Wednesday 17 October 2018

Marina Sorbello in conversation with Chiara Figone from Archive Books, Berlin

MARINA SORBELLO: Archive is many things: publishing house, exhibition space, design studio... Tell me: how did you start and how would you define your work?

CHIARA FIGONE: When Archive started, in 2009, we intended to launch a journal which would focus on artists using archives in their practices. Hence the name Archive Journal. Almost immediately, however, we realized that we were dealing with topics which would require the expansion of our publishing activity beyond the journal, and we started producing artists’ books as well as experimenting with other formats.

    Archive Kabinett in Dieffenbachstraße, 
    Berlin-Kreuzberg, 2009
We consider artists’ books as a space of autonomy for artists. We are particularly interested in artists taking up the role of editors in order to assemble contents relevant to their research. So, artists also play a vital role in shaping Archive, as they work with and on content often differently than authors or academics do, especially in the relationship between text and image.
In addition, we publish anthologies and readers on a broad range of topics which nevertheless still revolve around notions of archives, as well as around the practice of film-making. Video as a medium has long been a central preoccupation of ours, and this preoccupation has also had wide-ranging impact on the way we produce books. As a medium, video has a unique relationship with time which needs to be reflected upon and addressed in the process of publishing a book. This not only means that books dealing with video need to interact with the experience of time imparted by the work itself – be it by reflecting it, explicitly calling it to attention or contrasting it through the experience of time imparted by reading the book – but also to address how the production of video work as a process leads to a different relationship with the book. Often, we address the impossibility of integrating the work itself into the book by integrating a lot of the materials artists collect and produce during the research phase of their work, which then become integral parts of the book’s content, and adds another dimension to how the artwork itself is understood.

Shortly after we founded Archive, we opened our first location in Berlin, on Dieffenbachstrasse. There, Archive became a hybridized space, which served as a bookshop, but also as a library and a space for discussion and sharing, thus playing a very important role by allowing the creation of a network of relationships which have also influenced our editorial line. Quite a few of the books we have published were the result of relationships established through Archive Kabinett. The exhibition space is a more recent development, after moving to Müllerstrasse. A development which has allowed us to further explore the medium of exhibition and present contents across different formats. Archive defines itself through this methodology of working in parallel, organically engaging with the space of the book and the exhibition space.

Archive Müllerstraße, Berlin-Wedding 2017
MS: How do you choose the artists you work with? Do you accept proposals, or do you seek authors based on your own editorial research?

CF: We do both. In some cases, we have contacted artists whose work we consider would be an important addition to our editorial line, but it has also worked the other way around, with artists contacting us because they felt Archive would be able to engage with and present their work in a measured and reflective way. Overall, the most important thing for a publisher is to remain committed to an editorial line, to establish a clear perspective. We thus often seek content which we feel would contribute in broadening and clarifying that perspective. As a publishing house, we not only think of our titles as individual works but also as participating in a broader web of meaning. We choose to publish works not only based on quality, but also on how they will engage with other titles we have published, on whether or not the works will benefit from the conceptual frame Archive provides and, vice versa, whether the title itself will add a layer of nuance to the network of concepts Archive considers its editorial line.

MS: So if I understand correctly, the books you publish are co-edited by the artists and someone from the Archive team... by the way who is Archive, exactly?

CF: I always say “we” because Archive is an extremely fluid group. There are a few people, such as Paolo Caffoni and myself, who have been part of Archive from its inception, people that were based in Berlin only for some years and were instrumental in the making of Archive such as Nicola Guy, people that are with us since many years such as Lilia di Bella, Pia Bolognesi, Alima de Graaf and Annika Turkowski, but also people that started recently and are already making a difference such as Caroline Bourrit, Binta Diaw, Ines Juster, Fatou Kiné Diouf, and Gaia Martino. Broadly, Archive is a collective endeavour: at the moment there are nine of us working at Archive, but that number can fluctuate between two and ten at any given time. To function at its best, Archive would ideally need ten full-time people. This relative instability is partly a consequence of the absence of structural support, as lack of funding can mean we cannot afford having more people working on some projects. We are lucky in that people support us and participate in our activity on a voluntary basis. We wouldn’t be able to afford permanent positions such as Head of Publications or Editor in Chief for the journal.

While this is a situation which has, in a way, been imposed upon us, it must be acknowledged that it is a situation which we have exploited to our advantage: it means that we all participate in all the different facets of Archive, from shipment organization to editorial work, which encourages dialogue and collaboration, an ethos which has informed, and even defined, Archive.

Exhibitions Archive Müllerstraße

MS: You mentioned the issue with lack of structural funding. Let us talk about finances: how do you fund your many activities?

CF: Funding is very difficult, partly because publishing in the art field is a very specific niche which is nevertheless regulated by much broader funding systems and markets. This makes it quite difficult to produce independently – and, in fact, we do not think of or refer to Archive as an “independent” publishing house – because the production of our publications is so tightly conditioned by the broader cultural system, specifically to the public funding system and to private donations. We could say that we are independent from certain systems when we think about what we should publish but on a production level we have to take into acount forms of dependency… To answer your question, finding ways to fund our many activities is a constant exercise in imagination and flexibility: we apply for public funding, prizes and grants, run a design studio, teach at institutions abroad, etc. In practice, it is impossible for us to compartmentalize different projects and practices, so we fundraise for Archive as a whole in order to finance projects and books.  

MS: You successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign last summer.

CF: Yes. It was our first, and probably last, crowdfunding campaign. Despite thinking it is an interesting model, we don’t consider it a sustainable fundraising solution. In terms of financial sustainability and independence, there are a lot of expenses that we cannot crowd-fund. A great example is running costs: as a publishing house, we were unable to write applications to cover rent, electricity, telephone bills, etc. Every publication needed to have its own funding, which is devoted specifically to it by the funding body. Running an exhibition space certainly allowed us to apply for different types of funding.

Last year, for example, Archive was one of the recipients of the Berlin project spaces award, which takes into account running costs, which rarely happens. This 30.000 Euro grant gave us the opportunity to focus on the program and, crucially, allowed us to develop a sustainable ecology between our publications and our exhibitions.

Unfortunately, this is not a grant that one can receive every year, which means that this year we couldn’t count on receiving comparable funding. This can actually become quite detrimental to our activities, because it means some of our attention is diverted towards funding applications and deadlines which is a much more exhausting process than one would expect. It is a vicious cycle in a way, because we lack the funds to ask for funds properly and efficiently, that is, to hire someone who would be uniquely devoted to writing grant applications…

MS: Ideally, in your opinion, how should or could the funding of small-scale publishing houses work? Do you have a vision?

CF: Firstly, small-scale publishing houses deal with the same issues the entirety of the publishing field deals with: scarcity and precarity of bookshops partially due to new online businesses, the decreasing popularity of print media despite increases in number of books being published, the lack of financial margin to deal with high costs of printing and shipment… In the cycle life of any book, there are obstacles at every turn.

These problems are exacerbated in small-scale publishing houses such as Archive because we cannot work with larger distributors due to the fact that we produce books which not only belong to a very specific niche, but also produce them in relatively small quantities. Additionally, online platforms such as Amazon has proven not to be very effective for publishing houses of our size, and, most importantly, selling through them provokes dissonances because, from an ethical perspective, Amazon’s system is not one we wish to support.

Finally, there are other difficulties tied to the fact that Archive publishes art books. From a practical perspective, publishing art books involves costs that one simply does not have to deal with when it comes to plain anthologies and text-based books. Beyond that, there is a lack of understanding of what publishing in the field of contemporary art actually is. It is not a for-profit business. It cannot be. On this last point, there has been some positive developments, notably with Berlin establishing a new award for publishers based in the city.

We think there are ways in which this situation can improve, however. Bookshops still seem like the best platform for publishers like us, as they provide a context in which each publication’s meaning is enriched by its proximity with other publications. Bookshops also allow for relationships between public and publications to form in a way that cannot be replicated online; many bookshops are also functioning as cultural places, hosting events and readings and thereby helping the contents in finding readership.

Ideally, small-scale publishers would work more collaboratively and function like networks or cooperatives do: sharing costs, resources, know-how, applying jointly for funding. We could share storage space, support distributors and people who would deal with funding for all members of the network. This seems like it would be a positive development, but there is no way to know if it would really work like that, especially considering the publishing field seems inexorably competitive…
It could also be interesting to see more cooperation, or at least exchange, between the academic and art worlds. Academic publishing has managed to achieve a kind of sustainability that the “independent” art publishing context lacks, but art books tend to circulate more outside of the boundaries of their own sector in a way that academic publications do not. More interaction along these lines seems to me like it would be mutually beneficial.

Berlin, October 2018

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