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Not just starting, but also sustaining: artbooks.ph’s Manila survival guide
Written by Liu Chao-tze
Translated by Joanna Lee
Entering from the west side of Pioneer Street and heading east for about 650 meters, you’ll see a tangle of shrubs to the left of the road. Hiding behind them is the run-of-the-mill warehouse in which artbooks.ph can be found. As you walk into the rectangular space of the bookstore, there is a long wooden table, used for working, reading and receiving guests, while bookshelves line the right and front walls. Moving past the bookstore is the tall and spacious printing studio Pioneer Studios, their workbench covered by various printing samples. In the back left-hand corner, you’ll see a little temperature-controlled stockroom filled with transparent vinyl sheets. And lastly, sitting at the very end is a big photo studio, as well as several metal cabinets containing the negatives and framed works of countless photographers that digital photo archive Luzviminda is responsible for digitizing. On the day of the interview, staff members just so happen to be hard at work preparing for an art fair that’s happening in the coming weeks. From studio shoots and photo digitization, to printing and sales, it’s a one-stop shop where everything can be done. Many photography practitioners’ works are produced here, making it akin to a Manila art production factory.
As it states on the Pioneer Studios website: “We understand what artists need because we are artists.”
artbooks.ph was established in 2014 by writer and artist-curator Ringo Bunoan and artist Katya Guerrero. Before its life as a bookstore, it was a studio run by Katya and her photographer husband At Maculangan, where they provided photo studio rentals, as well as photography services for artists documenting their works. After several years, just as business began to stagnate, they coincidentally received several commissions to photograph art books; Katya realized that these books had neither a home to go to nor paths to go down in Manila. So, Katya enlisted her college friend and old buddy Ringo to open up a bookstore together. Back in the late ‘90s, they had run the artist-run-space Big Sky Mind together. After handing over the reins, Ringo became a researcher-slash-writer for Asia Art Archive, and often needed to buy art books. She had encountered the same conundrum: there was no bookstore specifically carrying art books in the Philippines; one needed to find the books individually.
“So we know that there is a need for sure – just like when we opened Big Sky Mind at a time when no one was really exhibiting conceptual work. Now there are a lot of exhibition spaces, so we feel there's no need to open up another. It was more important to open the bookstore, because there's no other store selling art books. So, it is really a response to a need,” says Ringo.
More encounters between books and readers: selling books is the greatest support for self-publishing
artbooks.ph currently only sells art books related to the Philippines, whether they be about architecture, performance art, graphic design, art history, film, photography books, artists’ books, zines and more. Regardless of the author’s or publisher’s nationality and background, books are accepted as long as they are about the local arts and culture in the Philippines. They hope that, through books, they can unravel Philippine art history and allow locals the chance to better understand their own culture. Deeply rooted in the local context, even the purchase of books is through Philippine university publishers, as well as independent publishers and self-publishers.
“The readers have always been there; they just didn’t know where to buy books.”
For Ringo and Katya, the most important role of the bookstore is not only selling these art books, but rather, allowing these books to be easily accessed.
Their customers are of all age groups and job descriptions, with students, researchers, collectors and even librarians ordering books from them. There are even copies for reading on the shelves, already numbered and sleeved. Some customers even stay for whole afternoons, reading and researching.
“I suppose we do function like a library, although we don’t advertise to the public about that,” Katya says, quickly adding: “We’re a bookstore; we sell books!”
Their average workday consists not only of advertising books on social media, but also running an online bookstore and handling orders from all around the world. Most of their online orders come from those who are overseas, or Filipinos who have grown up abroad, since Philippine art books in the overseas market are hard to come by and books by domestic publishers are rarely exported.
“I mean, I think the best thing we can do is to be able to not just promote the book but to sell it, because the best way to help an artist and independent publisher is to distribute their books.”
As we talk, Ringo mentions the word ‘sustainability’ several times. She thinks that distribution and the number of editions make up an important part of extending the scope of publishing. When a book is completed, the process of publishing is only halfway done. Many people fail to consider how to sell, where to sell, as well as how to get it seen. For Katya, an exhibition may only last three weeks, with mere photo documentation of the event, but a book is different; its journey is longer, and its destination further away.
Sometimes, artists will bring in their own books to promote or ask about consignment, but have limited copies of five to ten books. Neither Ringo nor Katya agree with this type of method, as it limits the readership: “What's the point if you only have three or five copies? Who's gonna read that? If it's a handmade book, fine. But if it’s photocopied, why?” Once, an American public library contacted artbooks.ph for a certain self-published book, only to find out it was completely sold out. In this way, limiting editions can lead to squandered opportunities. As Katya says, “You never know who wants to buy your book.”
Ringo thinks that limited editions are fundamentally at odds with the concept of publishing, and not at all sustainable. For her, the purpose of publishing is to share information, in a democratized way – allowing books to be easily accessed, read and purchased. Even self-published works should fit into this principle.
“Most of the books are photocopies. You don't have to do 100 copies all in one go. It can be an open edition, where you print only when there's a demand,” she says, shrugging.
This is a business, not an art project
Today, artbooks.ph rely on a combination of printing, photography services, studio rentals and book sales to sustain themselves. The number of team members can be counted on one hand, and every single one works diligently, rarely going on break. When I ask her about the difficulties of operations, Ringo laughs and says everything is difficult. Which part do you mean? Living in Manila is difficult, too!
In the early chapters of their business, Ringo and Katya had seemingly already drawn up the blueprint in their minds. As Ringo says, “It’s probably because we’re pragmatic. When we were running Big Sky Mind, we knew we weren’t going to be selling any works, since our artist friends were just as poor as us. So, we decided to sell food and drinks as well, to stay afloat.”
“It's not about how to start, but it's about how to sustain it. It's easy to start something, but not how to make it work. And I think it's wrong to romanticize this, because you just make it hard for everyone. It’s a business, not a project. Someone said that to be an artist, you really have to struggle. That's bullshit! You have to figure out how to make it work. If it's not working, then stop what you're doing, because you have to think in the long term. And that's the best thing you can do. If you can survive, then you’ve succeeded.”
A physical space can gather people; it’s a place where everybody can come to browse and chat, and where artists can meet up. Ringo tells me she is a person who believes in talking to someone face-to-face. While some artists may prefer to be alone and be behind closed doors, it’s something she takes issue with, since artists ultimately need to communicate with the public. It’s the same for books; one needs to find their readers, and try to communicate and speak to them – only, photography books are in more of a precarious situation compared to art books with narrative text in the Philippines. The average Philippine reader prefers to spend money on books that can be read, rather than photography books that have photos but lack text; they would rather buy information.
“There’s no photography discourse in the Philippines,” says Ringo.
In the 1970s, the Philippines ushered in a golden era of photography, but discourse on contemporary photography history thereafter was virtually non-existent. Writings on and archives of the history of photography lack support from official organizations, such as art or photography institutions. Moreover, due to the lack of attention from the state’s cultural policy, putting photography in national art museum exhibits is a relatively new phenomenon. These disconnects have resulted in the idea of photography as something distant for many people. Past photographers have tried to fuse various photography communities together, organizing talks, discussions, or exhibitions, but time and time again, the number of participants remained few and far between. With these failed endeavours, they would all eventually arrive at the decision to leave Manila.
artbooks.ph had also attempted to host talks at the bookstore, but the hard work never really paid off. There would be one reason for attending but a thousand reasons for not: too lazy, too hot, the public transport too inconvenient, etc. But what of reading groups? Surely smaller events like these would garner some interest?
“I don't like reading groups. I also don’t like poetry reading because I want to read alone myself; I don't want to listen to someone reading. Reading is not an event,” says Ringo, with obvious disdain. “So, if I'm like this then why do I expect other people to read together?”
Investing your energy in that which is most stable and most likely to succeed, without burning yourself out, is key to sustaining a business. Currently, artbooks.ph is still the only bookstore specializing in artbooks in the Philippines. Added with professional photography services under the same roof, those who need art books or photography support will always make their way to artbooks.ph.
Towards the end of the interview, I ask Ringo if she can pick five books that best represent artbooks.ph.
“I mean, it's very unfair for the other books. And I'm not going to privilege one book over another. I don't believe in rankings, and I don't like these top 5 questions,” she says, slightly annoyed.
Ok, then… last question: how do you see your space in five years?
“Oh, I hope we're still here,” Ringo says, with a wry smile.
And what about other plans?
“Just to survive.”
artbooks.ph is a new independent art bookstore run by Pioneer Studios, founded during a time when the exchange and distribution of Philippine art books were scarce. The bookstore is managed by the two founders: Ringo Bunoan (b. 1974) and Katya Guerrero (b. 1970). Bunoan is a Philippine artist-curator and writer, whose works take on various forms including conceptual art, writing, video and sound installation and Guerrero is a conceptual artist, who works mostly with performance art and multimedia installation, etc. Guerrero also currently manages Luzviminda studio.
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「重點不是關於如何開始，而是如何延續。」 —— 藝術書店 artbooks.ph 的馬尼拉生存指南
由 Pioneer 街的西側進入，一直往東走大約 650 公尺，在馬路的左手邊有一片樹叢，背後隱藏著一個再平凡不過的白色倉庫，這便是 artbooks.ph 的所在地。一進門是長方形的的書店空間，中間是一個長型的大木桌，平時作辦公用、閱讀以及接待客人，書架佔滿了右側與前方的牆；穿過書店後是高挑寬敞的印刷工作室 Pioneer Studios，工作檯上攤著一張張印刷樣片；左後方充滿透明塑膠布的小房間，是庫存書籍的恆溫儲藏室；再往裡走就是一個大攝影棚以及好幾座灰色鐵櫃，擺放無數攝影師的底片資料和裝裱過的攝影作品，是負責檔案數位化的工作室 Luzviminda。採訪當天，工作人員們正在為數周後的藝博會忙進忙出。從棚拍、照片數位化，到印刷輸出，再到書籍銷售，一條龍服務，全都可以在這裡完成。許多攝影工作者（photography practitioner）的作品都是在此產出，簡直是馬尼拉的藝術生產工廠。
「因為我們是藝術家，所以我們了解藝術家想要什麼。」Pioneer Studios 的網站這樣寫著。
artbooks.ph 成立於 2014 年，由作家、藝術家兼策展人的 Ringo Bunoan，與藝術家 Katya Guerrero 共同創辦。書店的前身是攝影工作室，專門提供攝影棚出租的服務，也幫藝術家們拍攝作品記錄，由 Katya 與她的攝影師丈夫 At Maculangan 一同經營。過了些年，正當攝影工作室的業務進入停滯期，恰好接到幾次翻拍藝術書的委託，Katya 才發覺這些書在馬尼拉根本無處可去、沒有可供流通的門路。於是 Katya 找了大學時代的同窗兼老戰友 Ringo 一起成立書店。他們倆在 90 年代末曾一起經營過藝術家自主空間（artist-run-space）「Big Sky Mind」。空間經營權交棒後，Ringo 在亞洲藝術文獻庫當研究員兼專職寫手，時常需要幫忙購入藝術書。Ringo 也面臨同樣的窘況——在菲律賓尋不到專賣藝術書的書店，只能到各間書店一本一本地找。
「書店的成立其實是回應當地需求。如同我們成立 Big Sky Mind 的初衷，在於當時並沒有能夠展覽觀念藝術的空間。但是現在藝術空間已經夠多了，也不需要我們了。現在真正需要的是一間藝術書店，一個目前為止還沒有的東西。」Ringo 表示。
artbooks.ph 目前只販售關於菲律賓的藝術書，包含建築、表演藝術、平面設計、藝術史、電影、攝影書、藝術家的書（artist's book）、小誌（zine）等等。不論作者或出版社的國籍和背景，只要是關注菲律賓本地文化藝術的作品，都可以被納入。他們希望透過書籍，爬梳菲律賓的藝術史，讓本地人對於自身文化能有更深的理解。書籍進貨都是直接與菲律賓大學出版社、獨立出版社和自出版者合作，深耕在地。「其實讀者一直都在，只是他們不知道能去哪裡買。」對 Ringo 與 Katya 來說，書店最重要的任務不只是販售這些藝術書籍，更重要的是，讓這些書更容易取得。
訪談過程中，Ringo 反覆提到「延續性」這個詞。她認為，銷售與版數是讓出版能夠延續的重要一環。當書完成時，整個出版的過程只達成一半。大多數人很少會考慮怎麼販售、去哪裡販售、以及如何讓書被看見。Katya 認為展覽最多只能維持三周，結束後也僅存照片紀錄；但是書不一樣，書可以走得更長、更遠。
有時藝術家會帶著自己的書到書店自我推薦、詢問寄售，然而他們做的版數通常很少，不是五本就是十本。Ringo 和 Katya 都完全不認同這樣的作法，「限制版數等於限制了讀者數量。如果書只有做三本，到底要給誰看？如果是手工書所以只做三本，fine；但是雷射複印，why？」有次美國市立圖書館曾來信洽詢某本自出版書，結果已經售罄，如此好的機會因版數限制而讓它白白溜走，實在可惜。就像 Katya 所說的：「你永遠不知道有哪些人想要買你的書。」
Ringo 認為限制版數是與出版的本質互相牴觸的，且毫無延續性。出版的意義在於傳播資訊、使其「民主化（democratize）」——讓書本容易取得、讓人人皆可看、人人都買得起。即使是自出版刊物也應該是這樣。她聳了個肩說：「大部分的自出版書都是數位印刷。沒有人說一次就要印個 100 本，可以用開放版數的形式（open-edition），無須限制印刷數量，有人想購買時再隨需印刷（print-on-demand） 呀！」
現在 artbooks.ph 的營運仰賴攝影印刷、拍攝服務、攝影棚出租和書店銷售的收入。團隊人數目前一隻手數得出來，每位成員都認真不苟，全年少有放假休息。問起經營上遇到的困難，Ringo 大笑著說一切都很困難，你指哪項？生活在馬尼拉也很難啊！
早在經營之初，Ringo 與 Katya 似乎就已在腦中畫好藍圖了。Ringo 說：「大概是因為我們都很切實際吧！經營 Big Sky Mind 的時候，知道我們不會賣出任何作品，周圍的藝術家朋友跟我們一樣窮，所以我們決定也賣酒食來維持收入。」
artbooks.ph 也有嘗試過在書店舉辦講座，勞心勞力成效卻不佳。想參加的理由只要一個，不來的理由卻有千百種：太懶、天氣太熱、交通太差等等。那讀書會呢？小型活動總有人會有興趣吧？「我討厭讀書會。讀書是自己的私人時光，我討厭一群人一起閱讀的感覺。如果我都不喜歡了，我怎麼還期望有人來參加？」Ringo 嫌棄地表示。把精力放在穩定、有把握的地方，不讓自己超出負荷，才是經營之道。目前 artbook.ph 還是菲律賓唯一專賣藝術書的書店，複合專業的攝影服務，僅此一家的招牌，只要想讀藝術書、有攝影相關的需求，客人自動就會找上門來。
訪談進行到最後，問 Ringo 能否挑五本最能代表 artbooks.ph 的書？
是由先鋒工作室（Pioneer Studios）經營的新獨立藝術書店，成立於菲律賓藝術出版書籍的交流與販售都相當稀缺的年代。由兩位創辦人經營：Ringo Bunoan （b. 1974）為菲律賓策展人兼藝術家、作家。作品形式多元包含觀念藝術、寫作、錄像、聲音裝置、複合媒材裝置以及書。曾擔任亞洲藝術文獻庫研究員，專門研究、書寫菲律賓藝術家自主空間的歷史。Katya Guerrero （b. 1970）為觀念藝術家，作品多為行為、複合媒材裝置等。現為 Luzviminda 工作室負責人。
 At Maculangan (b. 1965) is a Philippine artist and established photographer. His works cover photography, video, performance art and mixed-media installation. He is the founder of Pioneer Studios.
 Big Sky Mind was a Manila artist-run-space, founded by Ringo Bunoan and Katya Guerrero in 1999. Before ceasing operations in 2004, it was an important incubator for experimental and conceptual art. Big Sky Mind has exhibited some of the most influential contemporary artists in Manila today, with art forms ranging from painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film and video
 Open edition is a publishing term derived from printmaking; it implies unlimited copies can be printed.
 Print-on-demand, or POD, is a printing model in publishing based on consumer demand. The documents required are digitally printed and binded, based on the set time and place provided. The concept first appeared in 1990, with Xerox’s DocuTech printers.
 At Maculangan（b. 1965 年）是菲律賓藝術家、資深攝影師。作品涵蓋攝影、錄像、行為藝術與複合媒材裝置。為 Pioneer studios 創辦人。
 Big Sky Mind 是一個馬尼拉的藝術家自主空間，由 Ringo Bunoan 與 Katya Guerrero 共同創立於1999年，經營直到 2004 年。在當時為實驗藝術和觀念藝術提供了一個很好的溫床。Big Sky Mind 展出過許多當今馬尼拉最具影響力的當代藝術家，其藝術形式涵括繪畫，雕塑，裝置，表演，攝影，電影和錄像藝術。
 隨需印刷（print on demand，POD）：又譯按需印刷，是一種印刷出版營運模式。係指按照用戶的要求，依指定的地點和時間予以提供為目的，直接將所需資料的文件數據進行數碼印刷、裝訂。隨選列印概念始於 1990 年 Xerox 開發的 DocuTech 快速印刷機。