THIS BRIEF will discuss a selection of terms drawn from the influential field of “public sphere theory,” which nuance the practical tasks involved in producing and circulating books, magazines, or digital content. A faceted taxonomy of publishing genres commonly issued by artist-run centres accompanies this brief. While it remains prone to the compartmentalization typical of classification schematics, the multidimensional nature of the faceted structure responds to the ways that these publishing genres deliberately blur boundaries through the use of visual strategies such as typographic design, choice of hybrid format, variable images and print quality, which frame the writerly tone of the content. These stylistic (aesthetic) choices have the potential to attract complex, overlapping readerships, or a diversity of publics.
The idea that there is something called a public, which artists, writers and other producers of cultural experiences hope to connect with, is an ideal necessary to the function of liberal democratic society. The public sphere is a discursive space, that is, an imaginary or conceptual space that is produced through language and the expression of ideas. The function of this space is to encourage debate and discussion. This debate can occur in real time, when people meet in social places, but can also be temporally extended through media—books, magazines, newspapers and other kinds of textual communications (and today, blogs, videos and social media). This mediation allows people who may never physically meet to believe that they can have an impact on larger social issues by communicating their position through writing or images.
The term publicity encompasses the many material forms produced by this act of communication. Furthermore, the democratic ideal assumes that literate individuals have an equal opportunity to produce publicity, and thereby hold authorities accountable and influence public opinion. As many have pointed out, however, this ideal does not adequately account for intersectional issues, such as national sovereignty, race, class, gender and sexuality, which produce inequalities of representation.
The pluralist, participatory and polyvocal modes of communication fostered through digital media platforms have called into question the gap between the ideal of a public sphere and actual political agency in local, national and transnational contexts. Environmental, political and cultural events are now experienced on a global scale, as print and digital media platforms are increasingly interconnected. However, there is a growing awareness that this expanded field of communications technologies is not inherently progressive; instead, they are shaped by existing legal and moral frameworks. There is a growing sense that the democratic ideals of the public sphere are unsustainable or under threat and many artists have responded by engaging with the limits of free speech and rights-based representation in print and online media. A new urgency arises in a moment of “post-truth” politics and “fake news.”
Not all publishing by visual and media artists works at these limits of expression and representation; however, many artists do conceive of their publishing activities as performative speech acts, which create lasting social effects through an aesthetic experience rooted in the visual.
Every Public Finds a Book, Every Book Finds a Public
As readers and viewers, “Texts clamour at us. Images solicit our gaze,” yet at the same time, as theorist Michael Warner explains, we are burdened by our own agency to choose what messages gain our attention. For this reason, readers tend to participate in multiple discursive publics over time, experiencing more than one type of collective identification. The cognitive processing of concepts expressed within a text’s or image’s content determines what publics we participate within and how those publics expand to include others. The means by which publications circulate is crucial to the process of how publics are made.
Visual arts publishing is a specialized area of the public sphere. It other words, it attracts a sub-public that identifies with special interests held in common. In the Euro-Canadian tradition, which remains a dominant strain in the visual arts, despite active and ongoing challenges from critical-minority practices, the visual arts press is intrinsically related to the public exhibition of works of art, and the lively social scenes arising around artistic activities. As an ideal, this sub-public is not conceived of as a social or economic elite that imposes standards upon others; rather, it is one space among others where rhetorical skills may be honed in order to take a stand upon political matters that impact areas beyond the visual arts.
Does Public Funding
The ideal of a public sphere is historically linked to the political formation of the sovereign nation-state. The legislative territory is reinforced through the cultivation of a national public that shares a social imaginary (a set of values, traditions, customs, language, territory, etc.). A public formed around an interest in the visual arts can participate in cultivating this national imaginary, as the founders of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec understood in the mid-twentieth century.
The elusive concept of a revolutionary proletarian public spheredepends on a belief that national public funding provides a protectionist niche from market forces. In the mid- to late-twentieth century, for instance, it was possible for artists in Canada and Québec to conceive of themselves as self-determined “cultural workers” who could change the structural relationship between class and cultural production. This generation of artists fell short of transforming the public sphere; however, an intriguing paradox arose, as public funding sources operated in tandem with copyright policy reforms, which narrowly defined artists’ rights in terms of ownership of intellectual property. This paradox will be further expanded upon in future briefs.
In lieu of revolutionizing the public sphere, visual arts publishing sometimes creates counter-publicity; that is, artists can use aesthetic strategies to produce modes of public address that do not fully align with the messaging of a homogenizing global art world dominated by biennials and art fairs, or a larger, spectacularized corporate media space. When this occurs, often through the appropriation of dominant publicity forms and the parody of their circulation patterns, it is possible for counter-publics to be created from people who are consciously or unconsciously drawn to satire or parodies of tropes and media stereotypes.
Artistic counter-publics have art-historical precedents in the magazines and books of the European avant-garde and the North American neo-avant-garde. The exciting thing (for artists) about counter-publics is that they have the potential to transform one’s experience of the world through aesthetic means. That is, they temporarily produce a space where it is possible to collectively re-imagine the fixed identity categories or social roles assigned by dominant media representations.
Artistic counter-publics may overlap with sub-altern, orsecret publics that form because legal or moral censorship limits the ability for members of this self-identifying group to see themselves as fully represented in society. The bilingual and transcultural code-switching practiced in the oral histories and print cultures of peoples determined to be the nation’s racial or ethnic “other” is an example of this type of public. Likewise, the magazines and books that are retrospectively cherished as traces of feminist consciousness-raising or pre-Stonewall queer culture work this way. The formation of these counter-publics are historically contingent upon a lack of rights-based representation; this means that as legal and moral frameworks shift, these invisible publics may themselves shift into a register of public respectability, or at least tolerance. However, their symbolic value as critical minority voices does not diminish when this shift takes place. Transnational publicsform through diasporic, activist, subcultural, or countercultural affiliations. Conditions of (in)visibility, feelings of marginalization or disidentification with a dominant cultural group evinces feelings of associative belonging that transcend local contexts and surpass national boundaries. One might even consider whether publishing from rural regions could attract a global public concerned with peripheral positions in a moment when global economic development favours the creative economies of urban centres.
In the digital culture of the early twenty-first century, some argue that the critical function of artistic publics has been subsumed by the explosion of a global art market, the powerful influence of corporate advertising and speculative, profit-seeking promotional activity. For others, these artistic publics remain important because they can foster a shifting sense of community and identity that transposes local and national concerns into transnational geographies. It has been argued that networks of digital culture reproduce the inequalities perpetuated in other spaces of public life. Within the context of digital culture, public funding of the arts remains a necessary counterpart to intellectual property mechanisms precisely because it offsets economic access barriers that continue to affect artists who produce from a Canadian or Québécois context.
Economic models, such as “the long tail,” were developed to describe a trend in digital culture where small-scale producers would be able to reach global niche markets through online sales. In practice, this model has proved faulty as it overlooks the operating costs that remain the material reality of so-called immaterial networks. Large ecommerce aggregators such Amazon and eBay are the beneficiaries here, not artists or their publishers. Grants from public funders allow small publishers to produce their multiplicity of publics on this long tail. Otherwise, economic access barriers constrain the ability of artist-run publishers to attract and participate in artistic counter-publics and/or other transnational publics. The recent Heritage Canada consultations on cultural policy in the digital era have encouraged artists across disciplines to affirm economic barriers to access as an ongoing issue in creating publics:
“Throughout the consultations this fall on Digital Cultural policy (#digicancon), Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has repeatedly said that artists/cultural workers should be able to derive a living from their work. However, support is needed federally to navigate this new digital sector. Regulation of the internet and its power is desperately needed especially in terms of defending artists/content creators from overwhelming international trade agreements, the almost oligarchic power of internet service providers (ISPs) and the imbalance between commercialism and artistic practices.”[Our translation.](“Plaidoyer pour une politique culturelle équitable”,Le Devoir, 19 novembre 2016).
“Canada’s creative professionals have led Canada in the digital shift, but we struggle to earn a livelihood from it. It’s not from lack of trying. We’ve digitized our work and mastered the internet. We’ve become social media directors for our projects. We connect directly with our fan bases, and monetize everything that we can. So why are more and more of us being forced to abandon creative work? And why do Canada’s youth increasingly seek career paths outside the creative sector?”(Focus on Creators,“Our Letter to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.”)∞
From Dissemination to Circulation—This second brief will emphasize the active role that the publisher must play to ensure a connection with immediate and long-term readerships, whether this publisher is an artist-run centre, an independent small press, or the authors/artists themselves.Where “dissemination,” a term often used in cultural policy, implies the wide spread of information without feedback from an audience, the term “circulation” acknowledges that publics enjoy agency within the networked processes by which art publications travel and gain influence. The near absence of commercial distribution in this field has economic and social consequences; these are outlined by Esther Vincent of Marginal Distribution (a small publishing organization formerly based in Peterborough but now defunct) in an excerpt from the Off-Printing conference proceedings reprinted in this brief.
The Grey Guide to Artist-Run Publishing and Circulation is produced by Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference(ARCA) in collaboration with le Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ). Composed of a series of seven briefs written and developed by artist, critic, cultural worker and art librarian Felicity Tayler, this publication will first be launched through a bi-weekly e-campaign, from March 1st to June 7, 2017. The briefs and reference material will then be available for consultation on ARCA’s website, under the “Grey Guide” menu. A small run print version will be distributed for free to members attending the plenary assembly at the Flotilla National Conference on September 24, 2017, in Charlottetown.
Following a series of meetings of an ad hoc committee of independent publishers from Québec and Canada, this guide seeks to trigger high-level debate about the role of publishing in artist-run culture. Combining theory with practice, the Grey Guide also offers practical guidance in this complex field, so that a new generation of artists and cultural workers who wish to professionalize may do so, while others may opt to remain resolutely DIY if they so please. Either way, somewhere on the continuum between adopting an entrepreneurial strategy and advocating for sustained public funding, this guide offers insight into the advantages and disadvantages inherent to a diversity of approaches.
ARCA wishes to thank all meeting participants, the staff at Artexte, and Michael Maranda for their astute feedback, as well as ARCA’s members for their confidence and ongoing support. This publication has also benefitted from the support of l’Association des groupes en arts visuels francophones (AGAVF), the RCAAQ via its program for promotion of publications as well as support for translation from Canadian Heritage.