Leading by Design: Kayla Romberger on Print Culture
Leading by Design explores the work of PennDesign alumni, faculty members, and supporters of the School who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Few Philadelphia artists have attracted notice for new work as quickly, or with such universal acclaim, as PennDesign’s Kayla Romberger. In 2016, she co-founded the much-publicized bookshop and exhibition space Ulises, where she has co-organized exhibitions with artists and publishing groups including Hannah Black, Martine Syms, Pablo Helguera, Hardworking Goodlooking, and Bidoun. The shop carries artist books and is operated as a quarterly publication of its own, with four curatorial seasons per year. As a lecturer in the undergraduate fine arts program, Romberger teaches courses on printmaking, publications, and ephemera. Before teaching at Penn, she held internships in programming and education at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn (ICA).
In 2017, Romberger received a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for Publishing As Practice, an experimental art publishing residency hosted at Ulises. Here, in excerpts from a longer interview with Design Weekly, Romberger talks about the resurgence of print culture in the art world, self-publishing art books, and teaching print practices to undergraduates. The conversation has been edited.
Tell me about your publications class. What’s the idea behind that?
It developed around an idea for a dream class I’ve always wanted to teach. It’s a studio and partial seminar that focuses on the self-published artists’ publication as an affordable, accessible, and easily reproducible format for exploring ideas, disseminating artists’ work, and collaborating across disciplines. We examine print in all its forms: its impending or predicted “death” with the web, and the resurgence of interest in print and publications that has exploded instead and continues to grow internationally; the larger function of print and why it still matters now. One of the main pivots around the world of artists’ publications is Printed Matter in New York, one of the first book shops dedicated to the artist’s book that opened there in 1976. The shop was founded by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard and a few additional pioneering conceptual artists in New York. Later, under director Max Shumann, Printed Matter founded the New York Art Book Fair in 2009 and L.A. Art Book Fair in 2013, both of which are wildly popular—attended by nearly 70,000 and 30,000 visitors respectively in a single weekend.
The class was originally structured around Lucy Lippard’s definition of the artist publication from her seminal  essay “The Artist’s Book Goes Public.” Independent art publishing, or self-publishing, gives the artist permission to create one’s own publication and control its circulation, thus giving the artist greater agency over her own artistic practice. It’s a very egalitarian, democratic way of working. Lippard describes the artist’s book as a “portable exhibition [that] reflects no outside opinions” permitting the artist to bypass the rigid system of the commercial gallery. As an artist, one can work on a grander scale than a single work or exhibition and potentially reach a wider audience. That’s the beauty of working in multiple. It might be the thing a visitor takes home from an exhibition and holds onto for years or gives to someone who might care deeply for the contents. The artist can decide where the publication goes. But there are limits to that, too, of course. You need access to or funds for an affordable printer. And have an idea of where to circulate them.
In terms of dissemination, the Internet is more powerful. So, why do you think there’s a resurgence of the print format itself?
At this point, I think digital and print culture go hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other. Some of the resurgence of interest in print is likely due to the fact that people want to get off the Internet and be in the physical world. There’s a longing for community. Holding a physical book is still this amazing thing—the encounter with a physical object. Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura” still factors. On a practical front, it’s also easier to read. Even if the idea of artists’ publications is that they should be nonprecious or affordably made, because they’re made in short runs or limited editions they often become collector’s items as well. They might be made on a niche subject that only a tiny audience, perhaps the writer and reader alone, connect to—or a magazine for art handlers, documentation or stories of gay culture in countries where such an orientation might be banned (for an urgent and not-so-tiny an audience). Print publications can foment political change and remain anonymous. Secondly, there is a whole community that forms around the art book fairs shaped by both the visitors and the artists and publishers. I think it has to do with wanting community and exchange and print and the allure of the tactility of print. It’s not something you can get at Barnes & Noble. I think it operates in that weird space where it’s not quite a precious art object, but you do have numbers, which creates a world of connected readers. I recently brought a box of books from a tiny publishing imprint called Kayfa Ta in Cairo, where I was visiting my partner’s family over the holidays, to an independent bookseller in New York, for example. The world of independent publishing is exciting and surprisingly small!
Does it feel like the resurgence of print culture is tied in some way to the death of mass print media? Do you feel like in another 10 or 15 years that print, in the art world, is going to be as vibrant as it is now?
What a tough question! When I first started teaching the class I had a more pessimistic attitude, like, “Oh, the death of print is inevitable. This is the last dregs of what we can do with it.” Now I feel like the opposite. It is one world that is exists simultaneously to the art world and to internet culture. Sometimes it’s in support of those worlds, sometimes it operates in opposition to them. Old copy and Risograph machines, often discarded by offices, can be found and purchased on Craigslist to support a serious publication practice, allowing artists to set up their own publishing imprints. This is common practice for a lot of graphic designers too. Other publishing imprints embrace the digital fully. David Reinfurt’s The Serving Library, for example, is a site of PDFs that are “published” upon download. Yet he, too, continues to make books in print for specific projects.
That kind of approach sums up the culture of artists’ books, I think: using and embracing the limits of one’s own abilities, programs, or printer.
I think that the one thing limiting print culture most is actually the cost of printing. Like I mentioned earlier, Printed Matter was founded around the idea that artists’ publications should be neither precious nor expensive to produce or purchase. No one-off books or $200 monographs. Printed Matter recommends “short-run” print runs of roughly 100, and takes submissions to sell at its bookshops. That said, printing prices creep high quickly for larger editions or a more polished quality of print, such as off-set printing (how most publications, including magazines, are printed). So there is a reason publishing and its infrastructure was first organized, of course. It’s a constant balancing act of print budget versus vision for a publication when publishing independently. Once an artist makes a book that garners interest they often need to figure out strategies for printing a second edition affordably. It could come through grants or the money made through selling the book. Many artists, like Paul Chan and Badlands Unlimited, fund their publishing imprints independently or through the sale of their work, simply because they care about the project. There are networks of sites dedicated to listing affordable printers willing to print in smaller runs around the US too. Publishing imprints open and close, publications go out of print, but the interest and production of them hasn’t lessened.
Is there a parallel to vinyl with music, where you don’t actually need this format in order to get the content. How do you prioritize the format without making the format precious?
That’s a great question. At the art bookshop I co-run in Philadelphia, Ulises, the most popular publication we sell is a zine on Kim Kardashian made by a former student of mine, Liz Barr. It’s called I’m Literally Obsessed with Kim Kardashian. It’s funny and thoughtful. I think she sells it for five dollars. We’re also constantly recommending that she up the price for her sake! She probably doesn’t make a profit on it, but it’s not precious either. When we run out, we call her and she prints more, most likely on an office printer. I think I’m Literally Obsessed with Kim Kardashianexemplifies that perfect zone between format or physicality and ideology. Does it have to be print? No, but it’s way more fun.
In your classes, do you find that students come in with an interest in print culture already formed, or do they develop that interest through seeing what's possible and what the actual practices are?
It's a mix. An English major would have a more specific idea of what a publication could do, since they tend to be predisposed to the printed book or chapbook, which are sometimes made by the writers themselves. One of my favorite students was a Wharton graduate student who decided InDesign—the layout program most designers use and the one we also learn to use in class—was not for her. She designed every publication that semester in PowerPoint. I thought it was really innovative because it’s easier to use but also somewhat similar to InDesign. She would lay the book out as a presentation, push “print,” and turn it into a publication. There were a few alignment issues, but her publications turned out surprisingly great. That kind of approach sums up the culture of artists’ books, I think: using and embracing the limits of one’s own abilities, programs, or printer.Meanwhile, I've had computer science majors take on publishing in their own unique and passionate ways. Creating websites that correlate to or interact with a print publication in some way. It’s a great question though. I should probably ask the students in a more specific way from the outset. Why print? Why should we care? There’s a lot to learn from one’s students.
Anything else you want to talk about?
For me, publishing is really about collaboration. When you self-publish you have to do everything yourself. You develop and design the content, you’re often printing it yourself, and you’re trying to figure out ways to circulate it. That’s part of why it is so helpful to work on publications collaboratively. Many of my favorite publishers or publishing imprints consist of duos or small groups of colleague-friends with like-minded interests but differing skill sets. It also broadens the community around the book.
Then there is the obvious fact that “independent” publishing—this rich, nimble, anti-establishment field—as it grows tends to abut or mimic or become the established infrastructure of the historic publishing house (Thames & Hudson, MIT Press, D.A.P.). Deciding when to remain independent and when to work with, or scale up to, become a larger publisher is a real question for artists when their projects attract a lot of interest. It can be hugely helpful to have an institution take over the printing and distribution. But they may then be in charge of the editing and printing details. At the same time, your publication or work may end up at the Tate [Modern, the museum of contemporary art in London] because the publisher or distributor has established relationships with specific bookstores or institutional shops. What is lost, of course, is the control over all aspects of the book’s creation. My general rule of thumb, and advice for students, is that independent publishing is a perfect vehicle for experimentation and a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. Make something you care about and believe in and put it into the world. It might get noticed. If the project gets picked up by larger institution, publisher, or funder, and you agree with its vision, go for it.