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Gagosian Quarterly

Fall 2021 Issue

Leaders in the Arts:Publishing Edition

We invited Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti, coeditors of the legendary press Semiotext(e), to discuss the current landscape of independent publishing in the arenas of art and theory with two innovators of their choice. They picked Kandis Williams, founder and editor of Cassandra Press—a publishing and educational platform that produces readers, artist’s books, and a series of classroom sessions with leading theorists and Black scholars—and Lisa Pearson, founder and editor of Siglio Press, which concentrates on the intersection of literature and art, with a feminist and experimental ethos.

Semiotext(e): New Series, 2014, installation view, Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Bill Orcutt

Semiotext(e): New Series, 2014, installation view, Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Bill Orcutt

CHRIS KRAUSLisa, I know Siglio Press’s publications, but to get started, could you tell us a little bit about the history of Siglio? How did it begin? How many people are involved?

LISA PEARSONI founded the press in 2008 and it’s a one-person operation in collaboration with the artist-writers I publish. The first book was The Nancy Book, by Joe Brainard, which really epitomizes Siglio’s exploration of the often marginal and uncategorizable spaces between art and literature.

CKWhat made you have that idea at that time?

LPFifteen years ago, when I first started thinking about Siglio, so much of the work I loved seemed to fall into an abyss—artists who use language and narrative structures weren’t often truly read; artist-writers, a special species who often work small-scale in ephemeral or book forms, were easily ignored. Some of my heroes—Sophie Calle, Ray Johnson, Nancy Spero—weren’t known by literary readers: anything with a visual element rarely hit the radar because it couldn’t possibly be “literature.” Of course that’s changing, I hope, in small part due to Siglio. And because I’m dedicated to rendering the invisible visible, I’m constantly moving out toward the margins, to publish what seems impossible or improbable as a book, as something to be read.

CKWere you coming from the art world or the literary world yourself?

LPI’ve been a bit of nomad, working in various interdisciplinary nonprofit arts spaces—so not really the art world, per se—and I got my MFA in writing, but I was never at home in either world; certainly I have no allegiances.

CKOh, wow. Were you more of a poet or a fiction writer?

LPA fiction writer, but an experimental one, so . . .

CKThat’s really interesting. Do you continue to write fiction?

LPI have zero time to write because it’s all Siglio. That muscle has completely atrophied. But I’m very good at writing press releases [laughs].

CKHow many titles does Siglio publish a year?

LPI’ve worked my way up to three to five, but this year it’s eight if you count all five volumes of “It Is What It Is”: All the Cards Issued to Donald Trump, a set of artist’s books by Richard Kraft. This year Siglio will easily pass forty books cumulatively.

When I first started thinking about Siglio, so much of the work I loved seemed to fall into an abyss .  .  .  Because I’m dedicated to rendering the invisible visible, I’m constantly moving out toward the margins, to publish what seems impossible or improbable as a book, as something to be read.

Lisa Pearson

CKKandis, could you talk a little bit about how Cassandra started? I know it’s a very different situation, because it’s part of your art practice.

KANDIS WILLIAMSYes, Cassandra comes out of my practice, but it’s similar in that it’s about seeing work and authors that I love consistently iterated in margins. Starting in 2016, with Black Lives Matter and the wide-ranging philosophical call to reworking and rereading and reunderstanding a lot of information—how we read and how we understand truth—the urge to expand my practice into publishing really took off. Before I started Cassandra, I think a lot of the elements that were active in my art practice were thought of as revisionist history, and starting Cassandra, and getting to build a language that doesn’t communicate the margins as a revision or as an excess but as a center, has been clarifying. Naming it Cassandra, after the prophetess who’s not believed, speaks to that impulse.

CKI’m familiar with the pamphlet part of the project. Is that what it is completely, or do you have another part of the project that publishes book-length works?

KWWe have a pedagogical part that orients itself toward classrooms; we generate textbooks and educational resources, and they’re taught by various Black scholars for institutional occasions.

CKWhen did you start doing longer projects?

KWI think it’s always been a really long project, in a way. For instance, the first compilations I was making always had editions, so every time I went to reprint them, they’d be in a new form. The Misogynoir reader is the first one I really started assembling text for, and now it has five volumes, so it’s been a four-year project. And then it gets applied in various workshops, in artworks, in conversations.

CKEditorially, it’s very much a solo operation, right? It follows your interests and your thought process.

KWWith a press that’s centered on Black scholarship, there’s an ethos around the ideas; they are circulating through me and my collaborators, so in that way, it’s like curatorial work. It’s weird to say, but the curatorial work is really done by a lot of exterior forces, be they political or journalistic . . . Content emerges as content is needed.

LPNot that Semiotext(e) needs an introduction, but Chris and Hedi, could you run through the history of the press, and speak about its various evolutions?

CKSemiotext(e) was started by Sylvère Lotringer in 1974, out of Columbia University, at first as an academic semiological journal done by grad students and younger faculty, but by 1975 or 1976 it was more of an uptown/downtown project. As Sylvère got more involved with the club world and the art world, the identity of the press really expanded. I guess starting with Nietzsche’s Return [1977] but then particularly with Schizo-Culture [1978], the desire emerged to create this bridge between European and American theory, between high and low culture, between club culture and philosophy, between philosophy and literature. Schizo-Culture had an all-star lineup and really made Semiotext(e) a prominent force in publishing—William Burroughs, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari.

His next project was the Foreign Agents series, which started in 1982–83 with the publication of Baudrillard’s Simulations. Baudrillard was completely unknown at that time in the United States, and Simulations didn’t even really exist as a book in France, it was more a matter of Sylvère culling through a couple of books and editing them together for an American art-world audience. And then from Simulations, Foreign Agents continued with Deleuze, Guattari, François Lyotard, et cetera.

I didn’t come into the picture until 1990. I had met Sylvère; we had become a couple. I saw him working his heart out on these books and I saw how incredibly successful they were. I mean, they had an amazing impact—maybe not commercially, but they had tremendous cultural capital and cachet. I also noticed that they were entirely European white men, and I asked him, Why don’t you publish any women? And he said, There are no important female philosophers in France; they’re all psychoanalysts and psychoanalysis doesn’t interest me. And I said, Well, okay, what about fiction? I had many friends in New York—people like Eileen Myles, Ann Rower, Barbara Barg, Lynne Tillman—whose work really needed to be better known, and I thought if Semiotext(e) published them, somehow the prestige of French theory could be grafted onto these writers. So Cookie Müeller’s book [Walking through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, 1990], actually, was the first book with Native Agents. It went along that way, and then Hedi joined us in 2004 and it all changed.

HEDI EL KHOLTIYes, I met Sylvère in the late ’90s while going to ArtCenter in Pasadena. I worked as a designer on a publication he was editing for the school, and then on the William S. Burroughs collected interviews project that took him a few years to assemble. Little by little, I got more involved with the press, and around 2004 you made me a coeditor. At that point we were only publishing maybe one or two books a year. Sylvère was only doing things that were very important to him: the Black Panthers book Still Black, Still Strong, in the late 1990s, with Dhoruba bin Wahad, Assata Shakur, and Mumia Abu-Jamal; the Burroughs book, because it linked back to his friendship with William S. Burroughs and an event that he did with John Giorno in the late 1970s, the Nova Convention, which brought Burroughs back in a major way from being associated with the Beat generation and bridged him back into the punk era. Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Susan Sontag, and Timothy Leary took part in the festivities.

CKYes, I remember at that time Sylvère wanted to drop the whole project. He was about to retire from Columbia and he’d done this long enough. It would have been a terrible mistake if he’d done that; it was really his life’s work. And when you were around and close to joining us, I really saw that as the chance for Semiotext(e) to continue into the future. So we changed things up a little bit, and you also started working full-time as managing editor, and things got set onto a more businesslike model.

HEKYes—I mean, semi-businesslike [laughter]. We started making more publications, between eight and fourteen books a year from then on. And then we had a major moment with The Coming Insurrection [2009]—

CKThat was huge, getting denounced by—

HEKGlenn Beck.

LPYou guys were denounced by Glenn Beck?

CKHe held up the book three times on his show, and every time he did that, to say, This is the most evil publication in the world, the sales spiked.

KWThat’s so good.

HEKI remember Sylvère showing me some old issues of the magazine that were out of print: Schizo-Culture, Autonomia, The German Issue. They were incredible documents, made with such care, and I felt that the objective would be to continue publishing interesting work that fell within the parameters you had both set while protecting the legacy of the press by reissuing some of these classic works. Sylvère’s friendship changed my life. I’ve learned so much from him. I’m curious, Kandis and Lisa, who in your lives brought you to this place you are now?

I used to say that Semiotext(e) was an intellectual diary of the people who make it. It’s like a personal art project, in a way. And yet, all of our enterprises have much larger communities that are not just the audiences for them, but part-time participants.

Chris Kraus

KWI think about that mentor question a lot. There are definitely practices that have brought me to where I am, community-based practices for recording and disseminating information that are counter to the historical record. And with the surrounding issues of Black scholarship, I think about Sylvia Wynter, who started Black studies departments, despite the lack of students and general institutional support, and that carries on today. There are very few critical race theorists who are accessible to young Black minds and creatives. There are many ways in which we’re really siloed off from each other experientially. I can think of so many names I would consider mentors, because their work ideologically undergirds so much of not just my image-making practice but also many contemporary Black image-making practices—people like Hortense Spillers, W.E.B. Du Bois, people living and dead—but they’re people I haven’t met.

I think Cassandra gets to initiate practices of mentorship in interesting ways. Ebony Haynes is doing our Black-art-student sessions, which are free sessions for Black art students to meet, congregate, and form more art-historical models of mentorship. Having open classes has been really amazing—open classrooms that don’t rely on higher-educational payments or fees. That’s been really fruitful.

LPSiglio’s progenitors are the outsiders who worked on and in small presses. These are almost invisible communities, except to their friends and cohorts and the lucky, random people gifted mimeographed copies of rather extraordinary things. That said, Dick Higgins is really a totemic spirit for Siglio—if you don’t know him, he was a key member of Fluxus and the founder of Something Else Press, the first person to disseminate artist’s books to a wider audience, to ask, How do you have people encounter the avant-garde who might not otherwise encounter it? How do you exploit and subvert the mechanisms of trade publishing to get radical work with little commercial appeal into the wider world?

If a mentorship is a means to foster and cultivate relationships, really help other publishers as comrades-in-arms and cultivate the next generation, then it can be something other than hierarchal. It’s small-press people helping each other, sharing knowledge generously. I get so much from my colleagues and I’m always happy to reciprocate. Everybody in this community knows we’re not in it for the money or the glory; we’re in it because we believe in what we publish and we want people to read and engage with those works. And it’s those works—the books—that are my real mentors. That’s where I always turn.

HEKI grew up in Morocco in the 1970s and ’80s and there was very little access to culture there, so I’ve really had to seek it out—it’s all very self-taught. When I moved to Los Angeles, in 1992, I barely spoke English, I was working different jobs, and lived near Beyond Baroque [Literary Arts Center]. I would go there for events but also spend time in their bookstore, which had a lot of small-press books and poetry chapbooks. Later on, I worked for Adam Parfrey at Feral House for a few years after I graduated. I learned everything about running a small press from him.

CKAll of us, all of our enterprises, have very unusual structures, in that they’re not like the old-fashioned nonprofit world, where there’s an advisory board and meetings and a committee deciding what should be published. It sounds like the editorial choices are all driven by us personally, not by a group of people. And neither are we like corporate publishing, where decisions are made according to other criteria like commercial, businesslike algorithms. I used to say that Semiotext(e) was an intellectual diary of the people who make it. It’s like a personal art project, in a way.

And yet, all of our enterprises have much larger communities that are not just the audiences for them, but part-time participants. Our work couldn’t be sustained without this larger community. Could we talk a little bit about that?

LPThat’s a great question. People tend to think that publishing is either a corporate thing or a nonprofit thing, but there’s all this wildness in between, everyone teaching themselves and each other what they need to know because we’re often wrestling with the unknown. I think we have a particular kind of appetite: we want to chew on something that we haven’t before. And if there’s a structure, it’s an ever-expanding web with multiple points of connection. Siglio’s place is at the edge of that web. A while back, I wrote a manifesto for Siglio, called “On the Small and the Contrary,” about what it means to subvert the paradigms of publishing. It’s about embracing heterodoxy and the uncategorizable, both anathema to algorithms. And it’s about believing in and cultivating that community of readers, supporters, and cohorts. There’s no way to survive if you’re all alone.

One issue in terms of community that Cassandra’s really trying to fight and press back against is how much the archive, or the practice of archiving Black civic life, doesn’t fall into Black hands or Black organizations.

Kandis Williams

CKKandis, you don’t have an advisory board, the way a university press does, or academics passing on recommendations, but there’s a larger community of people that you draw from, right?

KWYes, for sure. We actually received nonprofit status this year, so we do have a small board of close friends and people who inform my practice in various ways and now also inform the press. After college, I directed a nonprofit that created art programs in public schools, so it’s like a return for me in forming the classrooms.

But now, as we expand and enter the nonprofit space, we’re running into a lot of issues with permissions, and that’s a whole ordeal. One issue in terms of community that Cassandra’s really trying to fight and press back against is how much the archive, or the practice of archiving Black civic life, doesn’t fall into Black hands or Black organizations. So we’ve been thinking about partnering with new organizations. We’re in a really interesting place of constantly countering structural imperatives that put Black bodies at disadvantages. We’re developing strategies and legal forms that can intervene in these very exploitative, consumer-based, consumption-based practices around Black thought, Black bodies, and Black labor. Coming out of the studio and giving Cassandra its own business structure and its own legal structure has been really challenging because of all the socioeconomic issues around Black futurity, especially economic stability.

LPSo Chris, can I ask you a question? When you ask about structure, do you mean the literal and conceptual structures of Semiotext(e) itself and what it publishes, or are you talking more about pushing back on larger, societal structures, or the confines of the publishing world? Did you and Sylvère consciously think about the structure of Semiotext(e)? And Hedi, I wonder if you’ve reenvisioned that or if you’ve continued it? I partly ask because one thing Kandis and I don’t have is the kind of longevity Semiotext(e) has. I mean, it has history.

CKSylvère did a really smart thing when he first started the magazine, by saying, This is not going to be a collective, collectives don’t work. The reality is, Semiotext(e) was the central thing in his life, it was his project. Other people were collaborating with him but he didn’t try to make it a cooperative; he was the editor-in-chief. We haven’t consciously maintained that model, but it’s just kind of rolled along that way. Many people participate and contribute, but decisions are made, big and small, by the three of us.

HEKSemiotext(e) has been a rite of passage for someone interested in culture or independent presses: they’re going to have a Semiotext(e) moment in their trajectory, and hopefully they will connect with us, and do something with us or want to work on a project, and then they’ll move on to something else. It’s a place many people pass through. If you look at the special thanks in the books going back to the 1970s, you get a list of people who later ended up in major roles or with incredible projects: Tim Griffin, John Kelsey—

CKAndrew Berardini, Giovanni Intra—

HEKAriana Reines, Kathryn Bigelow—I mean, the list is endless.

KWYes, the longevity of Semiotext(e) has always been super inspiring. I think of Sternberg Press and Semiotext(e) as the intellectual versions of a zine.

I wanted to ask about digital, Semiotext(e) having such a long legacy of paper. How’s the dispersion of the digital affecting your sense of publishing, or the urgency of publishing, right now?

HEKWe’re not really that interested.

CKWe’ve completely avoided it.

HEKFor me, the little romance left in publishing is tied to print, materiality. I’d rather do a zine than put something online.

LPKandis, it seems like you’re really engaged with these issues, and they’re knotty. There’s the conflict between dissemination and commodification, because we want one and not the other, but for Cassandra there’s also the context for that dissemination, so that the work you publish is read by Black readers who can take ownership of it. Clearly the digital is very important for this. What I do is very material: the book is not a transparent delivery device, it’s a thing that shapes the reader’s experience, so it really doesn’t translate to the digital without losing its integrity. But I’m now trying to figure out ways to also use the digital environment organically—to understand how that form shapes the experience. I wonder how the digital environment works for you, and what its relationship is to the analog world?

Semiotext(e) has been a rite of passage for someone interested in culture or independent presses: they’re going to have a Semiotext(e) moment in their trajectory.

Hedi El Kholti

KWOne thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially with the classrooms and in the context of a Black pedagogical practice, is how much freer I am in terms of material in the courses we can offer online. Breaking down those white-cube walls in 2020, through the necessity brought about by the pandemic, changed a lot of the quality of the engagement with the press.

I’ve been thinking too about longevity, critical engagement, and sales. We’ve experienced these violent spikes in sales, around the uprising last summer, George Floyd’s murder, police shootings. White audiences’ engagement with whiteness and the growth and acceleration of that idea in a popular vernacular has created an engagement with the press that I’m very dubious of in some ways, and the online engagement is a major component of that. I’ve been thinking about how Blackness acts online, and what Blackness and virality offer for community growth. The breaking down and deconstructing of interpersonal and internalized white-supremacy values within our culture, and within our experiences with each other as Black people, Black publishers, Black authors, Black scholars, thinkers, bodies, subjects, and citizens, happens online. There’s so much velocity there, but there’s also the very dubious nature of being accelerated by something like questioning the reality of racism, the reality of white supremacy. For a lot of small Black presses, these huge spikes in interest are going to cause huge structural disadvantages in the near tax-future; they’re going to have to form financial structures to even accept donations, right? This summer we had so many donations under blanket egalitarian white-savior charity hashtags that I had to figure out how to be able to capture them without endangering my own personal life and stability.

So it’s interesting thinking about those social scripts. The online experiences of the classrooms have really allowed us to defy so many social scripts as Black educators—we don’t have to be exhibitionists because I organized a press, and I can talk to teachers about exactly how much of their information, or how much of their curriculum, or how much of their style of teaching, is exposed with the textual or printed matter.

CKGiven each of your unique engagements with publishing, perhaps we could end the conversation with any advice we’d have for those looking to embark on a publishing project?

LPWell, first know that it’s supremely difficult, yet people find a way, kind of like water moving around rocks. As Kandis pointed out, every mechanism in publishing is fraught and deserves to be interrogated. So you have to figure out what the good questions are that help you not only challenge the paradigms but also exploit them, make new ones, just as Dick Higgins did with Something Else Press. And you start with whatever you can afford to make, and find ways to keep making—if that’s what you want to do. I wish prospective small-press publishers fortitude, perseverance, imagination, and a lot of curiosity.

HEKYes, it always makes me feel less alone when I’m at Printed Matter and I discover a new publisher. I mean, we have a table, but then I roam around and I buy a bunch of stuff—sometimes with the money from selling our books [laughter].

LPYes.

CKAlways.

HEK One thing I’ve noticed in the last years is the reality of LA’s gentrification: the conditions of producing this sort of independent culture have changed drastically, and now I don’t know what options there are for new publishers. My question is, How do we also keep access to publishing for people who don’t have backing?

KWYes, it totally reminds me of the scariest part of the research for our cultural-property reader in the last year or so: thinking about patents and copyrights in medicine, and how important publishing is on the global scale right now. There’s this race to publish or withhold—publishing becomes an act of sequestering or binding information or status or value. So I guess I’ve been in post-shock, learning all the ins and outs of that—it’s really still related to spoils and war and conquer and conquest. I’m thinking so much about how to stay unstructured and allow fluidity—fluidity in terms of reacting and also the fluidity of archaeology and citation. Especially with Cassandra, I feel like what needs to be made is going to be urgent, and it’s the nature of pushing out these small worlds [laughs] that we do.

CKAn independent press is similar to an artist-run gallery or any other cultural project: it doesn’t have to last forever. Longevity isn’t necessarily the benchmark; people can do a couple of projects and move on. A lot of things shouldn’t last forever. So it is, as everyone says, increasingly hard to live in a city or create anything independent without a lot of money behind it, and yet somehow, things slip through. It’s possible.

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Issy Wood, The down payment, 2021, oil on linen.

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Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Lunarlander), 2021

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Edmund de Waal, stone for two hands and water, 2021, Hornton stone, bamboo, and water, 27 ⅜ × 56 ¾ × 23 ⅝ inches (69.5 × 144 × 60 cm), installation view, Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, Perry Green, England

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Lucie and Luke Meier. Photo: Peter Lindbergh

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João Menegussi and Calvin Royal III in Touché (2020), choreographed by Christopher Rudd

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Markuskyrkan (St. Mark’s Church), Björkhagen, Sweden, 1956–60.

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Still from "In Conversation: David Adjaye, Rick Lowe, and Thelma Golden"

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Rick Lowe painting in his studio.

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Galerie Patrick Seguin, Paris

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