art

Press Play: Siglio

The hard-to-classify, always beautiful books of Siglio.
Siglio founder and publisher, Lisa Pierson

The Siglio origin story begins in Prague before the Velvet Revolution, with founder Lisa Pearson finding a samizdat copy of exiled novelist Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in her hands. The penalty for possessing such a document was arrest. It was, as she recalls, “an unbound, mimeographed typewritten manuscript” from a contraband English translation, “as subversive as a thick stack of Communist-era restaurant menus.”

This led her to start publishing, in 2008, the kind of unclassifiable hybrid art-text books that rely heavily on word-of-mouth, the kind of Kundera-like pages that are passed onto the next desperate reader, who is then part of a community of others hungry for revelation. Initially based in Los Angeles, she now operates the press out of a converted barn that looks over rolling green hills in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

Cover of Karen Green's Frail Sister.
Cover of Karen Green's Frail Sister.

Siglio books are all beautifully designed and hard to classify. If a book is a beautiful object full of images—paintings, collages, cartoons--does that make it an art book? Why must I choose when faced with Karen Green’s Frail Sister, the memoir of a plucky girl marked for ruin, in the form of a scrapbook, a pastiche of collage, photographs, and art--whether it is an art book or a memoir? Why not call it is what it is: an emotionally devastating work of artistic genius?

As I ran my finger up the cloth spine of Sophie Calle’s newest Siglio book, Hotel, with its gilded pages and photographs, I wondered if it is an art book. Until the text reveals that this is photo journal of Calle’s experience working as a hotel maid, which allowed her to excavate the private lives of the unsuspecting guests. It is one thing to passively receive photographed images, another to read the accompanying narrative which forces the audience into the role of voyeur and co-conspirators. It’s not just images, not just story, but, like all Siglio books--an experience.

If I want to know what makes a Siglio book a Siglio book, Pearson jokes, her books are those traditional publishing houses run screaming from. In the last fourteen years Siglio has published almost forty books, including dozens of artist and ephemera editions, most recently Richard Kraft’s A Card for Everyday of Donald Trump’s Presidency, a massive, five-volume, fully color-coded 1,622 page catalog of all of the former president’s lies while in office.

Richard Kraft’s A Card for Everyday of Donald Trump’s Presidency.
Richard Kraft’s A Card for Everyday of Donald Trump’s Presidency.

Given the pandemic year—now stretching into two—it is remarkable Siglio is publishing two titles this year: What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nocle Rudick, as well as Christian Marclay and Steve Beresford’s Call and Response.

What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nocle Rudick
What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined: An (Auto)biography of Niki de Saint Phalle by Nocle Rudick

A book teaches you how to read it. For me the best kind of book is one that offers an experience that requires me to shift the way that I read, to read in literally a new language. Call and Response is described as “seeing music in the quiet of the pandemic: a dialogue between two protagonists of experimental music in photographs and scores.”

Pierson’s job, she says, is, “to realize the artist’s vision in the shape of a book and then cultivate an audience for it.” In other words, to enable the artist to publish the purest representation of their vision. This is what gives Siglio books their ineffable authenticity and makes them stand out at small press book and art fairs.

When I ask Pearson what makes a Siglio book a Siglio book, she says it’s very simple. “If I can think of two or three other presses who would be really into this, and love this, it’s not a Siglio book. If someone else is interested, by all means go with it, because I’m not in competition with anybody, and if that’s a good home for your work that’s great.”

“If I can think of two or three other presses who would be really into this, and love this, it’s not a Siglio book. If someone else is interested, by all means go with it, because I’m not in competition with anybody, and if that’s a good home for your work that’s great.”

She is, by her own admission, “notoriously slow.” How could she not be given her role as publisher, editor, midwife, accountant, art director, copy editor, and so on.

“The reason I can do Siglio is because I am good at spreadsheets and managing my meager resources and good at getting my distributor enthusiastic about my books—but it comes at a price.” You can see Pearson doing everything short of pouring over nautical maps attempting to determine what part of the ocean the ship heavy with the copies of the Bernadette Myer’s Memory might be lost, or bribing dock workers to unload boxes.

Historically, it is only white men who, by virtue of gender and needing little but a slap on the back, are audacious enough to even dream of starting their own publishing companies. Given my past working for The Paris Review, during the golden age of George Plimpton, the legendary founder and editor of the magazine, I feel compelled to ask, Did anyone give you permission to start a publishing house?

The Improbable, Issue No. 1 (Time Indefinite)
The Improbable, Issue No. 1 (Time Indefinite)

“No one,” she laughs. “It was hubris. Stupidity.” It is far easier to imagine Pearson springing from the head of Athena, goddess of intellect, creativity, and war, in breastplate, with pen in hand ready to do battle, at the knee of some white-haired arbiter of taste. That said, Pearson is quick to cite the influence avant garde artist Dick Higgins. “He is a totemic presence for me in this idea of taking the mechanism of offset printing and trade publishing and utilizing them in this service of the avant garde—to get that work into unsuspecting hands and to disseminate it widely.”

Here a look of barely suppressed subversive glee crosses her face. I can only imagine a similar expression on her face that day in Prague reading those well-thumbed pages of fading purple type. Imagine art passing from hand to hand, for free.

It is in this spirit that Pearson began putting together a “newsletter” before the pandemic. “The Improbable, Issue No. 1 (Time Indefinite)” followed by “Issue No. 2 (Time is Elastic)” published last year. Not a throwaway, but ephemera composed of work by the same caliber of writers and thinkers and pranksters whose books she publishes. Writing that challenges people to think in new ways, to play.

The concept of giving away anything for free feels radical and I can’t help but see it as a challenge to us in the publishing industry to reimagine the ways we can get into the machine of traditional publishing and blow it up, dance in the flames, warming our hands over the smoldering fire imagining forward.


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