Conversation: Felicia Atkinson and Bartolome Sanson, Shelter Press
The following is an edited version of a conversation that took place between Félicia Atkinson and Bartolomé Sanson on August 6 as part of the Perimeter Talks series, co-presented by Liquid Architecture. The talk was to coincide with the launch of the book Ambient Park, a collaboration between Shelter Press and Perimeter Editions. Atkinson, a multidisciplinary artist, and Sanson, a designer and publisher, are the duo behind the internationally regarded French publishing house and curatorial platform Shelter Press. Founded in 2011, Shelter frames itself as “a nomadic artist-run organisation building up dialogues between contemporary art, poetry and experimental music through publications, pedagogical experiences and exhibitions”. Together, they spoke about the evolution of their practice, their methodologies for publishing, and straddling the worlds of music and art.
Bartolomé Sanson: We have run Shelter Press for five-and-a-half years. The first thing we released was in 2012 and it was one book and one record. It’s really what we do, books and records. The main idea at the beginning was to do both. Because we buy a lot of books and a lot of records, we thought everybody must be really excited about the idea.
Félicia Atkinson: Which was crazy at that point.
BS: Yeah, it’s a bit crazy because it’s really not working that way. After five-and-a-half years, if we had 1000 orders on our website, maybe 10 had a book and a record at the same time. They’re really different worlds but we are really in between. Let's start from the beginning.
FA: Maybe you can explain what you were doing before Shelter Press?
BS: Before Shelter Press I had another imprint called Kaugummi books. It was only zines, really small ones. It was always 20 pages and all black and white in Xerox. The idea was that with a stack of 500 sheets you can do a run of 100 copies, because it’s five sheets folded in two to make 20 pages. I was 19 and I had no money and one stack of paper cost eight euros and then to Xerox everything is like 20 euros, so with 30 or 40 euros you can do 100 zines.
Then you make a new one and another new one, and after some years you make 150 different ones and you get bored (laughs). It was nice, but it was always exactly the same process. Like asking an artist, “Can you send me content for 20 pages?” and then you get the material, make the zine, put it online and you sell it. At the beginning, you need two months to sell everything and then after a few years you need two hours to sell everything and it’s getting really automatic, in a good way but also in a bad way. I was receiving a lot of submissions and I was doing this alone. I really liked the idea of working alone but … sometimes you are not clear in your vision because you don’t get any advice from anyone else. And sometimes you receive good submissions from someone like Félicia Atkinson and you say, “Your project is 200 pages in colour so I can’t print it but let’s keep in touch!” Then we met and I stopped Kaugummi and we started Shelter Press together.
FA: We decided to create Shelter Press when we were in Ohio. We were in an artist residency in the middle of nowhere where a lot of Amish people were living.
We were impressed by the way they were self-contained, how they could make their own houses, make their own shoes. We felt we should call the imprint Shelter Press because of that, because then it would be more like our house. Sometimes we eat with only the two of us and that means we self-publish a project, and sometimes we invite other people over to our house. The way we are going to invite people is going to be maybe less random than just liking their work. It becomes a question of: “Could I dine with this person?”
BS: Shelter Publications [was another inspiration]. It was created by Lloyd Kahn. He published his first book during the hippy era in the United States. They published two books eventually, but first there was the Dome Book One and Two. It was all hand-written and hand-drawn and it was a big manual to learn how to build a dome. And then they made a book called Shelter and it was the same idea of how you can build your own house.
FA: And the story of vernacular architecture. We don’t know anything about architecture but the metaphor of it was really strong for us, the fact that maybe Shelter Press is a bit like our house. It’s true because we are travelling all the time so most of the books that we make, or the records, we work on them elsewhere than home, so there was also this idea that we wouldn’t have an open office or a space but travel with the project and sometimes be invited, like today, to share.
BS: And we also carry books and records with us when we are travelling.
FA: That was the main idea. And also because since you were really active in the music scene and the zine scene, and I was a musician and an artist.
BS: We can do it both here. I’m not an artist, I just publish things.
FA: “Just”… (laughs)
BS: And I do a bit of graphic design. Not for others, but just for Shelter Press. I’m not a graphic designer because I don’t answer to different clients, but I am my own client. Since we don’t work with different designers, I just do everything in-house…doing a lot of books and records on a daily basis with just one tool. I always use the same font, the same papers, because I don’t have a big knowledge about it. I have a few tools, but I really know how to use them.
FA: That’s really important in the thinking of Shelter Press…
BS: And how we are self-sufficient. We don’t have interns or anything. We do the website, respond to emails, pack books.
FA: And sometimes projects also. This is something strong for us – the books or the records are not always at the end of the project. You can say “Let’s make an exhibition and then let’s make a catalogue about the exhibition”, or “Let’s make a record that sums up one year of touring” – we like to imagine books and records often as a starting point of a project.
This year we did more records than books. How many titles have we done?
BS: Our catalogue is 90 titles in five years, so that’s a lot. But in between these 90 titles we have a few small zines that can be made in a day. And we can do big art books, which are way more expensive to produce and need way more work. And we do records too.
Building an imprint doing books and records is basically doing two different imprints because you don’t have the same distribution channels; it’s not the same journalists; it’s not the same audience. At first we really focused on books, but the book world is really evolving and changing. At first our idea was mostly to work with distributors but then it’s so slow as a way of working, like finding the money, doing the book, sending the book to the distributors, waiting for three or six months to get the money back, which is totally normal but kind of slow, especially if you don't have a lot of funding to publish five books at once.
FA: We like to work fast. This is also the way because since you do the graphic design, we can sometimes do a book in a week. Some projects take time…
BS: But some go really fast. So basically, between these kinds of book that need time, we started to make smaller projects and also more records, because the record industry moves faster than the book industry. Your distributor will sell the record really fast because music nerds are really nerds and they buy a lot of records, so then the turnaround of money goes faster and you don't have to wait as much as for the books. It has really shaped what we do. For example, right now, we have a new distributor for records in England and they are really good at selling records, so all of a sudden we can do a lot of records because a lot of money is coming back, so that’s why we are doing more records right now. But our main focus for next year is to go back to the book world and do more books again.
FA: Maybe you can explain a bit more about the records we do.
BS: It’s mostly…kind of electronic music. Not ambient, but abstract or experimental. We do a lot of book fairs, but during book fairs we mostly sell records, so we have to explain to a lot of people what the music is about and it's really hard. Once we tried to bring a record player to give people a chance to listen to the music, but at a book fair it’s so loud and everybody is talking and for one day we just saw people take the headphones, listen for 30 seconds and be like, “Oh, it’s really bad”. It’s not a good context to listen to the music. It’s better to try to explain and people trust you.
FA: The musicians we work with, it’s a bit like the artists we work with. We tend to meet them and know them, see them live.
BS: It’s not music made by artists but it’s not disconnected from the art world. Most of the time it’s really musicians that are like you, Felicia. They are people who are really in between and they can do exhibitions or play in an art context, like a gallery, but they are also real musicians in the sense that they are making records and touring.
Joshua Bonnetta’s Lago is a really good example of being between two worlds. It’s one of the only projects we did with someone we had never heard of. He sent us a submission for this record and it’s a soundtrack of a book by Ron Jude, Lago, published by MACK [London]. It’s about the Californian desert…
FA: And salt and sea…
BS: Basically, when Ron Jude made pictures for the book, Joshua did a field recording in the desert. So the content of the record is really a soundscape – a contact mic, put in a dead cactus – and making beautiful drones from that.
FA: There is a very strong narrative arc in the record too.
BS: It’s about someone who was living by himself in the desert. He is interviewed and he talks about how he hates people but he loves dogs, so if a dog comes to the house he will be really welcoming, but if someone tried to show up at his house he would shoot him. It’s really good.
FA: For us it was exactly the kind of project we like because it’s obviously a field recording but it’s also in dialogue with this beautiful publication by MACK and it draws space between sound and image.
Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.