Conversation with Paul Soulellis

In March 2020 I had a conversation with Paul Soulellis via Skype about queer methodology in design, the whiteness and hegemony of design institutions, creating platforms and spaces for marginalized voices, and interrupting the smoothness of design perfection. The latter became a key idea for my grad practice work going forward. Paul teaches graphic design at RISD and organizes Queer.Archive.Work, a collaborative work space and Risograph service based in Providence.

David Caterini

I’m doing my thesis right now and part of it is touching on queer practice, and I know that you work a lot with queerness and publishing.

Paul Soulellis

Can you back up a little bit and tell me the context for your thesis and a little about yourself?

DC

I’m in the graphic design MFA program [at CalArts] in my 2nd and final year. This year is grad practice, which is a constellation of different projects, so it’s not really centralized or it’s as centralized as we want it to be. I’m not sure if that’s similar to how it is at RISD, but we have to do a book, and a public facing exhibition.

PS

Yea we have both of those as well.

DC

I have a background in design as well, I did my undergrad at OCAD in Toronto. Is there anything specifically–

PS

I was just curious about the context for this and where you were coming from, but however you want to proceed, if you want to get into some questions…What have you been working on so far in your thesis?

DC

My work started out with this idea of mediated intimacy. Intimacy as a very cultural thing that [can be] different and subjective, and one way to look at it is how the spaces and technology shape the interactions and the biases. The historical biases and the cultural biases, but also biases of media, and that can change how we think about intimacy. It’s sort of sprawled out from there and I have been doing a lot of formal work with–sorry?

PS

It froze for a second, so could you repeat the last part?

DC

I was just saying that my work sprawled out from that idea and I have been doing a lot of formal work with the Mac OS interface. I’m interested in the transitional moments, or the sensorial design parts. The minimization of the window, the overlapping of the windows, the layering, and trying to explore that and subvert it. I’ve been slowing them down, playing with sequence and different kinds of images, so it’s using the tool in a way that wasn’t intended that I’m interested in.

PS

And do you see that as a queer practice?

DC

I do, yea. I think I’m more interested in the method than necessarily the content maybe, in terms of how a practice can be queer.

PS

The method rather than the content?

DC

Yea, queering the method as a way to look at the world and relationships in a queerer way.

PS

Sometimes when I’m talking about some of the publications that I work on here, it’s interesting using that word queer and then going out with that word in the context of the New York Art Book Fair (NYABF) or some place else where I’m showing my work, and seeing what the reactions are. I think some people approach the word from a place of not knowing and think that it has to do with sexuality, and I say not necessarily. Or they might ask if all the contributors identify as queer, and my answer to that is not necessarily, but what I am interested in are queer practices and queer methodologies. It’s always a good place to start in conversations, with that word, because it’s a loaded word that means many different things to different people. It’s changing over time in communities, and my relationship to that word has changed a lot.

DC

Could you talk a bit about that? How do you make sense of that word in relation to your own practice?

PS

This past summer I did a big talk at the Eyeo Festival and it was the first time that I used that word in relation to my own practice, so it’s all very recent to me. That’s not true, I was using that word before but it was the first time in that context. There was a moment where my work took a political turn a couple years ago, and being able to talk about my work–and my positionality in relation to my work–compelled me to look at myself as a queer person. How do I identify? What are the privileges and the benefits with which I operate or how I do my work? How do I relate to people? That was one of the main reasons why I felt that word was resonating with me, in a way that earlier in my work, in the 80s and early 90s when I came out, when I was in college at the height of the AIDS crisis, the word queer had a charge to it that terrified me at the time for all sorts of reasons. It was something I associated with extreme political activism, and for lots of reasons that wasn’t the moment in my life where I was engaging in that way, but recently I started to reclaim that word. That’s all personal context. I would say in terms of my artistic practice, publishing as artistic practice, I started getting into the word by reading the Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam–are you familiar with it?

DC

I’m familiar with it, but I’ve never read it.

PS

It’s pretty great, and I started to think about what Jack says about how we have defined success in the past. The narrative of success has always been based on heteronormativity, patriarchy, wealth accumulation, reproduction, all of the things that are a part of the development of American culture and Western values in the 20th century. The premise of their book is trying to work against that, and in a non linear way go back into archives and pop culture and look for narratives of failure, whatever did not fit the definition of success at that time. Going back and examining them, resurface them to study them and also to see what we can learn from them. That resonated with me in a huge way, this idea of looking at failure in this sense, and when I started the Queer.Archive.Work project it was very much with this intent of wanting to bring people together, artists, writers, and voices that were typically and historically excluded from archives: LGBTQ, people of color, indigenous voices, immigrants, and inviting those voices into the space of a publication. Even though I’m using those words queer, archive, work–we could look at all three of those words– it’s not an actual archive that I’m making, but I’m making the work and bringing people together with the idea that these are artefacts that are very much now in the present and worth looking at, examining, saving, reading. That’s how I was approaching the word and the practice in the start of that publication. The space I’m in right now is actually in a brand new studio space that is called Queer.Archive.Work. That’s a whole other part of the practice, which is about taking the publication, which is now three issues, but now expanding that from the space of a publication to an actual space, a destination to come for working, I could talk more about that.

DC

I’m curious about that process. Is it always different? Are you working with people in the same space?

PS

The process of these publications? Or the space?

DC

The publications.

PS

Do you know them? I could show you?

DC

I’ve seen some stuff online, but it would be great if you could show me.

PS

I’ll go downstairs.

PS

This is actually the small but growing experimental zine and publishing library. This is the rest of the space here, the table and work surface.

DC

Would you mind if I take screenshots?

PS

Yea sure!

PS

This is the 3rd issue that I published in the fall and launched at the NYABF, I’ll show you all three issues. This is the first one. Number two I did at an artist residency at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. The very last publication I did–which is not issue four, but is stamped with Queer.Archive.Work because it came out of the same ethos–is Urgency Reader, and this was done in November or December of this past year. All of them are collaborative publications, Urgency Reader has 65 people, issue three has eighteen–and I could open this up and show you some of these things–number one has thirteen artist and writers. Two was different because I did this at the Internet Archive. This has its own story because I was working with their digital collections, queering the process of…well it’s a longer story. This has to do with the celebration of the public domain that the Internet Archive was having over a year ago. It was January 1, 2019, tens of thousands of new work would be entering the public domain from 1923, and it was the first time in twenty years that things were coming into the public domain with thousands of people coming. I was doing a residency there and they said we would like to fund this for you and have you here if you can somehow work with these materials from 1923. First day I was there I was meeting and looking online through all of the things that have been uploaded online, 3000 plus images, and I went through all of the images. And on the second day I said of these 3000 plus images from 1923, they are all of white people, there is not a single person of color. They were shocked because they hadn’t thought about it, and the reason they hadn’t thought about it is because they hadn’t done the work to make sure that it would not happen, and they just let things accumulate. That was just the images, but it was true about everything that they were looking at. Number two was me trying to work against that or with the fact, but go back and look for other voices that I could upload into their collection. That turned into this publication but also an installation I did at the Internet Archive. This was a newsprint thing that I did with a text that I wrote about what it means to go back into the archive, and how important queering the archive is. In the middle these are fifteen items that I found from other archives online that are LGBTQ voices from 1923–which are interesting to look for because the language was different–people of color, indigenous voices, non normative narratives, artists and voices. The Wikipedia entries for all the people and artefacts that I found. I loaded these things in, created this publication and installation, delivered a talk at the Internet Archive. Everyone was appreciative and excited, some were emotional, but I question what did this work do. Did I change the institution, or were they just happy to have someone else doing the work for them. That’s the big question I have about institutions and what it means to do this work in the context of a larger institution versus work that artists or anyone does on their own, outside of the art world or graphic design, or an institutional archive or a school.

DC

That’s also a concern of mine. I was thinking how today the practice of queering is generally a part of institutions, or there is a lot of overlap with institutions. When I try to think of practices outside of these institutions that get labeled as queer, an obvious example I can think of is cruising, which came out really specific historical circumstances. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about categorization and how queerness works with that?

PS

I think it has something to do with the society that produced the condition of having to categorize them in the first place. It’s interesting to look at them–categories, binaries, language–the reasons why these things have developed in the first place and why institutions or disciplines are in the business of professionalization and applying language and categories to things. These are the kinds of structural issues that we live with throughout history. To me queerness is going against or in reaction to these larger structural issues. In a world without binaries would queerness mean anything? Probably not. In some ways queerness feels reactionary to me, we are always doing something in reaction to. Cruising for instance is interesting to look at because it’s only happening because of oppression. The only reason cruising came to exist is because safer spaces in daylight, in public, in what would be considered normative spaces were never acceptable or part of what it meant to be engaged in non-heteronormative activity. The need to this activity created behaviour, spaces, and whole cultures around this. I haven’t studied this or thought too hard about it, but thats my basic understanding of why cruising exists or why it would be considered a queer activity. It’s interesting to think about it today in relation to marriage equality, and the corporatization of pride and things like that which are underway to normalize LGBTQ life, and so it’s just a conversation to have now. What is the role of queerness today in marriage equality, in Pete Buttigieg world where queerness, gayness and things associated with reactionary underground punk are now mainstream. Not just mainstream, but being sold back to us by institutions and corporate America. Do you have any thoughts about that?

DC

I just immediately thought of that book by Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, which is about homonationalism. Are you familiar with it? It theorizes homonationalism, which is the gay couple that fits into the American ideal. They’re still normative and they own homes, have full time jobs, but that relationlity [and identity] is dependent on othering people of color.

PS

That it is dependent on that?

DC

Yea, that’s the argument of the book.

PS

That’s interesting! I want to write that down. Oh from 2007!

DC

Yea, so it’s post 9/11.

PS

Interesting! Yea, so for me in terms of my practice and my work, the setting for all of my work is doing this work inside and outside of RISD as the institution that I’m affiliated with. A lot of what I’m doing is in reaction to what RISD does or does not afford. In terms of queerness, when I first got here a couple years ago, I was thinking that a lot of my work was going to have to be about pedagogy. I thought the work that I do inside of the institution might even be in terms of changing the institution, changing it’s values, thinking about who I am as somebody who practices inside of an institution, and I’ve found that’s very difficult to do. That’s one of the reasons I created this space, is to take a step away from the institution and do the work I’m trying to do disconnected from the values that come with higher education, student debt, racism, whiteness, all of that. And I think it’s worth doing that inside the institution and I make efforts to do that, but there are people doing that work in a more intense way, trying to work on the whiteness problem in our institution and what it means to work in a racist institution, and it’s hard. I’m not always convinced it will work.

DC

I’m hearing that this idea of space is really important. Whereas an institution might have a lot of resources, it can be hard to mobilize those resources or allocate them in a way that is aligning with the work that you’re trying to do.

PS

Yea, so I’m trying to do that independently. There’s something to be said for smallness and keeping things at a small scale; the space, the publications that I do. They’re all independently produced and about a relational, there’s a relational aspect to the work that I do that is about me handing the work over to someone in the context of an art book fair, which is very different from mainstream publishing or art world, where the artist is disconnected from those relationships. All of what I’m doing is in favor of small communities, small groups, small moves that potentially have a big impact.

DC

Do you think about audience and could you talk about it?

PS

Yea I think about audience a lot. In terms of the publications, for instance in Urgency Reader, 65 people ended up in here but I could only make 110. They’re 250 pages, it was a huge effort. I did everything myself, it’s all hand work printed here on the Risograph, hand assembled, bound etc. Of the 110, 65 went back to the contributors. That for me was a priority and reason for doing this, to put everyone in conversation with each other. There are people who know each other on this list, but most of them don’t, and the publication becomes the space for them to have this conversation. That’s just a priority for me. Whereas the heteronormative successful idea of publishing would have been concerned with how large this audience could be or how much profit I could make, the values I’m investing into this project are on totally different terms. They’re about the relational aspects of who is in here, and how a publication could act as an assemblage of voices, as a network of people and their work. In that sense audience, participant, reader and author all get sort of blurred in a really interesting way. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in the space as well, to create a space where those distinctions aren’t necessarily important, where someone could come in to use the Risograph, be inspired by the things in the space and the library, can participate in a workshop, can make work here, can leave the work here to be seen by others. All of this is about de-centering myself from the practice as much as possible, moving away from the idea of the artist as the expert or master. That’s why I incorporated this space as a non-profit, I’m no longer referring to it as my studio but as a community space.

DC

It sounds like a platform with different resources and tools that people can use–

PS

Sorry it’s breaking up

DC

People would have a project in mind and they would reach out to you and use the space?

PS

Yea, I just opened two months ago and so far the way people are engaging with the space is through these open house free printing days. Every Saturday in March into April, 12 different sessions that people can book, people coming in for free to use the machine however they want. Some people don’t know the Risograph and I’m teaching them. Some people came in on Saturday and had a collage party and that was amazing. Sometimes people are coming in like “Oh I have this thing and I need to make an edition, can I use it.” I also made an open call for Risograph residencies where people can work on a project for two weeks and I give them a key to the space, and those will be funded as well. Part of that and thinking about audience and who I’m serving with the space has to do with who I’m prioritizing. I’m very clearly stating on the website and the call about the residency that everyone is welcome, but Queer.Archive.Work prioritizes LGBTQ, people of color, immigrants, differently abled. I’m also adding that its non-RISD and non-Brown University affiliated, so it’s for people who don’t have access to power, tools or resources like this.

DC

Right, or who don’t already have an in to the network of those places.

PS

And that will be tricky to navigate because I have friends, students and colleagues who want to come in and use the machine, and I don’t want to say no. So far I’m not saying no, but I want to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of adding onto the RISD/Brown bubble that make it hard to access if you’re not apart of that system.

DC

What are the communities [you’re working with] outside of RISD, in Providence or nearby places?

PS

I find it’s less geographical and more about queerness. Trans people, people who don’t identify with RISD or Brown or are not apart of that access, these are the people who are reaching out to me. Last week I had a friend who works in public schools in Providence which are really in bad shape. There was a report that came out last year that placed Providence public schools at the very bottom of the list; a tragic situation. They’re working in one of them with a pride youth club, 11-13 year olds, who don’t have the permission of their parents to be in this club but they’re in it anyway. So they brought 13 of these kids here to the space, to look at the materials, all the zines, and we made a zine together and it was kind of amazing. They were all brown or black kids, introducing themselves using their pronouns saying “I’m poly, I’m lesbian” and I was like you don’t have to say any of that if you don’t want to! So it was really cute seeing these kids for the very first time claiming identity and coming into a space where they are feeling safe to play, to try things, and verbalize. That’s really important to me that the space be open to. This has just started so I’m hoping there’s more of that. So far so good.

DC

One thing that came up earlier that I wanted to touch on, I’m wondering how you see the transition of queer practice from this activist place. It sounds like you’re continuing that and making it relevant to circumstances today, but we talked about how there’s an openness to the term, so I’m wondering how you’ve seen that shift and what it’s looked like to you.

PS

The shifting continues. I don’t know. I think any attempt to define queerness is probably wrong in some ways, or misguided. Does the openness of the term mean queerness can be anything? No I don’t believe that and I have my own definition for it, but setting back from that question a little bit, I’m realizing how important positionality is and how important it is to be present with positionality. So what does that look like? That looks like being aware and sensitive to the privileges and the burdens that we’re bringing to the work that we’re doing, the conversations we’re having, the relationships we’re having. It means making those positions present. Positions around power, privilege, burdens, in some cases trauma, and making them present. If we’re going to be talking about activism, politics or equity those things have to be acknowledged. I’m looking at practices that acknowledge that’s part of what the work is and centering it, bringing it to that practice. That means that pedagogy, art making, publishing, anything that I’m engaged in I’m trying to bring this sense of positionality to all the participants, into the space, and into the room. It’s something I’m doing with my students all the time. I’m trying to encourage students to make work that’s coming from cultural or personal issues or politics, identity work that’s coming from identity issues and politics. How does that change what queerness is? I’m not sure, but I see everyone having these conversations about queerness in a much more open, interesting and perhaps healthy way when these positions are acknowledged and brought to the table. It seems like where we get into trouble with that word–or any term or politics around identity–is when we feel compelled to hide these things or to ask others to hide them or not feel safe with those ideas.

DC

You’re talking about positionality and I think that’s really interesting. I was thinking how you see the work–you’re work and the output of these projects–materially in position to the archive, institutions, or information that you’re engaging with.

PS

Back to my own positionality, I’m very aware of my whiteness now in a way that maybe I wasn’t at other parts of life when I was younger: my queerness, my whiteness, my privilege as a professor at RISD, someone who has access to power. So when I make a work like this I’m trying to be really aware of those things. Am I making a white publication? Am I making a white space? These are things that keep me up at night. It’s not that I can’t, because I think that to some extent if I’m founding a space or editing a publication, I’m bringing that to the project. What can I do to counter that? How can I queer the situation? How can I open the situation? Who else can be involved? When I get to a point hopefully where funding starts coming through–I’m just about to submit the first grant ever for the space–if and when I’m able to hire somebody, who is that person and how does that person’s identity added to the space with mine start to change and shift what this is and who might feel welcome in here? The reason I’m so concerned with this right now is because I’m in this institution where we traditionally have been white and heteronormative, and still are. We’re just now starting to get into hiring practices and admissions practices that are starting to counter some of these things, and it’s so damn hard. So yea I’m just trying to be open about it, especially in the work I’m doing where I’m inviting others. I remember when I did the first issue of Queer.Archive.Work and these were all brand new ideas, it was truly an experiment. I mean it still is an experiment, but in a way where I’ve never done it before. I invited American artist in–do you know their work?

DC

No, I don’t think so.

PS

You should look them up because they do a lot of work that’s different, but they have one project that’s about interface design and the space of whiteness. There’s an essay on their site about Silicon Valley and the whiteness of our screens, it might be interesting for you. Anyway, I invited them to contribute and they wrote back “This sounds so great, I would love to, are there any other people of color that you invited into the issue?” That jolted me and of course [audio cuts out] in other words, was my intent a tokenizing one or an inclusive one? I sent them back the people I was planning to invite and they wrote back like “Oh this looks amazing, this is great, yes.” I’m realizing this is very different from the way I curated a publication a couple years ago where I was working on Library of the Printed Web. I wasn’t thinking about 90% of what we’re talking about here, I had other concerns and other values. I look back and think that I was building and contributing to the whiteness of artistic publishing and of net art in the way that I was curating and editing. It’s just different now.

DC

Yea it sounds like there’s an openness to changing the process or the outcome based off of what other people’s needs are of who you’re inviting.

PS

That’s definitely shifted and will continue to shift hopefully. I’m seeing how hard it is with this space because who is choosing to contact me and come through the door? There’s an intimidation factor with Risograph and the space. It’s not on the street, you need special access, so all of those questions about opening it up even more will just come with time. I’m curious for you and how you see queerness in the work that you’re doing.

DC

I’m interested in the interface as something that is hiding and revealing at the same time. I’m thinking really materially about the computer. In showing us a visual experience it’s also hiding something. I’m drawing a lot from the writing of Wendy Chun who’s a media theorist–

PS

Yea she used to be at Brown here.

DC

Yea that’s right, and so to me drawing attention to that constructed seamlessness is a queer project. Maybe instead of only pointing it, using queerness as a way to explore that and dislodge it, create other associations and use the interface in a way that we might not normally perceive how to use it.

PS

Is that about breaking the interface or hacking it or using it differently?

DC

I think mostly it’s leaning into it a lot. It hasn’t been about changing the structure or hacking it. I’m also interested in a poetics and how that can move you to different places in the project and ideas about queerness. I don’t know if that makes sense.

PS

It’s hard to know without seeing your work, but what would be an example of this? I’m only asking because I’m really curious about these questions that you’re asking.

DC

Maybe a clearer example is with Google Maps. There’s that transition from street to aerial view that’s very quick. It’s jumping to a completely different perspective. It’s kind of a crazy thing that we don’t really think about. I’m slowing that down a lot and it sort of reveals how the algorithm fills in the missing spots.

PS

So is it about smoothness?

DC

Well it’s very disjointed and–

PS

What you’re doing is disjointed.

DC

Yea–

PS

Right, so what I mean is–

DC

Yea it is about smoothness, about interrupting the smoothness.

PS

Interrupting the smoothness, yea that’s amazing! That’s something I’ve been thinking about. There’s a text on my site called Urgent Craft which gets into the idea of design perfection. I think when I gave that talk I had an image of an iPhone on the screen, and you can’t see the Apple logo but you just see a sleek black object on a black background. The idea of resisting design perfection and this drive that tech utopia has today to make everything legible, clear, easy, smooth, seamless and the politics of that as a sort of definition of success. What does it mean to resist smoothness and the ideas of perfection that are built into all of the industries that feed into that? Also how we teach graphic design. Teaching typography and what it means to have typographic systems that are about legibility and making things clear all the time. Are they all apart of the same system of design perfection? I’m not so sure about that and I think it’s easy to take that apart or undo that as an argument. A lot of the things I’m trying to do–[holds up book] you know, the cover here–are what happens when we stay with the mess or when we consider illegibility or interruption as a tactic?

DC

Right, because there’s smoothness that can have an aesthetic meaning, but there’s also an ideological meaning where things are linear and prepackaged.

PS

Yea exactly. I think there’s a lot of work to do there because those ideologies about design are just getting stronger. If that’s the work that you’re doing, and if that’s the work that you’re doing now in your thesis, that’s amazing. I just think we need to be doing not just more of that work but that we need to incorporate that into the way we teach or even think about graphic design. I mean it’s changing, it’s shifting, but are we doing enough to resist the way that it’s shifting in alignment with the values of Silicon Valley and the political sphere that were in? There’s another example I talk about in Urgent Craft about Parker Bright standing in front of the Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney Biennial in 2015. Are you familiar with that?

DC

Yes.

PS

All that’s going on there. A person of color, a written message on their back interrupting the smoothness of the art viewing experience, the museum as an environment that supports white supremacy, and the artists working within that and what that act was. I like to think of that act as a gesture of publishing. The fact that there was Black Death Spectacle written on their back and that became a kind of caption or subtext to the painting on the wall, and how Parker ended up occupying all our social media feeds briefly while everyone passed the photos and stories around. Now if you google Dana Schultz, Parker Bright comes up with that image. There’s something to learn there, from the failure of an artist who’s not actually of that particular art world, from that moment interrupting that smoothness of being in the Whitney. I just think that there’s a lot to learn there from Parker–[audio and image freeze]

DC

Sorry, it froze there for a sec–

PS

Oh did you hear me? I was just finishing up.

DC

Oh right, that there’s a lot we can learn from interrupting that smoothness. I kind of wanted to talk a bit more about tools. I’m interested in this idea of intentionally misusing something to open up other possibilities within it, or also to reveal certain values in the tool or platform that weren’t obvious before. I also think that people use certain tools because it’s all they have access to. For designers–you know, I have access to different kinds of software and printers that I’ve been trained to use, so there’s a certain amount of privilege in having choice. I guess that also has to do with circumstance. What are your thoughts about the role of the tool?

PS

I get at this a little bit in Urgent Craft also because I’m not only thinking about the work that I’m doing, but work that I’m inspired by or I think deserves to be seen. A lot of it is handwork or the idea of modest tools, the tools and the materials that are available or at hand. Not speciality things that require extraordinary access or privilege to get. So again Parker Bright’s jacket–what was entailed in making something like that–and there are a lot of other examples in that text. It’s why I think about the Risogrpah and screen printing, about the idea of hand lettering versus typesetting, and what it means to work with what’s available and what’s in front of us. If we look at the tools we privilege in a school like RISD, with Adobe Creative Suite and the computer required to run them. It’s not that I’m anti-digital or tech in any way, I’m just as a part of that as anybody else. I’m interested in what are the affordances of tools that are not coming along with those ideologies of seamlessness–I think you said before the seamlessness of those platforms and tools. The seamlessness literally of this [holds up iPhone] of there being no way in. I think these tools are becoming more and more resistant to agency, to individual agency. Everything is predetermined in terms of what I can do with this thing. Whereas there’s very little pre-determination in this [holds up cup full of markers]. The more I talk about this the more I realize I’m starting to position myself as an anti-tech person and I’m not. This Risograph machine is as tech heavy as anything else, but there’s something about the robustness of this machine. The fact that we can open it up, examine its guts, take it apart, put different colors and papers into it, play with the flatbed in different ways. There’s something about this machine and the access that artists are finding to it these days that is a different way of working where the results are less pre-determined. The idea of success around those results is less determined. And that determines a lot of the work that I’m bringing into the space, into the library. Just picking up what’s in front of me, this kind of weird Risograph combined with unique one off paint manipulation on this plastic creating beautiful pages. I’m not sure what they’re about, but there’s something interesting about the messiness as a zine, very different from–well maybe I shouldn’t compare it to anything else, it’s just what it is. Does that make any sense?

DC

I think so. It seems like–obviously we use a Risograph to make publications–but in another sense because it’s a machine with so many different components, and because it’s collaborative in that way, these sort of tools make sense for the work that you’re doing.

PS

It’s not that I think anyone could take these techniques, or even the idea of interference or slowing down or agency and bring them to the platforms that we typically use as graphic designers and artists. I’m interested right now in the affordances of more modest tools that allow for the artist to take control in different ways.

DC

Right, there’s an accessibility that you're highlighting.

PS

This is in contrast to the print on demand aesthetic–or not aesthetic, but methodology that I was working with for 10 years prior. I was really interested in this idea of using existing platforms in artistic ways–so a service like Blurb or Lulu–and how an artist could have access to self publishing with new forms like this. I still think thats interesting and potentially fits in to this discussion, but there’s a smoothness and seamlessness literally to the interface of these platforms that I realized was starting to work against, rather than for artistic agency.

DC

Yea that’s really curious, could you elaborate on what the print on demand service was like?

PS

I’ll show you an example. This was a catalogue I did for the Library of the Printed Web project, so from 2017. Are you familiar?

DC

Yes.

PS

So it was both a publishing project that evolved out of a curatorial project, and this is a catalogue of everything I was collecting during that time. It’s about 250 items and MOMA library acquired the whole thing, so I put this catalogue together to capture the project. I printed it with Lulu, and that worked really well. It enabled me all sorts of affordances to control this project, to design it the way that I wanted to, but I’m thinking about the materiality of this, the objectness of this as an artefact, and the differences between what I was just showing you. I’m able to do that now that I have both of these here in front of me. Some of these things are more literal, the shininess of this, and the desirability of this as a pre-made manufactured object that popped out of the internet. It’s like you upload the PDF and this comes back. There’s a certain uncertainty to that, like the feeling of uploading this, making the order, hoping it comes out how I wanted and then opening up the package and seeing this inside. There’s something special about that moment when it worked, but disastrous when it didn’t because then you suddenly feel the distance you have from the means of production. I’ve learned to negotiate and mediate that for a number of years where everything I was doing was print on demand. Another example is this publication. This was Printed Web number five, which was called Bot Anthologia. It was a news print publication of bot material, things that were produced by bots and algorithmic activity. This was from newspaper club, a print on demand newspaper service that runs out of Scotland, and I still use them. Between this and the pre-determined sizes, papers, printing processes for all of these services, I felt like I was less in conversation with the tools and more with the company that created the platform that allowed me to access these tools. There was very little I could do to alter or change. I remember in one of these print on demand news print projects, I asked if they could fold the newspaper only once, and they wrote back yes and you can pay extra, and I did it and it was great. But again that distance from the decisions that could be made versus producing something like this coming out of this machine where it’s just me and the machine. Any ideology or politics from the machine is backgrounded by the fact that its here in my space. Sure there’s privilege in me being able to access this machine, but I’m also talking about anyone who has access to a community screen printing studio, a Xerox machine, laser printer, or any system where the idea of queering the tool, misusing it, or using the tool as apart of a generative and iterative process is possible.

DC

For sure, and also the unpredictabilities–

PS

–the mistakes

DC

Yea.

PS

I think that’s really good to think about. I should write more about that, or you should write about that.

DC

Yea, I totally should. [laughter]