Why print a physical object?

June 16, 2016 | Writing

What follows is a talk I gave at SAIC’s New Arts Journalism Symposium in May of 2016:


Despite the promise of our website, I’m not really going to talk about The State of Publishing Today. I always sort of wish I was a person who could do that — someone who knows how to lay things out in a very clear, stable, and grand frame—maybe how English painters coming to the then-new world would paint massive panoramic landscapes of America for the Queen. For better worse, I’m always crippled with doubt, distracted either by nuance or the possibility of nuance, to such an extent that, in a parallel universe I think I’d be a very bad Detective. Given my relationship to certainty, and at least for our purposes here, it might be more useful to focus on my own experience, in this world, as the Founding Director, Editor and Curator of The Green Lantern Press. The Green Lantern Press is one example of what publishing today can look like; it did not grow up out of nothing, but from a preexisting culture of Chicago, the United States, and the global times we live in. Perhaps by focusing on this one very particular and small example that I happen to be a part of, we as a group can begin to define what we mean both by “publishing” and “today,” thereafter discovering additional examples and methodologies in this afternoon’s program.

To offer a quick timeline: The Green Lantern Press started in 2005 when I found a large, run-down loft apartment in Wicker Park. I moved into the back of that space and started an apartment gallery and independent press in the front. In those early days from 2005-2010, I hosted about 7 exhibitions a year, published about 20 books, and co-published a short lived literary magazine and index of alternative artist-run spaces, always with the help of different friends, co-conspirators, enthusiasts, and collaborators. In 2010 the gallery closed due to permitting issues but I kept living there, hosting literary readings and looking for a new space. My partner Devin King and I found this location at 2337 N Milwaukee Ave in 2012, and spent the next two years busy with fundraising, renovations, and licensing requirements. As a result of those efforts, we opened Sector 2337 in 2014.

Sector 2337 is a for-profit bookstore and beer/wine bar. It also houses The Green Lantern Press, the same apartment gallery nonprofit that, in this new location, continues to publish books and produce exhibitions, like Magalie Guérin’s which is currently on view. The hope with this somewhat unorthodox, hybrid non-profit/for-profit model is that the for-profit can carry most expenses related to a brick-and-mortar location: property taxes, for instance, insurance, staff etc., while the non-profit remains nimble enough to respond to the wax and wane of funding opportunities, funneling at least 60% of its resources to artist and author honorariums. At year two in Logan Square, we are in the very early stages of this experiment.

Throughout Green Lantern Press history, there has been a consistent interest in the multidisciplinary relationship between visual art, writing, reading, and publishing, as ways to foster and disseminate free, cultural discourse. While publishing is often tied specifically to print, I have come to see it more and more as a practice that creates platforms upon which audiences can convene, absorb, and discuss material in public. Often those conversations occur in large institutions amongst a rarefied group of individuals — doctors at a conference, for instance, or academics at a university: what would it mean to create a smaller street-level watering hole where parallel conversations take place in the midst of a general, interactive audience? That is what we are aiming for and in that vision print, performance, art, and intellectualism bear equal weight.

The Green Lantern Press still wrestles with the same concerns through which it was conceived. Back then, the future obsolescence of books saturated my awareness; printed matter was thought soon and forever to be replaced by digital technologies, and evidence to make that point was trotted out left and right as bookstore chains and major label publishing houses folded. Additional statistics about how little the average contemporary person read (as compared to previous generations) regularly infused dinner conversations and newspapers were (as they still are) downsizing in the face of a lingering challenge to make the Internet profitable. Kindle launched in 2007, the same year Chicago’s independent alternative weekly paper, The Chicago Reader, was sold to a national corporation. I found myself on long walks with older, more seasoned writer friends who conveyed doom and gloom portraits of a future in which media outlets were controlled almost exclusively by a small selection of self-interested corporations. Although some of that anxiety seems to have died down—whether simply because its been integrated into daily expectations (as my pessimistic mind suggests) or because we are taking positive steps to eradicate those same anxieties (as my optimistic self hopes), at least the peril of the book-as-material-object seems passé. The glut of 80s and 90s consumerism has  passed us by—there are amazing stories of publishing agencies that had so much money back then they could rehab their Manhattan office one month and decide the next that they didn’t like the black marble look, opting then to for a second, no less expensive, remodel. Perhaps that hyper-expensive paradigm, what remains so unsettling and difficult to adjust, was and is not such a good thing.

As with many fellow publishers that began in the first decade of the 2000s, The Green Lantern Press embraced an idea of “slow-media” publishing, a model based on the slow-food movement in which the book itself had to justify its materiality. Why print a physical object if you can more efficiently produce a blog? What are the differences between those forms of media? What might the advantages and disadvantages? What happens also if one emphasizes smallness as a virtue, producing editions of 500 or so, to think about the ways a small act of publishing connects to a free-speech ethos, how it might, again in a very small way, trouble predominant paradigms of success and influence? Books are so strange the way they circulate in the world. They move! And in moving, the emphasis is less on what money is made and more on their ideological imposition. Books are interesting because they are small vehicles for doubt, demanding intimacy with their reader, as he or she is absorbed in a private world between text and sympathetic imagination.

Still, I have a hard time framing these efforts inside a Now. Within this present moment I am doubtful and hopeful in turns, and rather than solve my disoriented sense of the world at large — by which I mean squaring once and for all my position within The Sixth Great Extinction, its many melting ice caps, and the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade, or my reliance on a car and the latest oil spill, border violence and my concept of US citizenship, police brutality and rent, the lush selection produce at Whole Foods and the plight of Syrian Refugees—rather than create a cohesive picture that might ease any discomfort ilicited by the times in which we live, I leave that image incomplete, unresolved, and anxious, to feel the weight of its incoherence and, instead trying to provide working platforms through which collective groups can commiserate, not as one mind but as many, thinking out loud and perhaps outside strictly conventional or professionalized frameworks. That, in fact, is where I see the power of publishing, whatever medium that publishing practice might take. It doesn’t take a grand gesture to inspire conversation. Often, in fact, it is the small things that reflect the greatest insight.