“I am a book, buy me now!”
This book title by A. R. Penck could have been the motto for the mumok Art Book Day 2020, which would have been taking place here at mumok. Unfortunately, the artist book fair had to be cancelled this year due to the pandemic. So instead, we have decided to conduct interviews with four protagonists of the Viennese artist book scene. These will be available to read on our blog on four consecutive Thursdays. Even if we cannot substitute the personal encounters, dialogues, discoveries, and much more, we hope to provide a glimpse into the artist book sphere and the diversity in techniques and concepts. See for yourself!
Angling for books
Sarah Bogner and Josef Zekoff, Harpune Verlag, in conversation with Simone Moser
SM: You founded Harpune Verlag (Harpoon Publishers) together in 2010. What compelled you to get into the industry? What is your agenda, and what does the name Harpune stand for?
SB/JZ: We started the business in order to work with other artists. We wanted to form temporary groups of artists, a new group with every book. Like a crew assigned for a long cruise, an Atlantic crossing, or island hopping. The destination is the artist book that we create together. And ultimately, of course, also the idea of a long-term collaboration—once you’ve survived the turbulent sea together, you crew up together again. The name Harpune is also seen in this context. Even though we are called Harpune Verlag, we haven’t left art. To be honest, to this day we don’t operate within the publishing industry—we perhaps brush past it occasionally, but everything we do in fact happens under the general rubric of “art.”
SM: You work and publish a lot with other artists. How did that come about? Does the fact that you are also artists play a role?
SB/JZ: All our books have collaborative elements. For us it’s always about exchange, moving around on a mutual playing field. The books we make would probably never be published in a “book publisher’s”—they are purely things of art.
SM: Your publishing program is extremely varied: from signed linen-bound one-offs to paperbacks and artzines, from prices on request to really affordable € 10 books. Is there a common thread that runs through your program?
SB/JZ: The common thread is the motivation to find the right profile for each project. The concept for every true artist book is always new; you actually start from scratch each time. It is from there that the most diverse books, objects, and editions are created. Sometimes even first translations, as in our Livre de Peintre Flametti by Tal R and Hugo Ball, which in fact is an original graphic edition of 30 and later went on to be published in English by Wakefield Press in paperback in a huge print run. Even with limited original graphic editions, it is important to us that the content remains accessible, so that’s why there is a paperback or zine version of most of them.
SM: A special feature of Harpune Verlag is that you’re running your own printing workshop with Neue Satz Wien, and you, Sarah, are mastering the old technique of metal typesetting. That sounds like skillful typography between old-fashioned and avant-garde. How does that influence your work?
SB/JZ: IN 2011 I took over an anachronistic letterpress workshop and learned the craft. So we have several large, heavy machines at our disposal. This gives us the opportunity to incorporate, where suitable, various printing and bookbinding techniques into our production. By doing this we can experiment a whole lot and realize things ourselves that would otherwise not be possible.
SM: The series Moby Dick Filet is published every month, one chapter at a time. What’s behind that? Why fillet Herman Melville’s book in so many pieces, and what role does the number 136 play in this?
SB/JZ: Moby Dick Filet is our longest-running and most exciting publishing experiment. We fillet the famous novel on Captain Ahab’s hunt for the white whale into its 136 chapters and publish them as a form of dime novel, but not chronologically. The artists that we invite select a chapter that they then design. The only premise is that the text by Herman Melville appears in some form or other and remains readable. For us, it’s a great way to be able to work together with a great variety of artists. Through this, a connection is also created among the artists—that’s the idea of the artist groups, again, that in fact runs through everything we do.