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Stolon Press: Publishing as a Collective Practice

As mainstream book publishing becomes increasingly dominated by past sales, and algorithmically generated tastes, Australia’s thriving ecosystem of small art presses take on the work of bringing new ideas, materials and forms to light. Working in small studios, and printing their small runs on home printers or photocopiers, they transform publishing into an experimental practice.

Stolon Press is a small art press established in 2019 by Tom Melick and Simryn Gill. Melick is a writer, and Gill is best known as an artist – although both work in the fertile space between image and text. 

A stolon is a figure for just such an in-between space.  It describes a stem found on some types of plant, like a strawberry or currant bush, that runs horizontally outwards, touching ground at points along the way to sow roots of new satellite plants. The goal of the Press, as stated on its crisply designed website (courtesy of Robert Milne), is to similarly work “close to the ground,” feeling out neglected spots in the field of knowledge where they might seed new living ideas. They aim to publish images and texts that “might easily fall through cracks or remain in boxes and bottom drawers.”

It is ironic, then, that the collaboration that brought Melick and Gill together remains unpublished, tucked away in a slim archive box on a shelf in the Press’s Lewisham studio. The idea was to republish an essay that Melick had originally written to accompany Gill’s exhibition Passing Through, held at Utopia Art Sydney in 2019 – a characteristically beautiful showing of photographs and relief prints from an abandoned seaside motel in Gill’s hometown. In response to these ruins, Melick argued for the importance of ecosystems – everyday spaces where practices of reading, conversing, and writing can take place, and thus where images and texts can become part of our lives. As one such space Melick cites the kitchen table – over which he had first learned to read, and around which the artist and writer now met to share ideas.

Melick and Gill spent around a year at that kitchen table, working on the book, yet ultimately were unable to find a form that satisfied them. Nonetheless, the project established many of the concerns that would come to sustain the Press – an interest in humble sites of communion, the fusion of word and image, and, above all, the palpable intellectual delight that Gill and Melick take in working together. 

Since this inauspicious start, Stolon Press has published nine texts, sliding easily between the forms of the artist book, the pamphlet, the poetry collection, and the picture book. All their texts are produced (with input from artist Eugene Choi and designer Ruud Ruttens) on a set of two aged photocopiers, which crouch in the Press’s tiny studio space like a pair of mechanical lungs. 

The rationale for using such machines is sketched out in the Press’s first two publications, which also function as their unofficial manifestos. In A Machine, A Manual, 2020, Gill tells the story of the acquisition of Stolon’s first photocopier (a Ricoh) – a quest that took her (and her assistant Marcus) from Facebook Marketplace to Katoomba to buy the machine, and from Yagoona to Lahore to repair it. Such efforts confirm, for Gill, that this once-ubiquitous machine has now become a scarce, artisanal tool, one which she prizes for its beautiful inky, black-and-white images. To prove this point, the book opens with a suite of twenty images of eucalyptus leaves – each one a delicate tracery of veins, tears and imperfections.

Silver Street, 2020, begins in a similar way, with sixteen photocopies of Magnolia petals, picked up from the eponymous street in Marrickville. In his short accompanying text, Melick draws our attention to visual experiences, like the glisten of a petal on a branch, that seem to come before words or knowledge. The photocopied book reproduces the petals as tokens of such moments, and in the process creates tokens of its own – random lines and spectral stains produced by the unconscious of the machine itself. 

When asked what sort of authors they publish at Stolon Press, both Melick and Gill are quick to answer: “Our friends.” Some of these are figures from Gill’s long artistic practice, while others were published previously in Melick’s other writing project, the online pamphlet series Slug. In addition to their own works, Gill and Melick have put out two artist books by Khaled Sabsabi, a “pocket book” of essays by Aveek Sen, and a collection of poetry by Judy Annear. “Friendship,” for Melick and Gill, has quite a specific meaning – like the stolon, or the kitchen table, it stands for a structure or space in which new images, words, and ideas can emerge, circulate, and propose new ways of being in the world.

Indeed, an ethic of friendship underpins a number of publishing endeavours that have recently emerged in Sydney. Rosa Press, run since 2020 by Melick’s close friends Astrid Lorange and Andrew Brooks (a.k.a. Snack Syndicate), is a press dedicated to “communism and its poetics.” Their communism, with a lower-case “c,” is one of intimate readings and reading groups, shared meals, and, of course, snacks.   

Another Sydney-based publishing venture that emerged in 2020 is Pebble, a “visual poetry mail out” curated by Mitch Cairns and Mitchel Cumming.  The publication – two issues so far – has brought together a group of artists like Brian Fuata, Zoë Robertson, and Barbara Campbell, who have long worked at the seam between text and image. Like Rosa Press, it is fuelled by a spirit of comradeship and generosity, distributed for free by the editors themselves. 

***

It would be easy to read the florescence of small art presses in Sydney as a response to the cultural austerities of the Covid pandemic – an attempt to find a new outlet for creative expression in the face of cancelled gatherings and closed galleries.

This is true to an extent. However, it can also be understood against the much longer history of the Australian publishing industry, and the lumbering movements of what we might call the “big press.” 

Over the past thirty years, the Australian publishing industry has become one of the world’s most concentrated, with ownership held by a handful of transnational companies. This is true not only of newspapers, but also of mainstream book publishing. These companies have succeeded by shaping publishing into a production line of predictable and manageable processes – commissioning, designing, printing, distributing, and selling.

Over this same period, however, the emergence of new digital technologies has destabilised each stage of this industrial model of publishing. The digital revolution has led to new modes of producing and consuming books (digital printing, the Internet, e-books), as well as new types of distribution and sale (print on demand, Amazon, Book Depository). At the same time, the twenty-four-seven digital surveillance of our buying and reading habits by social media and services like Nielsen BookScan (a service which tracks book sales) allows publishers to ever more effectively identify and manipulate consumer desires. In such a climate, the energies of contemporary publishers and sellers like Amazon are increasingly focused not on new authors or ideas, but instead on identifying ways of consuming information that can be stabilised and commodified.  

As the mainstream Australian publishing industry has begun to vacate the place of new authors and ideas, small presses have stepped in. Emmett Stinson, an expert on the Australian publishing industry, has gone so far as to say that small publishers are now the “primary mediators” of Australian literature. This much is surely also true of publishing on visual art, where the vast majority of publishing sits outside the mainstream – at outfits like the Power Institute (where I work), Perimeter Editions, and the plethora of small presses like Stolon and others. (One could also mention Negative Press, 3-ply, No More Poetry, Discipline, Memo Review and Ruin Press, to name but a few.)

Unlike the “big press,” these small publishers don’t seek to reinforce stable modes of consuming information, but rather to trouble them—to challenge familiar ways of reading or seeing, and to build new visual and linguistic vocabularies, as well as communities that can speak them.

***

The limited-run, hard-copy publications produced by art presses like Stolon, then, are not just yells of rebellion against digital technology, nor are they a nostalgic return to a past, more artisanal way of book-making. As Gill and Melick point out, neither is their embrace of the decidedly outmoded technology of the photocopier. They are not interested in replicating the administrative aesthetic of the 1960s office document, nor the punk aesthetic of the 1990s ’zine.

The binary of analogue and digital tends to obscure the more nuanced history of image technologies, ones which Stolon Press seeks to recover. As Melick and Gill well know, the photocopier is a Cold War technology. (The link between the photocopier and another light machine, the nuclear bomb, are hinted at in the Press’s most recent publication,  A Sentence of the Sun, 2022, by Melick and William Eric Brown.) First disseminated in the United States in the 1960s, the photocopier was designed to speed up the replication of documents, a key technique of modern bureaucratic power.

Indeed, the US scholar Lisa Gitelman has pointed out that the photocopier’s unique ability is to turn everything into a document. It can do this not just to books, but also artworks, faces, and leaves. Yet although designed to be a tool of big state and corporate interests, the size and accessibility of photocopiers allowed them – like portable video or the computer – to be co-opted by artists and media activists for their own purposes. Photocopiers stripped the ruling apparatus of its monopoly over document reproduction, empowering individuals to create their own documents, and to arrange them into their own files, collections, and libraries. 

Stolon Press’s photocopied output seizes on this revolutionary potential. (One could also make a similar argument about Pebble’s use of the humble home printer.) While the “big press” seeks to harness the digital to reduce all ideas to exchangeable information, the Press allows the photocopier to discover entirely new types of knowledge, or non-knowledge – inky lines, stains and blemishes pointing to that which precedes familiar forms, and that which can be found in their ruins.  

Melick has written about such a project many times, and it has long underpinned Gill’s artistic work. In the dialogue between an artist, a writer and a machine, Stolon Press seeks to turn this into a collective practice. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022.
Images courtesy the artists, Rosa Press, Sydney, and Stolon Press, Sydney.

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