The New York Art Book Fair, 2012, Presented by Printed Matter at MoMA PS1

Keynote Speaker: Paul Chan, “Publish to Perish”

Multimedia artist Paul Chan began publishing limited-edition books, e-books, and art works under imprint Badlands Unlimited in 2010. His questions about the viability of publishing will form the subject of this address, including: “Is publishing a form of addiction? What is a book? How is reading a book different than looking at art? Does light change the nature of what appears on paper and screen? How come I was served with a warrant for outstanding taxes? Why does running Badlands waste so much time and lose so much money? What does this have to do with pleasure?”

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Shortly before Paul Chan spoke at MoMA PS1 as a keynote speaker for The New York Art Book Fair 2012, invisible speakers were dropping beats of reggae and smooth rap. Upon taking the stage, the music subsided, only to be replaced with a tide of heavy rain sloshing against the exterior of the Performance Dome. Like an ideal pairing of technology and minimalism, the audible shift from digital to analog seemed like a prescient soundtrack for the discussion the advent of the e-reader.

An affable curator named Kathy stood on stage and graciously introduced Chan. She promoted his recent book Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide, and then she outlined all the letters in Chan’s name as a clever way to describe him (for example, “P is for Pluck”). Following the brief address, Chan stepped onto the stage and greeted the crowd in a self-effacing manner and proceeded to share his foray into the publishing world. He began his talk by explaining how the advent of the e-reader had dramatically changed the landscape of publishing.  As an artist, Chan stated he knew nothing about publishing, but in 2010 when he founded his digital publishing company Badlands Unlimited, he felt it was important to build a new platform upon which he could champion his work as well as other artist’s work.

A few years before Badland’s inception, Chan confessed to undergoing a drought in his creativity. “Sometimes ideas run out of you, and sometimes you run out of ideas,” he quipped. Chan placed a positive spin upon the value of “what is made when one doesn’t work” by recalling Duchamp’s unorthodox decision to retire as an artist in order to become a professional chess player. Ultimately, the boldness of this move served as a creative catalyst for Duchamp because the pressure was off to generate the “next great idea” and he became more prolific than ever.  Similarly, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot while he was on vacation. Like many artists before him, Chan patiently honored his creative block by allowing it to unfold. His creative breakthrough arrived when he began to examine the boundaries of his work as a digital artist. Specifically, what if his images were to appear on the pages of an e-reader? By reframing the context of his art, the idea for Badlands was conceived.

Chan likens digital publishing to “books in an expanded field” where both form and history can be portrayed. Due to the continually burgeoning field of graphic design, today’s digital art books have a sophisticated layout and a multiplicity of form. Subsequently, many artists have transitioned from paper publishing to digital publishing, which means that increasing amounts of primary information can be found online. Despite this convenience, Chan points out that historically, society has long expressed a resistance toward publishing. In the 14th Century, people were highly skeptical of book presses because they did not trust books that were not hand written. Similarly, today’s society remains wary of the e-reader, suspicious of its technology and two-dimensional format. Although the e-book may explore unchartered terrain, it is a concept that bases itself upon existing properties. Perhaps we can all ease into this 2.0 version if we interpret the e-reader as a “remake” of the original.  After all, isn’t everything more or less derivative?

The key point that Chan makes here is that mediums are powerful objects that evoke particular emotions. Whereas sculpture evokes scale and active viewing, books can evoke our desire on how to live. Digital books have the potential to inspire us as well, they just need an updated framework to accompany this idea.  That said, the goal of Chan’s digital printing enterprise is to create a new arena where these relationships can commingle and be displayed accordingly. Not without humor, Chan concluded his talk by showing an image of a massive stone tablet entitled “Holiday”, ed. 1/1, which is “available in an unlimited edition as an e-reader.” Not only does this artwork bridge the gap between old and new, but it also sends the message that Badlands is truly publishing outside of the printing press and deep into an expanded field.

Holiday, ed. 1/1, Paul Chan, Badlands.

Holiday, ed. 1/1, Paul Chan, Badlands.

Paul Chan (b. 1973) is a multimedia artist with an MFA from Bard College and a BFA from Art Institute of Chicago. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Nebraska, Chan began his art exploration with photojournalism before branching out into drawing, animation, and video. His work engages with fundamental themes including politics, poetry, war, and death. A political activist as well as an artist, Chan is known for his presentation of dualities: violence and joy, utopia and apocalypse, the Bible and the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Beckett and hip-hop. Chan has exhibited worldwide at prominent institutions including: Julia Stoschek Collection, Dusseldorf, Germany;
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands;
Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo, Norway;
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA;
Apexart, New York, NY;
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY. Chan exhibits with Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, NY. The artist currently lives and works in New York City.