Elaine W. Ho and Nihaal Faizal
The following conversation between Nihaal Faizal (Reliable Copy) and Elaine W. Ho (Display Distribute) took place online and over email between March 23 and July 8, 2020.
Reliable Copy is an independent, non-profit publishing house dedicated to the realization and circulation of works, projects and writing by artists. In addition to publications, Reliable Copy also undertakes research projects, organizes workshops, hosts lectures and will soon curate exhibitions. Reliable Copy is based in Bangalore, India, and was founded in 2018.
Display Distribute is a thematic inquiry, distribution service, now and again exhibition space and sometimes shop founded in Kowloon, Hong Kong in 2015. Recent activities include the experimental infrastructure LIGHT LOGISTICS, poetic research and archival unit Shanzhai Lyric and a peripatetic radio programme of hidden feminist narratives known as Widow Radio Ching.
Nihaal Faizal (NF): Amidst this raging pandemic, while the threat remains invisible, perhaps the image that we will remember is that of the airport, the carrier symbol of COVID-19’s international outbreak. It was this image that was fresh in my mind as I arrived in Abu Dhabi where we first met in March 2020 for the Publishing Maneuvers symposium organized by Kayfa-ta. The airport and the commercial airline are also essential sites for Display Distribute and particularly for LIGHT LOGISTICS, your person-to-person distribution network. Could you tell me a bit more about this?
Elaine W. Ho (EWH): The way we describe the project in Chinese is literally translated as “human meat slow courier” (人肉慢遞) which refers both to the fleshy part of the haptic, but also like the way you hear “human flesh search” (人肉搜索), a term for distributed online research (usually for IRL personages) using platforms like blogs and forums, it implies the linkage of digital traces to real bodies. LIGHT LOGISTICS, like DHL or any other courier service, is an infrastructure for the tracking and tracing goods as their movement is facilitated from point A to point B. We do this with a focus on independent publications as the content of our dispatches, and the couriers are people who are already traveling for whatever reason and volunteer to help bring books in the surplus carrying space they can afford.
This project emerged from two angles. I had my first experiences with independent publishing while co-organizing the project space HomeShop in Beijing. If you consider what kind of productive capacities we have in manufacturing-heavy places like China and India, then it is still relatively affordable to make a small print-run. What I had not foreseen was the massive second project that follows whereby you have to hustle in a whole other way in order to share this little thing that you are so excited to have made. People say that being excited about something is the best way to sell it, but excitement alone certainly does not make someone a good salesperson. The trade as a craft, or sphere of knowledge, is not the same thing as its trade, as in circulation. So, LIGHT LOGISTICS is quite simply an attempt to answer the problem of a trade’s lack of correspondence to its own trading. Secondly, this turn towards the question of distribution coincided with being inspired by the work of self-described “feral grocer” and artist Kate Rich who has for many years been sustaining a project called Feral Trade. Basically, we decided to adopt Feral Trade’s model to respond to the problems mentioned above by opening up our own publishing practice to the contiguous flows and communities around it.
Going back to our current condition of self-isolation and lockdown, quarantine, like independent production in general, stretches the lines of production taut. When we are reduced to the tiny units of ourselves and the things we need to survive, when we decide to work autonomously and do it ourselves, we are made aware that resources we thought were in abundance are not. While that sounds meager, I think there is a buoyant spirit within it through, for example, the energy which is summoned and redistributed in the form of making your own space with little means. This is probably the link between my former activities with HomeShop and the work I do now. I wonder if you can also draw similar parallels between G.159, the project space you ran in Bangalore, and Reliable Copy?
NF: Well, G.159 began when I was only eighteen. It was my first year at college and, while I moved to Bangalore with a very strong conviction to become an artist, I instead found myself in a design school. Still, a handful of us were interested in questions around art making and out of these dialogues G.159 emerged. Mainly, I was having these conversations with my friend and classmate Roshan Shakeel and together we founded the space. (My collaborations with Roshan continue. He has designed all of the Reliable Copy publications so far.)
G.159 was located in an apartment that I shared with some other students and the living room became our primary site of operation. There we held exhibitions, performances, drawing parties, lectures and screenings, and within this framework we also released four albums of music and published a deck of cards. We did all of this without any institutional or grant support, pooling resources between friends. This way of maneuvering was definitely small, but it was by no means slow. Having given ourselves a timeline of three years, the time that we still had left in school, everything had an undeniable immediacy and urgency to it.
A few years later, when my partners and I decided to start Reliable Copy, we modeled it differently. We understood that it had to be an organization with some amount of financial stability. Apart from producing projects, it also had to be able to pay everyone involved, otherwise it would just not be sustainable, or perhaps even worth doing, really. Towards this, Reliable Copy was formed as a non-profit trust registered in India. We have a board of trustees (my cousin and an art historian), employ an accountant, file our taxes and consult a lawyer (who is also a popular singer-songwriter).
Turning the question back: What of your operations? How is Display Distribute financed? Is it registered institutionally? And, if not, what is its legal grounding? Or, is this something you try and maneuver? (I also ask this while being aware of your work with pirated editions such as the “SECOND(hand)MOUNTAIN(fortress)” series.)
EWH: I love that we are not shy to get to the juicy meat of economics so quickly! The path you’ve taken from the spontaneity and improvisation of G.159 to the institutionalizing of Reliable Copy certainly makes sense inline with a growing desire to understand the ecologies for sustaining our practices. Sometimes I wish that my own endeavors would be able to find a similar foothold. I’m not sure how much the current methodologies are due, in part, to intuitively renegade maneuverings or out of a lack of knowledge and resources to solidify things in a more administrable manner. Both, I suppose.
I sense a critique of the larger, surrounding institutions in Bangalore as an influence on how G.159 developed and the kinds of activities that occurred there. I can say exactly the same for HomeShop. The decision to open a space outside of the formal arts districts of Beijing was an explicit move away from the things happening there (e.g. cloistering of art in a manageable way for authorities) and founded with the intention to open up for audiences who were not necessarily deliberately looking for art.
For me, there is a discrete sense of institutional critique that has only grown stronger over time, and so, despite there being many things that I would probably do differently now if we had a space like HomeShop again, the nature of Display Distribute’s work as a kind of multi-headed hydra has not allowed for the kind of contracted mutual responsibility that forming a trust or non-profit organization would require. Our inspirations from the very beginning have been parallel traders, pirates and smugglers, so there is probably an inherent need to stay within grey economies in order to be consistent between our ideas and the praxis. Of course, as we are still interacting with institutions to some degree, there is a company registered to make invoicing and certain financial transactions possible.
Our publications have happened through a combination of very small scale, self-funded endeavors and project-based funding which allows us to make work by commission. The distribution of books from other publishers somehow sustains itself by way of a time gamble, as in investing a bit of money to buy books and then selling them slowly over time to cover our costs. We take a small percentage from this, but it is by no means profitable considering all of the labour that goes into the project.
Back to you: What is the ‘time gamble’ at play with having a formal non-profit organization? Are there specific contracts of time in which books have to balance and recourse be made to pinpoint the value of your endeavors? What is the realm of elasticity in which time and money get implicitly entangled or disentangled? How far can we experiment to stretch those boundaries?
NF: There is both flexibility and constraint within the model that we have chosen. Since we structured ourselves in this way (as opposed to, for example, a start-up company), one thing we don’t have to be answerable to is investors. We don’t have to report on someone else’s money, either in its evaporating or its multiplying. Within the non-profit model we primarily work with grants and donations – which still makes us accountable, of course, but largely towards realizing the projects we propose and sticking to the timelines we commit to. It is fundamentally a shift from thinking of future returns to (more importantly) the work at hand, and realizing that within the budgets available.
The “realm of elasticity” you mention is definitely a space for us to think through, elasticity also being an economic concept of categorizing goods and services. A product is considered elastic when its demand varies with price, and inelastic when it remains in demand no matter what the price. Our publications can be understood as examples that are neither strictly one nor the other. They take on many shapes and forms in their movements across the art market, the publishing industry, and the grey waters of pirated editions, with no one existence being prided over another. I feel that our institutions are also similar in that they shape-shift according to circumstances, desires and opportunities.
On paper, Reliable Copy is a non-profit organization, but if a grant is available for a researcher or a curatorial collective then we become that. Usually we are publishers, frequently editors, sometimes distributors, always administrators. We try our best to make sure that all of these roles ultimately serve our publishing agendas, but sometimes we have to take a detour along the way. What we’ve been extremely fortunate with is that all of our partners and patrons have been very understanding and supportive, and we’ve always had a strong level of control over the contingencies that arise in these additional projects. As a result, these negotiations and their results become as integral to our work as our core focus on publishing.
To continue, I would propose thinking through how collaboration plays a role in our projects. For instance, I cannot imagine Reliable Copy without the artist Sarasija Subramanian who initially joined as a projects coordinator, quickly became editor, and is now essentially my partner in the entire project. I would be interested to know who the collaborators are for Display Distribute, and what kind of practices they bring to the mix.
EWH: People often attribute the work of Display Distribute only to myself and writer-researcher Ming Lin, the initial protagonist of Display Distribute. While we may have the biggest “faces” (in the Asian understanding of the term – haha), we are by no means the only ones. I think it’s important to the shadowy aspects of the project not to emphasize particular personalities, but rather the conglomeration of so many efforts and influences – including all the couriers and performers (a long list of names), others who are crucial to realizing specific projects (Alexandra Tatarsky for Shanzhai Lyric and “Miss DD” Liu Ying and Sonia Cheng for LIGHT LOGISTICS), as well as the original Wing Tat real estate model which inspired Display Distribute’s beginnings. These pop-up shops all over the city cater to itinerant traders with surplus or grey economy stock primarily from China and very often their cheap, temporary storefronts are marked by a simple banner reading “展銷場“ which translates basically to ‘Display Distribute’ – so yes, even our name is pilfered!
To be honest, I feel quite ambivalent about how to address questions of authorship for a project with ambitions towards greater decentralization and cooperative experimentation. Acknowledgements are crucial, but connections are varied and amorphous. This is what we often describe as the multi-headed hydra of Display Distribute’s collaborations.
Going back to many roles you mentioned earlier, how many roles/positions can we play? For example, in the way that a neighbor becomes a friend becomes a collaborator, or that a reader-buyer becomes a courier becomes a co-conspirator. This is what I think André Breton meant in his famous statement, “One publishes to find comrades!” — not as the pedestal of authority that a book may be, but as the movement and expansion of knowledge in the public sphere. This is actually what logistics is; the movement and circulation of things, including goods, people and (now more than ever) knowledge and information. If we can expand that thought to the movement of our subjectivities as well, I think we would find the world a much more empathic place.
As a bounce-back in light of MARCH’s call towards “publishing as an act of protest,” I would like for us to self-question our possibilities for social and political critique. Would you agree that the work of Reliable Copy functions in such a manner? And, if so, what are you protesting for/against?
NF: I’m not sure Reliable Copy is as much a protest as it is a form of betting on losing. In an interview I read the artist Dan Graham discusses Duchamp. He says, “I’ve always hated Duchamp. What I don’t like is that he thought art was a game he could win, and that would be the end of art.” Well, we know the game hasn’t ended despite Duchamp’s best efforts, but it made me think of losing and what playing that side of the game would be like.
Although we haven’t discussed this in any great detail, Sarasija and I both agree that Reliable Copy exists towards an eventual failure. Primarily, this being the failure to sustain our rather idealistic operations indefinitely. While we don’t know when this end will come (and we sincerely hope that it isn’t soon), we know that this is a demanding project that we won’t be able to continue forever. Although we replicate the structures and forms of institutional practice, we are keenly aware that it is an act, an elaborate disguise. Things do get complicated since we operate under a formal non-profit trust, which in India is essentially a living entity. Our accountant likes to explain its operations to us as if it were a person. So, closing a trust isn’t easy and this makes it liable to go on in one form or another.
While we anticipate future collaborations to shift our ways of working, our identities, and the larger shape of things, we also don’t ever expect Reliable Copy to continue beyond us — that is, for it to have heirs. We hope instead that whenever Reliable Copy does cease to exist, it would have already done its work in providing a model for future practices and that the publications we produce will always remain accessible in some form.
EWH: I am a bit superstitious, so I often attribute the splay of things as they happen to fate and the belief that certain things are “meant to be” in whatever juxtapositions. I just walked past the “original” Display Distribute the day before yesterday and saw that it has now become a real estate agency. Before it was this real estate agency (and after it stopped being Display Distribute), the space was a clothing shop called Famöus Woman. So, if I want to think about this cynically, it’s that at the end of the day the long-term (proprietorship) still subverts our short-term interventions.
To toss a challenge at you, I am a bit sad to hear about your premeditated prediction of failure as the kind of cynicism to subvert yourself – almost in a kind of stepping stone way of saying, this is a means to some other ends. So, rather than concentrating on such finiteness I would prefer to look at our efforts as processes of abiding by truths (in philosopher Alain Badiou’s sense), in terms of the ethics and abilities of our practices to work within the contexts as they are in any given moment. This means that truths bend with time, so while the closing and “failure” of HomeShop at the end of 2013 is a wound that I have still not come fully to terms with, if I am to reassure myself (and you) now it would be to say that we can only try to the best of our abilities to abide and give voice to the truths as we know and believe, and then both follow and make the bends (in Bruce Lee’s “be like water” sense), as we go.
Elaine W. Ho works between the realms of art, social practice and language — and since 2015, also a co-conspirator of Display Distribute, a thematic inquiry, distribution service, now and again exhibition space, and sometimes shop founded in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Seeping via the capricious circulation patterns of low-end globalization into other subaltern networks and grammars, Display Distribute’s recent activities include the experimental infrastructure LIGHT LOGISTICS, poetic research and archival unit Shanzhai Lyric, and a peripatetic radio programme of hidden feminist narratives known as Widow Radio Ching.
Nihaal Faizal is an artist based in Bangalore, India. His works respond to the copy, the replica, the remake, the gadget, and the gimmick, often reflecting upon media documents from popular and cultural memory. Recent projects have explored the histories of Flubber as a fictional substance, computer desktop backgrounds, special effects from TV shows, AI generated drawings in science fiction films, photographs from family archives, and pirated copies of video art. In 2018, he founded Reliable Copy, a publishing house for works, projects, and writing by artists.