Silent Face Projects
Silent Face Projects is a publishing collective founded by artists Joseph Desler Costa and Kat Shannon, together their practice includes the publication of artist books, zines, and other printed matter loosely related to photography. We had the pleasure of working with them on the printing and production of several publications, including: Permanent Constructions by Jeremy Haik; Weapon, Shapely, Naked, Wan by Dillon DeWaters; and Acey Deucey by J.J. Sulin. Liz Sales spoke with Kat and Joseph about how Silent Face began, the practical aspects of publishing, and the practice of publishing as a form of community building.
Liz Sales: How did you become a publishing collective?
Joseph Desler Costa: Kat and I were in the ICP-Bard MFA program together. We studied bookmaking with Victor Sira, who runs Book Dummy Press, an independent publishing imprint, as well as bookstore and project space that specializes in artist publications. I was an intern at Book Dummy Press, and as a result of working with Victor I became more interested in bookmaking. That experience, coupled with the wise words of ICP-Bard MFA program chair Nayland Blake, to "make your own artworld," prompted me to start Silent Face Projects as a platform for my work, as well as the work of other emerging artists. Kat and I were already making projects together and becoming close friends, so we decided to join forces.
Kat Shannon: Right! During graduate school, we both started getting involved in the photobook world. I was also working at Dashwood Books. We spent a lot of time together, so it made sense for us to start collaborating on book projects.
LS: It's interesting that you both worked for bookstores that also dabble in publishing their own projects. It seems to be a formative part of both of your practices. For example, Book Dummy Press is a bookseller as well as a publisher. Can you tell us more about working with them?
JDC: Book Dummy Press is a really interesting and dynamic place, it's a publisher, a design house, a gallery, and a bookshop. Working with Victor Sira was a hugely formative experience, he was very generous with me, not only with the technical knowledge of publishing and production but also in regards to helping understand what I actually wanted to accomplish and the decisions I needed to make in order to get there. Victor made me realize that it is possible work on many things simultaneously and seamlessly, so long as you adhere to your ideals.
LS: And Kat, you still work for Dashwood Books in Manhattan. They are an institution for photography books. Can you tell us about your position there and what it's taught you about publishing and distribution?
KS: Dashwood Books is a really special place and I'm so grateful to be working there. It's unique in that it's the only independent photo bookstore in the city and everything we carry is highly curated by the owner, David Strettell, and the rest of the staff. I also find a lot of pride in the community surrounding the shop, I've met so many wonderful people since starting there and that is absolutely the best part. My role there has evolved a bit over the past three years, but I still most predominately work with publications from small publishers, or books that are self published, that we sell on a consignment basis. I love working in this role because it is a constant source of connection and inspiration, I'm able to get a first hand look at the strategies and techniques other artists and publishers are using.
LS: Dashwood Books also publishes their own books. They were actually one of our first printing clients. We worked with David on a bunch of projects, beginning with Ari Marcoupolis' ambitious Anywhere project, where he published a zine a week for a year. We also printed illustration projects by Jason Polan and Stefan Marx, and special editions by Matthew Barney, Kohey Kanno and Momo Okabe. Working with David was really illuminating for us as we were beginning our path into this publishing world, at the time we’d also just begun publishing our own projects.
Silent Face Projects recently published Tear Sheets by Pacifico Silano in collaboration with Dashwood Books. Can you tell us about that process? Similar to our experience, I imagine you learned a lot from this as well?
KS: Joseph and I are both still learning about production, sales, and distribution. David helped us set up a system of production and distribution that has the potential to make Silent Face more sustainable. For example, Tear Sheets has a dust jacket that is also a poster; it's a fun design feature of the book and we sell it separately too.
JDC: I think that's a good point. I learned a lot just watching how David worked. We would sit together in the office in Dashwood and pour over the estimates from the printers, it was really eye opening how he was able to make decisions that eventually would lead to the book becoming financially viable. Previously, we didn't leave room for generating any kind of profit at all. Though Silent Face is a labor of love, it isn't sustainable if we're always operating at a loss. I learned from David how to walk the fine line between production dreams and financial reality, and that sacrifices unfortunately usually have to be made. The collaboration also opened up new channels for distribution through Dashwood Books and exposure to new clientele.
KS: We both have a deep interest in the role of collaboration in our process. Although we are getting more experienced, and hopefully better with each book we make, we know that we will always have more to learn and are very happy and willing to hear out the ideas of others working in the same field. Luckily we were all very much on the same page with Tear Sheets and I don't believe any negative compromises occurred. Pacifico was very involved in each step of the process as well.
LS: How would you describe Silent Face Projects to someone who's never seen your books?
KS: I think we are most excited about emerging artists who are thinking about the image in different ways. Of the books we’ve published so far, I’d describe Acey Deucey by J.J. Sulin as our most conventional photobook to date; Jessica Thalmann's book August 24th is a more of a conceptual book project; Jeremy Haik's Permanent Constructions is work born out of a studio-based practice; and Dillon DeWaters' book Weapon, Shapely, Naked, Wan is pretty experimental. I think that all of our artists are concerned to some degree with what a photograph is and how it functions. In the future, we'll be thinking about how photography influences other mediums as well.
JDC: I think a minimal design is another feature of all our books. The first time we participated in the New York Art Book Fair with Victor and Book Dummy Press, I was met with a sea of amazing books. I couldn't figure out how to compete with the high level of production. We've both worked for Self Publish, Be Happy and we saw books that incorporated multiple different types of paper and just generally a very sleek and high production value. We can't affordably make those types of books so we adopted a crisp, clean, minimal style that is recognizable. That way we're still making beautiful objects but affordable beautiful objects.
LS: You do have a signature design style. I feel like anyone in your audience could easily recognize one of your books. Do you think there is a specific Silent Face Projects audience?
JDC: (Laughs) I think our audience is either people we already know or people our artists know! But it is slowly growing. We participated in the New York Art Book Fair for the first time this year and plan to do so next year as well.
KS: We just went to the Toronto Art Book Fair. No one there had ever heard of Silent Face or any of the artists we publish. It was so interesting, even though it made sales a little more difficult. We met a lot of new people: emerging artists, people interested in photo-based art, people interested in publishing as an artistic practice. It felt like we were expanding our community and that was exciting.
LS: What's next for Silent Face?
KS: In the future, we'd like to work with more women and people of color. We've created this platform for emerging artists and we'd like to use it to showcase the work of more under-represented artists whose work we love.
LS: That was part of the impetus to publish Queen?
KS: Yes, before that, Jessica Thalmann's August 24th was the only book we’d published by a woman. For Queen, we collected work by female artists we admired and discovered that there were so many that it was difficult to limit ourselves to one artist. So, we decided to do a group publishing project with seven women: Hannah Whitaker, Sarah Palmer, Molly Matalon, Patricia Voulgaris, Grace Ann Leadbeater, Nikki Kreckiki, and myself.
JDC: We used the short story "Queen" by LA-based author Amina Cain, who is a friend of mine, to tie the work together. The story is perfectly paced so that each paragraph corresponds well to each artist's work.
LS: Did the artists make the work in response to the paragraph they were assigned?
KS: No, we curated the book out of the artists' existing work. We were less collaborative than usual because we were working with seven artists on one project.
LS: How collaborative is your process typically?
JDC: It varies from project to project. J.J. Sulin handed over his individual images and let us create the edit and make most of the decisions, whereas Dillon DeWaters came in with a book in hand and we made some minor adjustments to the edit. Other projects were somewhere in between.
LS: What's it like working collaboratively on these projects with each other?
KS: Sometimes Joseph takes on one project and I take on another. Sometimes we work as a team with the artist. He spearheaded J.J. Sulin’s book while I was working on Pacifico Silano's book. I was more involved with Queen while he was more involved with Jeremy's book. However, we always have each other to be accountable to and that makes our individual work better.
LS: You've each published your own work through Silent Face as well. What's it like being your own publisher?
JDC: The first book we published, Dedications Calibrations, was a project of my own work. Ultimately, this is what inspired me to become a small publisher, but it's really difficult to be your own salesman. At book fairs and events, I have a much easier time touting the merits of one of our other artists. It's more embarrassing trying to convince people to buy your own book.
LS: That's not what I expected you to say, but it makes total sense. I hadn't considered the challenge of promoting your own publication as the publisher, what other unexpected challenges did you face?
KS: This is a side project; we are both working artists with families, practices, and jobs. That's an ongoing struggle. We have created this publishing company and we have a commitment to it and to each other, which means we have to work even when it is not convenient. When we are not in production, we still need to be working: promoting the books and keeping up with web sales and shipping orders.
JDC: I'm glad you said that. For me, that is the hardest part of doing this. We have created these books with artists we respect and we have a responsibility to their work. So we're constantly thinking about how to keep Silent Face alive. The biggest question for artists thinking about starting a small press is not funding, it's time because you probably won't be drawing significant paychecks.
KS: We're going slowly. We can't produce ten books a year. We have to keep it small so we can do it well and keep it going.
JDC: We describe ourselves as an artist-run collective. It's a tiny collective, though. It's Kat and I and whatever artists we're working with at the time. We have to keep it small so we can keep it going.
LS. So, in the face apart from the multitude of challenges involved in being a small publisher. What keeps you coming back?
JDC: As Kat mentioned earlier, the payoff for us is expanding our community. When I moved to New York for graduate school, I hardly knew anybody. I feel like Silent Face has allowed me to build a world to exist in as an artist. For me, publishing is a selfish act in a way because it allows me to meet so many new and interesting people that I probably never would have encountered otherwise. Especially in the dark times in which we currently find ourselves, under the new administration, it's more important than ever to find and create community. The worst thing I can imagine is working alone. Community and collaboration keep me sane and makes me realize the power of not doing things alone.
LS: Where does the name Silent Face Projects come from?
JDC: (Laughs) From the New Order song Your Silent Face on the album Power, Corruption, and Lies.