Monday, February 18, 2013

Four Days of the Codex Book Fair 2013

by Alastair Johnston

"There is not a prophet in the Old Testament who would not be excommunicated from the modern Church for the vehemence of his opinions" -- John J. Collins

The 2013 CODEX book fair brought together makers of expensive books from all over the world to show their wares. CODEX is timed to coincide with the biennial visit of the California International Antiquarian Book Fair to San Francisco and for that reason (among others) I have never attended, being more interested in the old book I've never seen than the new book I cannot afford, but this time it had been moved to the week preceding the ABAA/ILAB event. It was also moved physically from Pauley Ballroom on the U C Berkeley campus to a former Ford plant in the wilderness of Richmond, California, where I agreed to help staff a friend's table.

The CODEX book fair is the baby of Peter Koch, who models himself after Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press, a grand bookman in the tradition of the Grabhorn Press, producing trouser-press editions of chestnut texts with an emphasis on the materiality of the book, rather than the originality of the work. In fact the typography and imagery generally reflect a style that was popular in the 1930s and is based on pattern-recognition, so people will look at it and think "Ah, a fine press book," rather than question the originality of the concept, production methods (increasingly faux letterpress from computer-generated plastic plates) or structure. Even the Codex fair "look" is based on Cassandre's eccentric Bifur typeface designed in 1929.

Perhaps the success of the fair is due to the "Kindle Effect" (like the "Connecticut Effect" which the NRA hopes will soon wear off). While there is a genuine nostalgia for "real" books after the sudden surge in the e-Book market, it is surprising to see these fancy books still hanging on to an audience, but at $800 for a table there were not going to be too many purveyors of medium-priced well-made books or "democratic multiples." But the fair has grown and consequently a second aspect of it, a morning-long symposium for some of the participants to discuss their work in detail, was sold out.

To accommodate those who missed out on the symposium, it was webcast live, which seemed like a good idea. However, the camera was at the back of the auditorium and the sound was picked up there, rather than fed from the podium, so you mainly heard coughing; the speakers were but a distant speck beneath the large blurry & skewed video screen on which they showed their work. One speaker I heard sounded very silly saying "balance of type image concept brought back into balance." Maybe I heard him wrong. And while it seemed a majority of the exhibitors were women, there was only one woman speaker in the symposium.

San Francisco skyline from Point Richmond

Point Richmond is a long drive from sillivization and not easily accessible by public transport unless you want to brave the environs of one of the scariest BART stations in the system. Exhibitors could buy a bus ticket (for an additional $50!) to get them there and back before and after the 4 long days of showing their work. It is a lovely setting though, in an old Ford tank factory right on the San Francisco Bay, next to the Rosie the Riveter museum. But once there, attendees are stuck. When it was held at Pauley Ballroom (currently being renovated) it was a short walk to the hotels, restaurants and bookstores of Telegraph Avenue. One woman's suggestion: since Peter is such a macho cowboy, he should hold the next one at the Cow Palace.

Peter is famous for his drinking stories, according to one Midwestern exhibitor. In December, I went to a talk at Moe's Books, advertised as a "preview of CODEX," as I was eager to learn about the fair and its attendance -- not just who is showing work, but what kind of numbers show up, if sales are made, or is it all window-shopping (Since the cost to exhibit is so steep it's not a light investment for most presses, never mind airfare and hotel). Instead I had to sit through a provincial account of "My big trip to Venice," telling how much of Peter's wife's money they spent. As you no doubt know, Prosecco flows like water in Venezia, and only rubes pay $15 for a glass of Prosecco, but that seemed to be the apogee of Peter's visit. That and the fact they spent $15,000 or was it 50,000? in pre-production costs for the reprint of the Joseph Brodsky book they produced there, Watermark, that retails for $6000. Unfortunately the fair suffers from being closely associated with Peter Koch though you cannot imagine all the exhibitors are so pretentious.

There was a lot to look at: too much in fact, and by the time people came around the nearly 200 tables, like yachts with luffing sails being pulled sideways into the Richmond dock, they had that glazed "museum-goer" look. I saw lots of "gratuitous structure": books that were in flag or accordion-spine formats for no reason other than it was a cool idea at the time (with of course no recognition for Hedi Kyle who originated those structures). But, warned Peggy Gotthold, as she showed me her elaborately constructed anthology "For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn," there are no new structures, only rediscovered ones.

I remarked on the one aspect of such fairs which always bothers me: the artists themselves are sitting behind their work, some looking more confident than others, but every person who walks by is seen to judge the work, with either an instant curiosity (sometimes simply "how did you name your press?") or instant indifference: "hmmm, whatever it is I don't wanna know!" One attendee said she felt guilty looking at the books because although she was fascinated, she couldn't afford them and maybe was preventing some librarian from getting in close to make a purchase.

Peter Koch printing the cruciform poster for CODEX 2013

In the valedictorian speech (on line) Koch said he welcomed criticism, as long as it was couched in flattering terms, so kudos to Peter and his son Max for pulling this off four times. While the real audience is rich collectors and librarians, the value of Codex is it enlarges the tiny pond of the Bay Area book arts scene. It's a chance for local enthusiasts to learn something, to get ideas or to meet artists and printers. But it is marred by the cowboy aesthetic. Many women exhibitors complained about the Wild West theme (which is inherent in Peter's typography -- he likes beat-up wood type and the bullets/lead analogy). The poster for the fair is a large Xtian cross with CODEX vertically and 2013 being the horizontal arms; then it has "Drawing a bead on the book" as a subtitle. Targets abound. We are not all hicks in shitkickers, these ladies complain, please leave the target practice out. 

Artist Cathy DeForest listening to dealer Donna Seager

The Bay Area and the bustling Santa Cruz book arts scene were well represented, and it spirals out from there to Ninja Press and Pie in the Sky in Southern California, to Inge Bruggeman (Ink-A! Press), Cathy DeForest, and Diane Jacobs (Scantronic) who work in Oregon. One reason to exhibit was to let people know you are still around. Though nonagenarian Jack Stauffacher was not present, his Greenwood Press was represented by one of his authors, photographer Dennis Ledbetter, holding down the fort. Walter Hamady's daughter, Samantha, showed his superlative Perishable Press work and reassured passersby that Walter is not dead -- in fact he is a sprightly 72, though he gave up printing two years ago to concentrate on sculpture and collage. His last book, A Timeline of Sorts, as well as copies of many of his other fine works, were on display at Codex for the first time.

Walter Hamady's parting gesture

M K Publishers from St Petersburg (Russia) were there and Vladimir Zimakov: I didn't know his name but did recognize his work. Mexico, alongside California, was well represented, but there was simply too much to take in. On Facebook people have posted amazing snapshots of things I missed. Nevertheless here is my hopefully constructive criticism: four days is too long (the first day could be a one-day symposium followed by a 3-day bookfair). The fair should end at dusk: since there are no lights in the Craneway Pavilion it was too dark to see the books for the last hour. One final idea: invite a taco truck to park outside.
Browsing in the gloaming

The best looking book I saw was one with five pochoir plates from Shanty Bay Press of Canada, but it is not even for sale, being out of print.

There were many international book artists, like <usus>(Stoltz & Schneider), the lexikon gang "Zweite Enzyklopädie von Tlön", and Veronika Schäpers from Germany, the latter now working in Japan. Italians, French and Brits were there too, from Whittington Press who do traditional Monotype work and publish Matrix magazine, to Susan Allix who presents her fine art in quirky formats, but always impeccably presented.

And surprisingly there was one genuine literary publisher of affordable books there: The Brother in Elysium from Brooklyn, New York, who had a new folder of Ed Sanders' Glyphs and a witty packaging of a Ted Berrigan work in a library binding with a big "WITHDRAWN" stamp and library pocket stuck in. He may have broken even, but only because he was visited by librarians from The Bancroft, Simon Fraser, Florida State University and Stanford. Many of the exhibitors were breathlessly awaiting the arrival of Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress, hoping he would bestow a purchase order on them. Meanwhile there was plenty of schmoozing to go around.

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