See and be seen

splash-image3I spent Sunday at the New York Art Book Fair held at the MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. In short and without doing the event any justice, a throng of artists, writers, poets, publishers, and then some gather to showcase their work. It’s always overwhelming and under-ventilated, but it’s an event in every meaning. Plain and simple, it’s just awesome.

I overheard a conversation while sifting through some Bruce Nauman books* (*unfair catchall phrase for some obscure collections I can’t recall but earnestly found mesmerizing at the time) between a fellow manning a table and a fellow onlooker. Man behind the table asked onlooker, “What is your goal being here, at this fair?” Point blank. I have no reason to believe these two exchanged any glances, passes, or words at any point previous to this. At any rate, onlooker replied carefully, “To be seen as a publisher.”

I was struck by that phrasing: “to be seen as a ____.” A very honest, if not non-committal tag. Not “I’m a publisher.” I want to know if this man is just starting out as a hopeful publisher, or if he hasn’t yet hit his benchmarks, or if he used to be an accountant for GE and wants to change his whole life. Or if this isn’t his day job. Or if his unsupportive boyfriend or girlfriend is finally out of the picture and he can spread his wings. YOU GET IT. It’s not, “I’m a publisher.”

I love his phrasing, the continuum undulating. Not finite. Not absolute. Not a hard and fast rule or indicator of who onlooker is. Open. Suggestive. Fluid. I went to school with a bunch of self-proclaimed this and thats. Copywriters. Mad women. Media mavens. Strategic-doers. Who dubbed any of us any of these things, and why the rush to be a finalized, fully evolved *insert yourself after earned sense of accomplishment here*?

This very phrasing is the foundation of us all, the answer to why any of us do anything. When I save two dozen Adage articles to Instapaper for my early commute, I want to be seen as a rising professional who goes above the baseline. When I buy a weird print, I want to be seen a patron, maybe even a valued partner. When I write a yelp review, I want to be seen as someone who doesn’t screw around, and has damn fine taste in dives and discos. But the thing is, I don’t really care who sees me this way, as long as I’m fitting my own image of the bill. Self-seeing is the only truth we need, and it’s constructed merely by what we talk ourselves into. This is why we give ourselves ridiculous monikers and self-aggrandizing definitions in our Twitter bios: to stand out, and to lay down a framework. We authorize our own guidelines. Change of heart? Change your Twitter bio.

The New York Art Book Fair allows makers and creators from all walks to share their work with the masses. As my boyfriend said, about 70% of the work on view/sale is inaccessible, too expensive, or completely without function; when hundreds of purveyors are met with tens of thousands of people looking for new guidelines in the form of truth or distraction, you gotta like those odds.

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