Artist Profile: Jesse Hlebo, Swill Children (Brooklyn)
by Asia Harvey
Jesse Hlebo is a New York–based artist, graduate of Parsons, NY and the founder of Swill Children, a press and record label where emphasis is placed on the value of printed matter and related small-run objects. As part of his work under the umbrella of Swill Children, Hlebo co-publishes _ Quarterly, a short-run publication with a focus on obsolescence, and acts as Founding Editor of Paperweight, a collectively run website that provides an arsenal of resources on independent publishing and furthers critical conversation in this community.
Hlebo will be presenting And Paper on October 5 at 2pm at the Vancouver Art/Book Fair, during which he will discuss the power of releasing publications and records autonomously, self-distribution, the advantages of publishing artist books (singularly or collaboratively) in conjunction with your private practice, as well as how these factors apply to his own practice. He will also discuss some of his current and upcoming projects.
Project Space: How did you come to publication in your art practice?
Jesse Hlebo: I think my first venture into publishing was a project I started in 2006 called Commonism. I considered it to be an online zine with a goal that it would promote different projects people were doing within the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County DIY art and music scenes. The hope was that it would create a sense of community, something I felt was really lacking. I really wanted to set up a structure that, once the ball was rolling, would lose any sense of hierarchy. Ultimately, the very communities I was hoping to “unify” and promote didn’t accept it to the point of collective participation. People would be into it as non-participants, and many people said they would eventually participate, but that rarely came into fruition. The most consistent contributions came from Michael Ray-Von, who designed the websites, and myself. Not to say other people didn’t contribute, just the level of contribution essentially rested on two people, which is why I decided to stop doing it.
In the winter of 2008, my friend Justin Sloane, who at the time was living in LA, and I began having telephone conversations about a new project we decided to call _ Quarterly (pronounced “underscore”). It was intended to be a serial publication but we’ve sort of lost a lot of the initial structures we had set for ourselves and have only really adhered to the most essential one, which is that each issue would address a theme relating to obsolescence.
Later in 2009, my friend Alec Dartley, who runs a record label called Aagoo, wanted to pay me for helping him out with the label. I knew that small labels like his don’t really pull in money and I told him I couldn’t take it. He was persistent, however, and eventually told me he would like to help me start my own label, which is how Swill Children was birthed.
PS: On the Swill Children website you describe the project as an “umbrella.” What is the scope of this so-called umbrella and what kind of work does Swill Children publish?
JH: I’ve done a number of projects that have, from their outset, had a founding concept that ended up limiting their potential. With Swill Children I wanted to create a project that would have the ability to be modular and diverse without violating its base structure. Because of this, a number of other projects with their own specific agendas and collaborations have existed under the broader moniker of Swill Children, hence the term “umbrella.”
Certain Disinctions, a live sound, movement, publication and video-involved piece that has had five iterations has just as much of a place within Swill Children as _ Quarterly, a serial publication project between Justin Sloane and myself, and Paperweight, a collectively run project that facilitates a critical dialogue on, and provides resources for and about independent publishing.
The work I am interested in facilitating typically involves themes of obsolescence, sorrow, jubilance and notions of value. When you’re making an object to sell, there are traditional ways one can approach the application of a price; within a capitalistic system, this application is almost completely arbitrary. I like to play mind games with pricing. Sometimes people won’t buy something if it’s perceived as being too inexpensive and at other times the converse is true. Even a $1 or $2 difference can be the difference between something selling and something remaining. At the end of the day though, I end up giving more things away than selling them. It’s difficult for me to have money on my mind too much.
PS: How did the publication portion of Certain Distinctions fit into the project as a whole? Did your work in the other disciplines offer any new insights into your publishing practice?
JH: The publication itself was an article that I wrote regarding binaries and how a gradient structure voids their validity as absolutes. During the piece, I had several people who were, lets say “planted,” in the crowd. Dancers, performance artists, theatrical actors and others with very specific movements, who were asked to begin picking up, piling and collating the pages as they shot out of the Risograph printer I was using to both conduct the musical portion of the piece and print the physical publication.
With the fourth iteration of Certain Distinctions, I wanted to integrate everybody in attendance as much as possible without forcing them to do something or feel awkward because they’re becoming “a part of the performance.” Ninety-nine percent of the time pieces that are “participatory” really unsettle me. It’s tricky to create a situation in which people are compelled to participate and not just observe. One of the essential elements to Certain Distinctions is the relationship between Anarchism and Jazz: having a loose structure that individuals are free to do as they please, but that only smoothly operates when there is a mutual level of respect, so to speak.
I was hoping to trigger that with this particular experience. There were a lot of lead up, circumstantial and executed issues to the piece and I’m not really sure how successful it was…It’s been two years and I’m still on the fence about that one.
PS: Can you tell me a bit about your interest in “obsolescence” with your serial publication _ Quarterly?
JH: _ Quarterly is a collaborative project between Justin Sloane and myself. We’ve integrated other contributors throughout the issues as well, but at the end of the day the publication is our project. I can’t fully recall what our initial conversations consisted of—and I can’t speak for Justin—but I’m fascinated by the notion of everything being destroyed, degrading, decaying, dying; both concretely and abstractly. Media, in any form, is forever attached to obsolescence, but when there are things made with the notion of archivability, or some form of “legitimate” value at their core, there is an attempt to transcend that reality.
With _ Quarterly I really want to—and I think Justin would share the same sentiment—explore the different facets of society that in their nature are obsolescent. Thus far we’ve addressed subjects ranging from adaptation to musical notation to documentation of three American revolutionary groups. For one issue we didn’t leave the studio for about 30 hours, during a hurricane (Irene), and made the publication only from materials we had in the studio and could procure online.
PS: What Brooklyn-based publishers or projects—and/or those based elsewhere if you prefer—are you most interested in right now?
JH: Tuomas Korpijaakko and Pierre Le Hors do a really great project called NOWORK; they’re based in New York. Most of what they publish is NYC-centric and has roots in street photography, but with a much more conceptual and deliberate sensibility. They once did an installation at this great gallery/project space in the East Village called Ed. Varie, where they commissioned the guy who does all of the deli signage printing in NYC to print some vinyl for the front of the gallery. He has books and books of stock photos to choose from. They dug through those collections and put together some nasty looking collages that ended up making Ed. Varie, from the outside, look like a deli. Neighbours thought that the gallery had moved and a deli had moved in!
There are a lot of other really great publishers out here though. I really love what Lele Saveri has been doing with his 8 Ball Zine Fairs and, most recently, he’s spearheaded the appropriation of a subway station newstand in Brooklyn and turned it into a little shop for small press and other such ephemera. They’ve been doing lots of events and one day art shows and stuff too, it’s great. Pau Wau Publications has been contributing a lot to that project too. They made this zine vending machine where you put in four quarters and a zine pops out of it. Zines for a dollar.
Top: Photo by Jody Rogac