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Akademia Cartonera: Academic Articles, Cartonera Publications Catalog and Bibliography /Artículos académicos, Catálogo de publicaciones cartoneras y Bibliografía available in original text on CD (2009)

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Uncovering the Body of the Book: Some Histories of
Cartonera Productions

“En el arte no puedes amar a nadie.
Solo en la vida real amas a alguien.”

Ulises Carrión

“Pero a veces la poesía debe llegar más lejos que el amor
y más lejos que todo
Y romper cosas.”

Montserrat Álvarez

In 1982 historian Robert Darnton created a diagram for what he identifies as the communications circuit,[1] which offers fellow book historians a model for the course of a book’s lifespan and the various groups of people involved with the book: authors, publishers, booksellers, readers, binders, printers, shippers, suppliers, libraries, purchasers, among others, who are influenced by intellectual, economic, political, social, cultural, and public stimuli. Ten years later in 1993, Thomas R. Adams and Nicholas Barker proposed an alternative model to Darnton’s communications circuit along with a new diagram identified as the whole socio-economic conjuncture.[2] Darnton responded in 2007 with, “What is the History of the Book?  Revisited,”[3] where he succinctly identifies the conflict between his model and the one proposed by Adams and Barker:

In place of the six stages in my diagram, Adams and Baker distinguish five “events”: publication, manufacture, distribution, reception, and survival. By doing so, they shift attention from the people who made, distributed, and read books to the book itself and the processes through which it passed at different stages of its life cycle. They see my emphasis on people as a symptom of my general approach, one that derives from social history rather than from bibliography and is aimed at the history of communication instead of the history of libraries, where books often find their ultimate resting place.[4]

Together these models illustrate two common concerns: how do people relate to the book object?  And how should people in relation to the book object fit within book history?  This concern pertains not only to the realm of the book historian but also to discourse about visual culture in general as theorist W.J.T. Mitchell writes about, “[t]he subjectivity of objects, the personhood of things [….] Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; they speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. They present, not just a surface, but a face that faces the beholder.”[5] As an object that employs both image and text to communicate, “the book” easily embodies the traits that Mitchell identifies with “the picture,” and indeed these traits are worn by the book on an even more literal level. Terminology for the parts of the book assign books a head, a foot, a spine, a face, even a tail.        

Ulises Carrión, a book artist and theorist, in his essay “The New Art of Making Books” writes,

[i]n the old art you write ‘I love you’ thinking that this phrase means ‘I love you’. (But: what does ‘I love you’ mean?). In the new art you write ‘I love you’ being aware that we don’t know what this means. You write this phrase as part of a text wherein to write ‘I hate you’ would come to the same thing. The important thing is, that this phrase, ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’, performs a certain function as a text within the structure of the book. In the new art you don’t love anybody. The old art claims to love. In art you can love nobody. Only in real life can you love someone.[6]

As W.J.T. Mitchell’s comment emphasized the image, here Carrión foregrounds the text although in his essay he does not configure a dichotomy between image versus text, rather, he uses image, text, and the book-object as signs or mediums that are all equally relevant to the meaning of “the book”. As the terms used to define the book are often identical to those used for a person’s body, “personhood” can be read on the body of the book, however, there is something essentially of the person or human that remains outside of the book. This separation echoes the concern highlighted by the differences between the communication circuit and the whole socio-economic conjuncture: how should people relate to the book object in the history of the book?  In order to address these concerns within the tradition of book history, I will consider books published in the beginning of this century in Lima, Peru by Sarita Cartonera.

Since 2003 there has been a “publishing boom” and local alternative, independent, and small presses and editorials have altered the scene of the book in Lima. Sarita Cartonera was one of the first presses to foster this trend in local publishing. According to the copyright pages on the inside of the front cover of their books, Sarita Cartonera is “an eccentric editorial project whose principal objective is to diffuse Latin American literature by changing the conventional mode of production.”  They achieve this by publishing books that are bound and painted by hand with cardboard covers that the cartonera publishing houses, which are analogous and part to the alternative press movement, like Eloísa Cartonera in Buenos Aires, Dulcinéia Catadora in São Paulo, Brazil and La Cartonera in Cuernavaca, Mexico, to name but a few,[7] have been fostering a literary and artistic movement that unites art with society. The writer Santiago García Navarro offers his perspective: “the group seem to be working on a basis that goes something like this: for literature—and the visual arts—to be able to dissociate itself from a narrow elitist specialism, there must be some form of social and material change and even an aesthetic movement away from the materials and production techniques with which literature is traditionally associated. Ultimately this requires not the kind of discussion that takes place at a privileged level but a more cooperative form of thinking and production.”[8] The cartonera publishers offer a multi-disciplinary assault on literary, artistic, and social traditions. The cartonera publishing practice is not reducible to one definition, nor do their books pertain to one history. The history of the cartonera book therefore requires a multi-perceptual book historian who can open a field of discourse where the cartonera books “speak” with us.


Antonio Rodríguez-Buckingham writes that the printed book was an “icon of power” and a “foreign object” in Peru where quipus had been used to record information for hundreds of years until they were destroyed in the sixteenth century alongside the printed books arrival. As an “icon of power,” the book has been not only a vehicle for text and image but also a powerful sign itself. According to Rodríquez-Buckingham, Antonio Ricardo, “the first and only printer in South America until his death in 1605,”[9] produced the first imprint in Lima, Peru in 1584. Peru’s first printers were confronted by censorship from the Spanish Church and State, were required to have a license for the books that were to be printed,[10] faced a list of objectionable books, and several printers were tried for heresy, accused of being Lutheran, or attacked by the Inquisition and yet, “[c]learly, the traffic of books was difficult to control.”[11]    

I want to leap from the sixteenth-century world of quipu destruction and the emerging printed book in Peru to the twentieth-century and the publication of one of Lima’s first libros objetos or book-objects. In 1927, Carlos Oquendo de Amat made his only book of poems and avant-garde typography titled 5 metros de poemas (5 Meters of Poetry). La Editorial Minerva finished printing it on 31 December 1927. Several different publishing houses have since reprinted the book, the latest edition by Editorial Universitaria at the University Ricardo Palma. This re-edition is a facsimile of the original publication. It has a soft wrapper cover made of cream-colored paper that is printed with a woodblock of text for the title, the author’s name, and four theatrical masks or faces.


Figure 1. Photograph of the front cover of 5 Metros de Poemas by Carlos Oquendo de Amat. Lima: Editorial Minerva, 2007. Photograph by Lauren Pagel.

The book has a completely non-adhesive binding; the wrapper holds a signature of sheets in accordion folds that open as a concertina that is, of course, five meters long when completely stretched out. There are two phrases printed in the front matter: a dedication, “I dedicate these insecure poems like my first spoken words to my mother,” and an instruction, “open this book like someone peeling a fruit.”[12] The typography used in the book is not only an integral element to the book but to the poems themselves, which traverse back and forth across the page on diagonals and verticals to scatter traditional boundaries and to break into and out of modes of concrete or visual poetry. Influenced by cinema, the words have horizontal, vertical, diagonal, backward, and forward movement that is black and white like the flicker of a black and white film. Image converges with content:


This cooperative performance by image and word echoes through the book-object to the reader. The reader interacts with the physical experience of the book, and must “peel” the book. Oquendo de Amat was not just a writer but also a typographer, a graphic artist, a bookmaker, or a book artist. As book artist Oquendo de Amat had control not just over the text but also over the production of the book-object itself. Like Oquendo de Amat, the reader interacts as much with the structure of the book as with the text, in a holistic experience of the book as a sign that is not just static but rather a process of communication exchange, much like a theatrical performance. This leads me to another concern for the book historian: Adams and Barker write that the “text is the reason for the cycle of the book: its transmission depends on its ability to set off new cycles” (Adams 53), but 5 metros de poemas shows that as text and image both create significance, and furthermore, the interaction between the book-object and the reader is also invested with meaning.       

Sarita Cartonera confronts the traditional “iconic power” of the book by reconstructing the meaning of the book in a way that echoes the participatory nature of the book created by Oquendo de Amat. Joseph Buey’s concept of social sculpture, where society is regarded as one large work of art, is embedded in Sarita Cartonera’s publishing practice. In 2006, the editorial established Libros, un Modelo Para Armar (LUMPA). With LUMPA, Sarita Cartonera used this same logic to establish a relationship between the reader and the book-object. LUMPA was a pedagogical program where teachers and students from the school Colegio Parroquial Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, in Lima, participated in workshops about literary criticism with the publishers and writers from Sarita Cartonera. The teachers and students wrote their own stories, designed the covers, painted, and constructed their own cartonera books. The intention of this process was to address and break down the inhibitions students held about books and reading by fostering an active and personal connection with books. The student’s participation in the process of making a text, an image, and then a book, transforms the book into an object that is accessible. This process of active reading situates the reader in the space of the critic, the author, the publisher or bookmaker. The meaning of the book is thus converted into a dynamic interaction that is a process instead of a static, fixed artifact. I do not have a copy of one of the books created by the students and professors who participated in LUMPA because all of the books remained with their creator. This reiterates the importance of the book within the specific context of its creation. The book-object is not prioritized as an end in itself. Rather, the power of “the book” resides in the relationship between the creator and the book-object, which is an intimate act of creation that generates empowerment and understanding. In this case, the value or meaning of “the book” is embedded in the exchange between the bookmaker and the book-object, making Adams and Barker’s call to focus the discourse of Book History on the book-object instead of the social context surrounding it problematic as the two exist dynamically together. Curiously enough, neither Darnton nor Adams and Barker included the book historian in the lifespan of the book. In the following analysis, I will position my stance as a cartonera book historian to uphold the significance of the book as demonstrated by LUMPA to emphasize this interaction between book-object and book historian, and to show how the books published by Sarita Cartonera breakdown the barriers between the public and the book.


In 2004 a collection of poems written by Montserrat Álvarez was published in Lima during the second year of Sarita Cartonera’s life.[13] I bought my copy of the book at Libreria ContraCultura, a bookstore in Miraflores, Lima in 2008. The book has a cardboard cover made of two separate cardboard pieces that are joined together by orange muslin. There is a “found image”, part of a hollow metal sculpture of the world, incorporated into the cover’s design. The title of the book and the author’s name are hand painted and run vertically and diagonally across the book’s face.

These handwritten letters are flaking off to reveal parts of the original writing beneath, leaving both layers equally fragmented and dislocated. This cardboard book is a post-modern palimpsest: it is a medium that has been stripped of its original significance (as a box for a Hewlett-Packard laserjet printer), and then rewritten not just as text but also as a “rewritten” object that has evolved from box to book. Barbara A. Brannon writes,


Figure 2. Photograph of the front cover of Nerópolis by Montserrat Álvarez. Lima: Sarita Cartonera, 2005. Photograph by Lauren Pagel.

Five hundred years ago, Eisenstein claims, the invention of rigid metal type helped to stabilize texts, and thus ideas, in the emerging modern world; today, I propose, the unfixing of typography creates an opposite movement, a destabilization of text. Fluxion, and not fixity, is the salient characteristic of the digital revolution.[14]

To date and with reason, the use of cardboard as a medium has been the most obvious characteristic that researchers, the press, and the cartonera publishers themselves emphasize when talking about Sarita Cartonera. However, this copy of Nerópolis exemplifies another essential tool used to create part of the book as the pages of text inside were printed on laser printers. With access to pirated software for self and desktop publishing programs like InDesign and Publisher, Sarita Cartonera has depended as much on the cardboard support as on the laser printer and pirated software.

The copyright page in the book’s front matter attributes the exterior design of this book to Pepe La Rosa, Diego Muñoz, and Shylla Marcos, three youth from Callao, to the west of Lima. These three are a few of the members of Sarita who cut the cardboard, paint the covers, and bind the books on Saturdays at Sarita Cartonera’s workshop. In 2008, during my interview with Shylla Marcos she explained that hand painting the letters made her feel calm and relaxed.[15] In her essay What is a Letter?, book artist, visual theorist, and cultural critic Johana Drucker discusses handwriting and the letter:

The self as product and construction, inherent and cultivated, is nowhere more significantly charged than in the economy and legislative attention to forgery. Here, the letterforms enter into a system of currency, and the self as marked in that system is conceived within the act of making those rote forms with enough significant difference to be identifiable as unique, distinct, and individual. So, the letters, those templates of consistent regularity, become the instrumental means for marking uniqueness.[16]  

Sarita Cartonera confirms in the front matter of this book that the hand-painted letters on this cover are indeed marks of uniqueness,        “[t]he covers integrate the plastic element with the book, they are written with tempera and by hand, giving each volume the condition of being unique: although they share the same title, every copy is singular and different from all of the others.” As marks of “uniqueness,” the letters on the cover of this book document a specific process: Shylla’s moment of calm where she, as bookmaker, encountered the materials, the cardboard, and transformed what was garbage into a book. Once the book is separated from its creator, what researcher Craig Epplin identifies as “graphic traces”[17] of creation remain on the book-object. This process contests the commodity fetishism that Marx identified within the capitalist system. The significance of the book evolves depending on the person who is interacting with it. The meaning of the book is constantly being reconfigured because the cartonera book generates a unique moment of exchange between the book and the individual where value is determined depending on the context of the encounter between the two.

One of the exercises that LUMPA developed deals with the unique encounter that every individual has with the book and the text. This exercise has been adopted by Professors from Harvard University in a program called Amiga Cartonera.[18] Doris Sommer emphasizes the power of creative interpretations:

The hands-on workshop that Milagros facilitated during the Harvard Cartonera week developed a few demonstrations of the recycling process. For example, we used the description of characters in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man in the Crowd” to draw portraits, but indirectly. The drawings were intentionally mediated by a partner’s description of the character. The results, after we taped the portraits on the “gallery” wall, made visible the range of interpretations and re-interpretations of the same literary characters, showing that it is impossible to read or draw without adding original details. We could not clearly distinguish between reading and writing, reception and production.[19]

This statement leads into my interpretation of another book published by Sarita Cartonera in 2007; a collection of short stories entitled Peruvians Do It Better by Alejandro Neyra.[20] The title story is narrated by a woman who recounts her life from her childhood in Lima to her career as a “porn star” in Los Angeles and then to a director of pornographic films although she insists that it, “isn’t pornography. It is the gaze of God upon us, the gaze of love.”[21] The cover of the book is made of plain cardboard and then layered with three serigraphy printed images. First there is a foundational or background image of what appears to be a yellow fingerprint. As a fingerprint, it is a mark of identity and of the individual but on the book covers it is a repeated “printing” of a dislocated individuality that is mass produced, the body of each book dressed in silk, serigraphy, but again and again. On top of this is the red outline of a woman’s body, torso, thighs, breasts, belly, pubic bone, and legs. Her body has no arms, no feet, and no head, and it is a decapitated, limbless, fragmented body that suggests the division of the body from the person as it is a body that is nothing but (female) sex.

These images were printed and created layer by layer: the yellow thumbprint was designed on a computer program like Photoshop and printed, the body of the woman was drawn by hand, and the text was hand lettered. These pieces were then transferred to the mesh serigraphy screen and the red, yellow, or black ink pulled across the top of them with a fill bar. These pieces are negatives of the image that is printed. The letters are actually a mix of all three of these layers. Because the first component was a negative, the letters are outlined in black ink and then open or transparent to show whatever they are printed upon. If they had been printed on top of a plain piece of cardboard the letters would be the color and material of plain cardboard. In the specific case of this book, the letters are made of cardboard, the image of the fragmented female body and the fingerprint. To push this thought one step further, the letters, which we can be read as made from cardboard, body, and identity, simultaneously reduce these images to abstraction, or undress the body of the book, revealing the construction of the image and the letter as nothing but the composition of colors and line.

In conversations with editors from Sarita Cartonera, Milagros Saldarriaga told me that the book’s cover was not intended to have a fingerprint but an eye.[22] I imagined that the closer that I got to the origins of the book (to the bookmakers) the closer I would get to the eye of the book. However, after talking about this image with other editors from Sarita who also thought that it looked like a thumbprint, I have finally come to rest with the eerie feeling of a book that has an eye that I can’t see, of a book that is watching me. I can’t see the book’s eye but can the book’s eye see me?

Alexis Amore, the narrator of Peruvians Do It Better, explains, “one grows up feeling observed. Even when you are alone you believe that there is someone at your side…God is always watching. God is on all sides and we can’t escape from him.”[23] Alexis Amore shifts from the position of the pornstar to the position of the director of porn films, so within the text her perspective and her body moves from the position of the body being watched to the body that is watching. Her greatest accomplishment is achieving the gaze of god within a film titled Peruvians Do It Better: “I began to experiment with diverse forms of filming so that we could see through the ABSOLUTE gaze of God himself.”[24] Peruvians Do It Better is narrated by a frustrated narrator. Alexis wants to see everything at once, from every perspective, to be both object and subject, and her voice oscillates between an internal and an external perception. As the director of her films she has enough control to construct herself as an omniscient narrator, as an “eye” that understands and sees all. At the same time, she remains trapped within the specificity of the “I” of her language, within her own subjectivity.


Figure 3. Photograph of the front cover of Peruvians Do It Better by Alejandro Neyra. Sarita Cartonera, 2007. Photograph by Lauren Pagel.

Face to Face With the Tail of the Book

In November of 2008, eight of the cartonera publishers[25] released for the first time a collective co-edition, Respiración del Laberinto by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. The initiative began with Mexico’s La Cartonera and Sarita Cartonera released their edition in Spring 2009. This book, like almost all of the other books published by Sarita Cartonera, has a cardboard cover. The text in this book, however, was printed not on a simple laser-jet printer but instead on a semi-professional machine. The text is clear and clean and the pages of this book are not falling off of the cardboard like they are in the books discussed above. Yesterday, July 20, 2009, when I went to another bookstore in Miraflores in Lima I was surprised to see the book being sold for twenty soles each (approximately seven U.S. dollars)  in contrast to the Sarita books that I purchased last year for about seven soles each (approximately two dollars and fifty cents). The text is printed on white paper. The cardboard cover has been painted white and on top of this there is a stencil and air-brushed image in red paint of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s face. The most striking element of this cover is that there is no text at all, no title or author’s name, only the silent gaze of M.S.P. with a furrowed brow, and downcast eyes lost in thought. It challenges me, it taunts me to open up the book, to open up his head, to see what is behind the book’s face, to look into its mind, into an other’s mind.

And so, I conclude with this image: cerebral, intellectual, almost cold, with no handwriting and no reference to the specific person who made the book. It is an image of his head, a silent image of a man who is lost in his thoughts:

“If 1 mirror came close to my brains /

it would see its own mirror without brains” [26]


Figure 4. Photograph of the front cover of Respiración del Laberinto by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. Sarita Cartonera, 2008. Photograph by Lauren Pagel.

Lauren Suzanne Pagel is a graduate student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has studied literature, visual arts, and bookmaking, and has been researching cartonera publishing for the last two years. She has received Solalinde and University Bookstore awards for her research.


[1] Robert Darnton, “What is the History of the Book?” in The Book History Reader, 2nd edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (New York: Routledge, 2006), 9-26.

[2] Thomas R. Adams and Nicholas Barker, “A New Model for the Study of the Book,” in The Book History Reader, 2nd edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (New York: Routledge, 2006), 47-65.

[3] Robert Darnton, “What is the History of Books? Revisited,” in Modern Intellectual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 495-508.

[4] Ibid., 504.

[5] W.J.T. Mitchell “What Do Pictures Really Want?” October, 77 (Summer 1996): 71-82.

[6] Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons (Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., Peregrine Smith Books, 1985), 31-43.

[7] To date (16 June 2009) there are approximately twenty-two “cartonera” projects: Eloísa Cartonera in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2003); Sarita Cartonera in Lima, Peru (2004); Animita Cartonera in Santiago, Chile (2005); Mandrágora Cartonera in Cochabamba, Bolivia (2005); Yerba Mala Cartonera in El Alto, Bolivia (2006); Dulcinéia Catadora in São Paulo, Brazil (2007); Yiyi Jambo in Asunción, Paraguay (2007); La Cartonera in Cuernavaca, Mexico (2008); Katarina Kartonera in Florianopolis, Brasil (2008); Felicita Cartonera in Ñemby, Paraguay (2009), Nicotina Cartonera in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (2009); Otracosa Cartonera (2009); Santa Muerte Cartonera in Mexico City (2009); Matapalo Cartonera in Riobamba, Ecuador (2009); MBurukujarami Kartonera in Luque, Paraguay (2009); Textos de Cartón in Córdoba Argentina (2009), Mamacha Cartonera (2009); Patasola Cartonera in Colombia (2009), Cartonerita Solar in Argentina (2009). This list is temporary.

[8] Santiago García Navarro, “Title deeds,” Frieze Magazine, June-August 2007,

[9] Ibid., 219.

[10] Today all books in Peru are registered with the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú and are given a legal deposit number.

[11] Antonio Rodríguez-Buckingham, “Change and the Printing Press in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America,” in Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, edited by Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F. Shevlin (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 216-237.

[12] Carlos Oquendo de Amat, 5 metros de poemas (Lima: Editorial Universitaria de la Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2007).

[13] Montserrat Álvarez, Nerópolis (Lima: Sarita Cartonera, 2005).

[14] Barbara A. Brannon, “The Laser Printer as an Agent of Change: Fixity and Fluxion in the Digital Age” in Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies After Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, edited by Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F. Shevlin (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 353-64.

[15] Shylla Marcos in conversation with the author. July 15, 2009.

[16] Johanna Drucker, “What is a Letter?” in The Education of a Typographer, edited by Steven Heller (New York: Allworth Press, 2004), 90.

[17] See Craig Epplin, “New Media, Cardboard, and Community in Contemporary Buenos Aires,” Hispanic Review75, no. 4 (Autumn 2007): 385-98.


[19] Doris Sommer, “Classroom Cartonera: Recycle Paper, Prose, Poetry,” in this volume.

[20] Alejandro Neyra, Peruvians Do It Better (Lima: Sarita Cartonera, 2007).

[21] Ibid., 7.

[22] Milagros Saldarriaga in conversation with the author. July 15, 2009.

[23] Neyra, Peruvians Do It Better, 9.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] The participating publishers for this co-edition were Eloísa Cartonera, Animita Cartonera, Sarita Cartonera, Yerba Mala Cartonera, La Cartonera, Yiyi Jambo, Mandrágora Cartonera, Dulcinéia Catadora.

[26] Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Respiración del Laberinto (Lima: Sarita Cartonera, 2009).

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