Various Fires in Publishing: The Facebook Problem and Other DIY Dilemmas by Eleanor Greenhalgh

Originally posted on

When an artists’ talk ends with someone deleting their Facebook account, you know it’s a a sign of the times. And so it was this weekend at Various Fires in Publishing*, with a panel on (digital) self-publishing during the Wereld van Witte de With festival. With reggae pulsing through the walls from the street below, a rather interesting bunch of people got together to reflect on the situation of self-publishing today.

The Facebook Problem

Various Fires in Publishing. Image:

Lynn Harris & Eva Weinmayr of AND Publishing had come over from London to deliberate over whether or not to close their Facebook account. In the ensuing discussion, a rather difficult paradox crystallized: self-publishing is about resisting media monopolies and opening up alternative channels, yet by bypassing big publishers we come to rely on platforms like Facebook to do our marketing & distribution. Lynn & Eva discussed various possible alternatives (Twitter, Path, Foursquare) – none of which, in terms of the centralized server/TOS problem, are really alternatives at all. Diaspora came up briefly, but was dismissed as requiring too much coding knowledge to be viable. (Of course you can get an account on someone else’s server – aka ‘pod’ – but this replicates many of the same problems:, for example, disallows “pornographic” content.) Indymedia old-timers may have little patience with this nail-biting, but as I’ve previously documented, that behemoth too is struggling to agree upon how to respond to a situation in which 2.0 platforms proliferate.

Lynn & Eva gave a thoughtful talk about their dilemma, framing the question for DIY publishers as: how do you create a meaningful relationship to the reader outside the mediation of a traditional book shop? Our own Renee Turner was on the panel too with a peppering of awkward questions, the most important being: if self-publishing is about creating a context for the reader, what context is created by the platforms you use? I would put it more bluntly: can a FB page have any claim to the term ‘self-publishing’?

It was interesting to get a sense in this all-female discussion of the real desire for DIY communication tools that don’t require coding or server admin skills. From a feminist (and generally anti-elitist) point of view I’m inclined to see this as a reasonable demand. But if we have abandoned mainstream publishers in favour of doing it ourselves – learning to design, print and bind – then why stop when it comes to distribution? Why should running a server be seen as “something else”, something others should still do for us? Is it reasonable or possible to expect autonomy in distribution if we don’t have the requisite skills in networked as well as print media? Hopefully with the launch of projects like Freedombox we’ll get some answers in the next couple of years. (See their latest celebratory video – somewhat ironically hosted on Youtube – right.)

Democratic Distribution?

FGA Burlosconi

Similar issues were touched on by Rob Hamelijnck from local magazine Fucking Good Art. I was endeared by the (perhaps deceptive) simplicity of his response to the problem of distribution. Sheepishly dubbing himself “old-fashioned”, he described how FGA simply made a webpage to publish their articles, and relied on the personal contacts of its writers to distribute paper copies. By the end of the discussion, however, this approach was looking not so much old-fashioned as media-savvy and ahead of the times.

FGA certainly has its finger on the pulse, and incidentally for expats like us Piet-Zwarters is a great place to find English-language articles on the current ideological/financial upheavals in Dutch arts policy. Rob spent some time on this topic in particular with reference to FGA’s 2008 Swiss Issue and more recent Art in the Age of Berlusconi, lamenting the notion that the market should decide which art gets distributed and which not. It should be curators (“like us”), he insisted, who get this job. And so we return to the problem of centralized control. Both the free market, and closed platforms like Facebook, give the impression of facilitating democratic expression. In both cases this is misleading – but is old-fashioned curatorial power really a preferable alternative?

Anagrams and Collaborations

Flat Time House sculpture

It was in the meditative and subtle presentation by Marit Munzberg that some alternatives begun to suggest themselves. Starting with the name of her project LemonMelon, she explored the attractions of what she calls “anagrammatical” practice. An anagram interlocks, transmutes, to form new constellations. She begun with the image of two interleaving books (a sculpture from John Latham’s house, right), going on to explore various texts and artworks that propose the book as an open and porous object – or, perhaps, not an object at all but “a conceptual space, or something which helps to form this space”. Book as verb. A book made up of pages from other books: book as a library?

The Piracy Project. Photo: Links emerged in discussion between this anagrammatical approach to the book, and Lynn & Eva’s Piracy Project (left): the effort to re-stock an unfunded library by inviting donations of pirated copies. As you would expect, many of the donations are not verbatim copies but transmute into more or less “original” works. A wonderfully tongue-in-cheek response to the DIY rhetoric of funding cuts, which insists on “communitarian” labour while disallowing the genuinely collaborative (ie, subversive) practices that make DIY culture possible. It is in this collaborative and porous approach to publishing then that things start to get really interesting, and new possibilities emerge. I hope to explore this territory further over the coming year as I expand the Dissolute Image project into models for distributed, consensual publishing.

For the time being though, the Facebook problem remains unsolved. AND Publishing have 14 days before their dramatically deleted account gets scrapped for good. I wonder if they’ll have the guts to stick to their guns. Would I, I wonder? As struggling self-promoters, can we artists really afford to abandon such platforms? Or to be rhetorical: as DIY culturalists, can we afford not to?

Various Fires in Publishing was held at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art during the Wereld van Witte de With festival. Yhe event was hosted by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and organized in collaboration with Printroom.