A Matter of Survival? Vincenzo Della Corte in conversation with Salon für Kunstbuch founder Bernhard Cella





Vincenzo Della Corte, April 10, 2015

"Salon für Kunstbuch" was founded by Austrian artist and curator Bernhard Cella in 2007, as a "life-sized model of a bookshop".
I interviewed Bernhard Cella in order to further understand the workings and concept of Salon für Kunstbuch and how it works.
Bernhard Cella was born 1969 in Salzburg. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna with Erich Wonder, the University of Arts and Industrial Design Linz with Herbert Lachmayer, and at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg with Franz Erhard Walther. His curatorial practice focuses on exhibiting books and curating exhibitions about artbooks. He is also a member of the jury for the annual Austrian Artbookprize "Schönste Bücher". His works are in museums and collections including  the collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Belvedere Museum,  the Albertina Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, among several others."

Vincenzo Della Corte: I would begin by stating what Salon für Kunstbuch could appear from the outside, it could appear as a library, less as a gallery, probably as a book shop. Could you define what Salon für Kunstbuch is and how does it works?

Bernhard Cella: In 2007, I developed Salon für Kunstbuch in my studio as the life-size model of a bookshop. It serves as the starting point and the foundation of a process. At the beginning, I focused on the question of display, of forms to present books. I conceptualized the Salon as a semi-public space that oscillates between the private and the public sphere. The continuously changing installation is accompanied by events that open discussion on individual books and facilitate a discourse on artistic topics via the medium of the book.

VDC: The internet pioneer Vint Cerf warns our era could become the "Digital Dark Ages" due to the obsolescence of today's data storage systems. Is your project also a reaction to that danger and to the evanescence of digital world or do you consider the book autonomous from its function to transfer information and therefore assuming a new function much more related to visual art?

BC: I would not consider the book as autonomous from its historical function, as the book is still a means of communication. But, due to the Internet, the book experienced a relief of the need to transport information. Since about 1995, the Internet has succeeded as a mass medium and thus, the medium of the book was liberated, as most of the information is retrieved from the web.
I also believe that the boom in the production of artists' books that we observe today is directly linked to its representation on the Internet. From my particular point of view, the internet is in no way a competitor of the book, I rather experience it as a mirror, a vis-à-vis of book culture. Just as photography is a counterpart to film, the book has found its medial opposite in the Internet.

VDC: Does the internet take an active role in your project?

BC: First of all, the Internet provides a platform and a tool to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. At this point, we have about 11.000 individual publications online. It would be nearly impossible to find a way around this vast collection, let alone to retrieve all the information and pictures related to the books.
Also, the internet enables authors to contextualize their work with the projects of others. This is one of the main reasons we are currently developing a specialized platform for publications produced without an ISBN number. These books and magazines are often very hard to find, we want to help create and sustain an interaction between the community of actors, the public and the collection.

VDC: The ISBN number was first used in 1967 to satisfy the digital cataloguing needs of mass book distribution. The ISO (International Organization for Standardization ) extended it internationally. Why are there so many books in the Salon without ISBN numbers, and how do you deal with the problems this creates?

BC: Especially with artists' books, publishing without bothering with ISBNs is not a new phenomenon. Independent publishers of artists' books and magazines in the 1970s often produced publications without registering them with ISO, and neither did political activists or producers of early fanzines. Today, it has become even easier, as books that are distributed over the internet are found mostly by searching for keywords and authors.
Also, I don't consider publications without ISBNs to be something that creates problems. Rather, they generate different possibilities and perspectives I'm very much interested in. They most certainly represent an immediate, unfiltered form of communication. For example, these books can be sources of information about what is negotiated in art at different places. It is sometimes possible to learn much more through them than through usual information channels, a phenomenon that used to be called grey literature.

VDC:  "No ISBN" was presented in Vienna, Basel, Berlin, London and New York. Which was the goal of the project? Can we interpret it as a performance?

BC: No ISBN first emerged as a poster performance in 2009 at PS1 in New York. The books I received as a reaction became a part of the collection I am constantly working with. As an artist, the publications themselves serve as a material and a starting point to develop works and new lines of questioning. For example, I constructed a film set out of No ISBN publications I had collected at my studio. In 2010, "Salon für Kunstbuch. An Artwork as Enterprise" at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig featured this project. http://www.gfzk-leipzig.de/?p=1319

VDC: The Salon appears as a constant "beginning point", an "endless performance", with a circular procedure. Fine arts, theatre, dance, architecture, film, music. "The plurality of functions of the Salon, (...) the interweaving of different fields of artistic practice (...)" Whether or not it was conscious, do you think the Gesamtkunstwerk had an influence on this project and your work as a whole?

BC: Is there still something like a Gesamtkunstwerk? I think it's difficult to still operate with terms like that, as we find ourselves in completely changed situations of work and life today, in comparison to 1983. I was always interested in this medium because it is somewhat underrated and at the edge of awareness of the art world, although many artists worked with it.

VDC: I am fascinated by the idea of an interaction between books and visual art. Even the criteria which you order the books with is quite subjective. For example, you arrange the books not alphabetically, but by color. It is a very intriguing result. Do books and visual art have the same relevance in your project?

BC: A book can also be an artwork in itself, as it shares the attributes of a photograph. For the longest time, photography was hardly accepted as an artistic medium. Maybe, something similar is the case for books? On the other hand, I don't restrict my work or my collection to artists' books, I enjoy to take a sudden interest in unexpected topics, like Mexican fanzines, or books on the topic of punishment.

VDC: How crucial has been Vienna for the conception / birth of the Salon für Kunstbuch? Could you imagine this project having been realized in London or New York?

BC: In Vienna, I couldn't find a significant or historically deep urban tradition in the field of art books, although there are several currents of discourse that try to address this shortcoming. I decided to address this issue in the form of a specific location and run it as a contemporary Salon, by pursuing a process-oriented and open approach. I used to work in cities such as Berlin or Paris and I am quite sure that the Viennese concept would not have played out there.
Historical developments in the Benelux, Switzerland and France show how open interaction with books as a medium and the social appreciation for them can lead to the development of a specific book culture. I'm speaking of what a society that calls itself bourgeois usually considers to be 'valuable' or 'valid'. In Austria, we are, broadly speaking, part of a different tradition. The value something represents is measured by its recognition in the respective scenes.

VDC: "The principle of installation (...) an architectural structure and a spatial intervention allow for the development (...) the spatial conception as a sculpture (...)". In a recent interview I read, Nedko Solakov says "the painter come anyhow second. Before him, there is the architect that projected the space". Is this valid for the Salon or do the books have an autonomous life?

BC: Of course the books keep their autonomy. One of my guiding principles is not to alter any publication. They relate to each other exclusively through their placement in space and through the interplay of publications I arrange.

VDC: On one hand there is the focus, the goal of your project, that is the society, the public, and on the other hand there is the medium, the book. What happens in between?
There is indeed a strong social moment, the project is partly about initiating and enabling specific forms of communication that would, else, not be possible. The installation acts as a catalyst of interactions and forms of communication about art. The books, on the other hand, are important to set this process into motion - they charge the installation, so to speak.

VDC: How does the Salon für Kunstbuch stay financially stable?

BC: We increasingly resemble the publications we produce, we want to establish the same principles as the books we create. And so we volunteer, we earn no money, and we are not part of an organization.

VDC: How do you select what becomes part of the permanent collection of Salon für Kunstbuch?

BC: I choose everything I like, everything that attracts me, that draws my attention due to my interest in contemporary art. For the most part, the publications I assemble were produced in the present.

VDC: In once sentence, what does the future hold for art and books?

BC: The production of artists' books will explode.



Inside Cella's atelier/bookstore; the precursor to Salon für Kunstbuch. Vienna 2007


Salon für Kunstbuch at 21er Haus, Vienna. 2013


3D rendering of Cella's Studio. Vienna 2012


NO-ISBN Poster Performance PS1, NY 2009


Books at the Salon are arranged by color, rather than by title or author. Vienna 2010