In Berlin, art and commerce shake hands—sort of.
Photo: Anai Lee Ender, 2014. Courtesy of Friends with Books, Berlin.
Despite its homespun name, Friends with Books: Art Book Fair Berlin bills itself as “Europe’s premier festival for contemporary artists’ books and periodicals by artists and art publishers.” I have no reason to doubt them. Last month, more than a hundred publishers—ranging from the large to the very, very small—spent two days squeezed behind tables in the main hall of Café Moskau, a haunted leftover of the German Democratic Republic aristocracy on Karl-Marx-Allee. Outside, the building resembled a modernist cake topped with sans-serif signage and a gleaming silver Sputnik. Inside, bespoke chapbooks abutted objets d’art, free posters, and glossy five-hundred-Euro retrospectives, often at the same table. It seemed a stark contrast to the Miami Beach scene from which some attendees were still recovering: the one that had featured Miley Cyrus, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and a veritable fleet of private yachts.
Yes, here was a scene more fitting Berlin, the pink-mohawked little sibling of the art world. Some of the usual industry suspects were present, such as the magazines frieze, e-flux, and Texte zur Kunst, along with international art publishers like Valiz, Walther König, and Sternberg. But these were easily outnumbered by the small presses, many of them volunteer-run passion projects. As I entered the long exhibition hall, I had to sidestep embraces meant for friends who’d just flown in from London, Lisbon, or Copenhagen. (The greeter’s country of origin determined the number and directionality of air kisses, and before long I’d witnessed every conceivable variation without once seeing an awkward fumble. Luckily, no one wanted to kiss me.) As I began to browse the publishers’ tables, I felt like I really was walking among a group of friends who’d gathered for a bookshelf-bragging party. Maybe a hundred people were pressed together in the room and talking at the same time, but softly, with the velvet-lined savoir faire that makes dinner parties here such subdued operations. And they were even talking about the books! Somewhat astonishingly for an art fair, art seemed to be the main subject of conversation, rather than the forthcoming after-party or which infamous collector just walked through the door or whose painting sold for how much. The hall was crowded, the mood convivial, the money nowhere to be found. To witness an actual sale was rare, and I almost felt I’d committed a faux pas when I asked a local distributor for a copy of Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous. Then, when I handed the bookseller a twenty, we discovered he had no change. Read More