Culture

On the ins and outs of publishing

BEIRUT: “‘Cairo writes. Beirut publishes. Baghdad reads.’ People quote this phrase all the time,” artist Ala Younis observes. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we do anything with it?’ In the end we took the last bit.”

With artist and co-curator Maha Maamoun, Younis commissioned Iraqi artist Ali Eyal to create a work related to the Baghdad book market. He went to the city’s famed Mutanabbi Street in search of publications without an ISBN (commercial publications’ unique International Standard Book Number).

He returned to Beirut with pages from his mother’s journal. “She writes about the news,” Younis says, “things happening with her and her children, her efforts to catch up with her friends and attempts to read, reproduce and comment on the type of literature and poetry circulating at the time.”

In “No Part of This Book May Be Reproduced,” Eyal appropriated the pages of his mother’s journals as media for his own pen-and-ink drawings. His piece is among those on show in Younis and Maamoun’s group exhibition “How to Reappear - Through the quivering leaves of independent publishing,” now up at the Beirut Art Center.

Comprised of works and projects by over 40 (historical and contemporary) artists and collaborations from this region and beyond, this sprawling show exhibits plenty of publications. That said, the artists and researchers reflect upon the subject with such a variety of practices - and the curators have laid out the show with sufficient imagination - that it doesn’t resemble a book fair in the least.

Bisecting one of BAC’s downstairs galleries, a zigzag wooden bench displays Bernhard Cella’s “NO-ISBN (Arabic Edition 2019).” In publication and art circles Cella is known for his research on books whose publishers have chosen to eschew the ISBN system. Maamoun and Younis commissioned him to bring his inquiries to this region.

“He puts them on display and thinks through the different [design, format and content] characteristics. Then he enters them into this huge online database, where he inserts the metadata on the works and they receive some kind of visibility,” Maamoun says, “though that’s not the point. The point is to understand the different metadata.”

Nearby is Moad Musbahi’s 2019 work “Paper nor Me xxl, a fatwa for the removal of suspicion, doubt and neglect when writing on European paper.” In this video installation, a reproduction of a leaf of medieval European paper scrolls atop a raised lecternlike surface, complete with the offensive cross-bearing watermarks that prompted the fatwa against using European paper. The work concludes with a flourish as the paper appears to liquefy.

“What does it mean to reflect on publishing as an act?” Maamoun says. “We thought of the colophon [a brief statement of information about a book’s publisher, place and date of publication] as a sort of organizing structure, starting with the author.

“What other kinds of authorship exist? In the case of Ali, his mother writes questions about things happening in a domestic space in her personal notebook, then circulates it among her friends, seeking answers.

“There is an act of sharing, a form of writing and collection of others’ writing. Then Ali reflects on these found documents, republishing them in the context of an exhibition.”

Though bereft of books, Raafat Majzoub’s “Streetschool (prototype)” is also concerned with authorship. The mixed-media installation largely consists of small terraces of seating made from wooden window shutters, facing away from a semienclosed concrete space accentuated by a potted plant.

Majzoub’s project presents the project proposal as an end in itself. “It’s a form you never see. ... He’ll use this proposal ... to enable a second step of the project - the street school itself and how it would exist outside and how it engages others.”

The artist’s interest in authorship is elaborated in a video accompanying the installation in which he discusses the project, its finances, the production fee and the artist fee he shared with his collaborators.

In addition to their own distinct practices, Younis and Maamoun collaborate in a publishing initiative called Kayfa-ta (“How to” in Arabic), which since 2012 has released a varied series of “How to” books.

“Kayfa-ta emerged from a feeling that there are new languages, new ways of looking at the world, new tools that we need to invent or new attitudes that we need to develop to deal with the changing situation in the Arab world,” Maamoun recalls. “So the format of the ‘How to’ came about.”

Both artists stress that Kayfa-ta doesn’t do artist books. “It’s kind of a curatorial project,” Maamoun says, “but from the very beginning we knew we wanted to place the project and the writers and the artists who write in it outside, to have a foot in the art world and a foot outside as well, in regular bookshops.”

Maamoun and Younis have assembled a show that’s so replete with stories that interested visitors will find it warrants, and requires, return visits. For a newspaper journalist perusing this show, though, it’s difficult to not think of it in terms of the internet’s anticipated conquest of print media.

“Some people choose to not have the visibility of the internet,” Maamoun reflects. “Others choose paper because it becomes, in relation to the visibility of the internet, an invisible form.

“With zines, for instance, which are produced for a certain community, which may be part of the authoring of this work, the production and the reception of the work is in relation to a certain place or community. This doesn’t happen on the net.”

“It’s interesting too to see projects like ‘The State,’” Younis says, “which began as a collection with an exhibition catalogue, then became a magazine. They produced four [dissimilar] issues. After a few years absence they made two more editions. Then khalas, that’s finished. It’s very clear what they attempted to do, so they consider this project complete and moved on.”

“We don’t have a paper fetish,” Maamoun insists. “There’s a lot of printed matter here ... but in an exhibition space, how do you represent these more immaterial forms of publishing - online, audio, all of that?

“Kayfa-ta started as a printed format. ... We like the idea that you stumble upon a book, surrounded by other books, how a book moves from one hand to another and has that life that is independent of seeking it out on the net.”

“This show isn’t really trying to say, ‘Print isn’t dead,’” Younis agrees, “though it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves while curating.”

“How to Reappear - Through the quivering leaves of independent publishing” is up at the Beirut Art Center through Sept. 21.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2019, on page 12.

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