A Conceptual Compendium of Conceptual Art

Notes, outlines, research correspondence, and project descriptions illuminate process and thinking. Often, these types of behind-the-scenes documents shed light on the work of artists, novelists, poets, and other historical figures. Though a clear distinction is made between the “work” and these “workings,” such a simple line is not always possible.

Seth Siegelaub: “Better Read Than Dead” Writings and Interviews, 1964–2013, Walther König, 2020 (all images courtesy Walther König and D.A.P.)

In the case of the art dealer, curator, and bibliographer Seth Siegelaub, the margins are the materials. An influential figure in the development of conceptual art, and one of the first dealers to promote it, to best tell the story of this polymath, we must look not just at the projects for which he is known (including exhibition-as-book projects The Xerox Book [1968] and January 5-31, 1969 [1969]), but also at the materials around these projects, which illuminate his thinking and philosophy, and create a manifesto for his activities.

Better Read Than Dead” Writings and Interviews 1964-2013, recently published by Walther König, serves this purpose. It includes selections of Siegelaub’s acknowledgements, prefaces and introductions, project outlines, letters and mailings, instructions, invitations, and transcripts of interviews and talks. For someone who resisted the label of “writer,” it is especially surprising to find that over 300 pages of such papers exist and read easily as both reference compendium and narrative book.

Page spread from Seth Siegelaub: “Better Read Than DeadWritings and Interviews, 1964–2013

Siegelaub’s documents are presented as facsimiles without descriptions or annotations, giving the thick book a DIY xerox aesthetic. The editors explain the materials, in a forward by Marja Bloem, an introductory essay by Lauren van Haaften-Schick and Jo Melvin, and the extremely useful reading guide, abridged chronology (from the longer version previously published in Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art [2015]), and ending explanatory note by Sara Martinetti. But the documents themselves are accompanied only by captions that state the title, publisher (when there is one), and year. Flipping through the chronologically arranged pages is a bit like diving into an archive without a finding aid, as exhilarating as it is overwhelming. 

There is a growing interest in both the publishing and printmaking communities over the concept of publishing as practice, but perhaps more accurate to Siegelaub is bibliography as practice. One of many new discoveries this book offers about his interests outside of conceptual art is his dedication to the bibliographic archive. He was deeply fascinated by communication and networks. In 1974, he sent out a multivolume “working bibliography” called Marxism and Mass Media. As he writes in the introduction to volumes four and five (published in 1976),

The purpose of our work is political: to specify the history and role of communications in all its aspects — its past, present, and possible future — as it (has) develops(ed) as part of society’s socioeconomic structures, both in the national and international contexts.

For Siegelaub, gathering and circulating this information was about equality of access and the power afforded by communication.

Page spread from Seth Siegelaub: “Better Read Than DeadWritings and Interviews, 1964–2013

In 1970 Siegelaub founded the research center and publisher International General, which he explains, in an early pamphlet, was created “to contribute to the development of critical studies on all aspects of communication and culture,” specifically “Communication, Culture and Ideology” and “Textile and Craft History.” “Better Read Than Dead” shows these disparate interests to be diverse, yes, but also interconnected. As Bloem writes, “Seth considered publishing (in all formats) as the best way to record, circulate, and spread information, particularly through bibliographies and open-access libraries.”

In 1997, IG published Bibliographica Textilia Historiae, in which Siegelaub states,

The preparation of this work has become a personal obsession over the years, as it has evolved from a catalogue of a private library of textile books into a more systematic bibliography attempting to document the diversity of the literature of textiles, and to provide access to it as directly as possible.

Again, his emphasis is on collection, cataloguing, and access.

He also asks important questions about the nature of a bibliography. One section begins, “Bibliography or library catalogue?” “This is the question haunting this bibliographic project — as well as many others on very different subjects.” It is a question I myself had when scanning through the documents. Siegelaub faces head on the limitations and challenges of attempting to fully document a practice and its corresponding literature, and instead focuses his efforts on distribution, circulation, and the democratic potential of gathered and shared information.

Page spread from Seth Siegelaub: “Better Read Than DeadWritings and Interviews, 1964–2013

Better Read Than Dead” does this too, in the non-hierarchical inclusion of a wide breadth of documents. The book concludes, fittingly, with a bibliography compiled by Martinetti, of texts and books written and published by Siegelaub. It is a “reading of Siegelaub’s daily labor.” This labor stretches beyond easily categorized interests and output and instead charts “connections, overlappings, and shared concerns between the various editorial departments of his one-man syndicate.” It takes up Siegelaub’s own task of bibliography as practice with the same care he showed to it himself.

Seth Siegelaub: “Better Read Than Dead” Writings and Interviews, 1964–2013 (2020) is edited by Marja Bloem, Lauren van Haaften-Schick, and Sara Martinetti, and published by Walther König. It is available online and in bookstores.

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