Reading Revisited: A conversation with Fabiola Alondra and Jane Harmon of Fortnight Institute
On Thursday, July 28 at 6pm, Fortnight Institute, a new gallery and bookshop in the East Village, will host an evening of readings performed by artists in their current exhibition, Summer Reading on view through August 11th. We recently visited the gallery and spoke with its two founders Fabiola Alondra and Jane Harmon about their book-centric ambitions.
Blonde Art Books: This is my first time seeing the show, and I would really like for you to walk me through it a little. I noticed first that it is installed in a pretty straight forward way. Most of the objects are installed on display shelves and on the permanent book shelves. The exhibition is very different from the last show I saw here, which was a solo presentation of works by Carmen Winant. And I guess my first question or thought when I first learned about Fortnight Institute was about your interest in publishing or let’s say book as art object that’s incorporated into the program – and where it comes from?
Jane Harmon: When we started Fortnight Institute, we knew books would be a major part of our program. In previous exhibitions, we’ve been using our permanent shelves as a way to display books relating to our exhibitions from independent booksellers. We wanted to have a selection of books from these booksellers without bookshops. Additionally, we show books made by artists, as was the case with our first exhibition Who Says Pain is Erotic? with Carmen Winant. Artist BP Laval published a book for his exhibition with us, Basil Vaseline. When we began to think about a summer show we knew we didn’t want to do another solo show, we wanted to do something unexpected. Chris Habib, an incredible artist in the summer show, said to us “why don’t you guys do what you do best, do books” and then it seemed obvious and the idea brought us full circle. Fabiola and I have a history of working together with rare books and publishing artists’ books at Fulton Ryder. She was also doing private salons, which she referred to as “Salon Society,” where she was experimenting with the idea of approaching artists to produce unique artist books. The interpretations were varied, from people very skilled with experience making artist’s books to people who had never made one before.
BABS:Fabiola can you tell me a little more about these salons?
Fabiola Alondra: I’ve always been interested in the history of salons, especially in writer and poet Natalie Barney’s weekly salon that she held at her home in Paris. Artists and writers would gather and engage in conversation, ideas were shared and challenged, it was fun, it was private, it was stimulating. On a whim, I decided to do my own humble version of a salon out of my apartment in Brooklyn Heights and called it, “Salon Society.” They were invitation only weekend-long salons done every 4 months or so. I invited artists (both young and established), writers and booksellers to be part of the salon. I asked artists and writers to make a unique book for the salon, which was displayed throughout my apartment intermixed with rare books, ephemera, and my own collection of stuff. The juxtapositions and conversations between the new, the historical and personal were exciting and they allowed for new readings/viewings and ideas. And of course, all this was done in the intimacy of my space, people laying across on the floor carpet, standing or sitting on the couch, drinking and most of all there was a feeling of collaboration and community. ‘Salon Society’ was short -lived but many of its ideas evolved and continue in a new way through Fortnight Institute.
The artists in the salon had carte blanche when I asked them to make a unique artist’s book. I wanted to pose a challenge because artist’s books can take many forms and interpretations and I wanted to be surprised with the results, and I was, happily surprised. Art and books are inseparable, they should always be intertwined.
JH: Sometimes the objects weren’t ‘books’’ and this was interesting to us. However, the connection to what a book is remained in some way. After we saw this develop, we knew we wanted to take those ideas further and come up with an assignment in thinking about summer and reading. It’s a time when everyone gets excited to dive into a nice beach read, something light, consumable and relaxing.
FA: We started thinking about the newspapers and magazines that publish their ‘Top Ten Summer Reads’ or the many lists that are published around this time of year. This starting point organically expanded into a more poetic and complex exhibition. Fortnight Institute has turned into a summer library for those who want skip the beach and want something a little bit darker, a little bit heavier, both literally and physically. For example, one of the pieces in the show, by Rachel Libeskind, Tablet I, is a Hebrew braille book cast in concrete and cement, weighing 60 lbs. It takes the form of an open book but it becomes more of a monument, perhaps a tombstone. It is tactile, you can touch it, feel it, and even hear it, in its deep silence.
JH: There is also a strong diversity of materials used in the show – blood, tree branches, concrete, bubble gum, glass, garbage/debris, fabric, marijuana. We encouraged artists to play with the potential of what a book is and what an artwork is.
FA: We hope and want to dismantle tradition with the format and theme of this exhibition (and with any exhibition for that matter) and not feel like works are ‘exhibited’ in a space devoid of energy but rather as a space that feels “lived-in,” as someone recently said of our space and Summer Reading.
BABS: Is Summer Reading primarily comprised of unique works that were made for the show?
FA: Most works were made specifically for the exhibition with a few historical exceptions, such as Moses Hoskins’s piece the Book of Debris, Volume #13 from 1995 and Ed Ruscha’s first edition 1969 copy of Crackers, which he kindly donated to us for inclusion in Summer Reading. When we invited Ruscha to be part of the show, he replied and was interested, and based on the concept of the show, he chose “Crackers.” This pick, this gesture was what compelled us to include this book, which is not a unique copy in the same way that the other pieces in the show are.
BABS: I’m thinking specifically about how you describe artists books in the press release for Summer Reading. In opposition to the typical summer book these objects are – illegible unconventional objects, they are heavy, sticky, volatile and demand your full attention. Personally, I often struggle with the idea of the time spent with a book – for example during my commute I want to engage with books the way that other people do on the subway. My thought is – can I travel with the books that I collect? Maybe they aren’t unique or rare books but somehow the content seems to resist the context of the subway ride. Maybe it is how much space the book needs, that it requires more physical engagement, or how the artist book can become a contrary object. And although there may be a book that seems really accessible / manageable the content still challenges the space. I’ve recently reading a number of artist written erotica novels… this genre is always a little tricky on the subway.
Within the concept of the show how did you think about accessibility in terms of touching the books?
FA: Maybe about 40% touching? It was important for us and for some of the artists that viewers physically engage with the objects. It changes your experience and perception of what you are looking at and/or reading. For example, Canadian artist Sondra Meszaros’s piece, “Bound,” and New York based artist, Jon Beacham’s work, “Contents,” are both meant to be re-arranged by each different viewer, each person creating their own narrative of what it is they are looking at. Each reading therefore becomes unique. Kalen Hollomon’s mirror book, “Primitive Man,” becomes charged and active only with the presence of the viewer, reflected in the pages of the book itself, a mirror self.
BABS: Was there a discussion around access and intimacy that a visitor can have with these objects in a way that differentiates them from art objects. These ideas feel like a bit more complicated here.
JH: I guess that’s a good thing. Most of these works are not text based. I think the accessibility brings it back to art, in a way that you can come in, spend time, look and sometimes even touch. And a lot of our visitors do stay awhile in the space, not only looking and sometimes touching, but also asking questions, conversing.
FA: Fortnight Institute is about bringing people together, we welcome you to come by and discuss ideas and engage with what we are putting out there. It is about art and books, but also about community and conversation. We know a lot of the locals who have lived on the block for 30 years or more and we invite them to our space and openings. Our events always feel inspiring because of the great people that come by to support what we do and in turn we meet others, creating an atmosphere of creativity and excitement. We like the collaborative spirit both in organizing our events and in putting together our exhibitions.
BABS: I think that it’s in the nature of this form. It’s a collaborative form. I talk about this a lot in the context of distribution and production – that the form itself requires a lot of collaborative thought. It is intrinsic for there to be a community around publishing or around artist books. Is Fortnight Institute thinking about one day having an imprint? Or have you already published?
JH: We haven’t published under a FI imprint but maybe one day. We have a show coming up with Curtis Talwst Santiago. When we all met, we all knew it would be a good idea to release an artist’s book to accompany the exhibition. Talwst immediately started thinking of ideas for what it is he wants to publish and we happily advise on the process.
FA: We really embrace the collaborative elements of book making and want artists that haven’t published before to dive into it.
JH: And there are so many options now, for example BP Laval self-published his book on an online service. Not only did we have a physical publication when his exhibition was on view but we also made it available online for free by uploading it to our website. And ultimately, the book was still more popular in its physical form. We debated whether we should just keep it as the object or put it online. And we decided to do both.
BABS: This seems to make a lot of sense for people who aren’t here in New York to see the show or an art book in person. I think it’s an important thing to be aware of, online accessibility, in publishing. If distribution is not as strong as we want it to be for small press and independently published books then the online form, the pdf, the interactive, is absolutely necessary.
JH: We are super embracing of this! And if you look at these books, they are handmade and unique, but we also love what technology can do. We have a book that is hand-bound with ribbon by Betty Tompkins and on the opposite wall you have Chris Habib’s 3D printed silicone molds, which he filled with pure bazooka gum, dehydrated and froze, among other complex processes.
BABS: As we finish up, can you talk a little more about your location in the East Village and your motivations to open a gallery / bookstore.
JH: We are in the East Village on East 4th between 2nd Avenue and Bowery. East 4th St. is a special street will all small independent shops and theaters, as well as the only food co-op left in Manhattan. When we started renovating to move in, the neighbors would come by and ask, ‘what is happening here?’ and we would tell them ‘this is going to be an art store and book shop’ and they would say ‘a bookshop, what are you crazy?’ We like that this is a small ‘shop,’ it works for books very well, for art, and for what our general mission is. Small spaces are centers of creativity.
FA: We knew from day one that we wanted a space specifically in the East Village, not only for its history and spirit, but also because it is not saturated with galleries in the same way that Chelsea or the Lower East Side is.
JH: It’s a space where we can do things that don’t only fit within contemporary art, but can be used in other experimental ways. We have a lot of interest in archival and historical work. And in both established and emerging artists. We are also interested in performances and thinking about Happenings again and how we can bring these back. We have one this Thursday, July 28th!
FA: This is why we call ourselves an Institute. We like the word because an institute is an organized body that has a purpose. It also takes away from the omnipresent “gallery” term that feels limiting to us and what we want to do.
JH: When people come here they often carry a book to show us. One of our collectors came with a book from the series that Moses Hoskins did, all made from bits of debris from the streets of New York in the 1990s saying, ‘You guys need to see this!’ He brought them to an opening just to show us and it was inspiring and now it’s in our Summer Reading exhibition.
BABS: Carmen Winant, who had her first New York show here a months ago, produced these unique works on paper – press release that were directly related to the show, a beautifully written text became this really beautiful object – a very special idea of a ‘take-away’ press release.
FA: We knew we didn’t want a traditional press release so when we talked to Carmen about it she suggested to write an experimental text, which she did and not only did she write it, but she painted each one in red food coloring and signed and numbered them. Forget press releases, it’s all about experimental text!
JH: So many of these artists are interested in experimenting. We asked Marilyn Minter to be in the current show and now the Spray On prototype is the impetus for a box set of inkjet prints she is producing. The space and our shows have inspired some of the artists to produce something more that will have a whole other life beyond the show.