Tauba Auerbach, an artist featured in the recent Walker exhibitions Lifelike and 75 Gifts for 75 Years, founded Diagonal Press in 2013 with the intention of creating “publications in open editions,” where “nothing [is] signed or numbered.” The objectives were a clear rebellion to the inner workings of the art world with which Auerbach had grown weary. Since its inception, the publishing imprint has released a steady stream of books and multiples, ranging from pins and rolling papers to type specimens and manipulatives. The press operates at an interesting intersection between spirituality and accessibility. Auerbach regards the book as a “vessel of insight,” often using the form to explore and question new dimensions. At the same time, Diagonal Press has an underpinning of DIY principals that shape elements from its production to distribution. In the conversation below, I chat with Auerbach about the advantages of the book space, her interest in typography, and her exploration of dimensional multiplicity.
Ben Schwartz (BS)
When did you start Diagonal Press? How did you become interested in publishing as part of your art practice?
Tauba Auerbach (TA)
I started it in 2013. I’d always made zines and books, but I also always have these other things I’ve done which don’t really fit into exhibitions, and I wanted a space that could hold this constellation of other outputs. I was also annoyed and disheartened by the business of art and wanted to take a stab at creating a more direct and welcoming exchange of art for money.
What does the book space provide you that may be different than the picture plane? I can’t help but see this question connected to the point in your mission: “The diagonal line is the Z axis in a 2D drawing— the dimension that comes off the plane.”
I have a few answers to that!
First, I just think the book has a lot to offer in terms of dimensional exploration. Like in a “regular” book, you have words in a line (1D), which are arranged into planes (2D) and bound into volumes (3D). I’m interested in what a dimension actually is, curious if (or rather, pretty convinced that) there are others, and so the book is a just a great resource and opportunity in its dimensional multiplicity.
The format is also pretty rich for exploring one of my other fascinations—interlocking structures—because that’s what all bindings essentially are.
And the book as a form is just charged, having been a vessel of insight, symbolic innovation, propaganda, and dozens of other big human things.
Many editions from Diagonal Press are type specimens. Could you talk about your interest in typography?
I’ve basically just always been extremely into lettering. I was obsessed with my handwriting as a child and had a variety of fonts I would use in various journals and for schoolwork. I was totally preoccupied with graffiti for years, made a living as a sign painter for three. I don’t know, I just always find myself making up fonts for various things. For a decade I made calendars to give as New Year’s gifts to lots of friends, and I’d always make a new font for that.
I like to support my friends who are wonderful musicians by doing album art for them sometimes, and often that involves making a special font for that person or project. I think letter styles are a crucial part of how a language lives in the world, and I love seeing the human hand in words. Right now I’m doing a regular calligraphy practice.
The fonts often adhere strictly to a grid, taking a particular graphic move and bending it to create a letterform. They seem to blur the boundaries between pattern and legibility. When you are working on a font, how do you balance formal aspects and readability? Do you prioritize one over the other?
My typefaces are not good for blocks of text. They’re usually designed for titles and headings. Recently an entire magazine was typeset in the Fig font—one of the clearer ones—and they still offered a download of the texts online in a more conventional font. I care more about rhythm than readability. The only time I cared about legibility was while making Chisel, which is the Diagonal house font used on the website and info sheets, etc. It isn’t very original, and there isn’t a poster of it. I just needed a simple font for every day use with a diagonal “pen tip.”
Have you ever thought about releasing your fonts as commercially available typefaces?
I considered it and decided I don’t want to. I make my fonts for specific occasions, projects, and people, so they feel very specific and tied to those things. And even though one might call them “rational,” they are actually quite personal, because of how they come about. I once saw Fig copied and used on the cover of a magazine. I felt a weird lump in my chest, like I was hearing someone speak in my voice.
With Diagonal Press, I understand many of the objects are made in open editions, as you put it “nothing is signed or numbered.” This seems unique from other artist books, where a certain amount of value is placed on availability of the object. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
I decided on everything open edition, nothing signed or numbered, as a way to insist on the value coming from something other than rarity or uniqueness and, by extension, from something other than its resale value. I want a person to buy something I’ve made because it enhances their life intellectually or spiritually, not financially.
In the mission for Diagonal Press, there seems to be a dogmatic emphasis on DIY techniques, which I quite admire. Can you talk about the importance of working “in-house” as opposed to utilizing more commercial means of production?
I think I automatically bristle at the word “dogmatic,” but maybe you’re right to use it.
I do want to promote a DIY mentality or, more specifically, the mentality that it’s possible to do ambitious things with modest materials and equipment. I want to promote the opposite of the “more is more” idea. That’s what makes capitalism behave like cancer, in my opinion. I do a lot of my printing at mom-and-pop copy places, and we hunted down the ONE pin manufacturer who produces in a union shop in the States. I’ve always had better luck doing things on a more personal, less corporate scale.
But most importantly, I really like “doing it myself.” I spent the whole last week ripping fabric into big banners for the backdrop of a friend’s concert at The Kitchen. I’m probably foolish not to have outsourced it, but making things brings me pleasure. For a short time I made sculptures with fabricators and had a few truly amazing assistants, but I quickly discovered that this is not my dream. I like to be alone in the studio, and I want to touch every inch of my art. This doesn’t exactly hold for Diagonal—I’ve had to hire help, but the next best thing is keeping it in the same room. I design everything and then hand it over to Kathleen (Collins) who does the production research, most of the binding and stamping, and then ships stuff out. She’s an excellent craftsperson. I personally cut all the San Francisco books and do all the folding-type assembly.
You’ve already ventured outside of books, releasing pins, rolling papers, and 3D-printed “manipulatives.” What lies ahead for Diagonal Press?
I have some dream projects that I hope to make happen with other authors, but let’s see if they agree.