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The Book as Refuge, Beacon, Nexus, and Dissent: Interview with Lisa Pearson, Part 1

This is a short excerpt of an interview conducted by Thomas Evans that gives a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at Siglio. Artbook/D.A.P. just published part one of the interview. Part two will be published later in September.

ARTBOOK: I’ll reluctantly forgo a digression on the topic of Romanian monasteries and ask you instead about starting up Siglio. The press made a splash with its debut publication, Joe Brainard’s The Nancy Book (2008), with lots of reviews and press. How did the book come to be Siglio’s first book, and how did it come about?

LISA: I’ll stay focused! No Romania. (Too bad!) I started the press by writing to individual artists and writers whose work I deeply admired, whose work influenced my editorial vision for the press in some way, and/or who had a particular work I imagined other publishers would find unwieldy, “unpublishable” even. Each of those letters took hours (days, even!), and they jumpstarted a number of projects. The Nancy Book was simply first out of the gate. There was absolutely no strategy here, only serendipity.

After I wrote to him, Ron Padgett—who makes all of the creative, editorial decisions for Joe Brainard’s estate—met me in the middle of March at this tiny, windowless restaurant at the back of the Lithuanian Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. We were the only ones there, and we just hashed out the book over coffee. Six and a half months later The Nancy Book was on press and released just over a year from that initial meeting. There were other possibilities for a Brainard book certainly, but we both really liked putting together a book that Brainard himself had already given a title to (there were two “Nancy” books—one collaboration with Ron from Ted Berrigan’s C Comics; the other a suite of twenty “If Nancy” drawings that included more well-known pieces like “If Nancy Was an Ashtray,” and “If Nancy Was a Boy”). It was also important to both of us that the book contain a lot of unknown and unpublished works, and we thought that—though “Nancy” was only one of many facets of Brainard’s work—this would attract new audiences to his work.

So, I’m not sure The Nancy Book was a “splash” but people really do love this book. And that people’s first association with Siglio was through Brainard was very potent. Brainard was a part of one the richest collaborative communities in twentieth-century America, the New York School, and particularly Brainard’s generation was fueled by real and enduring conversations across art and literature. Brainard’s own work is rich with play, a sense of joy and wonder, but it is also incisive with an extraordinary visual sophistication. And it’s utterly unpretentious (and obsessive, which I love). And finally, his work is not nearly as widely known and appreciated as it should be. All of these things set excellent precedents for what might follow in future Siglio titles. Behind the scenes, too, I got an excellent start. The love and goodwill surrounding Brainard just rubbed off: people were unbelievably kind and willing to help. But my luck was greatest in getting to work with Ron on the first book. He was very generous in teaching me things that I would’ve learned through much, much harder lessons any other way.

ARTBOOK:
That’s a lovely tale. Did other Siglio books come from this first round of letters?

LISA: Torture of Women by Nancy Spero did, and I’ve got two projects in the works—one likely to come out next year—that also originate in these letters. I also wrote to Louise Bourgeois then too, and while that didn’t result as book, she gave me permission to publish “He Disappeared Into Complete Silence,” which is a cornerstone piece in It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers that’s out this May.

ARTBOOK: You’ve just posted a great essay on your new Siglio blog, in which you cite an early samizdat copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that was circulating prior to its ‘official’ publication (and which I imagine you encountered on your aforementioned trip to Prague?) as “something of a totem for Siglio.” You describe it as “an act of resistance to the literal, the authoritarian and the facile, as the result of undeterred ambition to share a work of art that might otherwise remain unseen and unread, and as a testament to the ‘book’ as refuge, dissent, beacon, and nexus.” Siglio’s publication of Torture of Women seems like a great example of this stance, and a beautiful production to boot.

LISA: (Just a quick clarification: The Unbearable Lightness of Being was published—just not in Czechoslovakia–first in France in 1984 and then widely translated. The samizdat copy I read—yes, on my first trip to Prague in 1988—was in English. I don’t know if there was a copy being passed around in Czech, but from conversations with friends, it seemed as if censored literature was often read in foreign languages.)

So Siglio’s “translation” of Spero’s Torture of Women to book form absolutely has that in mind. Spero’s own work certainly embodies acts of resistance. As an early feminist artist who worked in relative obscurity until her 50s, Spero persisted when the dominant culture refused to listen or to look. While Torture of Women definitely transcends its time, we live in a culture that, thirty years later—as torture, human rights abuses, and gross injustices are being debated—makes this work persistently topical.

For those who don’t know Torture of Women, it’s an epic piece, composed of 14 panels totaling 125 feet, that juxtaposes bulletin-typed and block-printed testimony by victims of torture, news reportage, and ancient creation myths with quite startling imagery drawn from Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian art without making torture visually explicit. And I’ll take a moment here to stress that Siglio’s publication is a “translation” because this is a work that has a kind of impact in space that can’t be replicated on the page—which is why so much of Spero’s work is so hard to reproduce effectively. (Here is another small act of resistance: imagine a book that does an artist’s vision justice by creating a parallel work rather than collecting images which simply document the fact of the work’s existence.) The question here was: what can the book do that the exhibition space can’t? And the answer is that the book can provide time, a shift from looking to looking and reading. Here is complex, multi-layered narrative (of words and images) that deserves to be truly read, a kind of engagement virtually impossible in an exhibition space. We collaborated with Nancy to reproduce the piece (with shifts in scale, repetition, various framing/cropping, etc.) so that it could have another life on the page—and a wider audience. (And there is an interview with the designer on the BOMBlog that goes into detail about the process of translation/designing.)

But I also say in this essay that Siglio is not a political press. I am interested in many different kinds of acts of resistance and subversion, in the book as refuge and beacon and nexus (in addition to dissent). And this manifests in what I choose to publish and how I publish it.

Read the entire interview here.

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