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

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And There Is Much More…

Eloísa Cartonera was born out of conversations between myself and Washington Cucurto in January 2003, during the endless journey home –which lasted twice as long as it should have because of technical difficulties– to Buenos Aires from Santiago, Chile, where we had traveled to sell books of poetry by Ediciones Eloísa, Eloísa's precursor.

Even before we spoke during this trip, we had created a project called Arte de tapa. One evening Cucurto called me at home, introduced himself, and asked me to help him design five booklets of poetry. The following day those five books became ten, and then ten became thirty, but we ultimately finished with sixteen. The work consisted of printing books of poetry, plaquettes, in the same style as the proto-books for editions made by Belleza y felicidad: a sheet of legal paper was folded into fourths, and then stapled in the middle. We left the covers blank except for the titles and the authors' names, and then we delivered these to artists, friends, and acquaintances that wanted to illustrate the covers. Each time there were more writers and illustrators who wanted to participate. We printed the booklets on a copy machine in the Biblioteca Evaristo Carriego, where Cucurto worked. Then Cucurto's bosses presented our project to the Dirección del Libro, and the government, facing the possibility of being able to capitalize politically, paid for an offset impression. Forty-four hundred originals were produced, consisting of three hundred copies of each of the sixteen titles, and there was also an exhibit at The Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MALBA).

Over the course of this project we realized that we worked well together and we wanted to continue to publish, however, we wanted to finish this project and move on to something else. As soon as we were done, we created Ediciones Eloísa. We printed copies in the library and made booklets of poetry written by Latin American writers whom Cucurto knew or who had been contacted via e-mail. Those were lovely, very colorful books. I began to use the cumbia aesthetic and we presented the authors like celebrities on the covers. We laughed like hyenas creating those covers! But it was just another publishing company and, unfortunately, poets are the only ones who are interested in poetry.

We needed to find another artistic route for things to happen with our books and literature which was our thing. What was this next step toward something more? I will continue to define it in this text, but the word “popular” was always mentioned in our endless post-work conversations. We needed something energetic, something artistic and fresh, something simple yet polifocal. The search for funding seemed too boring to us, and academia was not our natural scene as neither of us went to university. In order to publish without money, we had no choice but to print and sell-sell-sell. The printing had to be cheap, and the books needed to be sold quickly. We needed a mountain of books at our side, from the least artistic to the most boring.

 This went on until a book of poetry by Juan Gelman sparked Cucurto's revelation, not because he was reading it (Gelman is not his favorite poet) but because of something as superficial as its cover: it was made from corrugated cardboard. This was how it occurred to him to make books with cardboard covers. We could buy cardboard from cardboard collectors (cartoneros), make handcrafted books with the cartoneros, and make thousands into millions very cheaply. While Cucurto was telling me all of this on our journey home from Santiago, I was counting numbers and considering technical possibilities, reducing prices and making sure that Cucurto wouldn't ruin the idea with his insistence on thriftiness.

And so it was that in March 2003, the first cartonera books came to be: they were sheets of A4 paper folded in half, fastened together with staples, and glued to the cardboard cover. The covers were then painted with paintbrushes and stencils that were also made with the cardboard that we bought from a cartonero we met while walking down the street one day. We bought the cardboard from him with a few pesos from the Mexican poet, Hernán Bravo, who just happened to be with us. We tried to use the stencils with some spray-paint, but this technique lost much of the charm. With the brushes we could be more impulsive with color, spend less, and add some personality. The paintbrush also helped me control the covers' designs…until the gradual relinquishing of control and ultimate loss of ego that turned out to be the principle spiritual lesson that Eloísa would teach me.

The two of us painted the first books. I designed the cover on a computer. From the beginning, they had big, full letters that I copied onto a piece of cardboard that would become the stencil. Once we had made about ten books we went to Martin Gambarotta's house for a meeting with some poet friends and sold all of the books. Everybody liked the idea and from there it when on and on.

We invited Fernanda Laguna to join this emerging publishing house. She was creating the publications for the art gallery, Belleza y felicidad, and I was helping her design them, however, she was very busy with her work so we continued to create the scene by ourselves. Every time there was a literary event, an art show, a fair or whatever, we would paint some covers, photocopy previous ones, load up our bags, and go sell.

The greatest thing to happen to the project was Fernanda's decision to join. In June, she was selling various works at the festival for art galleries in Buenos Aires, ArteBA, when it occurred to her to start up another gallery that was more underground than Belleza (and if you were to see photos you would realize that Belleza y felicidad wasn't exactly above board. With this gallery there could be exhibitions of work done by renowned artists and by artists from the streets and villages who were marginalized or eccentric, but talented. She asked for our help and told us we could make our books there. Cucurto proposed adding a vegetable stand. This was how we opened No hay cuchillo sin rosas, and how Eloísa began. With a physical space and a bit of capital from Fer[nanda], we could finally do what we had wanted since the beginning, invite cartoneros to come and make books with us.

The vegetable-art gallery-workshop where we made the books –each with a unique cover– was well received by the local art scene. Texts written by authors like César Aira and Ricardo Piglia began to arrive, and the things that we'd hoped for were beginning to happen. The books sold well from the start, although making money was difficult enough and we didn't call David until we had sold enough books. Cucurto required us to sell the books so inexpensively that Fer had to subsidize until we were able to convince him to change. In raising the price by a single peso we reached economic independence in three or four months. The number of members started to increase; David brought in his brothers Daniel and Alberto, their friend Gastón Trotta also came along, even Augusto, the corner drunk, signed up.

After the first harvest sale, we gave up the idea of the vegetable business because it was enough work just to make and sell books. The first exhibits went well but our book workshop was beginning to eat up space and Fer was exhausting herself with the hustle and bustle, so much so that she left after a year. Before all of this, we entered the 2004 ArteBA. There was a competition to win exhibition space designed for artistic group projects and so we entered. This was sort of our way to gain a sense of the art world. We set up a stand with some of my works that had been exhibited in No hay cuchillo, along with a few pieces by other artists, and then we filled the stand with books and eventually sold a ton. El Fantasma came and started to play live cumbia. The party was massive and we won first prize.

Eloísa has always been an artistic project for me and not just a publishing company or a social project although yes, obviously, it includes those elements. Over the course of that year we had to give so many interviews, write several texts, communicate, and more.

As we debated over the infinite number of things falling into our hands, the project continued to advance for several reasons. Eloísa's catalogue combined the work of young authors with modern classics from other Latin American countries. There were many short texts, mostly short stories and a few poetry titles. With a few specific and clear parameters, our labor system strived for creative freedom and to be a process that anyone could participate in regardless of their previous formation. It was meant to be a process where people could free themselves, and the results of this practice are books with unique covers, considered by some to be collector's items. The price of the books was set as low as possible to encourage circulation. In our minds,  distribution neither  aligned us nor isolated us from the public, and it was done without mediators. We often changed the way that we divided and shared what we earned. We started at a fixed hourly rate, but when our sales increased it became a cooperative effort. Similarly, the term used to identify the project's members was also a matter of debate; we were artists, writers, and cartoneros at first but then we realized that those who assembled the books stopped being cartoneros once they entered into the project. We called them “book workers,” and one newspaper article referred to them as “cartonero artists.” I have been a visual artist from the beginning and I was often asked, “and what do you do as an artist for Eloísa?  Do you paint the covers?” I believe that the whole project is art, and when I say that a small part of it is my work, I mean that it is not just mine but everyone's. It is the artwork of all of the people who have collaborated. Once I would say that I'd created the work method, or that I was designing the books but to me, this has always been a work of “social sculpture”. The German artist Joseph Beuys invented the concept of social sculpture, which articulates society as a living sculpture that you can mold as if it were made out of clay, in order to make it more beautiful. So, in my opinion, those who have created Eloísa are co-creators, but in Cucurto's Peronist terminology they have always been workers.

 One of the first shocking moments occurred when a television crew from Channel 13 came to do a report for their news broadcast. Ugh. They wanted to film us buying cardboard from a cartonero. What could we do? How could we not look like posing idiots and how could we avoid the awful moment of feeling like characters instead of people? I was very upset by this experience, but I got through it. We asked the journalists to at least purchase a few books in order to justify the display: but what did they do? They ended up giving money to the cartoneros who had participated in the filming. It's not easy to be understood by those who are “well versed” in communication. This story ran for a few days until Cacho del Chaco, a poor rural migrant from the Northeast, came to visit us. He couldn't read or write and had come from his province because he was starving to death. He had seen us on television. He asked us to give him work and said that we were the only ones who could help him. I couldn't sleep that night because of the responsibility weighing on our shoulders.

 These kinds of situations taught me never to use the verb to help when referring to Eloísa or any other “social” project because the proper verb is to share. I don't know what the word “social” means, so I replace it with “artistic.” To describe Eloísa Cartonera in writing mutilates it a bit because everything about it is living. When people have asked me for images that show off Eloísa, they have said, “why don't you just send me book covers,” or, “send me photos of people working.” Instead, I send them strange photos that are collages or creations. I have archived these within a collection that I titled in English, The difficulties of showing how Eloísa Cartonera is serious. Whoever wants photos of Eloísa Cartonera at work can come and visit, buy books, and take all the photos they like.

Eloísa's books are never given away for free. In Argentina they cost five pesos, in the US five dollars, and in Europe five euros. Bookstores have to purchase them at the same price; afterwards they can do whatever they like with them. If an unknown writer insists on being published, we let him participate (collaborators aren't necessary, participants are) by purchasing the paper or the ink, assisting in the printing process, and giving the process life. The writers that Eloísa publishes authorize the editions and continue to be the owners of their texts.

 In 2006 we were invited to participate in the São Paulo Art Biennial, one of the most important art exhibits in the world. Of course, this generated debate among us because we had to create an “exhibition” of a living project, and it was during this time that I came across the notion of social sculpture. I suggested that we go to make and sell books, work daily while at the biennial fair, publish translations of Brazilian authors from Portuguese, and work with local cartoneros with the hope that once the exhibition was over, participants would then form another autonomous cartonera, like Sarita Cartonera in Lima, Peru and Yerba Mala in El Alto, Bolivia. Then Lúcia Rosa, an artist from São Paulo, wrote to me to request some books for an exhibit she was preparing. She had just finished working on a project with some cartoneros. I told her about the fair and I invited her to join us. She was delighted and invested a ton of energy right from the beginning. Eloísa has always had this; it requires a lot of energy to keep it moving forward, but this in turn generates an enormous, contagious energy that affects others so that they too become involved. Via e-mail we went about organizing and making arrangements with her and the Art Biennial's organizers. They supported us immensely even though it seemed like a dream to them to have a working publishing house at the fair. Of course, we had a lot of fun with the space that they gave us. We painted the walls and filled up a section with a cardboard jungle. We invited anyone who wanted to make a plant or an animal to cut it out of the cardboard and then paint it. Everything turned into an extremely fun chaos. On another wall I collected bits and pieces of cardboard with logos, figures, countries of origin, a Saturn, a tiger, and an “always you” slogan from who knows where. With six pieces of cardboard I assembled an enormous book that was one and a half meters tall by one meter wide, and upon which Peterson, one of the Brazilians, skillfully painted a few monkeys. Every day that she was there Lúcia added something new to the jungle and she made some brilliant palm trees. Cristian de Nápoli put himself in charge of finding Brazilian writers and people to translate several texts by Douglas Diegues, who later came to visit us and ultimately created Yiyi Jambo. Ramona, who had been with me from the start, was there too. Ricardo and Mariana brought along a giant folding screen with a scene of a family at the beach that she had painted and then had cut out the heads so that people could stick their own heads in and be photographed. This was a complete success and everyone came by to have a picture taken. This group of Brazilians, Lúcia, Peterson, and Andreia went on to form Dulcinéia Catadora.

Many curators dropped by and left their cards, inviting us to other showings, and it was during this time that the travels began. All of this is a topic to reflect upon. North American academia began to be interested in us and we found out through the Internet that one university in Utah, or who knows where, had organized an exhibit about us. With each invitation a series of negotiations and debates would begin. They were debates about what was best for Eloísa, and about how to allow the project to grow without being distorted. The negotiations were with the organizers to make sure that we ourselves wouldn't become part of the exhibit, like objects to be displayed or shown off. Opinions amongst us weren't necessarily the same. As an artist I want to constantly be creating something new and distinct, and that is why I would rather call us co-creators as opposed to workers. I prefer to continue calling Eloísa a project, even though it is now something concrete.

Before the trip to São Paulo, María Gómez had joined Eloísa. She arrived as a student of communications and she stayed. She has high energy and a strong inclination for work that she demonstrated from the beginning. María has applied her specific knowledge to Eloísa with great dedication. Her persistence achieved something very important; Eloísa became a cooperative. This eliminated the division between the unpaid artists and writers, and the workers who earned an hourly wage, which obviously translated into a boss-employee scheme, although a distorted one in this case, since we were “bosses” due to symbolic value and not because of money. In time, the cooperative eliminated stress on individual names and instead focused on the entire group so that we all did the work. But they can't touch an artist's individuality! Sometimes it is hard to know whether an opinion is the result of creative freedom or merely ego. An art critic told me that I'd never be able to repress my expressiveness because of my growing existential anguish.

After I returned from São Paulo in 2007 (I stayed a month after the Art Biennial and created a mural for the recently formed Dulcinéia Catadora), I stopped working with Eloísa. The new workshop that is now located in La Boca neighborhood is far from where I live. I am no longer indispensable. María has learned how to layout the texts and I have less time to work with them. If you were to ask me I would say that I'm no longer a part but I don't necessarily feel this way. I don't believe that I will ever stop being a part of Eloísa, even though I don't belong to the cooperative. I can't stop loving the project and I can't keep from wanting it to grow. If I could contribute by selling books, I would do it. If they were invited to an event and wanted me to join, I would contribute to the debate and collaborate, but for the time being, I no longer participate as they do.

I cannot finish this text without commenting on something that my work with Eloísa brought me to understand, long before I'd ever read it in a philosophy book. A project of any kind, at any time, and in whatever place must be designed in situ. And in Argentina, specifically in Buenos Aires, there are many writers and many cartoneros, but there are no institutions that subsidize art or social projects. The cartonera books are more appropriate than conventional books: cartonera books are Latin American. Conventional books are for capitalist societies. Latin America is only partially capitalist, as capitalism is just one of its desired political ideologies. It seems to me that formats that function in the developed world do not necessarily function here. An idea as simple as this is always left aside by those who direct political fates in this part of the world.

There is much more to tell and think about, so visit Eloísa, visit Sarita, Yerba Mala, Dulcinéia, Yiyi Jambo, Felícita, Santa Muerte, Animita and future cartonera publishing houses, but never, never stop buying and enjoying books.  

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