From Saddam Hussein’s didactic speeches on democracy (yes, really) to a strangely poetic collection of GIFs with quasi-philosophical captions, the catalogue of Brooklyn publisher Badlands Unlimited is as wide-reaching as the work of its founder, artist Paul Chan. In 2008, after a nearly decade-long, rapidly moving career making spanning video work in various other mediums as well as engaging in political activism (he has always been adamant that the two practices are separate), the New York-based Chan took a break from art-making. He shifted gears into something new, yet not completely disparate given his interest in language and reading. Badlands Unlimited may be the first publisher of artist ebooks to work chiefly with digital format rather than treating it as ancillary to print. Its efforts are definitely among the most ambitious in exploring the medium.
When the press participated in Printed Matter’s 2012 New York Art Book Fair as the event’s first primarily digital publisher, reactions were adverse among some visitors, who felt that creating ebooks was akin to burning (paper) books. Yet Badlands dabbles in almost all formats imaginable, including physical volumes (a collection of Yvonne Rainer’s poems is one example—it is also sold as an ebook with video and audio inserts). In addition, however, there are interactive books (the group-show-as-ebook How to Download a Boyfriend, 2012, features reader quizzes), simple pdfs which can be downloaded free and even a stone tablet (Chan’s Holiday, 2012), which Badlands counts as a book because it has its own ISBN. Perhaps most remarkable is Mans in the Mirrors (2011), a set of images loosely based on Miserable Miracle, Henri Michaux’s 1956 account of his first encounter with hallucinogens. Produced by the Badlands team in one day under the influence of mescaline, it’s a 3D book (glasses not included). For all their variety, these publications are tied together by Chan’s conviction that a book is defined by the unique form of attention it commands.
Chan’s experiment in stretching what a book can be is coupled with a joyful irreverence. Move your cursor over any link on Badlands’ website, and your browser fills up with GIFs and images from the catalogue. At one time, the FAQ section included a plea for help for someone to fix this “problem,” as if the publisher did not know how it had happened.
“We code all our ebooks by hand,” associate director Micaela Durand told A.i.A., “except once—we downloaded [the app] iBooks Author when it first came out. We were curious about the ‘Garageband for ebooks.’ It made How to Download a Boyfriend happen despite some software glitches. No regrets. We’ll use anything until it breaks. We also make book trailers. We have media skills. We edit video and websites. We recognize information as particles and waves.”
Durand talked to A.i.A. by e-mail, discussing the fact that publishing in print is still a requirement for being taken seriously, and how to circumvent censorship through sheer persistence.
KIRA JOSEFSSON How, if at all, has the ebooks publishing landscape changed since you started?
MICAELA DURAND The first ebook I remember looking at was on a Kindle in 2009, and if felt like a permanent Etch-a-Sketch. I hated it. The number of people using these things is going up and the desire for content indicates that current users seek transgressive forms.
JOSEFSSON Your website features few links. Instead, the main way to navigate is via search terms. Does this mean that visitors don’t find certain books? Do you keep a catalogue of the terms people use?
DURAND The search terms indexed on the website are based on a list of the most searched terms on the Internet and whatever else we come up with. Our intention is to have the metadata fully stocked so that you can search any word that comes to mind and receive results. I don’t know which books get the least attention but then I’m surprised that anyone reads our books in the first place.
JOSEFSSON Is this a financially viable project?
DURAND We waste so much time and lose so much money. So yes.
JOSEFSSON Klaus_eBooks, profiled in an earlier piece, has had problems with censorship by the iTunes store. Is this something you have encountered?
DURAND As far as I know, the iTunes process is lots of people sitting in a room looking through each submission. If one person thinks your book breaks some rule, he or she has the power to reject it. We resubmit until someone isn’t paying attention or weirdly likes our book and accepts it.
JOSEFSSON Is the two-pronged tactic of publishing both (sometimes extremely rarefied) print editions and cheaper digital books a way of dealing with the tension between compensation for labor and freedom of information?
DURAND I guess it is. I think our experience with ebooks is that no one takes you seriously as a publisher unless you offer the physical thing too. We also found that we need money in order to give things away.
JOSEFSSON Ebook publishing is still in its infancy, which creates a certain sense of freedom. How long before this youthfulness matures into something more restricted?
DURAND I don’t know how long it will be before new forms of publishing are restricted. As far as freedom goes, it seems to me that the more freedom we exercise, the more restrictions seem to be placed on us. Whatever it is you want to make or change, you have to find a way to do it yourself. It’s not the spoon that bends.