A Scene Is Only As Good As You Make It
A roundtable discussion on small-press publishing in Aotearoa with Katie Kerr (GLORIA Books), Chris Holdaway (Compound Press) and Samuel Walsh (Dead Bird Books), introduced and chaired by Chloe Geoghegan.
In early April 2020, while working from home during the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown, I received a call for contributions for a new book project from friend and graphic designer Katie Kerr. In 2018, I had written for Enjoy about a rolling series of gallery residencies that Kerr had been a part of, where she first started using the term ‘dwelling in the margins’ to think through her position as a graphic designer interested in small-press publishing. This term has become the title of Kerr’s latest book project, which has just been released under her collaborative publishing platform GLORIA Books.
Dwelling in the Margins: Art Publishing in Aotearoa is a small, beautifully made tome of 24 essays by 30 unique contributors. Wrapped in a soft, canary yellow dust jacket, it is easy to pick up and very hard to put down. Partly due to the fact that – despite being over 300 pages long – it’s perfectly designed to fall open in your hand, but mostly due to the breadth of essays that explore art publishing in Aotearoa today. Kerr had always wanted to create a book that celebrates this growing community, and it wasn’t until the pandemic that she was able to do this, through a modest Arts Continuity Grant from Creative New Zealand.
While reflecting on her Enjoy residency, Kerr wrote: “The artist/designer is deeply involved in every phase of the publishing process, meaning that we can produce objects that are a true expression of our intention.” This is how she explains the way she dwells in the margins – between editor and graphic designer. I understand this approach because I too feel like a margin dweller, as a curator who has come from an art school graphic-design education. I always thought I was bridging from one place to another, but working with Kerr along the way has shown me that having a multi-disciplinary practice is not about leaving something behind for something else, it is about harnessing all lines of enquiry to experiment with new formats and contribute from more than just one corner in a project’s process. In a chapter of Dwelling in the Margins, I attempt to work this journey out with friend and artist/designer Matthew Galloway.
When I was asked to facilitate a roundtable discussion with Kerr and two fellow Dwelling in the Margins contributors, it was around the time of the book’s launch at Strange Goods in late February 2021. Nestled between Newton Pharmacy and Uncle Man’s Malaysian Restaurant on Karangahape Road, Strange Goods is an art bookshop located at the front of Strange Haven, a series of workspaces established by Samuel Walsh in 2016. There are currently eight residents using the space, who follow a number of past residents that form the extended Strange Haven whānau. Running an independent art bookshop and workspace to me seems akin to running an artist-run space, and while many of these have appeared and disappeared along K Rd, Strange Haven (and now Goods) has been an open door for more than just artists to work together in a safe and welcoming space they can call their own.
In the following roundtable discussion, I speak with Kerr, Walsh and poet Chris Holdaway about small-press publishing in Aotearoa, our contributions to Dwelling in the Margins and the magic of Strange Goods. I learn about their latest collectivised project, Expensive Hobby, which folds all of the above into something entirely new. In the spirit of collaboration, the discussion moves around the table in the same order with each question posed, only breaking this democracy a few times. We began by figuring out how we are each connected to one another through publishing projects.
Chloe Geoghegan (CG): I got to know Samuel vicariously through his autobiographical contribution to Dirt. This is a brilliant cookbook and essay collection by Samuel’s sister Gemma Walsh and Katie. Also, like most people that work in galleries, I’d been contacted by Samuel about supplying books to his new venture Strange Goods in 2019. It was exciting to learn he was starting what would soon be the only independent art bookshop Tāmaki.
Samuel Walsh (SW): I met Chris at Strange Haven, and when we opened Strange Goods we started hanging out more and became fast friends. We have a similar approach to things and it's a friendship I’ve really appreciated.
Chris Holdaway (CH): I met Katie at Strange Haven during a series of talks called Everything’s Fucked. I’ve since done book launches at Strange Haven for Compound Press, which also supplies Strange Goods.
Katie Kerr (KK): I’ve known Chloe since we studied at Ilam, Chris and I share a love of Risograph printing, and Sam and I met when I moved back from London and got a workspace at Strange Haven. We quickly became BFFs and have been juggling projects around each other ever since. Sam is a creative kindred spirit.
CG: I’ve watched many friends try to find a place to land back in the Aotearoa arts scene after being gone for a long time and for you, Katie, Strange Haven became a landing, and launching, pad.
SW: I had also just returned from China, so part of the reason I wanted to set Strange Haven up was because I felt I had lost my place in Auckland.
CH: When I returned from studying in the United States, Strange Haven quickly became an important part of my psychogeography of the Auckland scene.
KK: It’s been around now for four years. Our kaupapa is: no egos, no bullshit. This is what makes it a safe space. Strange Haven has always been a space for margin dwellers. You may not feel like you fit into the traditional art, music or literary scene, or you might have one foot in either or all of those worlds and enjoy the freedom of being that way.
CG: Like a shop or workspace, publishing itself seems to be a vehicle or platform for multidisciplinary projects that bring people together.
KK: It’s as André Breton supposedly said, “one publishes to find comrades.”
CG: What is it like to be an independent press in Aotearoa?
SW: I think it's a cool space to be in. Dead Bird Books is Dominic Hoey and myself. We both had experience in publishing records, so we thought, let’s put out books like we’d put out a record and see what happens. When we first started, we were just making it up as we went along but now we’ve found our footing and Dead Bird has really been legitimised since Mohammed Hassan’s book National Anthem was shortlisted as a 2021 Ockham finalist.
CH: I started making poetry chapbooks about ten years ago for Zinefest, and getting to where Compound Press is today was a long, slow process. Small-press literary publishing in New Zealand was a pretty lonely place, but through working at Action Books in the United States I saw how much bigger small-press could be. I came home determined to figure out what indie publishing in Aotearoa could become, and it’s great that there’s more of a scene for it now, too.
KK: Not only are there now more people like us making weird little books, but more people are buying them. Perhaps because the pandemic has encouraged people to buy local, but we’re also in a moment where people are seeking an alternative view on the world, which you’re more likely to find at your local art bookstore than anywhere else.
CG: What is Expensive Hobby?
SW: Expensive Hobby began with a drunken conversation between Chris and I, and is the three of us collectivising distribution, marketing, accounting and so on, so that we use our labour in a better way. It’s a wholesale distribution platform, which started with our own presses, Dead Bird, Compound and GLORIA. We’ve recently expanded this to include other publishers.
CH: We all courier through Strange Goods and share a Xero account because we can collectively afford to. And now that we work together, these things feel like less of a chore.
Also, as a group we are more attractive to bookshops; they are interested in the curatorial aspect of Expensive Hobby as well as the logistical ease. They like hosting small, local, strange content, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to choose.
Pooling our networks, time and resources works weirdly well. I sell more books now, too, with shops preferring to deal with Expensive Hobby than some guy printing poetry in his bedroom.
KK: We were able to combine our knowledge and our skills as well as our resources, and we can now do things that weren’t affordable for us individually.
CG: You’ve professionalised.
KK: I guess we have, but mainly because if we professionalise around the boring aspects, then we can spend more time making unprofessional books.
SW: I feel so strongly about that. I’m not against professionalising, because it gives you the grounding to do the things you want to do.
CH: Totally. You can stay weird.
CG: Apart from making books, small-press publishing is also about creating a constellation of memorable experiences around the books you make.
SW: Publishing independently can be isolating, so it’s nice to have a launch or some other event that celebrates the fact that the book actually got made, which is something we often take for granted.
CH: I use social media to document and share insight into the book-making process, which isn’t something publishers have traditionally done.
KK: Social media is another way to engage community and I think we all agree on how important this is to our presses and practices. Dwelling in the Margins is about strengthening a community of practice by providing a space for discourse around art publishing. Orbiting the book is the opportunity to reflect on why we do this and explore our craft as a marginal practice. A community always exists beyond the pages of a book.
CG: Let’s talk about the book. Samuel, for Dwelling in the Margins, you and Dominic wrote in an epistolary format, with emails and messages to one another that essentially perform your ideology, whilst we learn about it at the same time. Part of ‘We’ll Do it Without Them’ is emails from distributors letting you down and your drive to succeed after disappointment.
SW: The conversations that Dominic and I were having at the time sum up what we are about as a publisher. I originally sent Katie a 20-page manuscript of every single conversation we’d ever had, and she helped us pick out all the good things and simplify what we were trying to say about who we are.
CG: Chris, I really enjoyed reading ‘The Future is Material’, which moves in so many directions with such ease that you forget you’ve gone from the history of the book, to hypertext poetry, to recyclable materials in publishing, and back again. You make some really good points along the way about materiality in the age of the internet.
CH: The internet has done great things for access, but the level of permanence is low. For example, I’ve had poems I’m really proud of in e-journals that are gone now because a publisher stopped paying for the domain. I get a real high-tech feeling when I make books, too, like a hacker in a movie. It’s an intensely technical thing to me, more than any plug-n-play online platform, and that’s why I think the future of ‘book-making’ technology is material, not virtual.
KK: One of my favourite quotes in the book is from Chris: “you can’t un-print a book.”
CG: Katie, as the editor, you wrote a beautifully succinct introduction comprising only a handful of very powerful words about what Dwelling in the Margins is, and is not. You also contributed a chapter: ‘Community, Spiral Bound’.
KK: I used a pile of old community cookbooks as resource material when undertaking design research for Dirt. But at the same time, I found myself reading the books too. I would observe the way all-women committees would move mountains to produce these simple fundraiser cookbooks for their local school, sports team or church. I argue that these domestic cookbooks have never been taken seriously as a work of publishing in Aotearoa, and that their approach to publishing was an act of (probably unintentional) feminism.
CG: I want to conclude by highlighting some more contributions to Dwelling in the Margins. My pick is ‘Kaupapa Toi: Making a Journal of Māori Art’ by Bridget Reweti and Matariki Williams. In this chapter you can read about their annual, wānanga-led journal ATE. Read about the care taken to establish a robust framework for ATE, which in turn creates a reified space for critique and aroha to co-exist within new writing on Māori art.
SW: One of my favourites so far is ‘Embracing Freaky Futures’, by Gabi Lardies of Pipi Press. I like the approach she’s taken to the piece and enjoy her writing style.
CH: Haruhiko Sameshima’s ‘Road Trips on the Margin’ makes compelling sense of the explosion of Kiwi road-trip photography in the 1970s amidst the economic and social crucibles of that time. Haru has also contributed a collage that lies elsewhere in the book. Postcard prints of nostalgic colonial works (bridges, dams, cannons) cast their shadows on a wall of text from Susan Sontag's On Photography. I never tire of Haru, who runs Rim Books, as a 'reader' of the world.
KK: The chapter 'Bliss', by Ella Sutherland and Sophie Davis, is a change of pace – it is experimental and almost poetic. Ella takes the body text and Sophie responds in the footnotes, each having a distinctive voice and style of language. There are some beautiful moments where they draw connections between Katherine Mansfield, the act of publishing and the 'body', in all its forms.
Feature image: Dwelling in the Margins (centre) and Dirt (centre right) at Strange Goods, photo by Katie Kerr
All other images: Strange Goods, photos by Samuel Walsh