For this symposium, we have identified a group of experts primarily concerned with books treated as art, and publication strategies that become objects of intellectual inquiry in and of themselves. Representatives from contemporary presses (e-flux journal, Primary Information, OEI, Dexter Sinister, and Ugly Duckling Presse) and rare-book/edition specialists will discuss radical publishing practices, which are vital to any adequate historicizing of the immense impact the 1960s occupy in contemporary art. By confronting the radicality of these platforms with reference to the “founding principles” of the SEP—such as the ambition to give voice to the newly emerging consciousness of the time or the network/collective of the Press’s mailing list—the participants will cast their historical considerations in the light of recent and currently-operating initiatives.
This conference is devoted to the groundbreaking publishing house Something Else Press (hereafter SEP) founded by artist Dick Higgins (1938-1998) in 1963 and active until 1974. After participating integrally in the inaugural Fluxus activities in Europe from Fall 1962 to Summer 1963, Higgins returned to New York intent on making known all that he had been exposed to of the diverse new artistic tendencies: concrete and sound poetry, performance art, innovative forms of writing, and New Music. He committed himself to developing a platform for more sophisticated debates to contextualize these initiatives through their historical foundations. Presenting creative projects that resisted documentation in the format of text and book, his concept was to bring unconventional content (art/non-art/anti-art) to a wider public through the “Trojan horse” of conventionalframing; the best possible publication standards (high quality, hard-bound books) became thesupportof often utterly ephemeral material. The SEP implemented a hybrid model, combining the traits of the artist’s book, historical documentation, and theoretical reckoning.It operated at a time when artists were foregrounding language as “material” and medium, and whensuch models of distribution constituted a political act.With one foot in Fluxus—Higgins incorporated the SEP in 1964 virtually in competition with Fluxus founder George Maciunas’s heterogeneous “publications” of boxes, posters, kits, and flyers—it relied on the sheer radicality of the content. The SEP’s operational strategy was to alternate the release of a book and a pamphlet: a “pricey” publication followed by an inexpensive 16-page booklet. In so doing, Higgins accomplished his dream of having SEP publications discoverable in grocery stores; he proudly recalled finding his Great Bear Pamphlets next to the vegetable counter at the Berkeley Coop in California. With its base in New York (and later, California and Vermont), Higgins made it a priority to extend the influence and distribution channels of his Press by connecting with Europe, Canada, Mexico, and South America. In articulating aseries/system of sites for the circulation of book-publishing ideas and new and radical art forms, Higgins made his press discoverable at a global level, introducing many foreign publications and artists to the United States and vice versa. These strategies, advanced as a subtle critique of art’s commodification, created a circuit of distribution for the activation and reception of revolutionary ideas regardless of socioeconomic and geographic limitations.