The finest $100 I spent in 2020 was on a subscription to Primary Information's entire 2021 output, which means 11 books are going to arrive at my house throughout the year (and usually a few days before any stores have them) and my awareness of important, oft-neglected pockets of art history will increase considerably. I've been buying their books for years so I don't know why it took me so long to subscribe, but truly, it's one of the greatest and incredibly affordable (do the math above) ways for anyone to support one of today's most continuously impressive and aware publishers. Plus of course there's nothing wrong with cool books being seen on your shelves and coffee tables...
You can (and should!) still subscribe for 2021, but the rate is now just a bit higher at $125. It bears repeating what Mark Nelson said in last week's OGR interview: "To consider the sheer number of hours—many of them mind-numbing—that go into the creation of well-made books is to realize they are already, quite literally, the best deal you will ever get for your dollar."
And this is no recession-related low pricing (this is the last part about money and PI's titles and then I'll move on, I swear I'm not getting a cut on any future sales, I just feel this strongly about what they do), they want you to not have to think twice to own their books, it's part of the very core of their philosophy:
"Our mission is to publish out-of-print books that remain vital to ongoing conversations around artistic practice and to publish contemporary books by emerging, mid-career, and established artists. All of our publications are distributed internationally and priced at cost so that they are affordable and accessible to the largest possible audience."
The co-founder and artistic director of Primary Information is James Hoff and I've been intrigued for a long time by his singular painting, sound, performance, and publishing practices. I don't know if I discovered PI first or James, but I remember thinking (and still do!) that his working with it was a perfect match. Before I let you go, please download (for free thanks to my dear friend Kenny Goldsmith's essential avant-garde archive, UbuWeb) this PDF, which is my favorite example of why what both James does on his own and for Primary Information is so special to me, and many others. -Wes Del Val
WDV: Who are dead writers important to you with whom you wish you could have regularly exchanged books and discussed them with each other?
JH: Hmm I can’t really speak to people I didn’t know. Of course, there are people that had great knowledge or libraries, but they may have been jerks (in which case I would never loan them a book) and sharing a book involves a certain sense of vulnerability. So, I can only answer by naming a few people that I have known that I wish were still with us. One is Steve Dalachinsky, a poet who sold books on the street in SoHo for several decades. He turned me on to a lot of great work (both books and music). Another is Seth Siegelaub (for whom Primary Information is named after). We didn’t have a book-sharing relationship and we weren’t particularly close, but aside from his well-known contributions to art history, he was also known for compiling libraries and bibliographies on Marxism and media, textiles, and physics, among others. Shannon Michael Cane whom I worked with at Printed Matter. We never really shared books, but he had the type of limitless knowledge of artists’ books, art and music that only an artist could have.
I think of these three, all memorable characters in their own special way, regular OGR readers may know Steve the least. Can you share some fond memories of when he was selling books on the street?
I used to pop by and see him when I could. He never cut me any deals and generally just sold tourist fare, but that table was always buzzing. He introduced me to Tuli Kupferberg and Rashied Ali at different points. When Tuli rolled up, he said “This is James, he’s young and has no idea who you are.” Tuli said okay, and I was annoyed, but that’s how it goes. I later worked with Tuli on a Fugs exhibition at Printed Matter. When I went to pick up all the books and magazines he published in the 60s, he pulled out deadstock copies of 1,001 Ways to Live Without Working and went through each page flattening them and breaking the glue binding with force and purpose. When his partner objected, he said “500 years from now it will be dust, just like us”. Good point. We later published facsimile editions of his Yeah Magazine at Primary Information.
Rashied was super nice but we had less interaction, probably because I was speechless... I mean he was one half of Interstellar Space. Steve and I met through the poetry and music world and I spent a lot of time in his apartment with him and his wife Yuko Otomo. Steve told me once that publishing is a teaching gig and that is how I’ve thought of it ever since. So many friends spent time at the table. I guess selling books is a teaching gig, too.
Those are lovely reminiscences James, thank you. P.S. I probably would’ve had the same reaction upon meeting Rashied Ali...
Which writers are more interesting to read about than their own writing is to read?
Arthur Cravan, Racter, Tony Conrad, are a few that come to mind.
Cravan was a poet, proto-dadaist prankster, boxer, and nephew of Oscar Wilde who died at sea trying to reunite with his wife Mina Loy. He seemed to be always in trouble, always in good spirits, and always with an absurd plan. Of all the texts I’ve read about him, I’ve yet to see one on the merits of his poetry.
Another awful writer, Racter was a computer program that wrote prose and poetry. The book The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed (published in 1983) is supposedly the first book written by a computer.
Conrad is perhaps controversial since I have published a book of his writings, which are great by the way, but his biography cuts through so many aspects of the post-war avant garde and to some extent pop culture that it’s hard to imagine that the story of his life and work wouldn’t top his writing on Pythagoras, neurolinguistics, or media theory.
What are topics you can’t imagine you’ll ever tire of reading about?
Computer viruses. They make for both great fiction and non-fiction.
You can’t give an answer like that and then leave us hanging, let’s please have great examples of both!
They are close to a half century old at this point and intersect with everything from Bugs Bunny to Iranian nuclear facilities. Of course there are fictional viruses and virus hoaxes, but by fiction I mean that malware and hackers occupy a fictionalized narrative in society, a sort-of tech version of satanic panic. We use them as a catch-all for our collective anxiety around technology (which is not specific to our connected era). We blame election losses on them rather than examining the election systems (electoral college, gerrymandering, voter suppression) that are far more likely to affect results. They make for a good story.
As for real ones, just last week hackers tried to poison part of Florida’s water supply.
All of that said, I have a friend who did buy a voting machine from Ohio a few years ago on eBay or Craigslist. He had it hacked in less than an hour. It still had the 2016 voting rolls on it (shaking my head). When will we finally upgrade from Windows 98?
I love this. I think I could ask the same question to 500 curious, engaged people and I’d not get this answer!
Who is living who you’re most disappointed doesn’t write often enough anymore?
Kenneth Anger. I’m dying for Hollywood Babylon III.
I wonder if most people even realize there was a HB II?
What are volume threes or even an author, artist, or photographer’s third book which were as strong as the first two?
Hmm. Three is definitely not the sexiest number and am a little stumped. But, Ripley’s Game is definitely my favorite Ripley novel and I’d say that Malkovich played the best Ripley in all the movie adaptations. If I recall, it was the third and last good book in the series. The third issue of Jeromy Rothenberg and David Antin’s Some/Thing magazine has a cover by Warhol that I’ve always loved. It’s a sheet of perforated stamps that say “Bomb Hanoi”.
You can only read physical books and magazines and nothing digital or online for the rest of the year. Or vice versa. Which do you choose?
I guess that depends if money is a factor and if nothing digital means all digital sources or just digital magazines and books?
On whatever your current financial situation is and all digital sources, so no news apps, IG, etc.
Digital for sure, if only because I could buy a lot of physical books without the added pressure of reading them.
Ha, deleting that pressure does sound wonderful!
Which people’s or outlets’ book reviews do you consistently care most deeply about?
If we’re talking traditional reviews, none in particular to be honest. I have just never gravitated towards them for some reason. I guess I'm old fashioned, but I tend to follow publishers and bookstores directly. People who work at bookstores that I go to regularly are perhaps the people I trust the most. They have a specialized knowledge that is often undervalued and they work tirelessly. They are the front line workers of the knowledge industry.
The algorithms simply can’t compete. Who at which bookstores is most consistently trustworthy for you?
Matt Shuster at Karma and Josiah Wolfson at Aeon books. Historically, Max Shumann at Printed Matter, too, though I mostly just shuck the PM insta feed these days (algos get a bad rap; they ain't all bad).
Who’s the most famous writer you’ve seen on the street but never met in person?
Hmm. Good question. Nelson Mandela walked past me in London in 1996 (but we were technically indoors).
What defunct newspapers, magazines, and/or journals were too far ahead of their time for their own good?
Radical Software, Triple Jeopardy, Zeitschrift für Alles (Review for Everything), Yeah Magazine, Bit International, SMS, Wedge, Just Another Asshole, Feminist Art Journal, Top Stories, Left Curve.
Though all are of their time, they were either focused on form or content that differentiated them from their peers and still seems relevant today.
I think I’ve only heard of one of those, which is exactly why I asked you James. I love knowing (or think I know) that I share many of the same interests with someone and then see a list like this.
When’s the last time you experienced something similar, where someone you like referred to a number of books or magazines or something else to read which was brand new to you?
It happens constantly. Two weeks ago, I was on a virtual balcony with my friend Mashinka (Firunts Hakopian) who works at the Berggruen Institute and I made the mistake of asking her for an AI ethics reading list. Not only did I not know anyone or anything she recommended, I was in VR and couldn’t write anything down. Later, I tried to recall them but it was hopeless. She’s working on a book that is essentially a sensitivity training manual for future AI in the workplace so I may just wait to read that and crib the footnotes. Truth is, I almost always start in the footnotes of any book. If there aren’t new names I put it down.
Yes! Starting with the footnotes, first class reading hack that.
What have you read the past few years for the first time that made you want to read everything you could by the same writers?
They are younger writers that are dealing mostly with race, media, art, and technology: DeForrest Brown, Jr., Nora Khan, Legacy Russell, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, and Aria Dean, among others. I’m mostly interested in what comes next and think we should all consider ourselves on standby for works to come from these thinkers.
Brian Eno composed music for airports. What would you recommend as music for reading?
I’d recommend the hum of everyday life or noise in the classic sense of the word. White noise or musique concrète also works for me, anything that doesn’t carry a melody. I used to read a lot on planes and that was perfect. Stan Brakhage once said that music was an aesthetic error in film. I would perhaps extend that to reading.
What do you read that you consider “light,” but can’t get enough of it?
Media theory. I guess it’s not light, but I don’t read it in a heavy kind of way. I read it like I would read a pulp novel, with little care as to what I retain. Generally speaking, it’s a genre that traffics heavily in teasing out the obscure histories of everyday media. Where else can you learn about the relationships between tinnitus and Colin Kaepernik, cold war encryption and the Beastie Boys, insects and the internet, the movie camera and automatic weapons, mass séances and the collapse of the Soviet Union? It’s basically academic clickbait.
I like that you stated “with little care as to what I retain.” How is your retention generally these days and when was it strongest? Perhaps it’s right now? I know practically everyone says they haven’t read anything since last March, but maybe besides media theory, you have the right present frame of mind for a lot to be soaking in? That’s why I’m curious.
I find that not trying too hard helps. I’ve always been better at absorbing information passively, which is one reason why I’d never shame someone for scrolling while watching a movie or talking at a concert. This is one of many things I miss in our pandemic times; absorbing information indirectly through casual conversation or other forms of incidental or unexpected socializing at openings, dinners, readings, etc. Being on the move also helps.
Isn’t reading one of the worst ways of retaining information? Isn’t information better served through anecdotes, gossip, and jokes?
Yes, yes, and yes. Thanks James!
James Hoff self portrait