and Outlandish Press in Cleveland. When you encounter printed matter out in the world more often than not it is Offset printed due to the medium’s high quality which it owes to being an industrial version of lithography printing. The highly psychedelic San Francisco Oracle owed its early success to the versatility of cheaper offset printing. Founded in 1966 by Allen Cohen it specialized in that psychedelia style of the 60s. This was about a decade after the founding of the Greenwich Village Voice founded in 1955 in a two-bedroom apartment in New York. And Art-Rite, an alternative art magazine publishing sporadically in the 70s was offset printed on newsprint (according to Printed Matter.) Although Art-Rite also incorporated other modes especially on the covers, with one designed by Pat Steir who required that a triplet of roses be printed in three different colors through the use of a potato. These magazines were mostly distributed freely around New York and were in direct opposition aesthetically and morally to the glossy art mags that ran the scene. That is to say offset is not itself inherently glossy, high quality, and mechanically alienating.
If we’re thinking of cheaper options we move to the Xerox and we get closer to what you are probably familiar with when it comes to zine culture and alternative publishing. The ragged, computer paper, flat inked, photocopied object that comes to us from friends, shows, and random local shops. What you maybe made when you were younger and discovering zines. The early punk scene utilized this cheap form of mass printing to distribute all manner of information, content, ideas, and politics. Here we really see the purposeful integration and intertwining of politics and art within the zine format. Where before it seemed as if you were either avant-garde art, Samizdat, or fanzines (this being an absolute simplification of the three forms) here you had it all coming together, hastily made, batshit, offensive, and concise. One of the best known was Maximumrocknroll who among many other things distributed Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life which shared resources for small punk bands to know where to play, where they could get a free bed, and where to get cheap food for when they went around touring. Within zine culture which really started to take off in the 80s you had review zines like Fact Sheet Five which found and reviewed as many zines as they could to let people know what there was, and gave addresses to send away to buy one. Again the network here is crucial for both of these zine examples. Both the feminist and queer movements of the 90s and their intersection with Punk manifested in many a project circling around these concerns. The Grrrl Zine Network which grew out of Riot Grrrl creating distribution networks, workshops for zine and music making, and a plethora of zines and groups. In Canada you had a queer core movement where one of its most famous products was the artist Scott Treleaven’s pagan, queer, occult zine This is the Salivation Army in the 90s that he made with a small group of friends, and would go on to be distributed globally by Treleaven through copy shops and the mail service. When I heard him give a talk a few years ago, the importance of the connections that came through this odd fucked up group of zines was monumental to him.
There were independent zine distributors, and by 1997 there were about 50,000 zines (supposedly) in circulation. And while with the rise of the internet and blog culture many zines just crumbled, moved to the internet, or the natural life of it had gone, we continue to see a prevalence of these alternative forms of distribution. Whether through internet connections, zine fairs, small independent book stores, or random websites. Even if you only look so far as the Chicago Art Book Fair you still see a diverse plethora of small presses and small time artists doing some amazing work that gets distributed in these alternate networks we build for ourselves. In the shadow of COVID, economic uncertainties, mass evictions, climate crisis, and societal unrest, it seems more necessary than ever to have our networks which more than distribution provide support.
By no means has this been a comprehensive history of what we could call alternative publishing, but before I end I want to return to the 19th century for a brief moment, and then look at some contemporary small presses and publications. In the 1830s many radical publishers in England could not afford the exorbitant stamp bonds and duties necessary to distribute their work, so they created alternative networks of printers and distributors, and created a fund for when people were arrested for selling these illegal “unstamped” newspapers. While these costs would later be reduced to discourage bootlegging and greater freedom press, it also led to greater punitive reach by the law. Much like Samizdat and mirroring the Trade Unionists in Pre World War II America, it is often necessary to take alternative networks into our own hands in order to create venues and streams for the kind of content we want to see in the world. This continued and continues whether it be The Whole Earth Catalog, Punti Rossi in Italy in the 70s reacting to political upheaval and the necessity of underground publishing,the Grrrl Zine Network, Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life, or Zine Mercado in Chicago building alternative zine festival spaces. Even during COVID with the impossibility of in person zine fairs those organizers find alternatives, whether it be virtual book fairs with virtual programming such as the Brooklyn Art Book Fair and Printed Matter Art Book Fairs, or even Bound: Art Book and Zine Fair which in lieu of a virtual fair transitioned to a mail catalog based system.
The communities that grow up around zines and these book fairs is vast. And the bar for entry is incredibly (and quite importantly) low. Printed Matter has a list of book fairs on their website, and my friend and founder of Genderfail Be Oakley compiled a list of small press publishers for the class they teach on publications. This list includes: small presses and self-publishers such as Txtbooks, The Bettys (who made their own art book fair), Endless Editions, Half Letter Press, Raw Meat Collective, Homie House Press, Colorama, Terminal Ediciones, Walls Divide Press, and Perfectly Acceptable Press; semi-institutional publishers including Sternberg press, Draw Down Books, Triple Canopy, Other Forms, Verso Books, and I would add Onomotapee; there is a section for those who use publishing as a practice such as Queer Archive Work, Press Press, Facadomy, and Visual AIDS; those that operate as curatorial spaces including Wendy’s Subway, the Free Black Women’s Library, Public Fictions, Center for Book Arts, and PAL or the Philipinx American Library; and those who use publishing for the dissemination of information including Decolonize This Place, W.A.G.E., Indigenous Action Media, NYC Trans Oral History, The Black School, and The HIV Howler.
My own small contribution to this archive of names would include Shelf Shelf which is made up of two recent undergrad students from SAIC, Nomadic Bookshelf which is a small art book distributor specializing in photography, Nearness Project which is an online website based publication project, and Work2Day which is an instagram account dedicated to showing artwork by contemporary artists. Another recent phenomenon has been the use of Instagram as a primary space for comic distribution including the work of Simon.Hanselmann, Htmlflowers, Reweki, and avocado_ibuprofen.
To sum up in any meaningful way all of these disparate names, practices, presses, and works that are encompassed in these lists is pretty much impossible. Especially in the time I have. I would recommend only that you pick out the ones that catch your interest and dig a little. If there was anything I would wanna say right now is that all of these presses, publishers, artists exist within an interconnected network placed atop the internet but extending beyond it. A network that creates opportunities, collaborations, and support for each person involved. To engage with this world of alternative publishing is to understand the network as paramount. The radical collectivity that comes from this world of printed matter and publishing is indispensable to creative, political, politically creative, and creatively political projects alike. By beginning with the Biblia Pauperum and ending with this vast network of creatives I hope that a certain history of alternative publishing predicated on the distribution of information and ideas comes through and illuminates all of the possibilities inherent within this magical space of radical creation.
Ludovico, Alessandro. Post-digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1894. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2012. p 32