The Artist Self Publishers’ Fair (ASP Fair) is a one-day fair dedicated to the practice of self-publishing. Running since 2015, ASP avoids the restrictions and market dominance of much of contemporary art culture, advocating for DIY practices in which the publications are the artworks: affordable, available and free from the fetter of the institution or gallery. The ideas, images and texts are produced and published by artists who understand the freedoms and restrictions of the printed page. Dan Mitchell, director of ASP fair, has organised the event since its inception with the understanding that self-publishing relates to the conditions and capacities of civic life itself. “This is trying to take a stand or draw a line in the sand and say: we don’t have to knock down every pub and turn it into a yuppie drone, we don’t have to push the poor people out of the centre, we don’t have to buy into this neo-feudal, alienating experience,” he explains. “We can house poor people in central London, we don’t have to have homeless people. We can have self-publishing!”
Interview by Christabel Stewart
Portrait courtesy Dan Mitchell
CHRISTABEL STEWART What is it specifically about self-publishing that interests you, and continues to fuel your interests?
DAN MITCHELL The kind of self-publishing that artists make, as distinct from say, illustrators or writers, is very varied, ranging from the daft to the poignant, the deeply personal or idiosyncratic to the political. There’s no definition for what self-publishing is, it could be a one-of-a-kind, a traditional book or more like a carousel, pretending to be a big magazine, or the humble photo-copied zine, a T-shirt, badge, or even fingernail art. Because it’s artists making these publications, it could be anything. We’ve had asparagus, sand, Twitter bots, tubes of posters, potato prints; mechanically made, handmade, barely made... Anything can fit. It’s a case of when you see it you know it. As a medium, it always has a sense of drift – maybe because it is compulsive, follows obsessions and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There isn’t a press release or a gallery or institution with people trying to make something more important. Perhaps the most outstanding thing about it is that it’s not generally about luxury, it’s mostly cheap – five, ten, maybe twenty pounds a copy – small runs and low production costs. Mostly, it’s pretty immediate, democratic and certainly serves as a propaganda vehicle for the artist. It has a habit of getting out there, sneaking its way into other people’s visions, passed around, lent, given, stolen. I guess in comparison to gallery art it’s wonderfully slutty.
CS What is your own published contribution to the fair?
DM I’m planning a new Hard Mag, the 18th issue. The working title is “Night Problems”. I’m not sure what it’s about – maybe internal yuppie violence and the beginning of the empty individual with a mentality like a wasp nest in a black hole. Something will emerge. I’m also bringing a new imprint, Dirty Books, which is more of a catalogue series.
CS Is this field at any sort of crossroads?
DM There’s been a flood of zines, zine fairs and workshops. Riso has become very popular over the past few years, maybe because the ink is made from beans, so the medium has definitely seen a huge uptick in availability and usage. Although ASP Fair is the biggest of its type, it is far from being the only one. With the rise in popularity comes the potential for overexposure, as is with most things; fashions come and go, some seem to stick about, like the tote bag – also a form of self-publishing – and some get replaced. Maybe because the digital has essentially taken over people’s lives, people like the look and feel of something they can carry with them. I would say the medium is in rude health, and the ruder the better.
CS How does this field avoid vanity publishing?
DM I’m not sure it should. “Vanity publishing” is often used as a slur to downgrade a project’s meaning. But if it’s good vanity publishing, maybe aware of its own vanity, then why not enjoy it? Certainly, there’s a fair amount of introspective storytelling, usually badly drawn comics, that seek to capture the maker’s angst in a jaunty character, but even some of these can be fun. As the medium is always in drift, maybe purposefully to avoid capture, I don’t think it really matters too much. ASP Fair is really about an excuse for a get-together of strangers who are friends for a day. Maybe those friendships bloom into something bigger, collaborations are born and connections made.
CS Do many of your contributors or participants focus on abnormal injustices? You have had participants such as Hate Zine. Can you talk a bit about the extremes that one might encounter at ASP Fair?
DM Hate Zine is great. I’m sure some would try to dismiss them as Lefties or SJWs, but they have stood up for years now for underrepresented voices and put out a cracking offering. I really like their commitment and their fearless determination to be inclusive and offer an arresting mix of culture and politics, which isn’t easy to do. As for extremes, these are not only bound up in current perspectives on our political situation but also in what artists are obsessed by. Because it’s cheap, done for laughs and almost frivolous; it’s not career-defining, not an art show, more a gradual nudge somewhere, so the extremes might be extreme Ikea, or extreme desire or dark metal, or being bored or car parks, or surviving Catholic school. There’s usually a fair amount of sexuality on display. Perhaps this is because the book format encourages people to home in on a subject and follow it through 10, 20 or 30 pages. There’s a chance to take some risks in making a pamphlet, booklet, zine or poster that doesn’t have the same fear as a gallery show, so the gloves come off.
CS How do you view London, now, seven years after Brexit, and thirteen years into a right-wing government?
DM Peter Ackroyd described London as a tough city, built on grit and commerce. It has a colour and that colour is red, so it’ll survive and keep doing what it’s always done. It survived the Great Fire, the plagues and the Blitz so it’ll survive this incompetent, corrupt and appalling government. Certainly, Brexit was a blow and will continue to hurt people, but hopefully it’ll get watered down by the next government so it’s less harmful. As long as the rest of Europe doesn’t go mad and fall into a dark hole of their own making there could be a re-joining at some point. People were dismayed at the vast building works at the start of the 19th century, claiming that the real London was lost as new building methods started to tower over the church spires and the cityscape began to shift, but this then became what we see as “old” London. Mind you, the number of luxury flats that have been erected will take some vast reorganisation to accommodate. Maybe there will be an outbreak of mass squatting where they get turned into new art schools for the disadvantaged or cheap homes populated by thousands of poet-philosopher DJs from the Global South and East so a new dawn of creative abandon takes over.
CS Has neoliberalism won?
DM The one thing that stood out to me about the precursor to ASP Fair, Published and Be Damned, was that because most of what was on offer was cheap, idiosyncratic and in limited amounts there was no purchase for the neoliberal market to move in. So there’s an in-built protection, a guard rail against the pernicious immediate effects of neoliberal capital, it’s too small to bother with. Neoliberalism is much more than the marketisation and financialisation of our shared reality. With the mass use of smartphones plus, or rather times, social media, the forces at work have pushed their way into a new internal market territory that runs through our cores. So in many ways, neoliberal realism is winning, but it has within it the seeds of its own destruction. The trouble is that destruction will also destroy many of us.
CS People need spaces where they can be themselves, and I see ASP Fair as just that. You also host a few booksellers themselves; how does that work given the remit?
DM ASP Fair certainly offers up an arena of artists meeting the audience one on one, which is rare for an art event. The flatness of the fair, where everyone gets the same space in one room, no fee and no entrance fee helps create an easy feeling, where the work on offer is allowed to be the main attraction. This is as true for first timers to the more experienced stall holders. It’s about what you bring, what you put on your table, the rest just flows. As for the booksellers, there are a couple of regulars, Mark Pawson and Arnaud Desjardin, who provide a great selection of artist self-published work that otherwise wouldn’t get seen.
CS Can you talk specifically about invitations to brand provocateurs like Sports Banger?
DM Matt Williams from Camden Art Centre invited Jonny Banger last year, and he loved it. Banger brings a big appeal, a fashion crossover that sits well within the melee that is ASP Fair. He gets the word out, which we always need, and as the audience is shared out as it were it’s a win-win. It just goes to show that popular appeal helps benefit the whole economy of ASP. We don’t ask our artists how much they take on the day, my guess is that in total you are probably looking at 20 to 40K in sales, with well over 2,000 items sold. It’s not about the money, but if you have a good day, you can pay your printing costs, get a curry and some beers and still have a few quid left over to put into the next idea – plus of course, you’re getting your work in front of thousands of people. We offer ten spots to an open submission, mostly artists new to the fair, so they appreciate a large crowd turning up. And this year, ASP Fair is hosted at Christmas time, or gifting season, as it’s known in the trade. Plus, Jonny does a great job of offering up decent anti-Tory memes, which in today’s visually driven aesthetic and political economy is essential. ◉