Features, Report

How photobook publisher Self Publish Be Happy became a focus for creativity and participation 

All images © Self Publish Be Happy

We meet with Bruno Ceschel, founder of Self Publish, Be Happy, the hippest publishing outfit around.

“All of this,” says Bruno Ceschel, sweeping his arm in a theatrical arc, “used to be my studio, where people could hang out. Now we are beginning to suffocate under boxes of books.”

The room in question is an airy, light-filled rectangle two floors above the shopfronts and stalls of Dalston’s Ridley Road market. While we’re talking, and looking at books, the throaty beat of African music drifts through the open window. Beyond, a herd of the tower cranes that have come to define the east London landscape in recent years is potently visible.

Ceschel, 39, is the brains behind Self Publish, Be Happy, the hippest publishing outfit around. Over the five years they have been in operation, SPBH, as they are more commonly known, has grown from an online platform for self-published material to a hub for participatory projects and workshops.

The boxes causing trouble – red and blue plastic crates – are leftovers from an event they held in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall during Offprint in May. Offprint London is coming back again, to the same venue, this May. Together with the SPBH manual he published with Aperture, this is very much Ceschel’s time.

“It’s been a steady build-up,” says the self-effacing Ceschel. “Not like waking up with an album in the charts. The opportunity at Tate came out of other project spaces I’ve organised previously. The Aperture book is something I’ve been talking about with Lesley [Martin, publisher at Aperture] for years.

“And it’s a labour of love for everyone involved; we’re not a commercial venture, we have no funding. But that also means we’re not accountable in the way you would be at a company or an institution, and that is what makes it work. We’re more prone to think: ‘Fuck it, why not try?’”

Today Ceschel is a little jaded. Later this afternoon he is flying to Lausanne, where, twice a month, he teaches a module of the MA course in photography at Ecal. He also lectures at Camberwell College of Arts once a week, on book art. He tries to spend the rest of the week in his studio, a short walk from his home in London Fields, but that’s only if he’s not at a fair, which he was this weekend, representing SPBH at Future Artefacts in Shoreditch.

Since Ceschel first set up SPBH in 2010, the photobook market has exploded, especially for self-published titles. In defiance of the death knell sounding over printed matter in general, the zeal for buying, talking about and, especially, making wildly creative versions of photobooks has risen exponentially. Small presses have mushroomed and, as the infrastructure has firmed, a welter of fairs has sprung up.

Ceschel is in two minds about the latter: “These types of pop-up event are vital for the self-publishing industry and I try to attend as many as possible. We always lament the lack of opportunities for artists so you want to participate as much as you can,” he says. “But fairs are really demanding, and often they attract more cultural posturing than actual engagement. If you apply a buying and selling principle as a means of measuring success it can be quite gruesome. London is a funny place from that point of view: people just don’t seem to buy. The Tate was an exception.”

Offprint, which ran alongside Photo London, was a commission from Chris Dercon, then director of Tate Modern, and Simon Baker, his curator of photography, in conjunction with Yannick Bouillis of Offprint Paris. Ceschel’s mandate was for a programme of events, for which he suggested a project space. “The idea of doing talks was of zero interest to me. I wanted to do something more participatory, in line with a lot of the things we do with SPBH – setting up an environment which facilitates some kind of exchange.”

He commissioned two architects to build a dedicated space using plastic containers. “It could be built and dismantled easily, and all of the components could be re-used – I liked that it had that sort of DIY aesthetic. Within that environment I invited photographers to stretch their practice into a realm of audience interaction. It was like a game: you have this much time, you have these ingredients, what can you do? Thomas Mailaender made temporary images on people’s skin using ultraviolet light, and we held a selfie stick aerobic session, so the whole thing was quite playful, even though there were deeper layers to it if you wanted them, about portraiture and representation.”

In fact, Ceschel seems proudest of his workshops and events – of being out there, rather than sat at a desk. But it’s in the studio that the fruits of his labour are most evident. An entire wall is given over to the SPBH collection: around 2700 self-published zines, books and posters that have been sent in for consideration from all over the world. Envelopes arrive at a rate of about five a week. If he likes what he sees, Ceschel and his team photograph the item, collect information about the project, log a copy in the shelves, and post the images on his website – which is visited by thousands of people every day.

Ceschel’s only real criteria “is that when we post it online, people must be able to buy it. Not because we’re interested in commerce, but because it gives a sense of it being something that someone has created and that is ready to be sent out into the world, rather than a dummy that sits at home.” Eventually Ceschel hopes an institution will take the collection and preserve it for posterity. For now it isn’t officially open to the public, but he lets as many people as is practical use it for research, and many do.

Then there’s his publishing arm, SPBH Editions: books he shepherds into being from scratch. “They’re very much handpicked, so we can offer real involvement and dedication to the few that we do. We’re too small to do very many – publishing is only one arm of what we do.”

So far Gareth McConnell (Close Your Eyes), Johan Rosenmunthe (Tectonic), Lorenzo Vitturi (Dalston Anatomy) and Matthew Connors (Fire in Cairo) have received the treatment. “Mine and Antonio’s job [Antonio de Luca is SPBH’s designer] is to clean it up and make it into a trade publication,” says Ceschel. “But with each title, that conversation is quite different. With Connors I’d seen a body of work which I liked and we went from there. Lorenzo came with a dummy and with his own designers.”

From the series The Afronauts, 2012 © Cristina de Middel, courtesy Self Publish Be Happy

They fundraise for each project and share profit with the artist; SPBH also runs a Book Club, whereby a subscriber pays £100 to receive three books without knowing what they are in advance. So far Cristina de Middel, Esther Teichmann, Brad Feuerhelm and Broomberg and Chanarin have produced books for the scheme.

Once on board, Ceschel is thorough. With Rosenmunthe’s Tectonic, for example, which is about stones and crystals, they researched 19th-century books on geology for ideas on how to match text and image, “and that led to me buying books on eBay about alchemy,” says Ceschel, “and that led to me talking to someone I knew from a long time ago who is a Latinist, so we can go quite deep.”

Primarily, he says, he is there “to facilitate and to encourage, but also to challenge. Sometimes it gets quite unpleasant. You basically have to go to the point of nearly breaking it before you go over and into something else. I think they appreciate that relationship because it’s rare.”

Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty © Max Pinckers, courtesy Self Publish Be Happy

In terms of age range, “there are a lot of young practitioners, I think. Some first books – Cristina de Middel is the one everyone remembers – but often it’s mid-career stuff. People come to fairs like Future Artefact and although they don’t buy anything, they feel encouraged to give it a try.”

He still finds the results surprising, “just how extraordinary the ideas can be, but it’s because book art comes from an impetus that exists outside of commerce. If you think about all the vanguard movements, which often gravitate around publications – periodicals, posters, etc – they are about saying something rather than about economic reward. That means they are freed from the pressure of having to conform to formats. They might lack expertise or sophistication, but they have a kind of urgency.”

SPBH cane about precisely because Ceschel was disappointed with the books he was seeing in the trade world. He describes them as “canonical things… I just felt they had no energy about them.” At the time he was working for Chris Boot, whom he credits with teaching him everything he knows about publishing. “But the industry was crumbling around us,” he says. “No one wanted to take risks. By the time I left and went to New York, I was really disillusioned.”

It was in New York, though, that he came across the Art Book fair. “I didn’t even know it existed, and yet thousands of people came and bought thousands of books. Maybe I was ignorant, but it was absolutely an ‘Oh my God’ moment.”

It was also in New York that he met Antonio. “We were both lost souls. I was in a crisis about what I wanted to do next, he had just gone through a divorce, and a friend thought we should meet,” he laughs. “Neither of us had a full-time job, so we started working on this project that was like a porn magazine but not a porn magazine, called Stroke. Then I came here to lecture, he went to Berlin, and one day we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a book together?’ He is a really good designer, rare in that he doesn’t want to apply his aesthetics and interests in the book. Often the designer becomes competitive with the photographer whereas Antonio, he’s there, he listens, he responds.”

Aside from de Luca, SPBH functions with a skeleton staff. “People come with different specialisations and skills and that leads to us trying different avenues – SPBH TV, for example, came from an intern who had video experience… I try to foster a real sense of community, which I think comes from my time working at Fabrica. I wanted to recreate the same experimentation, comradeship, discussion. My real dream is to have a physical space that would house something like that over here, but it’s just never going to happen in London, at least not unless someone invests in us.”

The name Self Publish Be Happy is actually a retort to the book fair Publish and be Damned, and typical of Ceschel’s mischievous nature. “I always have quite a visceral response to these crystal castle setups. My usual response is to say ‘Fuck you’, but I’m not confrontational so my way is to taunt with something playful. It’s what I try to do with all my activities for SPBH.”

What does he love most about SPBH? “I like that it isn’t one thing. Because I don’t feel I’m publisher, I don’t really feel I’m a curator or a historian, and yet I do all of those things. It gives me a chance to respond to the world out there in a way that is quite free; and freedom, it’s a big thing, a pleasurable thing. At times it’s also quite distressing and tiring and sad, but it’s also quite thrilling.
“Over the years I’ve tried to make SPBH something that is not unreachable, it’s actually around you and you can take part in the conversation. My only concern is that lately those conversations have started to feel really insular and boring. Instead of opening things up they feel more and more claustrophobic: we’re preaching to the converted. I think it’s time to open up the conversation, and the Tate and the book [with Aperture] are my first attempts at doing so.”

In a way, then, the real job is starting now. “Yes, all of this build-up, creating a community; now it’s time to harness that and do something quite radical with it. All around me I see people are struggling for no reason – my students, who need to pay incredibly high fees; artists, who can’t afford to live in London. We can’t just be in awe of the rich hanging out at Frieze. People are charmed by the glitter, but the core of it is rancid and unacceptable. I think, fuck that. And having a chance to harness that energy and try to change things? Well, that’s an incredible position to be in.”

Find out more at Self Publish Be Happy.