A Conversation with Joe Silveira of JMS Press
Interview: Vicky Wong | Photographer: Jefford Lam
Toronto has a long history with art on the fringes of the established networks of public institutions and commercial galleries. Not-for-profit artist-run centres developed in the 1970s to challenge the convention of selling unique artwork and to offer artists the opportunity for experimentation in their practice. The practice of artist multiples and publications flourished when Art Metropole was founded in 1974, from which numerous art publishers, print studios, zines and other small presses have and continue to develop.
JMS Press takes up the history of zine pressing and artist multiples but aims to look at it awry. Founder and sole operator Joe Silveira is a graphic designer by trade and approaches art and photography from this lens. As small-batch, small-format and digitally-printed art books, JMS Press books are affordable and easy-to-carry means of highlighting emerging local artists and projects outside of an artist’s established oeuvre. Within its first year of operations, JMS Press has published artwork by eight artists of various backgrounds. Ranging from commercial photographers Aaron Wynia and Kristie Muller, to emerging artists like Brittnay Shepherd and Sean McCalister, to established artist Joy Walker, the roster on JMS Press are given free reign to create ideas and images within a very specific formal range.
We sit down with Joe to discuss the motivations behind the press; the need for material publications in the age of digital publishing; his take on the Toronto art scene; and the distinctions between art and design.
What is JMS Press and where did the idea for the press come about?
JMS Press is a small press that produces a series of four art and photography book works once a year, along with other stand-alone art book works happening throughout the year. Object Catering is a good example of that, where it is published outside of the four. I’m also starting a new series with JMS X, which would be published in conjunction with art book and zine fairs. While I haven’t spoken to the artist that I’m thinking of for that, I want to produce something on a smaller and more affordable scale on both the production end and for sale, something that is more immediate and more accessible to an audience.
The press started off because I liked the idea of producing something tangible with various artists in Toronto whose work I like. The idea was to work with these four artists of differing backgrounds and to present them all at once. Fran Allin may have a separate following from Kristie Mueller or Joy Walker, but I want the audience to consider their work together all at the same time, even though each book stands on its own. I like the idea of allowing artists to express an idea that is formally very fixed. The book is 24-pages with a specific size. I like the idea of artists taking an accessible format and expressing a singular idea or thought and seeing something through or studying something in a way. Or maybe not. For example, Aaron [Wynia] has built a collection of photos over time so his book functions like an archive up to that point, whereas Kristie, Joy, Brittnay [Shepherd] and Sean [McCalister] were all expressing a singular concept.
I think I’m gravitating towards that approach more so than I am the archive — although I’m not against the archive, I still like the idea. The artists are free to do what they want. I think when I started the press, I thought of it more as an archive and less as an opportunity to express an idea. It was when I was working with Brittnay and Sean that I realized there was potential to do something more narrative focused or conceptual. And initially I thought I’d be working with straight up photography, but I think I want to work with different media. I chose to work with Joy and Darby Milbraith as artists who work outside of photography. I’m interested in working with someone who does sculpture or video, and take what they do as a practice and apply it to printed media. I think Brittnay and Sean are good examples of that. They work across various mediums so I feel their work is more unique in a way. It’s not from a photographer’s perspective necessarily. They are using photography as a means to express an idea but it’s just a tool. I think I want to do more of that.
So then the four books become more of a tableaux of sorts?
Yeah, in some ways too, I wanted to capture a moment of what’s happening in the city. Some of these artists are emerging – like Brittnay was in her last year of art school so I like the idea of documenting where she was at before she finished and before she started her official practice after school. And Sean used the opportunity to capture an idea that he had been working on for about a year. The book allowed the project to materialize in one way and then for him to set it aside and build on it for other things.
There were all these things that I hadn’t really thought about. It was kind of naïve in a way when I started. Coming from a book design background – or at least the books I designed – they were essentially reference works, like art or architectural books. They would be showcasing or presenting a body of work over a span of 50 years, for example. So I kept approaching the press in an archival way. After the first four, I realized that there was an opportunity to be more conceptually driven and less about archiving or presenting a document. I guess these works become archival in a way later but they’re not collecting or serving that purpose at the moment.
Many artists now have a strong Internet and Instagram presence as a means of putting out and promoting their practice. Is that where you found the artists for JMS Press?
Some of these people I had met prior in person, like Sean for example. But most of these people I got to know through Instagram or became aware of their work through Instagram. The people I have in mind for the next four, some of them I knew before Instagram, but it’s true I knew of them through the Internet. Two of them had a blog presence and uploaded their photos and whatever it was they were working on that way. That’s just not as social as on Instagram, wherein the artists and I would follow each other and there would be a connection that happens.
How did you see the opportunity to translate their works from Instagram to print?
The only persons I guess I had an idea as to what they were going to do would have been Maryanne [Cassasanta] and Aaron because they use or were using Instagram to present their photography as an ongoing process. They were sharing that process, whereas I felt like Sean and Brittnay didn’t do that so I had no clue when I approached those two. I think you can get a sense of what their aesthetic is like or where their head is at through their Instagram; it captures what they’re seeing, what they are documenting or what they’re choosing to document.
And how they frame it?
Yeah, and how to frame it. It gives you insight into what their artwork may be but I still think that there are elements of surprise there. Sean and Brittnay produced artworks that were so specific to their editions that you couldn’t anticipate from their Instagram. When I asked Brittnay, I had no clue what she was going to produce. Same with Sean actually, because I had Standard Auto Wreckers in mind when I approached him. I wanted to document that project in some way, but he said no, that he had another idea. It’s funny because that’s how it went for all of them really, except for Maryanne and Aaron, who both have very clear practices. Aaron does portraiture mostly and Maryanne uses photography heavily. Since that is what she really does, I knew there was going to be some light play and the uses of her shadow, in a minimal approach that she has. I had no clue what Brittnay was going to do, and that was sort of the fun part of it. I think they were afraid, I think they thought that based on what I would see on Instagram, that I would expect it to be exactly like that. And that’s not at all the case. If they presented images from Instagram, I would’ve been fine with that because obviously I liked their work. But I’m glad that they didn’t give me that, and that they weren’t giving it away necessarily.
How do you select whom you wanted to participate in JMS Press? What drew you to them and their work?
They were doing things that I felt was very specific and unique to them in a way. It’s harder to explain with the first four. The second four are clearer to me. I knew I wanted all women artists who don’t get recognized within the community properly. Darby works in painting and portraiture, which I feel are such a male-dominated fields, but she gets marginalized into the field of illustration. I think that there’s something classical about what Darby does but also sort of modern. There’s also something imperfect about all of their approaches that I really liked. I wanted to move away from the use of white and cleanliness. I didn’t want something as polished. I wanted something rougher and more immediate. And I thought that those four artists did that for me. Joy can do some very minimal work that has some imperfection to that. It’s not restrained. I mean it is but it’s not slick…
Do you mean that it’s not polished like a Dan Flavin?
Exactly. She likes imperfections so she works at the imperfection in her practice. I think they all do that, all of the artists.
Are you drawn to a consideration of material as well? I guess especially with Fran’s work, which is in film photography.
Yeah it’s always photo-based but I feel like she’s capturing things that most people would ignore because they’re not typically beautiful. And there is an element that isn’t digitized or polished. It’s interesting how she takes a subject matter like a punk show but frames it almost as if she was a fashion photographer. There still is an element of polish but it’s really raw. That’s what I like about all of them. The same goes for Kristie’s practice: there’s a sense of cleanliness to Kristie’s aesthetic but it’s so foreign. It’s like it’s not perfect. It’s a deliberate decision to have the lens condensed and to have fingerprints on the lens. It was deliberate that we kept that in there, whereas most people would have cleaned that up. But she didn’t want to and I didn’t want to.
Is that what’s creating all that texture in her book?
Yes, it’s condensation, fog and fingerprints and we deliberately kept all of that. And that was deliberate with Darby as well — she chose not to work with paint but charcoal because she wanted that texture. And with Joy, there are the torn edges and the dirt stains on old paper. We intentionally wanted to keep all of that raw. And there’s very little white. Fran I guess is the only one that used white in a way, but everyone else’s was full bleed. There was no framing.
Is that why you decided to print Object Catering in Risograph*, which is a totally different print process?
[Risograph is a printing process in which master sheets of the original design are used to transfer ink from the drum onto the passing paper].
Yeah I think that with risograph, we wanted to capture this idea. There was something that is unique to what Object Catering was trying to say and do, and I didn’t want it to feel slick. Although the objects are framed and photographed immaculately, they’re still found objects. I can’t speak for the artist but for me, presenting the work in a way that was not perfect was also important. I think risograph allowed for that. We’re using a lot of white as a device in laying out the book and risograph allows for that imperfections we wanted. We wanted the splotches, we wanted the plucking in, the bleeding. We could have presented them in a cleaner way but that wouldn’t have made sense to them being found objects.
What’s the printing process for the other four books?
They’re digitally printed. It’s the only way that I can afford to produce them and it also keeps the cost down so that I can sell them at an accessible price. I mean I would love to offset print them but their numbers are so small – the editions are 100. So their runs don’t justify offset printing. One day.
The historical reference that JMS Press seems to call back to then is zine culture, which is all about self-publishing and DIY culture. Do you think there’s a somewhat of a contradiction given that you are publishing agent for the artists in this situation?
Yeah there is a little bit of a contradiction and that’s intentional in a way. I’m definitely inspired and influenced by zine culture. I grew up collecting the standard photocopied and handmade zines — that’s definitely where it’s coming from. I loved the immediacy and accessibility, the fact that you’re coming at things from the outside. There is more control in that. There’s also something about that size that I found so accessible from a practical standpoint as a designer. I like the idea of presenting a printed work that is handheld.
I think the difference is that, not to say that zines aren’t considered, but I think JMS Press is more deliberate in some way. I guess I haven’t really figured it out how it fits yet, it’s still being worked on. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself or lock myself into a corner. I think the difference could be that the works are presented differently. Or perhaps it’s that this is a one-person operation and that the artist works are so unique, maybe that’s what sets it apart. I don’t exactly know what sets it apart, but zines are the core of the inspiration.
It’s also goes back to an accessibility thing: it’s really the only thing I can afford to do, so that’s why zines have always appealed to me. If someone who is 14 can do it, then why not? I like that it’s such a democratic approach to expressing an idea and sharing it in a way that is no different than someone who is producing a Thomas Ruff book. I don’t see the difference, I really don’t. The only real difference is budget and whatever prestige is attached to that artist or that publisher. I still think artists are expressing an idea or archiving or documenting a certain process or work in either format. Just because it happens to be a digital print that’s 24 pages versus a 100-page hardcover, linen-wrapped bound book, I still don’t think there’s a difference. I still think that the work and idea speaks for itself so I don’t feel limited in that way. I see someone like Kristie and her work, and it’s just as strong as a Juergen Teller’s Go-Sees book. There’s merit in both approaches.
So that begs the question that with the Internet and with digital technologies, it is very easy for people to self-publish at this point. Why do you see the need for the tangibility of print then?
I think for me, being a graphic designer, that’s what I produce. As a former book designer and a book collector, I value being able to flip through something, put it away and look at it in five years from now. Outside of the web, those ideals still stand up. Books are still important to me because they exist on their own, there is a cohesion to it. Even though you can put it away, you can always go back to it outside of a broader thing like the Internet, where it’s on someone’s Tumblr, blog and Instagram page. I like that there’s an idea that came up from outside of that and it needs to stand on its own. Tangibility gives it that weight, and I just like them as objects too. It’s hard for me to not think of a book as an object that I’m drawn to. With JMS Press, they’re self-covered and they’re small, but I still consider them as objects that are self-contained and that stand on their own.
I guess with the Internet, there’s this open-endedness of images being in conversation with all these other elements that can be reposted and takes them out of context…
Which switches the narrative when that happens. But when they’re captured in a book, I think that it remains intact.
But you’ve also put them in conversation with each other.
People can choose to see it in that way or not. I do, in a way. It’s more about the audience, and getting people to look at, say Kristie’s work, as it is on its own. That’s why it’s produced: it is a singular idea, every artist works on their book. And yet it’s almost like a show in a way where they’re individual works, but there’s something about them that may be capturing a certain point in time or an approach that I like. I feel like forcing people to see these works in the context of three other artists is sometimes interesting too. Especially with the last four, which was a lot more thought out and deliberate. I’m hoping people can see some parallels in their approaches, but I don’t try to present it in that way. I don’t articulate it to an audience like a curatorial statement. I wouldn’t want a connection that’s too rigid. I still like leaving that up to the audience to make that decision for themselves. And I do want them to stand as individual works that won’t take away from the artist’s practice.
Is that why you sell them separately and as a set?
Exactly, and it’s about documenting a specific time too. The idea of releasing four books at a time at first was much more about exposing people who were familiar with one artist’s work to other artists that they may not be aware of. Like Joy: I feel like her practice has been around a lot longer as she has been a working artist for a really long time. Put alongside someone a lot younger — like the other three much younger artists — I’m automatically exposing fans of Kristie, Darby and Fran to look at someone they may not be aware of. And now Joy’s turns out to be the best selling release. I’m glad that someone who was excited about Kristie’s book would look at Joy’s and also get excited. I hoped for that but I was a little worried that it wouldn’t happen. I like turning people on to things that they may not have otherwise been exposed to, which is really where the idea for the first four came. Now I’m thinking a bit more cohesively.
The book series is limited to the Toronto art scene right now. Are you looking to expand not only to a wider Toronto audience, but also to a more international audience?
That is the goal at some point. I’m hoping to work with other artists outside of Toronto — there are two artists from New York that I’d like to be a part of the next four — and I’d also like to promote it outside of Toronto. I think that people tend to take the artists in their own scene for granted to a degree. Maybe they have seen their work already but aren’t excited by new work, so taking it outside of the city and finding a larger audience is important to me. Print is in a weird phase wherein a lot of people are doing it, which is great! Print has become more accessible and affordable than it has been before so there’s more of it, but it’s harder to find its audience. Even in Toronto, I feel like there aren’t a lot of small publishers in the city doing this thing. Audience is such a weird thing. You kind of hope for it, but it has yet to really develop. I just focus on the work and try to get that done, and then make sure that it’s presented in a way that everyone is proud of.
I guess we’ve seen it with your intentions behind the books anyways: it’s difficult for different people in different scenes within the larger local art scene to even know of each other’s work.
It is! I don’t know how it works. I just keep doing more fairs and getting them out through there. I think it’s important that as physical objects that they’re out there. For a while I thought I needed a stronger Instagram presence but now I feel like, at the end of the day, why I do this is because I like the idea of it being something that is real, done in real life. So the more that they are out there in that way is key. The more people have the opportunity to engage with the actual books is how that will happen.
As an independent, small press, you’re publishing other people’s work. What is your goal in this process? What do you do with these artists? Do you see this as collaboration?
When it comes to their work I don’t see it as collaboration. I feel like the artworks definitely belong to the artist and I just facilitate. I mean I can collaborate if they need to, but even if at that point they are asking for an opinion or if I’m editing for them – like if they present me with a body of work and they need someone to sort of piece it together – I still think that at that point I’m still just a facilitator. It’s their work. I don’t see it as collaboration
You're giving them a lot of independence then.
Yes, I’m giving them a lot of freedom. I mean I help them with it, but more as an assistant. I don’t want to take away from their artwork; it’s theirs. I give them the freedom to do whatever they want essentially. The only parameters are the page count, and the front and back covers. Everything else is theirs to do whatever. They run it by me beforehand but I haven’t been disappointed by anything yet. I’m excited by everything that gets proposed. I often go in completely not knowing what’s going to happen and I get blown away every single time. And even when they preface it by saying “I’m not sure if you’re going to like this,” or “I don’t think this is what you have in mind,” I don’t really have anything in mind.
I think a lot about whom I select. When picking the four, it’s a lot of back and forth. I have a whole list of artists that I like and would like to work with at some point. When it comes to the four then, it’d have to click for some reason. I’ve already given it a lot of thought and it’s because I’m a huge fan of their work. The idea of them presenting something that I wouldn’t like is something I don’t worry about. I’m probably going to like it because I get caught up in the excitement of them pitching an idea. Even if they don’t have anything to show me and they just try to explain or express the idea, it’s exciting to me. It’s actually a little selfish. That’s why I don’t feel like a collaborator: they’re sharing ideas with me.
What you’re describing to me seems like you’re taking a more graphic design approach with the press in a way.
For sure, 100 percent! It’s curatorial only in that I’ve selected the artists. It goes back to being a designer, which is just who I am and what I’ve been doing for a long time. I see myself as a facilitator, making sure that I can help the artists express their ideas the way they want to be expressed and that we’re getting the right scans and that we play with how they want to represent their work. So I just feel like they’ve essentially hired me as their designer, in a very roundabout way. I mean that’s how I’ve dealt with the artists and architects I’ve worked with in the past. They’re representing their work, and sometimes it was edited and some were selected, and other times it was up to me to decide how we were going to roll out the work and present the work. I still don’t think at that point that it was even about me, I’m just responding to their work. It’s not my work.
It’s just putting form to concepts.
Exactly. I’m not a collaborator. Their work would still exist without me, may be not in that format, but they would figure out a way to still express the same idea. We just have the benefit of it being contained, but their ideas will still be expressed without JMS Press. That’s why I don’t feel like I’m a collaborator. Like Fran’s book of photos would still exist on their own. They don’t need me necessarily to express whatever it is that she’s trying to express through her photos. I’m just giving it a place by containing them.
Although you’ve published all these other artists, do you have any interest in publishing your own work? You’ve done that though with So So Tired (2013).
With that one I feel like I just trusted the publishers Colour Code. I have no confidence in my own work. I respect Colour Code and trusted them enough that, if they felt the work were worth putting a book together for, then they had something else in mind. I’m much more comfortable presenting someone else’s work. I don’t even see the images in So So Tired as artwork, that’s the weird part. To me they are not really photos; I’m not a photographer. It just started off as documents taken by a graphic designer. They were documenting colour, texture and things that people don’t really look at. I think of my work as design and I only think of myself as a graphic designer
Is it weird to display graphic design?
Yeah, I don’t think of graphic design as art. It’s really tactical. So So Tired was just a lucky break. Someone saw those photos and thought that they were worthwhile putting together as a book. I have no desire to do that for my own work. It also feels a bit indulgent for me. Other people do it and I think it’s great. There are other artists who are publishers, who publish their own work as well as other people’s work. But I don’t see myself as an artist so I don’t feel like there is anything of mine to publish.
I take portraits of the artists, but it’s more about documenting them in connection to their launch as a way for me to look back. It’s also a nice way of ending the working relationship to document the fact that I worked with these artists by photographing them at the end. They’re also promo shots, so there’s a reason behind these photos. I’m promoting these artists and there’s an element of putting a face to the work that is important to me. I feel like there’s something intimate about a portrait that I like. I use a lot of other photos that I take as a promotional vehicle. For Object Catering, I took a lot of photos of the site and used those as launch materials online. Otherwise there is no interest in publishing my own work beyond that.
Do you see a very clear distinction between art and design then?
100 percent! There is artistry to design but it’s not art. Design is about solving a problem, and more so it’s about solving a problem that isn’t personal. I’m not expressing my own idea; I’m expressing someone else’s. Even though I’ve put together these books for these artists, I’m designing these books and laying them out, that’s not art to me. Those guys may consider it art, but as a vehicle, I’m just expressing their work, I’m representing their work and I’m solving a problem; we need to put these four books together. I need to present these books that feel like a unit but that can also stand on their own. I’ve never seen graphic design as art. It’s not personal: I’m always doing that for someone else, solving someone else’s problem.
Is it more of a formal practice rather than a conceptual one?
Yes, but it’s not like there can’t be something conceptual attached to design. Just not in the way that I approach it, which is much more tactical. There are designers that are much more talented and maybe for them it’s more conceptual, but not for me. Not to underestimate design — I like typography and I think that typography is important. There are type covers for a reason. Everything is thought out and deliberate, but it’s not art.
What plans do you have for JMS Press in the future? Are you staying within book works?
Yes I plan on staying in books works. There were some ideas to do things outside of that and there’s always the idea of playing with things that are overlooked or ignored. I just don’t know what that is yet. I think for a long time it’ll be book works. It’d be great to do larger format books or offset printed books, but I still like the idea of keeping it simple. Regardless of what form or shape these books take, they will always be accessible. I don’t know if I’ll get into hardcover books, but I mean I’d love to.
I think playing with photocopies with JMS X is exciting to me right now and I’d like to take that further. I feel like people are tired of zines, and there’s something dismissive about it. I even feel with JMS where people don’t take it seriously because of its size and its format. Since they are not conventional hardcover books, they’re not considered as precious and so people dismiss it a lot more. Everyone is also producing zines so everyone dismisses in that regard. I like the idea of JMS X as going back to its roots as a big fuck off.
It’s only been a year and as we’re moving into the second year, I just look forward to keep going. I don’t think too far ahead or else I get too overwhelmed. I even get overwhelmed just thinking about the stuff I have to do. To be fair I don’t think about the future in that way. I mean, I have ideas and plans that I’d like to do but I’ve also thought about the idea of JMS not lasting a long time, of it operating for a few years and then being over. I’m not against that idea and I’d still be happy with the work. I think the work will be strong and there’s still something that has been documented that I’m proud of. So I don’t know of its future and I’m not hung up on it. There are lots of other things to do but I do enjoy this. I’d like to get to a point where there is a larger audience, and producing work for a larger audience excites me. The idea of presenting someone like Fran and her practice to a larger audience really excites me. Someone who isn’t super well known — even in a small way in Toronto — because she hasn’t taken photos as regularly as she used to.
And with punk show and band photos, the photographers generally tend to be anonymous in magazine or the weeklies.
Yeah, it’d be nice to attach a face to that, like a definite personality as an artist. I don’t know if Fran considers herself as an artist. I know I do, but I’m not sure if she does. I still like treating her work in the same way. That’s what this press is about. Most of the people that I’ve worked with aren’t trained artists so I like working outside of that world. The art world doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t feel a connection to the art world in any way, so I don’t want to pander to it either.
It seems to me that JMS Press operates on the fringe then.
There are drawbacks to that. When you’re on the fringe, you have a smaller audience who are invested or care. But I feel like this is an opportunity to tap into an audience that isn’t an art audience. Not to dismiss them but I’m not necessarily attracted to that world or that audience. They are used to very specific things and I want to produce works that aren’t that specific. Even with the book works, I feel like I’m not taken as seriously because I’m not a gallery. At first that annoyed me but now I like that status. I don’t think I want to be a part of that world if it becomes that way. I want to work with artists but I don’t want to think about it or present it in that way, in a gallery or in the system. I just don’t care about that.
What do you see as the limitations of that system?
I think it’s the audience. I mean obviously I’m part of that audience but it’s limiting in a way. They’re just used to seeing the same things and I don’t want to produce the same things. I want a combination of art and non-art audience.
Do you think that might be a limitation of how the art system is structured in Toronto, in that the commercial galleries have such dominating presence?
I think so, and I think people confuse the idea that the gallery system and having gallery representation are the only ways to legitimize artwork. I like this idea of outsider art, or people who work outside of that system, or who don’t have MFAs or go to art school. I want to work with people who don’t necessarily come from that [established art] world. I think when you come from that world, you expect other artists to come from that world too. You want to consume art that is produced from that world. I don’t want to produce art in that world. Many of the artists I work with don’t have that fine art background, like Kristie or Sean. Maryanne and Brittnay are the only two. And Joy came from textile though, so she didn’t necessarily come from a fine art background. I respond to the work regardless, and if that comes from a gallery system that’s fine. But chances are it doesn’t.
I think this calls back to graphic design as having a distinct focus from fine art in that it’s seeing opportunities and potentialities in the way things are communicated and presented.
The way I approach everything is that I always think about the audience. I always think about the end user and how are they going to engage with this. It’s the designer in me! It’s not really about the art because I think it stands on its own and people will engage with that however they want to. But it’s my responsibility to present the work, and I think about that all the time. There’s less ambiguity in that. I want people to understand who this artist is. Like producing book works, it needs to be organized. I don’t want to get in the way of the artwork, so all of that has to be thought out.