PRINT SNOT DEAD: An Interview with Betty Nguyen

Media assassin and cultural glass blower Betty Nguyen makes death-of-print doomsayers eat their words. As a part of the Levi’s Workshop 2010 summer series, Nguyen—whose traditional titles include curator, art director, and founder and editor of First Person Magazine—has created a contemporary library that offers the public “a diverse sampling of anything artists are noting, coming across, doodling, making right now and flipping upside down into your own message… In a backlash to the world of internet, $60,000 Italian art catalogs, or life commitments, it is just to give people the opportunity and window into another’s life, to read something new and connected to a global consciousness of sharing ideas in one place.”

Unofficially called Print Snot Dead, Nguyen’s project is an oasis in a sea of announcements from across the country of library operation cutbacks and closings due to drastic budget reductions, of bookstores both small and large struggling to survive or shutting their doors, and of articles and editorials bemoaning the death of the printed object which, most recently, is being blamed on the iPad. Which begs the question: What makes Nguyen’s library stand out? Afterall, its intention is on the more humble end of the spectrum; its model of providing a public space where people can read for free is not new and in many communities in danger of extinction; and go into almost any independent bookstore and you’ll stumble upon a section reserved for zines, chapbooks, and other DIY printed matter.

Of course there’s the fact that like placing vintage plastic-framed glasses on the face of Johnny Depp, setting up Nguyen’s space in the newly-renovated Levi’s Workshop revamps the community library’s image from a musty, tan-carpeted, fluorescent-lit glorified waiting room filled with more dust and mean librarians than books you actually want to read, to a place of cool where hip-factor is calculated by geeking-out over a minefield of work vetted by the cultural elite. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the marketing power of a major corporate brand backing the contemporary library. Still, there is more to the project than making what’s old, new again or creating a buzz for Levi’s.

What makes Nguyen’s library exciting is that as much as it applies certain traditional frameworks, it also totally disregards elements that we have come to understand are part and parcel with them. In bringing the library into an art space, Nguyen ignores notions held by a society–which generally still views writing and art as distinct fields–that the library is reserved for “books” not “art” and that the gallery is reserved for “art” not “books.” In presenting work from both visual and literary artists side-by-side in the same space, Nguyen further eschews these distinctions and dares visitors to do the same. In soliciting work that artists are not only creating but excited by and finding or exploring themselves, Nguyen places as much value on sharing uniqueness of mind and passion as on an “original work.” And in presenting the curated works in a library–where everything can and should be handled, read, viewed, explored–Nguyen invites us to abandon the customary reserve of white box gallery culture and actively engage and love the work with unfettered enthusiasm.

Black Clock recently spoke with Nguyen to gain more insight on her library–which opens its doors this Saturday, July 17th in the Levi’s Workshop San Francisco space (aka the old Slanted Door restaurant)– as well as her perspective on art and writing, First Person Magazine, the iPad, Tina Turner, and Celestial Seasonings.

BLACK CLOCK: What inspired your contemporary library and the concept of “Print Snot Dead”?

BETTY NGUYEN: Well, I’ve curated a few “zine libraries” of handmade books, as that format still is popular in the Bay Area and in the United States. And I thought I’d expand the invitation to artists. To kind of bring them back to their punk roots of making zines. And of course, “Print Snot Dead” comes from “Punk Snot Dead.” Punk was a big thing in San Francisco, and I thought of it when I was asked to curate the zine library as part of the Levi’s Workshop here this summer. But the zine library isn’t going to be called “Print Snot Dead”; that was kind of an inside joke.

It’s interesting, as their marketing Levi’s to work with the community, that the creative pinpoint here [in San Francisco] is DIY print. I know in New York, they are setting up a free photo studio. And in New Orleans, a music studio. So, they must have figured the widest audience or most popular medium here to connect with is print media on a DIY level, which I find interesting. It’s kind of a fusion of Beat poet slash letterpress/silkscreen poster art that is kind of still valued when promoting signs here or ads. Like the whole Mission Street art school, seemed like everyone came from sign-making somehow. I guess, because I have a magazine, I have always loved print. I love photography, illustration, stories, relaying, editions. I love holding something in my hands and reading or flipping. I still subscribe to a few things, to support print publications, and I love buying books.

Can you tell us about some of the work in the show?

This artist from Chiapas found me on Facebook and sent me something. It’s totally crazy. I was scared to actually open the package in the mail–it was so suspicious-looking and it was from Mexico. It’s like his diary from many years. I kind of can’t believe he sent it to me. I don’t even know where to send it back, but it’s like, 600 pages with collage inserts, watercolors, and it’s super-musty. I also got a newspaper made from Frank Benson, an artist friend in New York. It’s got no text. Just black-and-white large photos of a couple of concrete windows that have been covered with random nailed in sheets of metal chain link that creeps in from the walls, and everything’s been sprayed white to interlock the materials. It’s super-creepy, the more I look at it. One artist has promised me a pop-up book!

What has been your approach in curating contemporary libraries?

It’s a bit different, as it’s kind of more open than curating an exhibition. It’s more of an open selection of zines from bookstores and my friend who runs the San Francisco Zine Fest, and inviting artists too who have a bit of extra time for me which is nice. There’s no comment that the show is making, yet… which is something I usually tackle. And it’s not something I am developing with an artist. I am kind of open to surprises and versatility of what someone has lurking inside to put into this format. So far, my approach has been to ask, “What is on your mind?” and “Can you put that into a paper form of some kind?” That has been the only premise.

If print’s not dead, what is it?

Good question. I believe that print is now honored. It’s not over, it’s got more value. Like anything couture, or something cooked in the kitchen rather than industrially popped out of a can, print is the tried and true thing that has passed a lot of time, hands, minds, and because the process is longer, the product has more staying power. Print is permanent, until it’s tossed or burned. I like to have books on my shelves as a reference library. Do you know how many bookmarks are in my computer that I’ll probably never go back to? Maybe that’s an organizational thing, but print to me, is delicious. I like to read out loud in a certain voice to my romantic friend, and share things. I like to give away books, and pick them up. You can send a link, but what if you got a card in the mail? Does it have more of a subtext than an emoticon? Each serves a purpose. Print is tangible. It can appeal to the senses. I just got a magazine that has smells on every page. I nerd-out on the paper quality of my new hardback books. When I select ink colors it’s with total pleasure for the magazine-user. I ask myself, “How will this make them feel, blue over red? Does it emulate the qualities of Summer?” I just had this huge discussion with my Art Director about the user-friendliness of our next issue which will be a newspaper. I want it on panels. I want them to flip through it, and feel satisfied, whereas he was looking at it like a poster and stories were cutting into different sections and I found it confusing. There’s an overall rhythm, and emotion that we are trying to communicate. And he looks closely at his dots, and underlines and grids. Whereas, I step back and look at the creative direction of the entire reader’s experience, and how the placement of features works psychologically. You can’t get this by scrolling.

The separation between “art” and “writing”–particularly literary writing–still seems to pervade in American mainstream culture. As a curator, artist, and editor of First Person Magazine, have you also found this to be true?

I actually find this to be totally the opposite. I find that most of my ideas, how I convey them to artists and my audience, and what I am questioning or presenting in my curatorial work is done completely through writing. Visual work almost comes second as concepts become more important in thinking about art and its execution. In fact, I am constantly reading and writing and researching. Literature is a goldmine for reflecting society. It is imperative to inform yourself of the past, and present events to determine what is current and needs to be presented; from this, I think, “Well, how are these perceptions formed?”

I like to read while I write. And because I don’t have a huge artist community in San Francisco, in contrast to New York, I surround myself with interviews and literature books that I rely on for fleshing out ideas. I wrote before I became a curator. In fact, curating is more an intuitive process for me, that I can’t quite write about until almost the end of my gathering process when I am forced to write a press release or in many cases a proposal for a museum. I listen to my instincts first for why a show should examine what’s going on in the world or my own personal world. Writing is a way to share what’s going on inside my head to the galleries and museums. It’s communication guides the exhibition. I think that artists and curators have a deep respect for those who can write well. Art criticism is crucial to discussion and connecting what we do to the whole rest of the world including pop culture, politics, social phenomena. Conflict and debate, archiving…

What have your experiences been in involving literary text in your work?

First Person Magazine began because I write in a slightly different way about art as an experience. I wanted to convey this mainly because most art publications were just sighting the same theorists over and over, and the rhetoric just didn’t justify the only way of digesting or understanding art. There’s now a huge change with blogging. Everyone writes in first person or more casually about art, and even gets a bit tabloid-y about it. I’m not big on the art gossip pages, but I know they’re popular to view. Another way, I work literature is through First Person Magazine‘s taglines. I worked for other magazines, and more often than not, the titles for stories were tacky derivatives of fashionable songs. For each issue of FP, I choose quotes from one book that I am reading to stand in for the taglines that I think add to the story. Our second issue used Richard Brautigan’s quotes, which are funny and very juicy. Our third injected quotes from conversations from a Mike Kelley book that I thought were sexy and kinda dark. And our Summer Issue, due out July 17th, is filled with David Lynch quotes from an interview book. Initially, I was just into incorporating poetry somehow, and now it’s expanded.

I just recently put together a poetry reading as part of a festival I curated, called No Birds Allowed, and I think it was refreshing to invite poets and playwrights into a gallery setting. So, I guess I like to expand the term ‘art’ or ‘artist’ to anyone who is making something that introduces something new. This is why I ask musicians to also contribute and write for First Person Magazine. I put everyone on the same playing field.

I am also working on curating a contemporary library that I hope will tour. Art books, ones that are handmade by poets, are included; I like how resourceful they can be. The art catalogs sometimes get to be trendy… colored paper is in, or newsprint, or this binding, and they’re really expensive, so it is almost competitive. But when you get a literary artist involved, that stuff is just like from a bookbinding class they took or figured out. I love poetry right now. But it’s kind of this under-the-radar thing. I was invited to a poetry reading by a friend of mine, who’s an absolute genius, and was thrilled to re-enter this arena. But when I asked one of my favorite poets and old friends to read at No Birds, he was actually intimidated to read at an art opening. So, he suggested a friend substitute. Which I thought was funny but worked out. I also got a call recently from Jack Walls, Robert Mapplethorpe’s boyfriend in New York, because he found out I liked his work. I absolutely would love to do a show with him. He wrote this poem which took two years to compose on paper in cursive which is so sensual and, I’m thinking because he’s Black, it was just really direct and no frills. The imagery just pierced into your mind like a film you’ve seen over and over. When I say that comment, about his racial background, I just remember seeing Tina Turner on this Hugh Hefner TV show and she said to Hugh–who commented that “Rhythm and Blues” was coming up as the new American music–she responded, “Well, Black people don’t really mess around with words like that. We like to call our music, ‘Grease’ cause it’s dirty and sexy.” And I just thought, that was awesome.

I also wrote for a catalog I published for Cosmic Wonder museum exhibition, and the opening quote is a line from the music composer Arvo Part that seemed like such a beautiful little nugget of truth. So, I feel like poetry can exist in many forms. Come to think of it, I also had a quote from a Celestial Seasonings magnet about the idea of Wonder. So, if you just look around, I think literature pervades everywhere.

How do you think the internet is changing our relationship with print, the printed object, reading, creating, how we share information?

I guess I think it’s funny that everything has to be more real or personable to give it value since the internet gives access to people on a very intimate level. Like when publications show the “inside” of their books or zines, sometimes their fingers or clips are in them to show the actual books. A lot of photography comes into play when communicating a publication as an actual object that exists in reality as a three dimensional form.

I like the idea of the Kindle, because in college I hated lugging around big books or reading in bed. But at the same time, now as an adult, I find reading away from the internet an indulgence that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I am happy that there is more access, and archiving, but also, some things you read on the internet are ephemeral. My friend just posted that Gmail has the right to delete your account for any or no given reason. So, nothing is ever safe except for print if we hang on to things.

As far as creating… Well, I was just thinking that Facebook or blogs are almost this “how many signatures can I get in my yearbook” coolness, or gossip thing. It’s like a bunch of housewives reincarnated in the form of the world, and everyone’s really aware now of Public and Private domains in our lives. Like the Warhol celebrity thing. So many people archive their lives to create new “content” on their pages. A new profile pic, etc.. I’ve been watching this hack chef make recipes on YouTube that are pretty funny. And I guess people gauge how many comments or hits you get as this value of importance. But like, why are there so many fashion bloggers versus art bloggers? Maybe they have more time on their hands to follow other trends while artists are in their studios making work from scratch? And why isn’t a poetry blog as accessible or attractive as a fashion blog? What makes them tick?

My friend David Enos has a blog on Tumblr that is hilarious. My Tumblr community kind of provides me with my daily laugh or smile, but as far as sharing information, there isn’t a lot there to grasp onto. I guess you can look up diseases without consulting a doctor which is kind of cool. But nothing on the internet is fact. Or has to be. It’s like everyone became an expert. The democracy is kind of confusing. And Yelp, I think is totally paid employees or a bit passive aggressive. I guess information just gets shared faster. Like, did a lot of important creative people die this year more than any other, or is it because we have the internet that it becomes more sensationalized?

Thoughts on the iPad?

I really want one for my bookshelf.

It seems that your contemporary library is as much about creating a space for face-to-face community and physical interaction, as much as it is about providing a place for interaction with the printed object. With that said, what are your thoughts on Neen’s Miltos Manetas’ assertion that “real space is usually bad taste”?

A neen is a space. It’s just for people who are tech. They try to imitate life. I think they should use their lexicon to encourage their own system of imagery and language. Kind of like animation. You have this whole other world you can create, and for the most part, those people are trying to show the public, “Look how much we can make fur or water or people look REAL?” Who cares. We can see what’s real. You have the capacity to make a complete fantasy with your tools and you make a dog? I’m not interested. So bad taste, is obviously a funny pisstake. Or maybe they can’t function socially and have to poke fun. I love going into a bookstore and reading for a bit. Because I know once I leave with the book, the only other place I’ll have that same tranquility is on the train.

How do you think the floundering public libraries has/will affect our relationship to reading and sense of community?

I don’t think that public libraries are floundering at all. In fact, with the recession tons more of the public have become members to take full advantage of this loan system that is such a generous thing. It’s rare for the U.S. to offer something still for free to the public, so I think they are thriving. And they are also going online and allowing access to downloadable materials. Public libraries also work with university libraries to loan materials. So, there is a wealth of information that the public is accessing.

Perhaps “floundering” is the wrong word. I’m referring to the massive budget cuts in funding for both public and school libraries, which has forced many to cut hours, close their doors several days a week, or close altogether. And then there’s the closing of all these independent bookstores across the country–thoughts on how that’s changing the landscape?

I haven’t heard of any independent bookstores closing. In fact, there always seems to be one opening here in San Francisco.

Sounds like bookstore heaven. In Los Angeles, Dutton’s, Equator Books, Other Times, A Different Light, Bodhi Tree, and Wilshire Books all closed within the last three years—and those are just the ones off the top of my head. Though San Francisco sounds pretty idyllic, I’m curious to know if you’ve observed the development of any movements or scenes offering an alternative to independent bookstores?

Independent magazines are still starting, and maybe we’re being more resourceful about our finance models, but magazines are producing more events and showing their creative wares and sustainability. First Person Magazine has been invited to over five international publication fairs this year alone.

Where do you see print in ten years?  What about the relationship between “art” and “writing”?

I’ve never been able to project that far in advance for anything. I hope for things and make goals for myself. But I think that people who do print aren’t just about paper and words. What fuels those publications, like First Person Magazine, is our interest in life, culture, art, so we are creating communities and produce projects. I hope the direction of things moves towards partnerships. That our creative energy will be recognized and not just utilized to get “reviews” or “exposure.” As a publisher, I have a lot of creative energy to synergize everything in the magazine to life–into festivals, exhibitions, editions, design. We know what’s good, out there, and next, so we are great consultants with ideas and artists unto ourselves. Gone are the days of the journalist-hack as wannabe or hanger-on. Writers are great observers. Sensitive and full of wild fictions that come from real experiences. Writing and art are symbiotic. They need each other to exist. Artists, critics, and writers love to write about what’s happening, because we do what we do because we think it is important. That sounds egotistical, but it’s not. In my “First Word,” in the upcoming issue [of First Person Magazine,] I talk about creatives being out of love with the ordinary. Writers are the thinkers of our times. And artists manifest our times into memoirs.

Betty Nguyen’s contemporary library opens this Saturday, July 17th, 2010 at 7pm (Levi’s Workshop, 580 Valencia Street, cross street 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103) in conjunction with the launch of First Person Magazine‘s Summer Issue, Discomfort of Sculpture.

by Kyoung Kim
who is currently nomadic

image of Betty Nguyen by David Enos



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