For Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Books Are a Way to Think About Time
The LA-based artist speaks about the process of editing—and re-editing—and the role that bookmaking has played in the evolution of his work.
In recent years, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work has been widely introduced to viewers in galleries and museums worldwide, including a star turn at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and a traveling solo exhibition organized by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. His rise to the main stage of the art world, however, was preceded by fifteen years of creating zines and small-run publications—Sepuya would often have his own table at the NY Art Book Fair—and his practice is rooted in the printed page, both of photobooks and literature. On the occasion of his newest publication, I spoke with Sepuya about the process of editing—and re-editing—and the role that bookmaking has played in the evolution of his work.
Lesley A. Martin: Your work is most often associated with the studio as a formal site in which work is made and reinterpreted. I’m curious, though, to what degree it is also indebted to the book form, and how does that manifest itself?
Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Before the studio, it was definitely zine-making that served as a framework for my art-making. I had a traditional “film to darkroom to portfolio” relationship to photography—all the good training I had from my undergraduate studies. But my desire to connect to a community—to form channels for conversation and make opportunities, rather than wait for validation—led me to zines. Zines let me think about sequencing, created a channel for me to begin revisiting negatives, contact sheets, and outtakes, and to explore how meaning shifted from when I took images versus what happened when they were printed and when they went out into the world. All of those images were portraits, mostly of young gay subjects, in an expanding economy of social media exchange. That all happened within zine culture. The studio and book-making emerged alongside each other during my residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH), which culminated in a zine catalogue and self-published book, Paul Mpagi Sepuya: Studio Work (2012). The book was a way to begin to think about time—time in making, social time, and studio time—and its effects on myself, the space I was inhabiting, and the subjects in my social world.
Martin: Your table installations (such as the one that appeared in the exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at the New Museum, New York, and at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis) draw from books, magazines, printouts in manila envelopes—they are studio tables, but are they also the scenes of books in process?
Sepuya: Yes, they all incorporate some kind of in-process material. That strategy comes from the first installations of an archive of materials from my exhibition Studio Work (at SMH)—test prints, outtakes, ephemera, notes, books, scraps—that served as the repository of sources that would later get incorporated into discrete, formalized photographs and artworks. Franklin Art Works in 2011 was the first time the SMH project was shown in full, with all the material spread out across the table tops.
In the few years between my residency at SMH and my return to California, I didn’t have a studio, and so I made these provisional books: binder clip–bound arrangements of laser printouts, which became the way of organizing my non-studio, studio practice. That was 2011–14. I returned to this book-zine form in the absence of being able to afford a stable studio. Those provisional bundles continue to be generated, and in time, I’m binding and indexing them all as hardcover volumes. They’re a sort of indexing of all the material you continue to see as fragments in the current works. What has been shown in installations, like in Trigger, are arrangements of material currently in my studio, along with bound and yet-to-be-finished and bound, bundles of the laser printouts.
Martin: The interpretive nature of your work within the picture frame, in which images and pieces of images are recirculated and reinvented across different series, seems to also be present within the publications you have made. Images accumulate and are paired and re-paired to create different networks of ideas from an essential set of ingredients. Can you describe how this iterative process draws from and can be seen in your books? Elements of various series also initially appear in the sketchbooks, or “bundles,” as you call them, that record the works as they evolve. How does one thing lead to another, from zine to book, to the next book?
Sepuya: It’s a cumulative process, one that I don’t set out to find answers to in the form of a grand thesis. I can’t plan what will happen. Each of those projects has attempted to answer a question that the project before, or perhaps an outtake or afterthought that continued to bother me, left behind.
I began portraits believing that photographs affixed meaning. And then I realized they only opened up more questions, with the possibility of ongoing selection, editing, and time. Enter the zines, to make use of that problem. The SMH residency was something I had no idea would become a book, but I realized, as material accumulated, that it had to be a book and that’s where meaning would be made. Simply, one thing leads to another by necessity and constant questioning.
Martin: You seem to be pretty open to the rough and ready reproduction of your images—from laser copies and zines like SHOOT, to more fully and lushly rendered books, and of course, the prints themselves. How does that spectrum work for your process, and what do the various stations along that arc, from bundles of xeroxes to something “exquisitely realized,” mean to you and your process?
Sepuya: Each is a different way of handling material, either for ease or for formal exhibition, and everywhere in between. I really love reworking all materials that remains in my grasp. They don’t have meaning in themselves, but help meaning take form.
Martin: Critic Tricia Rose has cited Arthur Jafa as identifying three stylistic continuities, or shared approaches, found in cultural contributions that come via the African diaspora: “flow, layering, and ruptures in line.” She further states: “Let us imagine these . . . principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish and transform them. But also be prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways which will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics.”
The narrative of queer spaces and communities has been central to the interpretation of your work—including the radical statement of Black, queer desire within the formal, academic, often biased world of studio practice. I wonder if these statements and principles that she identifies as emerging from contemporary Black visual and musical contributions (Rose was using these to interpret graffiti art and early hip-hop music) resonate for you in any meaningful way.
Sepuya: My first encounter (that I can recall) with Arthur Jafa’s work was at the Made in L.A. biennial in 2016. His notebooks of edits and his sampling from visual culture in a totally democratic and distinctly Black way just blew my mind. I instantly related it to my formative attraction to and use of photographs, to my adolescent taking and queering of subject matter simply by using it queerly. Layering for the strategy of plausible deniability, but instant recognition when it mattered to make oneself recognizable. Embellishment, transformation. All of that. It’s always a gift to find an artist who’s so successfully articulated a feeling that you don’t fully realize you had, and struggled to name.
Martin: I want to also make sure to talk about the book The Accidental Egyptian and Occidental Arrangements (2010), which you made in collaboration with Timothy Hull. In a video you made for Self Publish, Be Happy, you talk about your fascination with “Egypt as a vessel that gets filled and interpreted and reinterpreted”; the book itself is a collage that gets remade again and again from a set of source images, and the book and the photographs of each stage of the collage are the final record. The collages themselves do not exist, nor were they intended as permanent, fixed records; rather, they are a record of an exchange between two people. Is this something of a metaphor for your artistic process as a whole?
Sepuya: Oh, I am so glad you brought up that project. It’s the point at which collage entered into my toolbox, all thanks to Tim! I had been making arrangements of contact sheets, zine material, and test prints, but I had not, until then, considered the cut and combination of materials into a new, different work. I didn’t follow up on it, but I can say I wouldn’t have considered collage-like strategies five years later without the possibilities uncovered in AEOA. We also made another, similar collage project with TM Davy for the Ferro-Grumley literary award in 2011. But, yes. It’s important to note that those collages, composed from fragments of both of our works combined, were made to be images, not collages in a physical sense: material arranged for the scanner bed, for the purpose of making a book.
Until I was about fourteen years old, I believed I’d grow up to be an Egyptologist.
Martin: In the interview with David Velasco and Dean Sameshima that appears in your book Beloved Object & Amorous Subject (2007), you talk about editing and re-editing. You mention that you “love the idea that you can return to an image, reprint a photograph as its meaning changes over time,” and how photography is an ideal medium for re-editing—from contact sheets to image sequences. The idea of re-editing is really deeply embedded in your work. What attracts you to that idea, and how has it continued to play through in your work?
Sepuya: What attracted me was that editing revealed itself as a fundamental aspect of making photographic prints. Returning. Facilitating that return is that truth that photographic reproduction presupposes a chain of desire yet to be formed. Desire and return. Revisiting, and then continuing to work.
Martin: Over the course of this conversation, a totally new reality has been forged in the wake of the global pandemic. I’ve come to realize that we’re not going to be going back to “normal” anytime soon. Have you been able to process yet what this new reality of social distancing is going to mean for your work moving forward? Does it put the intimacy of your work until now into a new perspective? Is it a good time for processing—maybe for more books?
Sepuya: This question has been coming up, along with a level of inquiry that’s overwhelming. It sounds strange, or uncomfortable to complain about it, to be honest. A rush of media has asked artists to respond, and all I can say is, “No.” I have not thought about it with regard to my work, or moving forward, or anything else. It’s simply too soon. I’m scrambling, trying to figure out how to teach students online, how to keep basic studio infrastructure going, worrying about what galleries and institutions will do, how bills are going to get paid. I miss seeing friends in groups, but I don’t feel distance. Before, I barely made it to one or two non-work things a week—a gallery or a dinner. And now, there’s a burden to participate in what seems like dozens of virtual social gatherings and talks, and it’s overwhelming. I actually desperately want some time off to think about all of this.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya: A conversation about around pictures opened on March 25, 2020 at Vielmetter, Los Angeles, and is viewable online.
See more in Paul Mpagi Sepuya (Aperture/Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 2020)