Seeking a More Intimate Fair with /edition’s Paul Butler

Rutherford Chang, "We Buy White Albums," 2016. Courtesy of /edition Toronto.
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Toronto’s /edition art-book fair arrives, in its sophomore year, at an energizing time for art publishing. The event drew over 8,000 visitors last year and, according to Art Metropole’s director Danielle St-Amour, tapped into the “growing trend of art taking book form – and challenging the very definition of what a book is.” This year Momus, alongside Art Met, is proud to be a programming partner for the fair.

I spoke with /edition’s artistic director Paul Butler, a Canadian artist with a practice spanning two decades and multiple platforms, from social engagement to nomadic gallery ownership to running an artist-trading enterprise to curating. In our chat, he made clear his optimism for the state of publishing, including what he characterized as a “wave of book fairs” that /edition was participating in. “We can maybe all exhale,” he added.

Butler also emphasizes his deliberate attempts to foster accessibility, intimacy, and comfort – three words not often easily applied to fairs. These features are sure to be especially visible in contrast to the country’s largest art fair, Art Toronto, with which /edition shares a venue later this month (October 27-30). The prospect of a parallel site for critics, artists, and authors is indeed exciting: a welcome relief for those left alienated by the commercial dynamics of these events. “Toronto deserves an alternative fair,” Paul told me, “and we’re trying to satisfy that need.”

How’d you come to know /edition in its first year?

I’d worked with Gareth [Brown-Jowett, co-founder of /edition] as an artist at Division, and when I went down I just really enjoyed the atmosphere.

I was excited to be a part of a fair. I’ve participated in fairs through other galleries, including a gallery I ran for ten years. I kind of have a history of trying all these different roles in the artworld, so it just made sense that I would have a go at the fair through /edition.

What’s been your experience of other art-book fairs; have you gone to New York or Los Angeles?

You know, to tell you the truth, I haven’t. My general experience of art fairs is that they’re really focused on commerce and sales, whether that’s blatant or not. But there’s one fair I participated in, called the Milwaukee International, and it’s kind of come back in my mind as an inspiration for /edition. That fair was organized by artists in an effort to draw people to Milwaukee to meet the community in person, and I could relate, as a Winnipeger, to get people to pay attention to you and actually visit. And what they did, they held it in a Polish beer hall. And the booths were very inexpensive, I think $150 per booth. Every vendor, then, wasn’t worried about making their money back and was able to enjoy the weekend and connect with other people in the artworld. It was such a refreshing experience. Of course everyone is at these commercial fairs to sell work, but it’s also a platform to connect with our larger community. It was like the focus has flipped and it was more about building the community rather than sales alone.

Right. Would you say this something that was noticeably lacking in the Canadian or Toronto community?

I wouldn’t say lacking, because it is what it is. In our case, we’re able to make it a little more accessible; our booths are very affordable, like that Milwaukee fair. There’s no admission fee. I just want to build on that and make it a space where … I mean, we’re not all in a tax bracket where we can collect major pieces of work. The larger fair is incredible, you can see a whole spectrum of art. But not everyone can walk out with something under their arm. We kind of pride ourselves on being able to provide something for everybody. We’re in a position where it has to be focused, and we’re wanting to make it a bit more welcoming. You can hang out, sit back, put up your feet, read a book, meet people with similar interests, and spend a day with us.

So the ambition to distinguish this from similar fairs is intimacy, I gather. What else?

I think we all understand now that there are different kinds of fairs. New York and Miami, these bigger fair centers, are presenting alternatives lately, as well. The history in Toronto is that there’s been an effort (for an alternative fair). But we have a partnership with Art Toronto. Where it might’ve felt like we were competing with each other, we’re able to work together, and offer two different things under the same roof. So we’re not trying to distinguish ourselves from other fairs, so much as … In my experience of doing fairs, come Sunday/Monday, it’s sort of the last place you want to be. You get kind of tired of being in that same space. So we just wanted to make it more comfortable for both the visitors and the exhibitors.

I’ve got fair fatigue in a major way, and find them pretty negative environments to be in as a critic. What’s been your experience as an artist?

As an artist, I think, in retrospect, it’s better to avoid fairs altogether. [laughs] You know, I had been told that as a younger artist and I didn’t really understand it. But now, looking back, I almost wish I had a more ignorance-is-bliss experience, where I sheltered myself from that whole side of things. So I don’t really think art fairs are for artists. They’re for dealers and curators and buyers. I don’t carry a negativity towards art fairs. They aren’t museums. They aren’t artist-run centers. They’re commercial fairs and serve that purpose. I’m not getting involved because I feel there needs to be a big change. I just want to make it more comfortable for everybody.

What are your strategies for this at /edition?

Well we brought in Bryan Mulvihill (aka Trolley Bus), for the World Tea Party. I’m surprised that this is the premier for World Tea Party in Toronto. It’s shown all over the world. Trolley has staged over 100 of these, over thirty years that he’s been doing this.

For me, with the collage party, twenty years ago, I went to the World Tea Party in Winnipeg, and it changed my thinking about art. It was my introduction to social art practice. I think there’s more awareness of social art practice out west, coming from California with Tom Marioni and artists like that; it hasn’t maybe made its way this far east, yet, in Canada. But Trolley uses tea as the platform or common ground for people to come together. He quite simply serves tea, and is an incredible host and personality. And he’s going to be there the whole weekend, connecting people through tea.

Programming is a major part of this fair. You have Momus doing a day of lectures; Art Metropole; and also a representative from LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, coming to talk about publishing. How did your relationship with the latter begin?

Well personally I know Lisa Mark from Winnipeg, from years ago. She’s now the chief editor at LACMA, and she’s coming and speaking about publishing in the institutions with Jim Shedden, from the AGO – and moderated by David Liss, from MOCCA.

What are the broader implications for art publishing right now? We were worried about the health of print publishing as a culture, for the last ten years or so, and it seems that concern was a bit of a red herring. Can you speak to the reality of art publishing, though? Is this a difficult moment? A crucial moment? A particularly energized moment?

Well I think you’ve kind of identified it. I don’t know what to call it – is it a comeback? I think about the parallel world of vinyl, where it didn’t disappear, it survived for a while through smaller formats, or non-physical formats, with MP3s, and the public spoke and said “we want objects.” We don’t want to let go of physical things, and sharing them, having a relationship to these as a vehicle to come together, and talk to one another face-to-face. We’re not the only book fair – there’s a wave of book fairs popping up all over the place. I think it’s really exciting. We can maybe all exhale. It might not be premature to do that. It’s comforting to know there’s still a demand for physical books.

And, it might be important to ask the obvious question: Why is art publishing important for art?

Dissemination of the work. The ideas, criticism, all of this; it’s is just another way to get this to the audience. I think again of the parallel world of music. When Napster came out, and everything was available online, it was less interesting. The chase wasn’t there to find these things; it wasn’t attractive to pursue or discover these things when it’s all available with the click of a mouse. It’s the same with publishing. All this information is technically available on the internet, but it’s fun to find things. There’s a real rush to find a publication out of print, or produced in rare numbers. So books and publishing are relevant for the same reasons that they were relevant throughout history. It’s a means to information and ideas.

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