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Over-Booked: Paul Chan on Badlands Unlimited

The quintessential polymath, Paul Chan is an internationally known artist, experimental publisher, GIF designer, and speaker (he’s keynoting the 2012 New York Art Book Fair on September 29). At the end of my recent conversation with him on the new book On Democracy by Saddam Hussein—a provocative look at the late dictator’s 1970s democracy speeches—I […]

The quintessential polymath, Paul Chan is an internationally known artist, experimental publisher, GIF designer, and speaker (he’s keynoting the 2012 New York Art Book Fair on September 29). At the end of my recent conversation with him on the new book On Democracy by Saddam Hussein—a provocative look at the late dictator’s 1970s democracy speeches—I asked him about his publishing company, Badlands Unlimited, the stone book he’s debuting at the art book fair, and his love of animated GIFs, among other topics.

Badlands Unlimited makes “books in an expanded field”—everything from print publications to eBooks, an exhibition curated for the iPad to a font that turns text into Marquis de Sade–style purple prose. It’s not a typical publisher, which begs the question: Do you feel that in your career the lines between publishing and art have blurred, or don’t those distinctions matter to you anymore?

The short answer is no. I started Badlands because I stopped making work. For me there’s definitely a boundary. Long story short, I essentially stopped making art work and stopped showing my own work in 2008. I didn’t just watch TV. I did other things. I turned down opportunities to show work, and I didn’t make new work. It wasn’t until 2010 where I realized I needed a day job, so I gave myself a day job of starting a press. I wanted to start a press for a long time. I didn’t have the money to spend $5,000, $10,000 on an edition of 3,000 books that no one was going to buy that’d end up sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

But with the advent of eBooks, I realized that maybe I can still have a press and not spend all that money printing paper books. But make eBooks and sell them on the distribution networks that were growing at the time and continue to grow, like Apple iBooks or Amazon for the Kindle. So that’s how Badlands started — because I wanted to start a press on the cheap. It didn’t turn out to be the case. We’re publishing paper books and eBooks now. I’m wasting time and losing more money as a result.

You’re making print books and eBooks; you curated the virtual art show How to Download a Boyfriend; you’re making fonts and videos and GIFs. How do you get all the work done? Do you have a Damien Hirst-style studio filled with assistants?

[laughs] We don’t have a Damien Hirst-style production. For Badlands I work with two other artists, Ian Cheng, who’s a young artist and my co-director of publishing, and Micaela Durand, who’s my media assistant. We three work on Badlands Mondays and Tuesdays. Those are the publishing days. That means everything from programming the eBooks to making animated GIFs for all the social media stuff, which is legion at this point, to talking to authors to writing contracts to getting permissions to reprint things. All those other things like book trailers or eBooks or group shows came organically as an expression of us coming together Mondays and Tuesdays and imagining what else we could do.

I have no background in publishing, so I don’t have any semblance of what I’m supposed to do. And because of that I feel like we can pretty much do anything. I think that’s why I feel I can publish the essays of Saddam Hussein. Or at the New York Art Book Fair we’ll be premiering a stone book, a short story that’s been carved in stone.

It’s an edition of one with an ISBN number on it. Our motto is “books in an expanded field,” and one day we were sitting around at lunch thinking, “What else would that be?” We’re already making experimental eBooks. We’re making paper books. What other forms can we publish on? We realized if we’re really going to be in an expanded field we should publish the way God published on the Ten Commandments or whoever wrote Gilgamesh on the tablet. We should publish on stone. So this fall we’re going to publish on stone. We’re also going to make it into an eBook, too.

But I don’t know how Amazon or Apple feels about a book with only two pages. We’ll see what we can do.

Will you engrave a download code on the back of a stone?

I might have to. I didn’t plan on it, but we can put a sticker on it with a promo code. There are only two pages. One page is on one side of the tablet and has the title, the author name, and the copyright page information, ISBN number, and Badlands Unlimited contact information. On the other side of the slab is the short story. If it works out, we’ll publish more on stone, too.

What’s the story?

It’s a story called “Holiday” that I adapted from another short story that I wrote years ago. That’s the nice thing about publishing my own stuff: I own the copyright, so I don’t have to deal with lawyers for anyone else or literary agents. In many ways the press started because I wanted to publish my stuff. But that was because I wanted to experiment with publishing forms and also because it’s easier to get the rights. Then after we realized that it could work, we started publishing other people like Yvonne Rainer, for instance, or the How to Download a Boyfriend book. Hopefully, we’ll just keep expanding.

Let’s talk animated GIFs. I love the Web 1.0 feeling the Badlands site and the National Philistine, your personal site, have. It reminds me of the early web art stuff that the Walker has in its Gallery 9 net.art collection. Tell me about that aesthetic.

That’s a good question. The aesthetic is basically what I’m able to do on Dreamweaver 2. I’m not a programmer of any kind. The whole reason I started making fonts is because I wanted to make interactive work in 2000, but I couldn’t program to save my own life to make interactive websites or things that would blink or travel across the web page. I made fonts because I couldn’t do what other new media artists were doing. In many ways the website is just another symptom of that. I don’t know programming at all. I just know HTML and animated GIFs and all the stuff that I learned in my past. I want to do it on my own. I like doing it. It works and it doesn’t. It’s good enough. The aesthetic is essentially what I’m able to do.

You’re actually the guy that’s sitting down at the computer and coding in HTML to make animated GIFs?

Well, coding seems like a very diplomatic term! I basically try to drag and drop whatever things I can put in the workspace of Dreamweaver and hope that it comes out OK. It’s not really even coding. I don’t even know what to call it, really. It’s just praying that whatever small bits and icons I throw in the HTML document will work. It’s depressing. I should learn much more. In fact, I just bought a book on Amazon about coding which I’ll never read, but maybe if I sleep on top of it I will absorb the information through osmosis.

[laughs] I’m sure that will work.

But one thing, we just didn’t want to do one of those Tumblr sites or a WordPress blog. Why is that? Because Ian, Micaela, and I talked about it. We felt like those are cool and those are great, but we felt like we wanted something else. Maybe here’s one way to play it: We wanted something that doesn’t work, but just for us. That’s how we put it. That feels right to me.

Last question. Since we’re doing a big series in anticipation of the New York Art Book Fair (and Over-Booked, our event with Printed Matter that precedes it), I’m wondering if you can give us a preview of your keynote there by answering one of the questions that is in the book fair’s description of your speech. It says:

“Is publishing a form of addiction? What is a book? How is reading a book different than looking at art? Does light change the nature of what appears on paper and screen? How come I was served with a warrant for outstanding taxes? Why does running Badlands waste so much time and lose so much money and what does this have to do with pleasure?”

Any one of those questions that you might want to answer as a teaser for your keynote speech?

Sure. I call being a publisher my Halloween costume. It really does feel like that. But what I’ve learned in my Halloween costume is that a book is many things. Publishing, strangely enough, connects to my moving image works like the light series where the projections are on the floor [one example, 6th Light (2007), was most recently on view in the Walker exhibition Event Horizon]. Because in those video projections, one of the things I’m trying to do is to create a space where one can have a particular kind of attention and focus at work. I think we live in a time when we feel perpetually distracted. I certainly feel that way.

Making work for me means, among other things, giving myself an excuse to make a space where I can pay a particular kind of focused attention that connects with a certain kind of pleasure. What I realize in publishing is that books function more or less the same way.

There are many forms of information published on many media. Web pages, Twitter, your smartphone, book, newspaper, magazine. But a book, historically, is that thing that we have to spend the most time with to get the most pleasure out of it. To me, a book is a space where a particular focus and attention can happen so that a certain pleasure can come about.

It was strange and surprising to realize that as I was making books, because even though we publish on eBooks, where it exists on an iPad or an Amazon Kindle, these are essentially devices that can do other things. Like the iPad, you can check your email. You can look at web pages, play games, and whatnot.

I like to think once you enter into a book, even an eBook, your mind and maybe even your body, if the book is done right, is attenuated so that you pay a particular kind of focus that one ought to have when one is reading a book, whether you read it or are experiencing it.

This particular, unique experience provides a certain pleasure unlike anything else, and I find that interesting and worth pursuing more. In a weird way, a book isn’t a book to me, but it’s that kind of space.