In many ways, the annual New York Art Book Fair—which opened last night and runs all weekend at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City—can feel like the publishing version of the South by Southwest music festival, which is to say, the visual equivalent of hearing seven bands play all at once as you walk down a crowded and hot Texas street with a hangover. But if you can stomach the headache-inducing visual noise and actually “get in the pit,” such as it is, there is a lot of good stuff to take in.
“This is the biggest weekend in New York City, every year,” the Los Angeles artist Cali Thornhill-Dewitt stated bluntly. He was outside of the booth that his crew WSSF were running, located in a small room on the third floor. He didn’t offer too many details about the booth, but he did let one important piece of information slip. “There is a Marky Mark shirt in there,” Thornhill-Dewitt said. Sold!
Also in that small room and also from Los Angeles was Wendy Yao, who had a stall for her store and publishing imprint, Ooga Booga. She was selling, among many other things, shirts from the artist Oliver Payne that contained lyrics from the record Chill Out by the seminal British conceptual electronica duo the KLF. The shirts serve as an extension of a performance Payne staged last year at the L.A. Oooga Booga space 356 Mission wherein the album was played in its entirety. “It was really awesome, no ins and outs,” Yao said. So, like one of those high-school lock-in parties? “It was a lock-in. With a chill-out security guard. You were required to chill.” (Truthfully, a classic rave-style chill-out room would’ve been very appreciated at the fair, which is nothing if not completely overwhelming.)
Elsewhere, the booth of New York’s Karma bookstore had on display a new monograph from the Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby as well as some of Ruby’s cardboard-based collages. These works had the wet and dirty feel of something sourced directly off of one of L.A.’s endless strip-mall streets, with the occasional Miller Light six-pack peaking through. I asked Karma’s Marie Becker if Ruby actually drinks those six packs himself before putting them to artistic use. “That’s a good question. I’m sure some of that he really just finds and he puts together. I mean, I don’t know if that Evian box he actually drinks,” she said. “It’s very…” she continued later, trailing off. “It’s used.”
Right around the corner and down the stairs from Karma was David Zwirner’s contribution to the fair, the video Death Disco Dance by Marcel Dzama, projected big on a basement wall at PS1. The video features dancers in polka-dot leotards in a rubble-filled clearing adjacent to a highway, flanked by some ominous characters in giant Easter Island–esque masks. For the occasion, those very leotard-clad dancers were in attendance, doing two performances in front of the projection. “We’re not doing this dance,” Vanessa Walters, one of the dancers told me, gesturing up to the video. “We’re doing a different dance. But it’s related. And we don’t have these guys,” she said, pointing to the aforementioned masked intruders.
“Last year’s New York Art Book Fair broke the attendance record for MoMA PS1, and people are all coming out for print,” Jonathan Thomas, editor-in-chief of the Third Rail told me in the middle of a conversation about my new internet service provider. “We had been talking about the internet recently, and how fast your new internet connection is, and here it is, a slower pace to work with print. But that so many people want it, I think that says something about it.” It’s true: people love art books! Although I didn’t outright buy anything, I ended up somehow gradually accruing a bunch of stuff as the night went on. Never in my life did I wish I had a tote bag more! I wonder if anyone on the grounds were selling such a thing. I guess now I’ll never know.
At the Nieves booth, Anthony Atlas was holding it down and very excited about a photo book published by Edition Patrick Frey about grand prix racing called Gasoline and Magic. “My father worked for a race-car driver for a long time and I’m exploring it, going back in time,” Atlas said. So are you keeping the book, or giving it to your dad? “Well, if they have more at the end of the fair, I’m going to buy another one and give it to my dad.” In other words, he’s keeping it. Was this a subtle suggestion that his father might not appreciate limited-edition art books? “No, I don’t think he does,” Atlas said. “He might appreciate this.” Atlas then pulled out a fantastic poster of a race-car driver, one of his father’s former clients. I thought it was really cool and I’m not even a dad! Talking about his station at the fair, Atlas commented that “honestly, this is a room with a lot of intensity” (he was in the same small room that housed Ooga Booga and WSSF). “It’s hot already, and it’s been about ten minutes of the fair officially being open, which doesn’t bode well. It’s a lot of vibe in this room. I wish I was in a rare-book room, where I could browse library books.”
With Atlas’s comment ringing in my head, I went down to the boiler room of PS1 to visit a special installation by antiquarian bookseller Arthur Fornier about Maurice R. Stein and Larry Miller’s work of “radical pedagogy” The Blueprint for Counter Education, which, in broad strokes, attempted to create a new academic canon for post-’60s culture. The installation was based on elementary instructions from the book’s “shooting script,” and was designed to feel like the off-campus apartment of a radical grad student circa 1970. John Fahey softly played on speakers flanked by lit candles, and a table of books direct from the author’s library was available to peruse. This was pretty close to the chill-out zone I was looking for. “I love being in a meditative space where people can actually come and take a pause, or step out of the maelstrom of 40,000 people walking through a book fair and come down here and listen to music, read a few books,” Fornier told me.
Out of the boiler room, through the courtyard, and past a man tepidly playing middling techno at a moderate volume, there was the third world–like zine tent. Inside, the Philadelphia comics legend and true unsung hero Andrew Jeffrey Wright was present, alongside the notorious Retard Riot, also known as Noah Lyon. Although Jeffrey Wright—who had for sale the new edition of his “Abs With Labs” calendar, which combines drawings of physically fit dogs with, among other things, furniture design and pizza—has in the past performed comedy with his group the New Dreamz at the fair, this was his first time manning a booth. “It’s like just nonstop streams of people coming through, putting their hands on your stuff,” he said. Do the visitors’ paws ever get too grubby? “I have buttons in a shoebox, and sometimes [art fair attendees] massage their hands in the shoebox and stare off into the distance,” he said. “Whatever, if it makes them feel good, it’s fine.”
Jeffrey Wright wrote the foreword to a new book of Paper Rad zines debuting at the fair, which was, on the opening night, sadly stuck in customs. There was, however, a thoughtful collection of Paper Rad material encased under glass, a shrine to a collective that existed just as much digitally as physically (Cory Arcangel’s Arcangel Surfware booth had some early Arcangel Nintendo hacks on hand that evoked a very similar era).
A zine-game veteran, Paper Rad member Jessica Ciocci was able to keep everything very much in perspective. “That’s kind of the vibe of this place,” Ciocci said during a conversation about the fair, while surveying the scene in PS1’s courtyard. She paused. “Very nerdy.”