Paul Soulellis is a designer, artist, and educator who is probably best known for his Library of the Printed Web, an expanding archive of web-to-print artists’ publications. The first Printed Web publication came together in the summer of 2013 while Soulellis was at an artists’ residency in Iceland. At the time he had decided to take a break from his self-run branding and design firm to make more time for independent projects, and founded his current studio Counterpractice, shortly thereafter. Counterpractice encompasses Library of the Printed Web, as well as Soulellis’ writing and research, and his experimental publishing studio at RISD, where he is a professor of graphic design. We spoke over Skype a couple of weeks ago, right before he caught a train from Providence to New York, about distribution and access, the various forms and containers for content, and MoMA Library’s recent acquisition of Library of the Printed Web.
I was surprised to learn that you studied architecture as an undergrad. Can you talk about that trajectory, from architecture to what you do today?
It was a pretty long process; I think I did it the hard way. The easier way would have been to realize earlier on in my career that I wasn’t going to be an architect and that I was interested in graphic design, and just go to grad school. But I never did that. I wasn’t thinking about it in any sort of academic way that could be solved by an academic solution. I was really just doing it one step at a time after school, thinking I was going to end up working as an architect but slowly, over the course of years, realizing that I was shifting direction.
My love of structure that’s both invisible and visible is really at the core of both architecture and graphic design. I like to find places where structure is revealed in unexpected ways. I think Library of the Printed Web falls into that, because what we end up seeing when digital material is printed—like when we see a browser window on paper, for instance—is an attention given to the framing, the positioning, the structure of the content.
Can you describe more of what you mean by invisible structures?
In the world that we’re living in right now, a lot of what is affecting us and how we get our information and how we communicate is invisible. We don’t understand the physicality of the Internet because we don’t see it. We don’t understand how the web works necessarily because it’s all behind a screen or an interface. That’s both scary to me and interesting. I feel like we should know more about how we’re using our machines and our tools. If we really want to get into it, maybe it has something to do also with who we are as people. How do we understand each other if we don’t understand how we work? That’s probably the most basic idea about my interest in invisible structures.
I was recently talking to another architect-turned-graphic designer, and she mentioned something similar to me—about how designing a book, to her, was very similar to designing a house. She said they were both 4D projects, the fourth dimension being time.
In graphic design at RISD we frequently think about the book as a container, and in that way we can talk about any form as a container for content. I guess the difference with architecture is that the architect is done with their work once the structure is built. And the content, which is the interesting thing about architecture—how life is lived, how the architecture is used, how architecture changes over time—in most cases doesn’t involve the architect. With the work I’m doing now, I’m much more interested in the content, in what’s going in.
Your studio Counterpractice was named for a talk that you gave in 2013, in which you talk about a shift that had just occurred in the way you think about your practice and how you decide the work you take on. Can you talk about the idea you spoke of in the talk about ‘thingness’ and ‘slowness’ as a way of resisting?
That talk was a pivot point for me. I had decided, a couple of years before that, to make a lot of changes to the way that I was doing work. I closed my office and let go of many of my clients. I was burned out and I was questioning a lot of things that I was doing, which was a lot of branding work. Not that all of it, or any of it, was necessarily wrong, but I felt like I needed more agency in the work that I was doing. That I could have more control over the intent behind what I do.
The thingness/slowness part of it was really a reaction against that kind of work that I had been doing for 20 years. It had always involved speed: how fast I could work with a client, the speed of the work. How high expectations had become, and how demanding the pace of work had become. That literal idea of speed—just working too fast—at that moment translated into a sudden interest on my part in other kinds of work that I hadn’t been exposed to in a long time. I went back to things like the printed book, John Cage, certain performance-based work that required a different kind of attention. I started thinking about creating work that was about that.
I say that now like I knew what I was doing then, but I really didn’t. I had gotten a lot of positive feedback about that talk, but I was actually pretty confused at that moment. I hadn’t re-launched my practice yet; that came soon after. I’m feeling a lot more confident now about how and why I made some of those moves.
With Library of the Printed Web, I’m always afraid of being perceived as being against the web or anti-technology, or even against speed, and that’s not the case at all. It was a personal process, and I keep it in the realm of the personal. I’m not evangelizing this and saying that everyone should get off the Internet and slow down and go walk out on the beach or something. I am as hooked and addicted to the web and to the speed of communication these days as anyone else.
In terms of how it affected my practice, and my ability to choose the sort of work that I do, that’s where the significance is for me. Creating work that was going to have some sort of an audience, even a small one, focused on a particular community. I think of community at a small scale, like one of my studios here at school, where 15 students and I might meet twice a week to really work something out. I don’t think any of my students would talk about that as a slow process, but I really do think of it that way. In the studio classroom, we’re going to engage in a temporary relationship, and in the next 12 weeks we’re going to think about the same things again and again and make work around that. It’s an open space that I feel is different than other types of spaces where we don’t have the time to pause and reflect.
One of the interesting things I find about Counterpractice is that it’s everything you do, not just your design practice. You define it as encompassing your design work and your art projects and even teaching. What is the benefit for you in thinking about your work in this holistic sort of way?
I started thinking that way when I was working in NEW INC, but it was really when I started teaching—it’s only been over the last five years that I’ve begun teaching seriously—that I realized that this is where all the connections can happen. In a studio classroom in an art school there’s an opportunity to bring in everything that I do and everything that I find interesting about graphic design, or network culture, or branding and research.
When I was applying for my position at RISD, that’s exactly how I described it. I had four things on a screen and I said this is Counterpractice: it is my own writing and research, my independent projects, it’s client work, and it’s teaching. I would say that the client-based part has dropped away or decreased in importance. I was a little nervous about that when I realized that it was happening, but—going back to the idea of open space—I feel like I now have time to devote to the other three areas. For 20 years my priorities were really different. They weren’t about inventing who I am as an artist or a designer, they were about getting more clients, doing more, making more, tallying up the marks to being successful.
I liked reading that the idea for Printed Web was influenced by the Xerox Book. Can you talk about the origins of that project?
I had been collecting work and calling it Library of the Printed Web for about half a year before the collection started getting attention. That summer of 2013, I was in Iceland for an artist residency and I read that Seth Siegelaub had passed away. I knew about him, but I wasn’t so familiar with his work. I took an interest in his Xerox Book and this idea that the publication could be the work itself. The group show could be the publication, not just the documentation of the show. That circulating the publication could be a way of consuming or experiencing artwork in a primary way, not a secondary way.
At that moment I realized that I knew many if not all of the artists who were reaching out to me. They were sending me their work and I was getting to know them. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to present new work from them in some way? The two possibilities seemed to be that I could create a physical space or I could create a publication.
Has Printed Web changed at all since the original intent?
The project was acquired by MoMA Library in January, and letting go of the collection and allowing an institution take care of it in a way that I was never going to be able to do has been significant for a few reasons. One is that since the acquisition, I’ve had this distance to think about the project a little bit. I’m going back and looking at some of the publications in the original Library of the Printed Web collection, and the need to reconsider some of the techniques of appropriation that drove that work. I just wrote about this in a piece called “Urgent Archives,” which will be in the new Public, Private, Secret book, edited by Charlotte Cotton and forthcoming from Aperture.
Early on, I wrote a kind of manifesto for the project titled “Search, compile, publish,” where, in the spirit of Richard Serra’s verb list, I wrote about hunting, grabbing, and performing as primary web-to-print techniques that many artists were using. This past summer, as I was preparing to give a talk in Italy, I wrote out the word “grabbing,” and thought, How, in this era of Trump, can we talk about grabbing other peoples’ work? Suddenly, grabbing didn’t feel right at all, and I realized that my feelings about how and when appropriation should be used had changed. So at that moment I began to shift and look more closely at how appropriation is used, and to what end. And that if I’m going to continue this project, I need to more carefully think about what kind of work I choose to amplify.
By time you launched Printed Web #3, you were publishing the same content in several different forms—a PDF, a browsable server directory on Rhizome, zines, a limited-edition hardbound copy. Has doing this made you think any differently, or more deeply, about information and access? In other words, does taking work made from things originally accessible online, putting them into an object that is physical and sold, and putting them back online in another form and medium give you any revelations about how information should be organized, packaged, and accessed?
Yes, definitely—that happened with issue #3. I was teaching Experimental Publishing Studio at RISD for the first time, and I had a whole section on “versions.” We were looking at Oliver Laric’s Versions video, and different ways to circulate work, and there was a big discussion around the idea of work that exists in multiple forms. It was during that studio that I began thinking about all the different versions that I could create for Printed Web #3. It was an open call, and 150 artists submitted work, and I was concerned about getting the published work to everyone involved. So I thought, Are there multiple positions that a single work can take in order to end up addressing different audiences, cultures, economic models, and ecosystems? That’s where the idea came from—that one could download a PDF or take the files and remix them and regenerate a new version of the work on their own. Or purchase a cheap paperback or the zines if they wanted to have a material experience. And then I produced a hardcover edition of 10, sold to institutions and collectors.
The fourth and fifth issues were more simple, but it’s always on my mind: who can access this material? Who can afford this? How do you communicate the idea that you’re getting a full version of whatever version you choose? How do you give value to the different versions so that they feel different from each other? How do you make each version feel special, even if it is free?
I was just at the Boston Art Book Fair, where I saw several zine-makers and small presses with a sliding scale. That’s the first time that I had seen that. I thought that was a really good idea. Feels right.
What is your definition of experimental publishing, and is it an evolving one?
It’s one that continues to evolve with the course. But I think the idea of publishing as an artistic practice is also changing all the time. There are some basics about experimental publishing; the definition that I love is from Annette Gilbert’s Publishing as Artistic Practice. It’s about curation and amplification—making a selection and choosing to amplify it, as the foundational concept of publishing. Making something public. Maybe this is true for all of publishing, but in experimental publishing I like to think about stretching what it means to distribute something, what it means to make something public.
In terms of form, content, container, media, those are the parts that are open. How those forms and how that content intersect with distribution—and the idea that you’re creating a public or multiple publics with that work—that’s what we try to play with in the course.