A 50 books a year rhythm. Interview with Lionel Bovier

July 7th, 2014 – , .
Published in Metropolis M website.

JRP|Ringier publisher celebrates its ten year anniversary. Time to talk to the founder Lionel Bovier about the foundations, ideals and hard work that underly one of the most productive art publishers of today.

Maaike Lauwaert:
17 years ago you started with Christophe Cherix JRP Editions. I read this was inspired by your love for the small press scene of the 1970s. What exactly was it that you wanted to revive from that scene of the 70s? Which attitude or ideology even?

Lionel Bovier:
I think we were most impressed at the time by the use of printed matter by Conceptual artists as a site for projects (and particularly what Seth Siegelaub had produced with some of them) and the Fluxus approach to the lightness, playfulness, and mobility of books, ephemera, and multiples. It was certainly the idea of the book as an “ideal” space for art (non-contingent, transportable, democratic, etc.)—and by extension the ideology associated to multiplied art works—, that motivated us to produce some on our own.

The fact that we were, as students, able to buy Ed Ruscha’s books, i.e. proper artworks by a famous artist, was of course not only an enjoyment but a clear sign of the economic limitations of this field… So we were not thinking of this activity as a professional one first, but rather we ventured into it as amateurs (in the etymological sense of the term, someone who loves something).

The other aspect that was important was the fact that, as young curators, we realized that publishing would allow us to work with artists such as Robert Morris or Allen Ruppersberg, independently from any structure we were then associated with (we were running a small space in Geneva called Forde, Christophe was starting at the Cabinet des estampes of the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, while I was curating projects independently and teaching in the Lausanne art school).

Maaike Lauwaert:
In 2004 you created JRP|Ringier, in partnership with Michael Ringier. You have published since 2004 an astounding catalogue of books. How many people work at JRP|Ringier at the moment and how do you succeed in realizing such a high quality catalogue? There was clearly a need for your work given the success of JRP|Ringier.

Lionel Bovier:
After years of publishing projects within a structure that was basically a two-(unpaid)-men band, I started to wonder what it would be to focus for a while on publishing, to create a professional publication house… At the end of the 1990s Christophe had become much more involved in the museum (he eventually became the Director of the Cabinet in 2005) and I was curating a lot of projects a year, notably with the Magasin in Grenoble, but without the desire to become a Kunsthalle director or a Biennale curator.

Meeting with Michael Ringier and Beatrix Ruf was the trigger and gave me the opportunity to take that chance. I took a year to end my other projects and learn about the many aspects I didn’t know regarding publishing: the economics, the distribution, the rights, etc. I had accumulated knowledge on the production and editorial aspects, but weren’t so interested before in those other dimensions, so essential if you want to make your hobby into a profession…

We were five at the start in 2004 and we are ten today, including a Paris office and the bookshop Kunstgriff in Zurich we took over in 2013. This doesn’t include different aspects of the work that are outsourced: production, accounting, IT, storage, distribution, etc. The company is hopefully built within a group, Ringier AG, which can provide some of those services, while we developed long-standing partnerships with companies for both the production and distribution of the books. I also organized a network of associate editors who bring us projects, ideas, etc., and sometimes run a real series within the program (it’s the case for instance of Christoph Keller and Vit Havranek with Tranzit).

In terms of work, let’s say that the company, like all other publishers I know, could be described as constantly under-staffed and under high and constant pressure: with a 50 books a year rhythm you have so many deadlines it would take too long to list them every day… I think it takes a kind of stress-resistance gene to accommodate to this, an adaptability and a genuine interest in the medium; that’s the only recipe: you have to really like the books, in all their aspects, to carry on doing this activity on the long-term…

Maaike Lauwaert:
You started your career as a curator. I read in an interview that you consider “editing a book very similar to curating a show.” Do you still work from the notion of the book as a space, in the sense of an exhibition space, a space for ideas, a flexible space? And if so, does this mean that you approach publishing differently than “traditional publishers”? More open, flexible, artist-driven, autonomous?

Lionel Bovier:
The book is a space for showing art, undoubtedly, and especially since the 1960s. The rules that apply are not entirely dissimilar to those applying within a physical space, but it’s probably my understanding of curating as a discursive form that makes the connection between the exhibition and the book so obvious for me. For printed matters it’s the form you’ll give to the book, the editorial decisions, the graphic and material choices, that will determine its outcome as an interesting object or not.

What I rejected from traditional publishing is the idea that a book is simply information about art, a succession of printed pages, with grey (the text) in-between the images—i.e. the bad publishing… I tried to consider how sequencing, materializing images on paper, designing a rhythm or constructing the space of visibility for images and texts, can actually be more than the previous definition.

It implies that each project is somewhat different, each volume should be defined by its own specifications and even within a given typology (such as first, reference or retrospective monographs) should be given if not a complete autonomy at least individuality. It also implies that I have to read all the texts, try to understand the artists’ work, discuss with editors and designers, consult producers about possibilities, etc.

The consequences might be good, as you generously imply here, but also have negative impact on publishing considered as a rational system (templates, mass-production, etc.). Without any doubts, my conceptions weren’t helping on these aspects… but every now and then I receive testimonies that this approach has allowed readers to understand and appreciate the work of someone, to renew a reading on an artist or to rediscover a position, and I feel that it’s worth it.

Maaike Lauwaert:
Books are often thought of as more final, closed, terminal than an exhibition or an online publishing platform. JRP|Ringier seems able to create, through its many publications, a longer and open dialogue that is never finished but that can always be furthered. In other words, the JRP|Ringier catalogue resembles one large open project with many different manifestations adding layers and richness to the discourse. Is this something you aimed for consciously?

Lionel Bovier:
I think that one thing people tend to forget when they dream of the digital future of publications is that the book form has everything to do with editing, and especially editing out: it’s a selective process, one that try to reduce rather than to accumulate, one that needs exclusion as much as inclusion, and one that makes these decisions material. I don’t see this in the digital forms at the moment; I rather see filters (modeled on a “top 10” approach) and the excitement not to choose…

Now, the way I see JRP|Ringier is as a platform on which more than one voice can be heard; the richness is in the “programing” of these different positions, individualities, etc. It’s like running a museum rather than curating exhibitions…

I allow myself some inputs in this program of course, but I’m happy not to carry only “my choices” but those of many people I value the opinions, the commitments, or the perspective on art. My ambition with the publishing company is to participate to the cultural discussions, to weigh on the debates that animate the art world, and to be able to offer proofs of some kind of continuity, involvement and decision-making as opposed to go with the flow and take on whatever could be momentarily “current”.

In that sense, I’m not afraid of contradictions, I can publish disagreements if they provoke an interesting discussion, and somehow it seems only logical if one looks at art not only as a system but as a way of questioning it, to avoid an hegemonical view.

I also have to confess a soft point (but an intellectual one) for figures that are not central: I think parallel histories or stories that diverge of the mainstream narrative, offer so much potential re-reading of a period, so much more than the established history provides us with… I think I view art history as a process rather than a collection of dates, names and masterpieces, and each time the narrative seems on the verge of freezing, of changing materiality, from a fluid to a rigid state, I’m interested to look at these positions that could put it in movement again.

Maaike Lauwaert:
And on a more practical note, which of the upcoming books JRP|Ringier will publish are you especially looking forward to?

Lionel Bovier:
Oh, it’s the worst question for me to answer (together with “What are you currently working on?”). Every week there’s a new book that should come out and I somehow look forward to each of them, as much as I review past productions regularly, finding them better or worst than I thought when they initially came out, or look at what colleagues publish with an interest comparable to the one I have for something I’ve done or could have done…
Life is a flux in publishing and if you ask me what I’m looking forward to TODAY, I could answer: finding a solution for printing Laura Owens drawings in silkscreen within the limited time left by the nature of this project, getting definite answers on the release schedule for this big and exciting book we’ve been working on with Art Basel for almost a year now, reading the essay of the editor of Carl Andre’s first publication dedicated to his “Poems”, making sure that this excellent but busy writer accepts the commission for a retrospective monograph on Sue Williams, budgeting the reprints of Karen Kilimnik and Sterling Ruby’s monographs, talking with the designers about other possibilities for the cover of a project realized by LUMA and edited by Liam Gillick, etc. Tomorrow it will be another list…