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ZINE MUNCH #2: Counterpublics, ‘Activist Downloading,’ and the Risograph (w/ Paul Soulellis)
On community publishing and network culture
Paul Soulellis runs Queer.Archive.Work, a Providence-based nonprofit library, publishing studio, and workshop space and is a professor (and graphic design department head) at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Previously, he was an artist in residence at the Internet Archive. He also curated The Download, a series of commissions for Rhizome that “considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as a space for exhibition” from 2015 to 2017 and Library of the Printed Web, a physical archive focused on “web culture articulated as printed artifact” that was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art’s library in 2017.
He’s a prolific zinester (most recently: resting reader (2022), TINY DIGEST #1 (SPACE) (2021), and What is Queer Typography? (2021) and lectures frequently about experimental publishing and network culture.
Queer.Archive.Work hosts open hours every other Sunday; on May 1st I bike 20 minutes from my Brown dorm to their studio space in West Providence; Paul and I sit outside on chairs to chat.
This transcript has been edited for clarity, accuracy, and concision.
Lucas Gelfond: I loved your talk “Performing the Feed,” specifically your notes on “semantic-based curation,” and “material that’s been meaningfully selected by humans around its capacity to assemble publics and generate discourse.” How do you think through works and how their form shapes their interaction with a public?
Paul Soulellis: We’re doing that all the time, whenever we circulate anything. “Publics and Counterpublics” by Michael Warner, do you know that piece?
LG: I’m vaguely familiar.
PS: That’s been huge for me. The ideas he sketches out there go beyond publishing, to addressivity and acts of speech. In the past I used to think about publishing, and I think many people still do, as the production of objects. Like: you make a zine, you make a digital file, you make a book. I guess one thing that changed for me with Michael Warner's [piece] was the idea of setting something into motion and forming a public through its circulation, and through the discourse that's created around that movement.
I started thinking about publishing in gestural and performative ways where that action, when you make objects move—sometimes literally physically moving from hand to hand or library to library et cetera, or on the network from server to sever—that is where the public, or a public, or multiple publics are being formed. That can happen with anything.
LG: Do you think that works do this at all themselves?
PS: On their own? I think there is the illusion of that in network culture. The illusion is that the post itself or the tweet or the thing itself is doing the assembling [of a public], when in fact it’s not, we’re doing it by sharing and passing things along. I guess maybe it’s a little different when we start talking about algorithmic forces, but still those are still engineered.
I would definitely shy away from the idea that objects and things are doing any of the assembling itself. Even here at the Binch/Queer.Archive.Work studio, it’s only the people who are assembling in here that are making anything happen. If it was just me and that collection of a thousand zines sitting there, and no one cared [it wouldn’t matter]. It really comes down to acts of care and commitment that enable people to assemble around things.
LG: I was reading about your work on The Download a bit, and was really struck by your note about how “downloading can transform a public post into private property; to download may be political”—say more!
PS: I'm thinking again about movement and making apparent, what is otherwise frequently, an invisible, dynamic or act—the movement of digital files between servers to a desktop. In delivering something to an individual's desktop, the agency of someone opening up a zip file and ‘performing’ the work on one's own private computer, off of the network, for me that’s a political act because you are empowering your viewer to create the work with you or to finish the work or participate in the work.
LG: Are there examples of politically charged or ‘activist downloading’ you’re thinking of?
PS: I think of leaks, I think of information that is meant to be private and locked up or secure, and then suddenly it’s not, because a whistleblower has decided that the status of that information has to be flipped or reversed from private to public. That’s not inherently political, but it can be, I think.
LG: I was thinking of Aaron Swartz.
PS: Yeah, absolutely. That was kind of an extreme case, but a very important one in terms of who and how someone has access to information, and what happens when you try to interrupt or resist that.
LG: In a 2020 interview with Rebecca Wilkinson, you talk about how “community organizing, networking, and connection happens on digital platforms now.” What was your thinking regarding opening Queer.Archive.Work as an explicitly physical space?
PS: I’ve worked as a professional graphic designer for many years and have always had an artist studio, but that’s very much a private space focused on the individual. When I got a risograph [note: a printing machine frequently used in zine making], everything changed because I was suddenly in control of every aspect of making a publication, and it was really intense. I would be doing that for, say, three weeks nonstop, 24/7, but then there would be months where nobody's using the risograph.
I thought: “wouldn't it be great if this could be a shared tool” and “how might others feel empowered by this thing in the way that I am?” That’s one part of it. Another part is that more and more over the last 10 years I have been making publications where the collaboration was key or central, where it was about others coming into the space of a publication to share ideas, to be in conversation with each other. I just sort of put two and two together when this moment happened, where I had to leave the last artist studio and thought, all right, we'll look for a new space, but what if it had a public element to it? What if there was a way that this space could be accessible and this machine, this risograph printer that I find so empowering could be accessible?
I registered Queer.Archive.Work as a nonprofit as a way to decenter me from the project, so that it wasn't like ‘let's go in and share Paul's studio,’ but ‘let's create,’ where I'm participating, but others are also equally participating.
PS: That’s one of the beautiful things about zines, the immediacy. The ability, with access to a laser printer, a Xerox machine, or a risograph, to print one sheet, fold it in half, and call it a thing, and be able to hand that to somebody in the most basic way. In that essential way there’s something very fast about that process, although the ideas you’re spreading might not be something that’s happening very fast, maybe it’s something that’s building over a long period of time. Still, there’s something about the ability to immediately circulate and disseminate that slow information. It’s not unique to zines, but zines put it very close to the physicalness of the artists and the artists body, and give artists agency to control that process as opposed to academic or commercial publishing.
With ZINE MUNCH I’m consistently interested in how the differing affordances of print/digital publications influence how we interact with them. What works do you think make best use of their digital (or physical) setting? You can reply directly to this email, very curious to hear thoughts! In any case, more soon :)