Interview with “Used Books” Artist Ben Sisto

by Josh Milberg

The afternoon of Saturday, March 7th, I was walking down Broadway along the division between Bed-Stuy and Bushwick when I saw books on display in a gallery. To be more precise, I saw the same title shelved over and over. I walked into “Used Books,” an exhibition by Ben Sisto, curated by Joshua Caleb Weibley. The component I’d seen from outside was called “Interaction of Interaction of Color” and features 25 different print-runs of an art theory book that details how colors are perceived differently when put near to or pulled apart from others. That book is, of course, called Interaction of Color. Sisto purchased his copies second-hand through online retailers like Albris, Abe Books, and through local shops like The Strand, Book Thug Nation, and Spoonbill & Sugartown.

I emailed Sisto to find out more about the exhibition, which runs through March 16th at Scott Goodman’s Good Work Gallery (1100 Broadway, Brooklyn), and about his take on books as objects.

Can you explain how you’ve applied concepts from Interaction of Color to the books themselves — as artifacts?

I should start by saying most of my works start with the title or some kind of pun. If all goes well from there, the pun leads to a deeper discussion about production, values, attribution, etc. But I like having an ice-breaker.

I picked up a copy of Interaction of Color from Book Thug Nation and two things came to mind. First, this is a really important book with reference to art history and color theory, which I’d never read. So I bought it (still have not read it). Then, I remembered Imitation of Imitation of Christ, an anonymous fashion project from the ’00s that playfully jabbed at Imitation of Christ, a fashion label Chloë Sevigny was involved with.

These two titles merged and I thought “Interaction of Interaction of Color.” So the next thought is: If that project were to exist, what would it look like? The most obvious concept was to display a few copies of the book side by side, allowing their respective wear and tear to be showcased through comparison.

Ben Sisto, Interaction of Interaction of Color

Ben Sisto, Interaction of Interaction of Color

What anomalies or differences have you found from copy to copy (e.g. typos, different artwork, dog ears, marginalia, types of paper used)?

The project really took shape when I compared early and late print runs (there are 28 runs in all). Actually, this project is why I know about print-runs, how they are accounted for. In looking at two copies, I noticed the back-cover images were not exactly the same. The image is a collage of leaves on a blue background; some leaves are torn at the edges, but the tears have slightly different shapes in later runs. Well, different according to me, and most people I’ve shown.

I called Yale to get to the bottom of it. I had crafted a tale in my mind where some printer accidentally damaged (in my version he/she spills a Dunkin’ Donuts “Great One” coffee) the original in error and then painstakingly created a bootleg to replace it. Yale looked into it for me, and we learned the collage was actually originally created by Eva Hesse when she studied under Albers, which we all thought was a nice tidbit.

So the mystery lives on. But, in addition to that aspect I really find the respective book’s yellowing over time, price stickers, inclusion of a URL in later years, etc. to all be quite beautiful when looked at as a group. One has an old Rizzoli sticker. One was likely used as a cutting-surface. One was sent from Australia, but all were printed in Massachusetts. Many journeys in there.

Now that e-readers make it possible to read works without pages or binding, do you think there are any particular features that book manufacturers should employ to keep books relevant, at least as relevant as they’ve been for the last few years?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to comment on this, honestly. For my part, I buy mostly used books which I plan on chopping up and re-displaying, because I’m interested in copyright infringement’s potential to produce a positive economic impact on secondary markets. I’d like someone to see a work I made with five $2 books, and then make it themselves for $10 and have our collective $20 go towards Housing Works.

When I buy a new book, it’s usually an art book. My main gripe with art books is when the hand of the designer/layout-team overpowers the work itself. A lot of art books end up as graphic design projects with images used like lorem ipsum copy. I’d much rather just see images of the work alone on the page and, as needed, related interviews and timelines towards the end. Keep it classy.

Are there any features you’ve seen or would like to see employed in electronic texts that might further divorce them from printed works?

I wouldn’t say they are divorced at present, or that they ever will be. They coexist. I can read a short story on an e-reader on the train, but feel and understand the same content differently if on the beach with an old paperback folding and bending in my hands. It has sand in some of the pages which I’m okay with. In fact, I enjoy. I would be less okay with sand inside an e-reader. They are different experiences, and it’s important to try and revisit content across multiple platforms and see what’s lost or gained with each translation.

I actually think that we’ll get to a point with culture/technology where you won’t be able to tell the difference between a printed and electronic book, anyhow. Not to sound overly Kurzweilian, but I do believe that within 100 years or less, life born from or in collaboration with “artificial” intelligence will have the option to experience the printed page if desired. Or not.

For the next two questions, imagine we’re in the future. All traditional libraries have disappeared and only a small percentage of the population still own actual bound books, but there are books in museums where you can read for a bit if you like. Which books are in the museum?

The complete set of all possible books.

What has our culture lost when most of our books are behind museum doors?

Here, I think a more appropriate question is, “What has our culture lost when most of our cultural products are behind closed doors, generally?”

The greatest threat to the printed word, to education, to democracy right now is the debate over network neutrality and the open Internet. If we lose this one, we (as in “We The People”) are doomed.

So, here I’d like to plug the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, and Public Knowledge, if I may. This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but they are fighting to ensure admission to the museum stays donation-based, sliding-scale, etc.

Ben Sisto (b. 1980) lives in Brooklyn, NY. He earned a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art in 2002 and has since organized or somehow been involved with maybe 1,000 events or so, art shows, concerts, DJ nights, readings, mini-festivals, etc. Most recently he ran Public Assembly (RIP) in Williamsburg and above it, PACS Gallery. At present he produces cultural programs for Ace Hotel New York and is the world’s leading expert on the history of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

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