In 1967, the SBN (Standard Book Numbering) system was created so that booksellers could number and identify the books they carried. Three years later, it grew on an international scale and became what we now know as ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Though originally used for an archival purpose, it strangely grew into a number that authors seek out as a vector of accessibility. If the book has an ISBN, then it will be available to the public. It will be found.
Austrian artist Bernhard Cella has been thinking about alternative modes of publishing books. His new book, NO ISBN: On Self-Publishing, that he released with co-editors Leo Findeisen and Agnes Blaha, showcases a collection of publications without ISBNs submitted to him following a performance at MoMA PS1 in 2009. He placed flyers at the New York Art Book Fair inviting authors to relinquish the ISBN, or to intentionally produce a work without identifier.
The inspiration behind the project started in 2007, when Cella started collecting publications that would otherwise be considered anonymous, had they not contained an author’s trace. “I built a model of a bookstore in my studio and started collecting stuff I was interested in. I also set up opening hours for my studio and inviting people to discuss books from an artistic point of view,” Cella says. The collection focused heavily on books that did not have an ISBN number. The open call gathered over 500 submissions.
The book’s foreword explains: “When viewing the inventory, given thematic areas became apparent: printed space as a legacy of conceptual art, a fascination with materiality, post-digital publishing, NO-ISBN as a political medium, and surviving on books.” While the book itself doesn’t distinguish them in its presentation, it is very clear how these areas function. Cella and his fellow editors have taken the submissions and interspersed them amidst an interview of Cella conducted by Findeisen. Each page of this art book presents multiple publications. Readers are asked to both understand Cella’s concept and to decide for themselves which publications are the most compelling in that framework.
“I started using the publications for installations and exhibitions,” Cella says. “I’d build an installation like a film set, and used all those publications as a background or as a setting in which the film was done.” To use a book as a prop is at the core of this project. A book without an ISBN is just a manuscript. It is not yet finished; not yet sellable. This refusal to be identified is what gives these publications the potential of being part of a film, of becoming a prop. Nevertheless, they are not accessories. They are foundational backgrounds. But as viewers, we recognize them as books. “When you think back before 1967, there was no ISBN anywhere. There were no publications with an ISBN number,” Cella says. “I think that now that the Internet has become a mass media, we don’t need the ISBN anymore. The structure this number functions in is narrow because of the book market.”
While the ISBN remains an essential element of the industry, it is true that many zines, chapbooks, and artist books are not susceptible to the same rules. For some reason, when the ISBN is removed, the book becomes something different. One needs to hold it differently. There might not be that many printed editions available. Cella collected these publications precisely to change this discourse: “I thought it was important that the NO ISBN publication had to have an ISBN number,” he says, “to show that the two are related.”
It’s a mindset that Cella is asking for. “What people call publishing is not necessarily publishing nowadays,” he says. “Publishing is more than a book.” NO ISBN is ultimately a project that feeds off of its conceptualism. It begs its audience to consider the book like Stéphane Mallarmé would, when he says: “The only explosion is in a book.” It’s a necessary explosion that unleashes and then fuses conceptualism with content.
For more information about this project, and if you are interested in submitting a publication to Cella, visit the NO-ISBN website. This is just an example of the different kinds of homes a book can find, without needing to adhere to a traditional manufacturing system.
Michael Valinsky is the editorial assistant.