The Irish writer, artist and publisher, John Holten studied at University College Dublin and the Sorbonne-Paris IV before obtaining an MPhil from Trinity College Dublin. His novel The Readymades was published in 2011, and most recently he has written fictional or immersive texts for the artists Darri Lorenzen, Jani Ruscica, Lorenzo Sandoval and The LGB Group. His work has been included at Malmö konsthall (Toves Galleri), The White Building London (PYRAMID SCHEMES | a collective cityscape), David Zwirner Gallery New York (with Aengus Woods) and NGBK Berlin, amongst other places. In 2009, Holten co-founded Broken Dimanche Press in Berlin as a continent wide fictional publishing platform, of which currently he is the Editor-in-Chief.
Interview led by Jeroen van der Hulst, Photography by Pedro Jardim
You have lived in several places around Europe. Do you feel that Broken Dimanche Press was conceived on the notion that it can be based anywhere, or is Berlin as a city a necessary factor?
I think I like the idea that it can exist anywhere. It was always supposed to be international. It was an effort to try and figure out a way to break this barrier down that exists in literature that is the need for translation. Mainstream publishing is separated into language regions. We were trying to make a sophisticated effort in publishing and a conception of literature that wasn't rooted in a language region. That's one aspect to it. And then somethings about Berlin just make it really integral for us to be based here. One was the fact that from the start we've always worked with FUK Graphic Design Studio. Without them we wouldn't have gotten the quality of design of books that we have. I think we only found them thanks to Berlin. There are loads of people here in general that we work with. I guess we've become a Berlin publisher, so to speak.
How did the collaboration with FUK come about?
A friend of mine that I know from before I moved here had a studio with one of the guys from FUK. And so I knew about them and then on the street we lived in at the time, Sonntagstraße, they had done a window display with scotch tape that was really cool. I saw their work there and we put out the fact that we were looking to make a book. The old friend of mine then said that we should check out her friends' graphic studio. I went to a really well established design studio first. It's international but has its office here in Berlin. I had a really unsatisfactory meeting with them. It was just kind of a stupid meeting and frustrating. Then I dropped the guys at FUK an email and it all started to work. The rest is history!
How did you decide on a big undertaking like starting and running a publishing house?
I guess I always believed in publishing houses as a means for artists to express themselves and to facilitate projects. I always was aware of that. Small publishing houses that basically ran the risk backed some of my favorite literature from the 20th century. Sylvia Beach who was a bookseller and librarian and published Ulysses by James Joyce. And she started to make books because nobody else published Joyce's Ulysses. That was totally random and off the kind of mainstream publishing turf. Then that went on to Maurice Girodias and his Olympia Press and then in the late 90's - early 00's there was a curator run publishing press called Metronome Press. This impressed me very much and the way they co-opted the network of contemporary art as a means of dissemination and audience capture. I felt it was very interesting and thought it could work. Then I was in Berlin writing what would become my first novel The Readymades and I felt that it would be interesting to meet all these people that I knew were active in Berlin but weren't necessarily that easy to meet. I mean, writing a novel is a solitary act. Myself and Line Madsen Simenstad, who's a journalist, we always fancied the idea of editing anyway. Our first book, You Are Here, happened but it didn't actually start off as a publishing press. We started off as a book project.
Do you see BDP as dozens of separate projects in terms of the books you publish or do you see it as one big project called Broken Dimanche Press?
At the beginning it wasn't necessarily clear. We didn't really have a publishing house until we made the second book. I got into the idea of a press and everything that goes with it. I always joked, I mean I had read Naomi Klein's No Logo, and really hated brands and I never have brands on my clothing even now. But then as soon as I started the press I became something of a logo fascist! I was very aware of the public’s reception of the work through what we did, the decisions we made, the content and the growing list of artists and writers. And then basically we also marked out a very clear field, which basically came down to personal taste and interests. Our field of what we publish is quite definite and we don't publish just anything.
When authors or artists approach you, what do you look for that clicks with BDP's identity?
I always boil it down to a very simple formula, which never completely fits everything. It's the idea of visual artists who like to work with text in some shape or manner, roughly speaking. And then also literary writers who are interested in progressive forms and potentially working in a visual manner too. I use the simplistic divide of visual art on one side and literature on the other, but really I'm interested in when the two kind of cross over and mingle with each other. Generally I love this old – what's now something a quaint idea – of the avant-garde. I really like to work with this always in mind. How to be progressive. And there’s a political undercurrent to this also. I just recently read how John O'Brien – the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press – said he hates the word "experimental novel" because it sounds like something that's not accomplished or something that's not finished. I agree with that. I love things that are accomplished and finished and done properly and executed properly but with a new form in mind. With progressive content in mind. It's very difficult to find those things these days.
Do you think you're looking for the borders of how a book can manifest itself?
Yeah, we've tried to explore the book as much as possible, because we realized ever since our first book that we could make a PDF, we could make a website quite easily, but we weren't really interested in that because we love books, Line and I. And thankfully we found FUK Graphic Design Studio and they also love books and studied how to make fantastic, haptic books at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig. It was always about making beautiful books, which is difficult in this day and age, but again Berlin helps because Germany has good printers and it has a great tradition and you wouldn't find that so readily or easily in smaller countries like Norway or Ireland where we both came from. Since then it's been an act of exploration of what constitutes a book. So again, visual artists are really good at introducing texts blown up on to the wall or philosophy rendered in neon lights or all sorts of different instances like that.
I like the term "book-object" because it emphasizes a lot of what you do I think.
Yeah, and I think that emphasis is just really necessary to make today, because basically in the last five years since we've started, books have faced their Napster moment. The MP3 equivalent in books is basically hand held devices and e-readers. They're literally new, I mean, they weren't really around when we started so we knew that that was coming, which also comes back to the decision not to make the PDF. So now this book-object is there to designate the fact that there's a space and an architecture inherent to the books that we do. Sometimes we put an ISBN on inanimate objects that aren't folio editions of standard books. For example Lorenzo Sandoval's Narrative Machine series or Mutant Matters which is effectively a chair as well as a bookcase. Or indeed drinks, we’ve put an ISBN on beers. But that's more to make clear to people that we believe that the book exists and that we should celebrate it and not worry about its demise. I'm not interested in the demise of the book; I’m more interested in the demise of people's sustained attention span to read a book. But that's a different question.
How important are book launches and readings? Do you consider them a way to activate the content of the book even more?
I guess, I mean everyone knows a good reading when they hear one and the question and answer sessions are always funny because they're kind of ludicrous. Generally I love this coming together of people and I think it's a very important aspect. The same thing again where I always like to make an analogy with music and the way music works. Concerts are incredibly important to all bands, successful or unsuccessful. With readings it's the same I think. I don't like giving readings myself as a novelist but then I do see that there's a potential and I try to be as inventive or progressive as possible for myself.
What's the potential?
Well for example, maybe working with different media. I'm showing videos for my next novel Oslo, Norway in conjunction with readings. I've already shown one at Plan B Gallery this summer. It's effectively a fake infomercial for a novel that has yet to be published.
In that sense it may activate the content of the book.
Yes, totally. And I've brought that forward this time in the event for the publication of the books. Whereas with the last novel The Readymades, the publication of the book initiated a series of events. Every time we launched the book it came with it's own visual art exhibition of the fictional art group that are in the novel. This time I've slightly reversed the event. It's been very different with every project. As a publisher I've taken part in a micro cabaret with Ann Cotten to mark the occasion of her book I, Coleoptile and that included dance and performance. We've done many different types of readings and events.
I think Hanne Lippard's Nuances of No is maybe a good example for that.
Totally, well that's a perfect example of a book coming out of a practice that actually is performance based. So in a way to experience Hanne's work properly, one aspect of it would be reading her book and then a really important, big, integral part would be to actually go and either see or hear her performance. Performance for her is really integral to her work. Making a book with her was an interesting approach. Whereas in some other cases for instance with someone like Ann Cotten, who definitely reads and does public events, they are in the literary arena always.
And then with a piece like Morten Søndergaard's Wordpharmacy all of this was already sort of integrated into the object, I think. I mean, it wasn't a performance or anything but it was definitely an object to be shown publicly.
Definitely, yes with the Wordpharmacy it was nice because our office had also a beautiful little storefront. So, we transformed that office, myself, Ida Bencke my co-editor and Morten, with a proper neon "Apotheke" sign and a proper apothecary display case from the turn of the century. It was really beautiful and impressive. I think that was the last in our series of something we called ‘Exhibiting Literature’. In our office we did a series where we curated a series of shows expanding the notion of displaying literature and texts in space. Which again came from a more literary pursuit. We were happy to do that.
Now you are publishing an English translation from Jon Ståle Ritland's book called Body Searches. For the launch you've worked together with Michiel Koelink for a 3D projection that he will show that evening.
Yes, I think that's going to be very interesting, because the way Jon's poems work is that he already visually co-opted the structure of the double helix in DNA and he has constructed intricate poems that work across the page, which is also something I'm always interested in. This is coming back to the architecture of the book and the page as a space, a field to play in. So he has done that and I think it's always nice when it's two dimensionally flat on the page and then he's working across it both horizontally and vertically. And Koelink then made a kind of three dimensional interpretation of these structures based also on chance and algorithms.
In a completely different form though.
In your own work The Readymades there is also the layer of the added photographs with the work by a fictional art group. What is important in terms of the design of your new book?
With the new novel it's very much about turning the page and the sequential process of entering into its space. But I think with my new novel I'm allowing chance to come and with The Readymades it was more a finely tuned structure and space that went around in half circles and double backed on itself, with a blind spot right in the middle. There was a key to unlock it. I used these prolapses where I introduced events before they actually happened in the sequence. That was all very finely tuned and played out, also very subtle in a way. I don't know how many readers got to go the full circle. With the new book I see it as a series of introductions to a story that is consistently kind of receding and running away. I like the idea of just throwing all these episodes or chapters up into the air and seeing how they can be read randomly.
So you kind of have to chase them?
Yeah, I think it'll be possible to just jump in and read it. I'm still devising a way, I mean, I have a structure but I feel I haven't had the chance to break it up yet.
I think with BDP and you it's a very precarious line between, like you say, the solitary act of writing and the exact opposite. You have to work together with a lot of people, dozens of projects and still managing the big project which is Broken Dimanche Press. How do you see that? Do you feel you have to sacrifice some of your own ideas about a book when you work with others?
I think I learn every time, because at the end of the day there's a lot of romantic ideas, which are kind of just wrong, about people who wish to write books. And especially people who like to write books for a living or as an artistic career. The biggest thing comes down to validation. People need to be vetted by editors and be accepted by publishing houses to kind of keep the standard of quality up. Self-publishing, e-books and print on demand is changing all that at the moment with success stories like Fifty Shades of Grey. She went ahead and published that herself and reading it you can tell. Ultimately, it's not a very well-edited book on a micro level but on a macro level it really fulfilled a big audience's desires. She got the validation through sales and the success and now it's being made into a movie. Somebody who really cares about the history of the novel, as their medium of choice and as an art form that is very essential to conceived notions within our culture, if they engaged that history and their art form to live up to its potential, they kind of end up being left in a situation where commercial publishing doesn't want them. So suddenly they might not get the validation that they want and might not get a readership either. That is one of the big challenges. Making a press is one way to learn by seeing if a readership and audience does exists.
You have to be the mediator.
Exactly, and keep asking: "how will it be received?" I would love to be a reclusive Thomas Pynchon and just write big fat novels that embody what he considers a novel to be. But in a way that’s not how I've gone about doing it. Working with people and collaborating has its own rewards, though. I always think that if I didn't call myself a novelist, I'd be in film. That's so deeply collaborative and is a machine built up of hundreds of parts. A book is a bit like that, but not of the same magnitude.
You have maybe a better overview of the obstacles of writing by working with other authors in the way that you do with BDP. You would want to write big fat novels and be a recluse but you know that there is a reality to being a writer.
Definitely. I like the idea of an audience and I am not willfully playing cat and mouse with them. Especially at the moment, with attention spans and engagement and what not. With BDP in a sense I have total freedom, because I can publish whatever I want. Now, this doesn't mean I do. My novels are still edited by other people, core editors. And I think this is something overlooked in MFA's and the teaching of creative writing and literature and especially by commercial publishing: anybody who cares enough about their form and their chosen media, the novel, will respect that form enough so that freedom and experimenting will allow them to do something that's not neglectful, like willfully absurd and wacky and pseudo-postmodern. Which is also why I look at people like Georges Perec and Oulipo and the ideas on constraint. Because they realized that through constraints comes freedom. Total freedom and carte-blanche just produces verbal diarrhea that just doesn't necessarily work. This comes back to John O'Brien from Dalkey Archive Press saying that ‘experimental novel’ as a term just sounds incomplete. It sounds scary. All novels are new, it’s built into the etymology of the word: they have to be experiments in the sense that maybe the form has been around for a long time but there is always new media surfacing. And that might make it feel very difficult to find this new-ness. With each new media, Marshall McLuhan points this out, that comes around usually its first content is content found from the media that it is replacing. For example, film found its content from books. And that hasn't gone away. Now it's gone full circle where novelists think: "Well, hey everybody's modern and modernists explored the history of the novel, postmodernists have explored the potential future of it. Now it's this period where I wish I could make these 15 episode series and DVD box sets where people can really get into a character." But novelists can't do that. They are not trained to initiate those things. There are many great writers that have had books turned into TV-series and films, but they just stand by and watch this process.
Can you explain how things have changed for you since BDP's inception until now?
The workload's increased. It's very different when you have a track record of work that you've done and you can call somebody up and say: "I'd like to work with you" or "I'd like a favor from you". When you start off doing anything it's not as easy. In the beginning we had to convince a lot of people and a lot of people then trusted us to publish their work and to give us material that has been so great. Now it's very different because I've built up a relationship with writers like Ann Cotten and Shane Anderson who hopefully in the future we will make more books with. That's really intimate in the sense that you know how the writers’ workflow is going and what their doing next and how it's progressing. And also, a lot of the books we're publishing are first-time books. With that come all sorts of questions and anxieties perhaps and you learn to be able to deal with that in a realistic and logical manner. You learn to make the most out of the potential of each book event. Recognizing this potential has gotten easier with time.
Do you see the focus more on the book itself now as opposed to the works Lorenzo Sandoval did, which were more about a spatial interaction with literature?
We have always been about the book and this oscillated between the virtual and the abstract. The book is an object and currency. And its finding this currency with editions and multiples. Artist's multiples I've always been fascinated by and the idea of the edition as well. So basically Lorenzo's Mutant Matters as an edition in the same way as another artist would have an edition of screen prints or something. We also just made the book with Antoine Renard and that's just an edition of 100, so in a way it's small and a beautiful book. He's an artist who is about to take off and so people should have access to such books. In general we send our catalogue to a lot of archives and libraries. Some collectors are interested. We are beginning to sell out of our titles, which is good.
How do you feel about your upcoming involvement with Agora's AFFECT Program?
Great. I think it comes back to this idea of learning as much as you dispense yourself. I love the idea of an international group coming from beyond Berlin. Berlin is so international anyway, so sometimes it's like we're in perpetual motion by just standing still in Berlin, you know? But with this project it can actually get things onto the ground and make us move with the participants. Also the idea of trans-disciplinary work is exciting and not being too caught up in preconceived notions of what the end results. It's really exciting to be part of it.