Making publications through five decades

When I was seventeen, I got a part-time job at my high school. Twice a week when I had no class in the morning, I would go to the school office and pick up the key to a room that contained printing equipment, and also pick up some documents that needed to be copied that day. This was 1976-77, and photocopiers were not ubiquitous yet. In fact, the school was only just then phasing out the use of mimeograph machines for their copying needs. In the room was a small tabletop offset press and an “instant” plate-making machine that looked like a very small photocopier. This machine made disposable printing plates, pinkish papery things that were vastly inferior to the metal offset plates that were more standard then, and much much less durable. You could sometimes get two hundred copies out of one of these instant plates before they got waterlogged with fountain solution and began falling apart.

I would take the documents, make plates out of them, put the plate on the cylinder, and then run whatever number of copies were required on whatever stock they wanted. There was usually time left over, and if I wanted to print copies of my own writing, typed at home on a slightly old electric typewriter with a nylon ribbon, I could sneak those in. I would give these away. It was my first experience of publication design (thinking about how the words would look on the page), production (making a physical publication within the constraints of available technology, materials, and money), and distribution (free and personal!).

Although maybe that isn’t quite the first. I had worked on what we would now call a zine, New Moon, which was published monthly by the Rocky Mountain Radio Society, which then operated Radio Cora, an underground station mostly run by artists in Calgary, the city where I was born and lived until my early twenties. (Calgary, or Mokhintsis, is on Treaty Seven land, which includes territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Nakoda people, the Tsuut’ina people, and the Métis people.) There I learned the process of mechanically pasting up a layout, using sticky wax to fix half-toned pictures and typewriter-set text on a blue grid because blue wouldn’t show up on the plate when it was made. It wasn’t my zine, but I learned from it. I also learned from the extremely frugal publications made by poet jw curry, who I made friends with when he and his friends vagabonded through Calgary the year after I graduated from high school. He published single poems, printed with moveable-type rubberstamp sets, on small folded pieces of paper, and also published a periodical, one issue of which was assembling magazine, called Industrial Sabotage.

Also a learning experience: an older poet I knew said he would give me $50 a month to publish some kind of small magazine if he could write an opinion piece in every issue. So I tried editing, making, and distributing a monthly poetry magazine, which we named Vortex. The monthly pace was a bit much though, and my friend with the $50 got a new girlfriend and lost interest. I would do the layout by typesetting it on an IBM Selectric typewriter in the medical office where my mom worked and pasting it up into layout with glue-stick. I would send that off for offset printing, and then collate the pages when they came back on the floor of my apartment, making a saddle-stitch with a long-reach stapler, folding the books, and then walking copies around to local independent bookstores.

I managed to do this for ten issues. I was already getting a bit frustrated with the limitations of text-on-a-page, and with the limitations of the poetry I knew about. By this time I had seen some artists’ publications, notably FILE Magazine (my first glimpse of FILE Megazine a few years earlier made me think the world had gone completely mad) and locally-made magazines like Images and Information and Release and I’m sure there must have been others.

In 1980, I started being part of a local punk rock scene, which at that time accommodated a lot of different kinds of music, from mod-influenced power pop to art bands to rockabilly to proto-hardcore. I took some of the poems I had been writing, and some others that I had made by cutting phrases out of magazine articles and collaging them together, and a few other things, then printed them on different sizes of paper and tossed the collection of sheets into envelopes. For the cover, I took a photo-booth strip I had made one day, where my hand was covering one side of my face because the night before a redneck had queerbashed me and I was self-conscious about the swelling there, added the title 4 Poses 50¢ in Letraset, printed that on a half-sheet that I glued to the front of the envelope, and then sold them for fifty cents, which was the same cost as the photo booth.

By that time I sort of was in a band. I say sort of because we would beg other bands to let us do an unpaid short set during their gigs, like three songs maybe, and the “band” would be whoever was willing to try to quickly learn something and play it that night. I sold the pages-in-envelope book from table to table after we played. Gradually the “band” turned into a band with a stable group of four of us, and we self-released a couple of records. Looking back at my lyrics then, I’m always embarrassed, ashamed sometimes because they were modeling a kind of weird but aggressive masculinity that I thought I had to subscribe to even if it wasn’t right for me or probably for anyone who had to witness it really.

When the band was on tour, or when we met bands who were touring through our city, I would sometimes see an entirely different kind of publication: photocopied sheets of useful information like lists of venues and promoters in various cities, or lists of long distance phone account numbers belonging to big companies, numbers that you could give to an operator who would put your call through and charge it to the the unsuspecting corporation. Some of these pages were nearly illegible, having been copied from copies of copies of copies on the often-unpredictable photostatic copy machines that were available then.

The band ended when I moved to the coast, the guitarist ran into problems with immigration authorities, and everyone else stayed where they were. I went to art school. I did that not too long after seeing books by artists in three main places: a touring exhibition from Art Metropole at the Charles H. Scott Gallery; Afterimage magazine; and a store in Seattle (in pre-gentrification Belltown) called Artinform. I learned what I could about making books, and there was a little bit of instruction available in craft-y book making but not much credibility given to artists’ publishing as a field of practice within the art school. I dropped out. Later I went to the visual art program at a nearby university, a program where theory and dialogue was valued more highly, but where artists’ books were also not really part of the paradigm of art-making.

In the meantime I kept making things: posters and invitations for the gallery I helped start in 1986, flipbook animations, anonymous street posters not advertising anything in particular, one-off books using photographs, or found materials, or whatever. The gallery itself, Artspeak, was intended to exist at the intersection of visual art and language, and retains that direction today, having survived and prospered all these years.

In 2010, Patricia No and Matthew Stadler, who had founded Publication Studio a year before in Portland, Oregon, did a brief residency in Vancouver. At the time I had been scouring auction sites for used xerox docuprint systems at a reasonable price, which (in the right configuration) would enable me to make black and white saddle-stitched booklets on demand. I had also received a personal grant from the British Columbia Arts Council to produce small, modest, inexpensive or free editions. Publication Studio sent a message to the Charles H. Scott Gallery, which was one of two organizations hosting them here, asking if anyone in Vancouver had the equipment they needed in order to set themselves up temporarily. The specs were sent to me by my partner Kathy, and since I had money in the bank at that moment, I went looking for what they needed. The first item was easy: a hand-operated hot-glue binding machine, which was a knockoff of a design still manufactured by the Fastbind company, was available from several suppliers. I sourced a duplexing, high-capacity laser printer from someone who was refurbishing them in the livingroom of his house, and a used tabletop paper cutter from a local print equipment supplier. This was the equipment they would use during their residency, which would be returned to me at the end of it, and I would go off on my own making books. Except at the end of the residency, they asked me and Kathy if we would be Publication Studio “North”. We were enthusiastic about that idea but not about the name.

So, we became Publication Studio Vancouver, joining Publication Studio Berkeley and the original one in Portland, becoming part of a network that has expanded and changed over the past ten years.

When you have the ability to make books, and print other things like posters and leaflets, right at hand whenever you want it, all sorts of possibilities open up. Early on, I started finding scans of public domain books, or in some cases of bootlegs, and making them into books. One day I was on social media in the middle of a discussion about neighbourhood planning. The city was developing a local area plan for the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, and adjoining areas, but the draft plan was only available as a PDF on the city website, which presented a problem not just for reading it critically (I’m not the only one who finds it hard to do that with online documents), but also presented a huge barrier to the low-income residents of the neighbourhoods in question, who had unreliable or nonexistent access to the internet. So I asked the other people in the discussion if they would like printed, bound copies, and they said yes. The final product, the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan, was available on a pay-what-you-can basis, and we sold copies for pocket change to more than a few people.

We did something similar with other documents, especially with Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the executive summary of the report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. The residential schools were part of Canada nearly since its founding as a nation, and their stated goal was to destroy Indigenous culture. They were also a system which mistreated, abused, and starved children. So it was important to make sure that the document, the book, that summarized the evidence gathered by the commission and its recommendations was read by people who needed the information. We ended up shipping several copies to study groups within the same churches that had run parts of the system.

To me at least, there is a huge difference between information on a constantly-changing screen and information in physical books. Making ideas corporeal, and making them locatable in space, puts us in a different, and more profound, relationship with them. A civic activist thanked me for having made his copy of the DTES Local Area Plan, specifically because he could brandish the physical object — the book — at public meetings when the subject was being discussed, adding literal weight to his words. The artifacts I have left behind, all of these zines and posters and records and books, are still mostly-silently existing, with lives of their own. Even the most throwaway publication, for instance a handbill left in a stack inside the door of a record shop, has a physical life, has made a thought or declaration or plan into an object with volume, colour, texture, mass, scent, and everything else that physical objects might have.

Ulises Carrion said something very much like what I just said about publications, and in the same essay he also said that a book is a series of spaces. He speaks not just to the potentialities of design and fabrication, but to a personal experience of moving through a book, an experience that is forever superimposed by the reader on the object. Walter Benjamin wrote in a different way about the individual history of particular books in the collection of someone who loves books: that the book’s significance is in the traces of the history of that specific copy of a specific book, besides in more commonly applied forms of meaning. When a book changes hands, those traces all survive in some way, just like the xeroxed sheet of punk rock venues’ phone numbers carries traces of the original, and the spots or scratches on the glass of every xerox machine it has been copied on, and the folds and tears on every physical copy that was then copied again. When at last it comes to rest in a collection or archive or library, the object does not die and the traces do not disappear.

The curious thing is that as publishers — a term which I hope you will consider broadening in scope to include everyone in this history of mine, from the clandestine users of mimeographs and xerox machines, through to the wheat-pasters and leafletters, as well as the makers and distributors of books and magazines — we often cannot see the full picture of circulation, and lending, and all of the traces that accrue from our own publications. We set them loose in the world, and they live their own lives, form their own relationships, and build their own history. The ways they tie us together are not always visible.

3 thoughts on “Making publications through five decades

  1. Kay, thanks for this post. I’m mapping Calgary’s literary history and just stumbled upon a mention of Vortex Magazine, and Patrick Tivy’s 1980? profile of you in the Herald. I’m also curious about New Moon and the Rocky Mountain Radio Society. Off to do some more digging!

  2. INDUSTRIAL SABOTAGE was an “assembling magazine” only for issue #8 – the first of the 2 issues you had work in; pretty much all the rest were fully edited, designed, printed, bound & whateverallelse by me, working from often well-stocked files of works by the various people who contrbuted to the magazine over time (granting that there were further collaborative efforts of different natures than the “assembling” model).
    INDUSTRIAL continues to randomly exist, #66 (a massive index) currently in the works. from what i understand, it’s the longest-running independent literary rag in Canada (1979 to present), its sporadicism notwithstanding.
    pretty good for a goof off the street with a box of rubberstamps!

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