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Akademia Cartonera: A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers (2009)

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“Only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.”

George Bernard Shaw

“…to make an insignia and flee from the habit, that is the key to the cartonera pleasure.”

Jaime Vargas Luna

According to Greek myth, when Helen was captured by Theseus there was a hero named Akademos who aided in her rescue by revealing the place where she was imprisoned. By way of reward he received a mansion and an olive grove on the outskirts of Athens. After his death this space was made public, which, over time, came to be known as the Gardens of Akademos. This was the place where Plato met with his disciples and the reason this group was called the Akademeia. Centuries later, in the Renaissance the term “academy” was used to name the space that fostered contact and the exchange of ideas between various intellectual disciplines. This academy, with its promotion of humanism, emerges as a counterpoint to the rigid sphere of the medieval university. It was vital for the arrival of modernity that would later usher in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Just as Helen never could have imagined that she would be tangentially linked to a movement that questioned and changed the limits of medieval thought, Eloísa (the beautiful Bolivian woman who inspired the name of the first cartonera publishing house) never imagined that her name would be tied to a movement that is questioning the publishing process within the neoliberal economic system. This questioning is carried out by establishing a new method of book production that attempts to democratize literature.

This book, Akademia Cartonera:  A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers, is the anticipated result of the conference entitled “Cartonera Publishers: Recycling Latin American Bookscapes” which will be held on the 8th and 9th of October at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The aim of this book is to document the practices that these presses are setting in the cultural, publishing and literary realms. This book is the fruit of a collective labor not only on the part of the people who contributed the nineteen texts included here, but also the volunteers who helped translate and edit the manuscript. Its title follows the unifying tradition of the cartonera publishing houses by using, so to speak, the surname Cartonera. The name “Akademia,” beyond referring to the entity that is publishing it, encourages dialogue and the exchange of ideas inside and outside the university setting.

Eight manifestos written by cartonera publishing houses, a recounting of one of the founding members of one of these publishing houses, an introduction, nine academic essays, an inventory of cartonera titles, a bibliography and various images are the elements that make up this book, whose objective is to be a snapshot of a moment in the existence of these publishers. There are no claims to defining, describing or pigeonholing them. Each one is unique and cannot be substituted by another.

If in 2006 someone had asked me about my opinion of the cartonera publishing houses, I wouldn't have had much to say. This is because out of the four that were in existence that year, I, like much of the international readership, was only aware of one, Eloísa Cartonera. I found out about Eloísa on a trip to Buenos Aires to attend the International Book Fair to buy books for Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin. Three years and a lot of cardboard later, this library now has on its shelves a little over 360 volumes of cartonera books from different Latin American countries.

The Shaw epigraph at the beginning of this prologue emphasizes the role of language for interpreting what others might consider to be a muddled series of experiences lacking all rhyme or reason. In the case of the cartonera publishing houses, it is not just language that helps them mold the complexity of culture, society and contemporary Latin American literatures. It is also, quite literally, achieved by means of the paper and cardboard they utilize. Thanks to the way they are using paper and recycled cardboard, they are concretizing global ideas, such as recycling, at the same time that they are promoting readership and the love of literature, freedom of expression, and the simple pleasure of existing without following any established norms.

Akademia Cartonera begins with an introduction by Ksenija Bilbija that explores the origins and evolution of each of the eight cartonera publishers that have participated in this book. The next article by visual artist Javier Barilaro retells the beginnings of some of these publishers, particularly those with which he was related, be it directly or indirectly.

The following eight texts are the main protagonists of this collective piece since they contain the manifestos that each of the cartonera publishers wrote as well as the cover page they designed for their respective sections. They each have their own personality and sketch out the philosophy behind the project. We invited each cartonera publisher to collaborate in the creation of this book with a manifesto and images from their archives. Each was given the freedom to interpret the term “manifesto” as they wished. The result has been a collage of ideas and proposals that together provide the reader a clearer idea of the raison d'être of each publisher as well their playful and contestatory character. Although none of them share the same voice, their pleasure and passion for their work shines through all the manifestos.

Along with the manifestos and images, there are nine original academic essays that study the nature, evolution and contributions of the different cartonera publishers in areas such as the visual arts, literary creation and production, sociology, the publishing world, education and authorial rights. These offer a collective and multidisciplinary perspective of these revolutionary publishers, however they represent only a snapshot of the current state of the research being conducted on cartonera publishers. The nine contributors to this second section of the book are academic researchers and independent writers living in the U.S., Argentina, Peru and Brazil.

In the first chapter of the digital part of this work, Ksenija Bilbija expands upon ideas sketched out in her introduction and explains with great detail the origin and evolution of the first eight cartonera publishers within the context of book production in a neoliberal economy.

In the second article, Johana Kunin contributes a report through a series of interviews that she carried out in recent months with various cartonera publishers. For her, the cartonera publishers have expanded with no established structure in a manner similar to that of the oral tradition, that is, by word of mouth, changing according to the interpretation that the receiver attributes to them within his or her own circumstances.

Craig Epplin lays out the conceptual forebearers of independent publishers such as Eloísa Cartonera in Argentina, and traces Eloísa's genealogy to writers such as César Aira and Oswaldo Lamborghini whose motto “first publish, then write” would be seemingly prophetic of current literary culture.

Djurdja Trajković dedicates her article to the analysis of the aesthetic principles of Eloísa Cartonera and the application of these principles in their publications. Her essay sheds light on the themes and aesthetics that each writer employs, with the objective of finding literary tendencies and influences shared by all of them.

Lauren Pagel studies the way in which the “personality” of a book can be interpreted by means of the parts that comprise the books published by Sarita Cartonera. Likewise, Pagel analyzes the way in which the book-object has been seen in the history of the book in general.

The essay by Jaime Vargas Luna imagines the future course of the cartonera publishers by reviewing the space that they currently occupy within the sphere of independent publishing in Latin America. Vargas Luna further analyzes the cartonera publishers within the context of cultural consumption, bibliodiversity and global citizenship.

In her chapter, Doris Sommer explains the pedagogical application and results of the workshops on literary appreciation that the program Cultural Agents Initiative has offered at Harvard. To date, the program has offered workshops in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Uganda. These workshops are based on the methodology of the project entitled Books: A Model to Be Built (Libros, un modelo para armar, or LUMPA) created by Sarita Cartonera.

Jane Griffin's article analyzes the similarities and differences between Animita Cartonera and the underground publishers that appeared during the military dictatorship in Chile. Additionally, she studies the place that this publisher holds in post-dictatorial Chilean culture and its role with regards to the new democratic government.

The essay by Livia Azevedo Lima explains how the characteristics of Brazilian art produced in the sixties and seventies persist in the proposals of groups such as Dulcinéia Catadora and the way in which this group adopts the theory of relational aesthetics in Nicolas Borriaud as a mainstay for their project. In addition to this theory, Azevedo Lima also bases her study on the concepts of Ferreira Guillar's popular culture and Néstor García Canclini's hybrid cultures.

At this time the cartonera publishers are cropping up with increasing frequency throughout Latin America. Just over a year ago there were about eight, a few months ago there were fifteen, a few short weeks ago there were over twenty. Where will this multiplication lead? How will they develop? It is too early to answer these questions. I only hope that words of Roberto Cáceres, upon explaining the name of the Yerba Mala Cartonera in an interview with Silvina Friera, will be prophetic for all of them:

Weeds [la yerba mala] grow anywhere, especially where you least want them to, and there is always a desire to uproot them because they are bothersome. […] You get rid of them and they start to grow again. […] It's a kind of obstinacy to survive.[1]



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