Interview with Samuel Walsh from Strange Goods and Layla Tweedie-Cullen from split/fountain, a spiritual predecessor of Strange Goods.
Can you introduce Strange Goods and split/fountain?
SW: Strange Goods is an online and physical store offering a curated selection of multi-disciplinary arts books, publications and objects from across Aotearoa. We also host events with a focus on publishing and community engagement and collaborate on projects with our friends.
LTC: split/fountain (S/F)1 is an artist-run project founded in 2009, merging at least three forms of production and dissemination: art, design, and print, operating variously as a design studio, project space, curatorial office, niche publishing house, online bookshop, and laboratory for urban aesthetics and collaborative thinking. We work with artists as well as designers and architects, and have a publishing imprint, producing publications, newspapers and artists' editions. S/F aims for experimental exploration of the gradations between commerce, art, ideas, and material thinking. The project initially operated out of a storefront space in a historic retail area of the city on Karangahape Road, next door to a laundromat, in the vicinity of numerous galleries and artist-run spaces, adult shops, and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. In 2012, we moved to the second level of a commercial office building on the city fringe. We re-thought our operations for a different location.
Currently, S/F is in a transitional phase, and we are primarily focusing on publishing and research – although there is a plan to take up more exhibition projects in the future. We are particularly interested in the challenges that new technology presents to printed matter, and the physical book, the relationships between physical form, documentation and digital reproduction.
What were your motivations for founding Strange Goods and split/fountain?
SW: We’d been running Strange Haven (project space) for a while and had always wanted to set up a store within the space. Originally it was going to be more arts/object centric but after hosting a series of Art Book Fairs (and with more of our residents working on publishing projects) it started to organically evolve into a bookstore. For us it was a new way to utilise our location and provide a platform for the community to access, share and make $ from their work.
LTC: I co-founded S/F shortly after returning to Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa to live after eight years living overseas. I studied graphic design in the Netherlands, then moved to the USA to take up a design fellowship post at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When I returned to Auckland in 2008, my immediate response to the local situation was that there appeared to be a scarcity of independent publishing projects that encouraged and sustained open criticism around design. S/F was founded as a platform for facilitating collaborative projects and for presenting art publishing happening both locally and internationally.
As a designer, another significant motivation for founding S/F, was the possibility for creative autonomy and critical engagement. Publishing through S/F enables the opportunity for creative agency and the means to take control both intellectually and economically, of the means of production,2 rather than working as a graphic designer and only responding to tasks and problems presented by clients.
When you began, were you following models?
SW: We took a lot of inspiration (and advice) from split/fountain and stole ideas from similar spaces overseas (where it’s pretty common for arts/project spaces to host small shops as part of their infrastructure). I don’t think there’s anything terribly revolutionary about our model, we’ve just been lucky in that it’s all come together in the way it has.
LTC: Although initially based on international models including projects such as Dexter Sinister in New York,3 Roma Publications4 and Metahaven5 in Amsterdam, S/F has developed in unexpected ways due to the unique local conditions in Auckland. When first conceptualising S/F, I was interested in developing a project that could remain in a state of transition, continuing to evolve and make regular changes in response to a particular project's requirements. Another important reference was Marcel Broodthaers' itinerant Musée d'art Moderne, Department des Aigles,6 a nomadic, temporal space that only existed in the time or place where appropriate conditions allowed for one of its 'sections' to take place. The notions of flexibility and agility certainly motivate S/F; we see this as enabling discussion across disciplines, and the ability to connect but also to disconnect in various scenarios.
Does Strange Goods make money? Does that matter? Are these projects about profitability?
SW: We’re lucky in that our project space/studio Strange Haven helps subsidise the shop's rent, otherwise it would be pretty difficult to fully fund Strange Goods on its own merits. We keep our overheads as low as possible and make enough $ to cover staff and running costs but it’s unlikely we’re going to get rich af selling niche art books and ephemera lol. I think making money matters in that you want these types of projects to be sustainable and grow in the way they need to (which has always been our main goal) but it’s definitely not a profit-driven venture.
What type of material does split/fountain publish?
LTC: S/F publishing projects take a range of forms including publications, posters, newspapers, artists' editions etc., that are all connected to the broader S/F programme and focus on cross-disciplinary practices operating at the point of intersection between art and design. S/F exhibition projects often include a publication document as integral to the project, and these aim to present material in such a way that it becomes a parallel project. Design is both content and context (the medium is the message7 and the message is the form). In some instances, documents are produced collaboratively to create connections between people, or 'performed' through the production of a publication at a specific site. Here, the circumstances and processes surrounding production have significance, including the methods for making something public. We also present nomadic exhibitions both in Aotearoa and overseas8 that use transience as a methodology for generating change and new ways of thinking, these enable us to reach diverse audiences and participate in a broader cultural dialogue.
A recent publication we have launched, included in the Strange Goods booth as part of May Fair, is the third issue of an ongoing series called distracted-reader9 that I co-edit with writer Allan Smith. distracted-reader #3: Time to Think Like a Mountain, combines magazine fragments, archival images, interviews, collages and newly commissioned texts, documenting artist Louise Menzies' distracted meanderings through one of the largest collections of underground and self-published material in the United States, The Alternative Press Collection at the University of Connecticut. Each issue of distracted-reader has a changing format to best suit the material being presented.
Who is your audience, who do you want to speak to? Do you only reach artists and designers?
SW: In terms of our day-to-day customers it’s super broad which was kind of unexpected as we initially thought we’d only appeal to a very niche audience. We never want the shop to be exclusive or intimidating or anything as at the end of the day we want as many people as possible to discover and learn more about what’s going on locally in terms of publishing, arts and writing etc so I guess we’re trying to reach anyone curious enough to pop by and say hello.
Is community important?
SW: It’s probably the most important thing for Strange Goods because without a community we wouldn’t really have a purpose, we wouldn’t have any customers and we wouldn’t have any books to sell cause we only stock locally made titles and objects. Outside of the day-to-day stuff we also host events like readings, book launches and parties, and collaborate on projects with other groups and organisations which has really helped us build a community around the store. I think you need that in order for it to work (to make the most of a physical space) and you realise how valuable it is being able to chat to people IRL, answer their questions and offer a platform for people to connect and hang out etc.
Reading seems by nature a somewhat solitary exercise, how is it that projects like S/F are often defined by community participation?
LTC: split/fountain aims to promote thinking as making, and print design as speculative thought, reading as a form of collaboration to encourage artists and designers to break down the boundaries that exist around the theories, practices, and philosophies of art, design, and architecture. We're a physical location and a mesh of metaphors. I am particularly interested in exploring publishing as an active process, action or practice,10 that incorporates multiple methods and platforms such as printed matter, e-publishing and website design. My approach is summed up well in the text titled Here and Now? Explorations in Urgent Publishing (2019),11 where the authors12 suggest that the publishing process is less ‘a production workflow with a clear beginning and end, but rather as an ongoing process punctuated by events such as publication ideas, releases, events, archives etc.’13 They go on to emphasise the importance of ‘slow publishing’, ‘openness’, ‘accessibility of networks’, ‘meaningful structures of contents’, and the building of communities over time.14 These are certainly elements that I also view as important. For S/F, publishing is a means to create a public and bring communities together.
What are the main challenges a publisher faces in 2020?
LTC: Until very recently, S/F has predominantly focused on publishing printed matter; however, in my experience, the distribution of physical books has become increasingly difficult, even more so now with the COVID 19 pandemic. Bookshops in Aotearoa have struggled to compete with international online stores, such as the Book Depository and Amazon, and very few bookshops representing exclusively art and design titles remain. As a consequence, there is now a very reduced opportunity to view and distribute art books locally. However, we are lucky to now have Strange Goods and Samoa House Library, which both opened last year in Tāmaki Makaurau on Karangahape road, and represent local and international art publishing. Art bookshops in Aotearoa that are connected to established city galleries primarily offer publications that specifically relate to their exhibition programme. The closure of the Fine Arts, Architecture, Music and Dance libraries initiated by the University of Auckland in 2018,15 reflect a global decline in specialist libraries. Theorist Marlene Manoff writes; ‘the reality of an ever-growing body of material available only in electronic form has made people more aware that the culture of the book and the book itself are losing their centrality.’16 These issues inform my interest in hybrid publishing methods and investigating the possibilities that new technologies offer for exhibiting and circulating knowledge and information online, and for compiling, activating and interactively organising digital content.17
And Sam, what are the main challenges facing your store in 2020?
SW: Our biggest challenge is going to be external factors - the bits and pieces beyond our control like rent increases, Covid related repercussions and the ongoing construction and changing landscape of Karangahape Rd. Burnout and stress also play a role sometimes too. Like, we obviously love what we do and the community we reside in, but it does take over your life sometimes and so you often question how long you can keep it up. In saying that, the world feels like it’s on fire at the moment and so in many ways escaping overseas or doing something completely different seems less tangible or worthwhile (which is both terrifying and weirdly freeing at the same time), so I think we’ll just keep hoping for the best whilst planning for the worst. OMG.
What are you working on currently?
LTC: S/F is currently working on a publication project with curators Allan Smith and Marcus Moore, focusing on a series of exhibition projects titled: Paul Cullen: Building Structures +, shown at The Engine Room in Wellington (2018), St Paul Street Gallery in Auckland (2018), and Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2020).
SW: We’ve recently launched a new project called Signs in collaboration with Satellites which we’re very excited about and are working with Never Project Space in Kirikiriroa to host a month long pop-up. We’ve got a bunch of book launches and shows coming up too and a few new publications in the pipeline.
2 Lupton, Ellen. (2012).“The Designer as Producer” in Graphic Design Now in Production, Walker Art Center.
3 Dexter Sinister similarly operates as a design studio, publishing imprint, bookstore and distribution centre.
4 Roma Publication is an independent publisher based in Amsterdam.
5 Metahaven is a studio for design, research, and art in Amsterdam.
6 Marcel Broodthaers’ itinerant Musée d’art Moderne, Department des Aigles did not have a permanent location and instead manifested itself in ‘sections’ presented at various locations between 1968 and 1971.
7 A term coined by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, The MIT Press, 1994.
8 Nomadic split/fountain exhibition projects presented overseas include Temporary housing + shelter at the Tokyo Art Book Fair (produced in collaboration with Whatever Press Tokyo), S/F project at the Physics Room in Christchurch, and distracted-workshop, at the 26th International Biennial of Graphic Design Brno in the Czech Republic, and an exhibition of split/fountain publishing at C7C Gallery in Nagoya Japan.
10 Annette Gilbert and Hannes Bajohr, eds., Publishing as Artistic Practice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).
11 Explorations in Urgent Publishing was led by led by the Institute of Network Cultures in collaboration with 1001 Publishers, Amateur Cities, Amsterdam University Press, ArtEZ University of the Arts, Hackers & Designers, Mind Design, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Open!, Open Set, Puntpixel, Studio BLT, Valiz, and Willem de Kooning Academy. https://bit.ly/3eSsfeZ
12 This text is jointly written by: Cristina Ampatzidou, Marc de Bruijn, Barbara Dubbeldam, Barbara Lateur, Thaïsa de Leij, Silvio Lorusso, Ania Molenda, Pia Pol, Miriam Rasch, Kimmy Spreeuwenberg, Erwin Verbruggen, and Minke Vos.
13 Silvio Lorusso, Pia Pol, and Miriam Rasch, eds., Here and Now? Explorations in Urgent Publishing (Amsterdam: Published by the Institute of Network Cultures, 2020), 119–20.
14 Lorusso, Pol, and Rasch, 119.
15 In 2018, The University of Auckland announced the closure of its specialist Fine Arts, Architecture, Music and Dance libraries (amidst significant opposition from the extended Arts community). Other universities in Aotearoa (such as AUT) have discontinued or radically reduced the budget for the purchase of physical books and now prioritise spending on digital resources, online journals, and so forth. Being an island nation in the south-western Pacific Ocean, international distribution of printed matter is challenging due to the extremely high cost of shipping abroad. Our geographic isolation also means that the promotion of titles can be challenging too, especially if we are working with young or emerging practitioners who may not yet have an international reputation outside of Aotearoa.
16 Marlene Manoff, ‘The Symbolic Meaning of Libraries in a Digital Age’, Portal: Libraries and the Academy 1, no. 4 (2001): 278, https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2001.0075.
17 The recent COVID 19 pandemic has also heightened the necessity for content to be available and accessible online.