The collectives LA IMPRESORA, Más Arte Más Acción, Jalada Africa, and Sa Sa Art Projects talk about collaborative publishing and sharing practices.
C&, ifa, and Pro Helvetia invited two independent publishers from the lumbung of publishers and two artistic collectives, all taking part in this year’s documenta fifteen, to speak about collaborative publishing and sharing practices.
La IMPRESORA is an independent feminist publishing and graphics workshop from Puerto Rico. The creative collective Más Arte Más Acción is a Colombian organization that strives to stimulate critical thought through art. The Pan-African writer’s collective Jalada Africa publishes literature from the continent and the Diaspora. Sa Sa Art Projects from Phnom Pen is an initiative for experimental and critical contemporary art practices.
Contemporary And: In all your initiatives and at documenta fifteen you invite the public, artistic communities, and your local communities to be part of your publications and work. How do you create accessibility and why it is important to you?
LA IMPRESORA: Engagement and accessibility are vital: the contents and context of our publications depend on their potential to circulate and engage with diverse communities and settings. One way to promote access beyond traditional editorial work is by creating dynamics in which artists, authors, and readers participate in creative and production processes. These collaborations are very hands-on and democratic, embracing the sharing of resources, knowledge, and practices.
Sucede que yo soy América, one of our most successful publications, is an anthology based on a writing and translation prompt. It includes thirty contemporary Latin American poets who freely translated Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem “America” to their own particular experiences of living on the American continents. For the first three editions we partnered with different publishers. This involved the participation of many writers, artists, and bookmakers from the North to the South of the Americas – a key example of how our network gets set in motion.
We also engage new audiences by organizing public literary events, like workshops, exhibitions, reading rooms, book presentations, and the FLIA (Feria de Libros Independientes y Alternativos) – a self-organized book fair and community for independent publishers, writers, illustrators, and bookbinders in Puerto Rico.
Más Arte Más Acción: The idea of documenta becoming part of the trajectory of Ruangrupa but also part of the trajectory of all the invited artists and collectives, instead of our process being part of the trajectory of documenta, is an important political statement. Engaging in the Indonesian lumbung concept of sharing, we are all invited to understand documenta as a resource for the sustainability of our practices – something which is yet to be understood in the midst of recent accusations and the censorship of some of the artwork.
The program we created for the hundred days in Kassel is a harvest of the past years of our interaction with other organizations and collectives from Colombia, facilitating dialogues around the topics we have explored together through our collaborations over the years. We pursued a program based on the physical presence of facilitators and artists who are active in the cultural scenes in their localities and who came to Kassel to share their experience and bring the perspectives of their work and artistic practices. This has been an exceptional opportunity to connect on subjects such as extractive economies, racial discrimination, internal political conflicts, and so on – with forms of social organization and activism that respond in artistic ways.
Jalada Africa: The question of accessibility goes to the heart of Jalada, both in terms of what we do and how we see ourselves. Our origins lie with twenty-two emerging writers who met in Nairobi on the sidelines of the Best of Young British Novelists tour in 2013. The then Granta boss, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, was kind enough to introduce Nadifa Mohammed and Adam Foulds in a creative writing workshop. And it quickly became clear that further communion would be useful – even if just for sharing the essential writerly uncertainty around new work or receiving feedback from equally young, sometimes very talented, peers. So it all started with us seeking community and, being from across six different African countries, we turned to cyberspace.
Soon enough we realized we had to go further and move to something more concrete, accessible, and retrievable. We registered our website, and our very first publication, Jalada 00, was basically us announcing ourselves, a manifesto. With every successive anthology, access has been expanded to new selections of writers and visual artists seeking a platform. Our use of themes and engaging in an international scope from an African center allows a variety of expressions that reflect communities of thought, practice, ideation, and dreaming. Africa is always the point from which we gaze, explore, and think. We have evolved an idea of art as a common language for disparate peoples, where process and locale share a nurturing, symbiotic relationship. Jalada is an experiment in access and inclusion, and we will try to expand these as we move into our second decade.
Sa Sa Art Projects: We’ve always been interested in community. It’s important to reach out to our ecology by supporting each other through shared projects. To engage with local art communities and the region from a different angle is our ongoing vision. And to learn from other collectives – healthy community, critical thinking, and alternative spaces for free expression. One of the keys is to get people to work together. We use a working model where students, non-artists, and artists come together and make things happen using communal spaces and readily available resources. In this procedure we see the potential for stronger and lasting communities of creativity.
C&: How do your publishing processes reflect the specific local conditions and structures in which you work and live?
LA IMPRESORA: The work we do is constantly exposed, affected, and influenced by the social, political, and cultural context of Puerto Rico: environmental crisis and economic bankruptcy, violence against women and non-binary/queer/LGBTQI+ communities, political upheaval, unemployment, and migration. These realities affect how we work and access resources, but it’s also ever-present in the content we write, edit, and publish. Our poetry reflects on our shared context of resisting injustices and finding new ways of creating revolutionary practices and dynamics, battling the austerity measures and violence imposed upon us. Correspondingly, the books, zines, posters, and other printed materials we produce become vessels to counteract these same injustices and register the ingenious ways in which we create and survive.
Más Arte Más Acción: The Pacific Ocean has affected the ways we understand and develop our practice and processes, although we were not born and do not permanently live on the coast. Our processes of understanding relate to that environment, including modes of self-organization in certain territories, the influence of community councils, and the rainforest itself surrounding the artistic residency space. The context has raised questions about climate change and climate justice, structural racism, and the struggle for autonomy. Also the notion of development and imagining the future. The practice and tools we have built along the way reflect the tensions that come from a marginalized territory challenging the dominant and hegemonic structures.
Another glocal factor that has been important for MAMA’s practice has been the Arts Collaboratory network – a collective of twenty-five diverse organizations around the world that focus on art in the context of social change. Some ideas and ongoing discussions have affected our practice, for example being able to embrace failure and learn from it. Also the idea of degrowing and self-limiting to avoid precarious working conditions. And the idea of abundance, whereby we acknowledge the power of our collective resources and their possibilities.
Jalada Africa: Our publishing process reflects the complexity of Africa precisely and organically. You may have heard the pushback, slogan, or retort that “Africa is not a country”? Africa is about fifty-four countries sharing an island the size of a continent. But within each of these formal countries and across the geopolitical borders are myriad subnationalities with distinct cultures and outlooks, as well as superimposed foreign, mostly colonial, languages. We have a range of hybrid and hyphenated identities that extend beyond the continent into the Diaspora, extending the idea and influence of Africa itself. We also have development and its adjuncts, including democracy and coups, strongmen and socialists, global conscience and dictators – the whole works. In this miasma of causes and effects, how does one create a distinct African voice, which was what Jalada aimed to be from its eclectic conception?
The digital was our first choice of format, to circumvent the fifty-four national (as well as international) borders, censorship regimes, and economic realities to create a truly pan-African voice. We were not using the digital to supplement paper; Jalada was conceived to be natively digital. The scope of physical magazines and anthology projects has always been more limited by the requirements of production and distribution. Our choice of cyberspace in 2013 reflected resistance, protest, and foresight: we could see where Africa was going and we wanted a platform that reflected this.
The next choice of themed anthologies, usually one per year, came from a realization that concentrating writing around a theme would see more impact than a babel of voices. Our anthologies, particularly Afrofutures (Jalada 02), Bodies (Jalada 08), and Language (Jalada 04), opened the door to our translation project: to translating Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s short story “Ituika Ria…” into one-hundred languages and counting.
Sa Sa Art Projects: In connection with our surroundings we create alternative ways of thinking, which can nurture skills in teamwork and cooperation. Publishing is an important archive for us. A exhibition catalogue that we published so far contains material on exhibitions but also the story, which we share with our students. Nowadays art audiences in Cambodia are quite diverse. Young people are more open to innovative forms of expression, whereas many of the older generations are more resistant. We see a growing supportive and curious audience of university students and people within the creative fields. We employ a strategy of playing with both the familiar and the unfamiliar. While some materials draw in the audience, others challenge them, and we see both as a process of learning.
C&: What are your survival strategies as independent publishers and (non-profit) artistic collectives?
LA IMPRESORA: We believe the creative act is an act of survival. Finding ways to do it during a global pandemic and everything that has come before and after is a feat within itself. Some of our strategies are: co-editions and collaboration-driven dynamics; the constant hustle to locate funding sources; a copyleft mentality; developing long-standing relationships with other local artists, collectives, and points of sale; translation gigs, and other editorial services to earn extra revenue and ensure the self-sufficiency of La Impresora; creating, maintaining, and strengthening a network of shared resources and knowledge, understanding the importance of being flexible when it comes to timelines and accessibility to financial or material resources, like paper, ink and so on.
Más Arte Más Acción: We want to emphasize a broader definition of sustainability and resources. After more than seven years of being funded through Arts Collaboratory, in which they expected us to become self-sustainable, we realized that financial sustainability will continue to be a struggle – not only in the Colombian context, but in the wider Global South contexts. While we continue to pursue and explore the idea of a universal basic income for cultural and artistic practices, we realize that our own practice can only develop if we understand sustainability in a more complex way. This sustainability is expressed in the relationships built around us – the trust and complicity built through long-term collaborations, the solidarity found in difficult moments, sharing knowledge with each other, and sharing tools and mechanisms for survival. The question of sustainability also brings critical reflection into the organization, suggesting imbalances or deficiencies that need to be tackled in a process of constant evolution and adaptation, to be responsive to the context.
Jalada Africa: Cutting overheads to the barest minimum is perhaps the most important ingredient in Jalada’s survival. In terms of structure, there are two levels to our work: the Collective, which is a democratic space for all members, and the Board. We are registered in Kenya as an equitable trust, which is a non-profit organization. The Collective came about when we started publishing anthologies so that all members could propose themes for a project, with persuasion or votes carrying the day. As things became more complex, we created the Jalada Charter to guide the activities of the Collective. To be registered it was necessary to have a Board, which, in reality, consists of Jalada’s incorporated trustees. Members of the Collective have volunteered their time and energies, often for free, to work on our anthologies: reading the submissions pile, drawing up the longlist, editing stories, interacting with writers, and so on. And our management does not draw salaries – they too offer their time freely. This labor of love takes an immense cost off our operations.
What we all get from this is to see our anthologies, projects, symposia, and events make an impact on the zeitgeist of African literature. In some instances, we have been able to apply for grants to support particular projects. These have been helpful, but the Collective has always been committed to doing the work of Jalada regardless. This is how we have survived our first decade. The second decade will be about even more collaborations. For example, following documenta fifteen at Kassel, we will be collaborating on visual art with another collective we met there. Partnering with other publications, collectives, festivals, and creative groups is a survival strategy. We make ourselves known on an international stage, allowing our writers and artists to reach a truly global audience. We take these collaborations as opportunities to learn and to share our own lived expertise, bringing Jalada to the fore and establishing ourselves as a portal for our Collective to have a global presence.
Sa Sa Art Projects: There are four main structures for us: applying for project-based art grants; selling works from exhibitions as a small way to generate income while supporting artists; collaborating with friends and institutions; and using our space for auctions which support us in realizing new programs.
C&: Is language an important element in your work to create and supply local and global networks?
LA IMPRESORA: Of course! Language is essential when creating content and thinking about accessibility, distribution, outreach, and possible networks. We have mostly edited and published Spanish literature written by Puerto Rican authors from the island and the Diaspora. Still, our catalogue has been integrating more bilingual (Spanish/English) publications and translation projects. We acknowledge that English is not our mother tongue and represents complicated colonial power relations in Puerto Rican history. However, we also know it works as a lingua franca that allows for communicating with people from all over the globe, enabling alliances and collaborations.
Más Arte Más Acción: We immediately agreed that this special edition should be in Spanish, so that it could be distributed and circulated in our local context. English has been the dominant language to connect with other contexts and networks, such as Arts Collaboratory or the lumbung. Whether it is with Arts Collaboratory, the lumbung, or the Pacific, we use terms that allow us to express values and meanings that are only possible in the original tongue.
Sa Sa Art Projects: Of course it is important. Most academic literature and art books are written in English or French, so at Sa Sa Art Projects we produce more Khmer publications. But we also accommodate English so more people can gain access.
Jalada Africa: Definitely. We are an African collective and digital publisher and our continent is home to an immensely diverse readership, not only of geography and physiognomy but of language and culture. Language and culture always have a close relationship. Just add the sheer size of Africa – about 30 million square kilometers of land, where about 1500 languages are spoken by 1.4 billion people. Then factor in the colonial linguistic “exclusion” zones – anglophone, arabophone, francophone, lusophone.
Our primary concern as a collective has been to share stories, especially in the sense of making them known to as many people in need of experiencing them as possible. This has informed our choice of language as the theme for our fourth anthology, back in 2015. It also set us on the path to the translation series. We are proud to state that out of the one hundred languages we translated Ngugi’s fable into, over 60 percent are African – some of them have only one other translated text: the Bible. So language is at the center of what we create, as a means of Pan-African expression and as a means of seeking greater global inclusion.
The project #weavingnetworks was developed by C& with the ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia as cooperative partners. Pro Helvetia also supports the lumbung of Publishers.
Interview by Theresa Sigmund.
These special print editions evolved of a joint project with four art collectives in the frame of documenta fifteen.