Publisher Profile: Natasha Christia on La Kursala
La Kursala, an exhibition room dedicated to emerging Spanish photographers and patron for independent publishing under the imprint Los Cuadernos de la Kursala, has been one of the most influential exponents of the recent boom in Spanish photobooks. Initiated in 2007 by the University of Cádiz and assigned since its beginning to photographer, professor, and curator Jesús Micó, the project has remained committed to its core goal of bringing international attention to the periphery of Spanish photographic creation.
The backlist of Los Cuadernos de la Kursala, a collection of photobooks copublished with emerging photographers and small independent editors from around Spain, reads as a heterogeneous cartography of contemporary Spanish photobooks: the forty-three released so far include La caza del lobo congelado by Ricardo Cases (2009), The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel (2012), and Ostalgia by Simona Rota (2013). La Kursala, using a standard low-scale budget, works less as a publisher than as a collaborative, unpaid editor, whose main task is to spread the word about its editorial selection by sending out its whole five-hundred-copy print run to a mailing list of influential photography people in Spain and abroad. In this sense, Los Cuadernos books are messengers: not only have they drawn attention to the curatorial discourse of a small hall in Cádiz, but they have also conferred visibility upon a new generation of photographers and photobook makers residing in Spain who would have otherwise lacked any sort of institutional platform.
Jesús Micó is a Cádiz local permanently based in Barcelona, 900 kilometers away from the small seaside town, which is situated at the extreme southwest of the Iberian Peninsula. He was given carte blanche for La Kursala’s conceptualization and development, and to him, a self-described “expert in projects of the periphery,” it represented a stimulating challenge: was it possible to turn a minor provincial exhibition hall into a reference point in contemporary creation, and, if yes, how? In Micó’s mind, La Kursala should make up for its peripheral position with a fresh and competitive program, omitting consecrated photographers in favor of novel young names. Secondly, it should maintain this program within the margins of an affordable budget, yet not at quality’s expense. Thirdly, and most important, it was necessary to develop a promotional strategy which would allow its work to transcend local frontiers and reach the nucleus of contemporary Spanish photography.
When the University of Cádiz offered a standard budget of 2,900 euros for every La Kursala project, Micó suggested that most of this money be allocated to the publication that accompanied the exhibition rather than to the exhibition itself: book production would be financed with 2,000 euros, while only 900 would be allotted to the exhibition. At the time, photographers, sellers, and institutions in Spain were primarily oriented toward exhibitions, but La Kursala placed photobooks, with their infinite narrative layers, at the core of its project.
In 2008, the year after La Kursala’s founding, the financial crisis blasted away the Spanish market and any illusion of welfare guaranteed until then by the flow of public funds. An emerging generation of photographers found themselves on the crossroad of two eras: before and after the crisis. In 2007, their works were largely absent from gallery walls, museum collections, fairs, or auctions; they were too young, the establishment too conservative. After 2008, they were at least, in comparison to older generations, better prepared to start all over again and deal with irreversible changes to the rules. “Websites, blogs, screenings, and, of course, electronic or printed photobooks became their media of expression,” Micó explains. La Kursala arrived at the right moment. By acknowledging the autonomy of the artist as self-curator and producer, Micó says it provided, for the first time, an institutionalized frame of support for this “self-sustained generation, whose way of understanding photography was closely related to the concept of the photobook—a generation conceiving their works mainly to be made in this format.”
As a result, the books published independently under Los Cuadernos de la Kursala work more like singular artistic statements than like the traditional exhibition catalogues produced by other Spanish publishers. Variety in format, content, and aesthetic denotes Micó’s fundamental curatorial premise: absolute creative freedom for participants and full respect for their work. Attuned to this spirit, La Kursala provides everyone with the same modest budget regardless of their name, trajectory, or status, and, apart from Micó’s discrete coordination and curatorial advice, the University of Cádiz does not interfere in any way with editorial or production. This is a far cry from more traditional Spanish publishers who are less keen on risks and rarities.
As a flexible publishing platform that has provided essential support to many people and projects, La Kursala acknowledges the ideas of self-publishing and the synergy of various agents when putting a project through. Crowdfunding, private sponsors, and small independent publishers are all welcome. Although 2,000 euros is the minimal, elementary budget for each book-publishing project, this has nonetheless kickstarted books such as The Afronauts (a book that was obviously not made with 2,000 euros) and initiatives such as Fiesta Ediciones, Ricardo Cases’s own publishing venture. Furtivos by Vicente Paredes (2012) and Ukraina Pasport by Federico Clavarino (2011) were Fiesta’s first projects exhibited at and copublished with La Kursala, while, for Juan Diego Valera and Aleix Plademunt, the release of their respective Kursala books Coma (2011) and Espectadores (2007) prepared them to launch Ca l’Isidret, their own publishing house.
Micó repeatedly stresses the paramount role of regular mail as a promotional channel for La Kursala. Each Los Cuadernos volume is dispatched to journalists, curators, booksellers, professors, collectors, and others in the Spanish photo world. This affordable DIY distribution strategy—airmail requires a minimal budget—has transcended regional barriers and solidified a visceral circulation network that has spread the word, fueled debate on online social networks about photobook culture, and reinforced the awareness of both collective work in photography and of the photobook community.
Narrating the story of La Kursala is equivalent to sequencing the history of the Spanish photobook of recent years: nearly all significant independent publishers in Spain have collaborated with or originated from it, and some of the best Spanish designers, including N2, Jaime Narváez, and Ramon Pezzarini, to mention but a few, have been involved in its projects. Over the last years its volumes have been finalists for PHotoEspaña awards, won prestigious distinctions, and been featured in exhibitions, such as the contemporary photobook exhibition Books that are photos, photos that are books at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, and Photobooks: Here and Now at the Fundaciò Foto Colectania, Barcelona.
Meanwhile, life in Cádiz is quiet for La Kursala. The university keeps its budgets frozen. All Cuadernos books can be downloaded from the university’s website in PDF format, with images, critical texts, and biographies. “La Kursala does not have a proper webpage yet due to the lack of funds for its production and permanent actualization,” Micó explains. But perhaps keeping structures minimal and affordable, and depending on its books to provide sites for visceral experience, has been precisely what has contributed to La Kursala’s success.
Natasha Christia is a freelance writer and curator based in Barcelona. She is currently coordinator of international editions at Editorial RM and a member of the research group Arqueologia del Punt de Vista. natashachristia.com
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.