Dexter Sinister by Adam Kleinman

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Entrance to Dexter Sinister’s Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore at 38 Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side of New York.

As part of their “True Mirror” project for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Dexter Sinister has set up a mirror press office at the Commander’s Room of the 7th Regiment Armory.

When exiting through the low headroom basement stairs of Dexter Sinister’s Just-In-Time Workshop & Occasional Bookstore in New York’s Lower East Side, the last words you’ll hear spoken by the proprietors might be “mind your head.” Beyond a literal warning, these brief words could also serve as a slick rejoinder to those who lose balance between organizational, technical, marketing, and creative competency when converting an idea into a concrete commercial object. As a founding strategy, this workshop run by David Reinfurt, Stuart Bailey, and Sarah Crowner has set up an integrated program encompassing the often split roles of producer, editor, designer, distributor, and sometime event presenter. By hosting all of these functions under the same roof, the workshop is not only able to circumvent back-ended hold-ups, massive overstocking, and other tolerated snafus inherent to the economies-of-scale philosophy employed by most industrialized print houses today, but is also able to playfully recuperate those unforeseen valances which develop with a project by reintroducing them within the final product. Produced in-house, Dexter Sinister’s imprint is most clearly articulated by their own semiannual flagship Dot Dot Dot, a “left-field arts journal” that mingles texts on art, design, architecture, and music with literary efforts and linguistic musings into a coherent package replete with equal parts of mirth and seriousness. Reader, since Dot Dot Dot acts as a kind of model and testing ground informing Dexter Sinister’s practice, I suggest that you pick up a copy one Saturday afternoon from its usual source: the basement of 38 Ludlow Street.

To offer another take on Dexter Sinister’s operation, I stopped by the workshop one bleak midwinter day to speak with them about some of their recent specific endeavors and about their general method. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Adam Kleinman Since this interview is going to be posted during your Whitney Biennial project, let’s talk about that project and from there go into the bookstore and your other practices.

Dexter Sinister The Biennial is being staged in two locations—at the regular Madison Avenue museum, and then a kind of supplementary annex at the Park Avenue Armory building, which is where we’ll be primarily located. Originally the curators and the publications people came to us and said, “We’d like you to be involved, but we’re not sure how.”

AK Did they give you carte blanche?

DS They suggested a number of ways in which we could be involved. One way was that we design the catalogue for the show. Another was that we design some section of the catalogue or a separate addition. And a third was to do a completely autonomous project.

AK So, what did you come up with?

DS Thinking it through, it became pretty clear that making the catalogue was probably not the best thing. Even though we’re involved in a lot of similar projects—working on books with arts institutions—the particular constraints and relationships involved in a publication on this particular scale would probably compromise our role.

AK How so?

DS In that we wouldn’t be involved editorially in the catalogue; the institutional structure couldn’t really accommodate that. One thing that came to our minds was this: if the function of the catalogue is to speed up the reception of the show, as a condensation of the ideas behind it, that doesn’t necessarily make room for a discussion. We’re much more interested in opening up the conversation through means that slow reception down. Especially since the Whitney Biennial receives such an intense focus, in New York particularly. Everybody has a quick binary opinion of it: Is it a good year? Is it a bad year? That kind of thing.

AK So you are interested in how the rhetoric around the show creates an alternate presentation in and of itself, wherein reviews and previews tend to color the exhibit before an audience can even get a first view?

DS Yes, exactly—the opinions that form around the show. And so we thought it would be more useful to somehow intercede in a way that doesn’t speed that reception up, and to do that in an applied manner that connects with the other kinds of work—or rather, ways of approaching work—we’ve been involved with lately. So we went back to the curators and responded that we were interested in delaying the reception of the Biennial by setting up a parallel or a shadow version of the information that typically comes out of, or alongside, the show. This would include everything from the catalogue to the press releases and all the other ways in which museums communicate an exhibition.

AK A press mirroring-site with two versions of everything as a media doppelganger?

DS As completely mirrored versions of everything you can imagine. We were thinking that whenever you have two choices, rather than three or four or five, and one is not clearly identified as the so-called correct one, a space opens up for the individual reading. It begs the question: Which one do I trust, which one do I go with?

AK Were you following this strategy when you published the bootleg of the Manifesta 6 text, Notes For An Art School?

DS That was less of a gesture than a practical solution. We’d run out of the original. All the files were in our possession, so we had a quick way to produce a second edition bypassing all the regular bureaucracy of publishing.

AK Yes, and it is quite clear from the printing of both editions which is the official Manifesta 6 catalog, and which is the bootleg. For the Whitney Biennial project, would the copy be legible or would you be trying to make a perfect forgery?

DS The whole point was that you would see the two kinds of communication coming from within the exhibition and simply have no idea which one was which. They would be mirrored physically and functionally—even in terms of their distribution—but the content would be different, however slightly.

AK Are you trying to problematize the idea that cultural claims to uniqueness and authenticity can be best articulated as distinctive and non-replicable?

DS It should be clear that this project is not intended as a direct critique against the institution, or anyone else—at least not primarily or directly. Our main interest is in forms of communication and noise. It’s not a negative point of view, but rather an exploration of the ways in which information is released and distributed.

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Interior of Dexter Sinister’s headquarters.

AK As it stands now, how do you plan to disseminate these mirrored materials?

DS In developing that idea we realized the actual action is in the media, in the way that things reverberate through its various channels. We essentially scrapped that first idea, or refined it. What we’re now intending to do is issuing a series of what we’re somewhat hesitantly calling “press releases” over the course of three weeks, working from a room in the Armory space. We’re occupying the Commander’s Room, which is available only by pressing a panel that releases a hidden door in the wall.

AK A commandant used to sit there?!

DS When it was actually an Armory this is where the colonel would dress before going into the ballroom, or would change if he had an unexpected guest; he’d enter from the wall. (laughter) It’s very beautiful, very eerie…

AK Are you going to play off the history of this environment?

DS No, not particularly, or at least not in any ways we can anticipate. Being invisible is enough.

AK I knew that the curators of this Biennial had set up the Armory space as an additional exhibition site, and that the Whitney was going to do a lot of other programming there. Did you know of this beforehand?

DS No. Our proposal was actually in the form of an epic poem called “True Mirror,” which has also become the default title of the project. It’s based on a particular non-reversing mirror—also called the “True Mirror”—that doesn’t show your mirror image but rather the image of you other people see. This mirrored mirror image seemed like a perfect analogue to the way that we hoped our parallel press would operate within the show, and so we’re installing them in all the restrooms as a kind of allusion to what we’re up to.

AK What was the curators’ reaction to the proposal?

DS They didn’t quite know what to make of it at first, but shortly after were enthusiastic. They must have realized that with the Armory space they had already set up a kind of mirror location of the Breuer building themselves, and that it would make a lot of sense to do our project there—which we didn’t know about at the time. This was the first of many coincidences that increasingly confirmed that we were on the right path.

AK How will the audience receive this material?

DS Through a variety of specific channels of distribution. For example, our first release was the caption for the “True Mirrors,” to be used both in the brochure for the main exhibition at the Whitney as well as the program for the Armory performances. The mirrors are quite subtle—as is their status as objects in the show—so labeling them was already a tricky proposition. They have to be both visible and invisible, both functional objects and art objects, and the caption is part of the balancing act. If you keep in mind that we consider a “press release” to be equal to anything else we’re making, you can understand the scope of how we’re using the term “press release”; it’s more a frame of reference.

AK And visitors will have no access to your office.

DS They can look in there. We’re not trying to be hidden or secret, but at the same time we’re not interested in coming across as performative. It’s a quasi-practical response to a situation. We know that if we’re actually in there—if we discipline ourselves to operate from this very curious location—we’re setting ourselves up for certain things that wouldn’t happen in our normal habitat to occur.

AK So you’re setting up shop inside the space just as you did with the most recent Dot Dot Dot (No. 15) in Geneva last fall?

DS This certainly relates in some way to that project, which was within the context of the group exhibition on design and utopia “Wouldn’t it Be Nice…” at the Center of Contemporary Art there. As with the Whitney Biennial, the invitation was non-specific. On that occasion we proposed to publish the entire issue of Dot Dot Dot 15 from scratch on site. The issue was written, edited, designed, and printed right there, in the museum, over a period of two weeks. We’d invited a small bunch of regular collaborators to contribute to the issue as well as a group of printers from a Dutch arts community center called Knust to drive to Geneva and operate a couple of stencil printing machines. The magazine was printed, laid out to dry, bundled up, and sent back with Knust to the Netherlands, where, in turn, it was bound, boxed, and returned to us to distribute through our basement store in New York and our other distribution channels. During the exhibition viewers were free to walk in and watch us work, yet, again, our project wasn’t intended as performance. It was completely practical. The Swiss institutions that funded the exhibition wanted us to do an ambitious project. Because this happened in the context of an exhibition, it made sense for us to be visible to the public. We were grateful we had the resources to be able to publish the issue and gather a team in a single place where we could work in each other’s company. Such a setup has no downsides as long as it’s played completely straight and pretension of any kind is avoided.

AK Although the organizational model of “just-in-time strategies” that carry costs such as print on demand, limited inventory of both materials and product, and the use of at-hand technologies inform your work, I wonder what extra-economical responses you have to a new site when moving the office? Is there a response, or is your practice a-contextual and completely pragmatic?

DS It’s a combination of pragmatic and aesthetic. You’re always going to make the choices that are aesthetic, to some degree, but in keeping with the aesthetics of pragmatism. In other words, sometimes things are beautiful because they work; and sometimes in trying to make things work, you make something beautiful. Both approaches are interesting, but aesthetics are not our priority. You might say we’re interested in the form of side effects.

AK But does your response to a space carry over to the content of what you produce there? Does the site of production modify the context of a text?

DS It does. For instance, in Geneva, as we said, all the writers were there. Every day at five o’clock we’d meet and discuss what we were in the middle of working on. The meetings were quite involved and formal and relaxed at the same time, meaning that we forced ourselves to stick to the regime although the conversations were completely open. It seems obvious, but it’s a shock to realize how scarce those focused face-to-face conversations actually are. Ideas bled from one text to another, and that was the most exciting thing. Hopefully that’s legible if you read the issue. The best example of this process was the piece by Jan Verwoert, a critic and friend of ours. We’d invited him to participate in the project on the premise of extending an existing his text “Use Me Up,” which had been published previously in the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M. He turned it into a fantastic new piece called “Exhaustion and Exuberance,” which describes the exact conditions that we were working under. He was working up until the last minute discussing the idea of exhaustion and creative practice, literally writing, editing, and exhausting himself up until the moment he had to fly off and work on the next project. As soon as his piece was done, we all edited, designed, and printed it.

AK It’s like that knee-jerk reaction you get when working in an atelier model?

DS Yes, exactly.

AK Who brought all of these people together for this project? Was it the show’s curators?

DS No, Emily King, the curator, invited Dexter Sinister, then Dexter Sinister invited artists and writers—Will Holder, Anthony Huberman, Walead Beshty, Joke Robaard, Mai Abu ElDahab, the printers, and so on.

AK The image on the cover of the journal is a discursive photograph of this printing?

DS Yes, it’s a photograph of the paper stacks that were delivered to us on day one. The image is then printed on that same paper, at a later point in time, of course. So you’re actually holding a picture of something you’re actually holding. (laughter)

AK I’m not familiar with this printing technology; it seems to leave an attractively uneven image: a transfer-like quality. Can you tell me more about this process?

DS The stencil machines that we used are called Ricoh or Riso—both of which are brand names, and mysteriously similar even though they’re two completely different companies. These are less expensive to operate than other machinery that would have been appropriate for this situation, such as photocopiers or low-end litho machines. The supplies are cheaper and they break down less frequently; they’re primarily sold to schools and community centers in under-developed countries where the unit price and access to maintenance are crucial priorities. The technology is not antiquated, it’s just specific.

AK There’s not only an economy of means but a sort of historicity, to use a crude word. It reminds me of Ruskin’s dictum that a design object should bear the marks of its own construction. Are you interested in this idea?

DS Certainly.

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Commander’s Room at the 7th Regiment Armory, where Dexter Sinister is temporarily stationed as part of their participation in the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

AK So, should we change gears a little and talk about the bookshop?

DS Sure, but let’s talk about the Glenn Gould book as a segue to the bookshop. It’s both newly-produced—and so still interesting for us to talk about—and reflective of the kinds of projects we’re currently involved in. A Couple Thousand Short Films About Glenn Gould is a book project undertaken with Cory Arcangel. He was commissioned to make a piece for an institution in London called Film and Video Umbrella. Cory made the video installation “A Couple Thousand Short Films About Glenn Gould.” He wrote a piece of software that would trawl the Internet for certain kinds of video clips which feature displays of musical virtuosity, such as individuals playing very fast scales on an electric guitar or otherwise displaying their musical-technical chops. Cory’s software then samples these sounds and videos in order to reconstruct a given piece of music through those clips, in a finer grain and with more precision than any currently available commercial video editing software can achieve. The piece was constructed as a two-channel video installation suggesting something of the empty quality of virtuosity, through Cory’s software, through the reference to Glenn Gould, and through the subject matter of these video clips.

AK What’s on the other channel?

DS There are two different melodies that play in counterpoint to each other, as in Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 1. The left and right were like left and right hands: visual stereo.

AK Ah…good old virtuosity and its distribution of labor.

DS Cory approached us to collaborate on a book. We immediately met with him and Steven Bode, the editor from Film and Video Umbrella, here at the basement and made it clear that what we would not be making a monograph-style book of the artist’s work. Cory, of course, didn’t want that either; he was as interested as us in making a new piece of work. We asked for the full budget for printing and design and shipping and everything else in the equation in order to figure out how we would approach the project. It was crucial to be involved from the first moment—which is instructive in relation to the Biennial catalogue we mentioned earlier, as there is simply no way the structures around that kind of publication could ever accommodate this position.

AK Do you usually work like that?

DS Yes. It sets up what you can actually afford to do, and the more essential ingredient—trust. Then you try and make it work.

AK How do your clients respond to this approach?

DS Usually they’re okay. But if they’re not, perhaps it’s not the best situation because the process definitely requires understanding. It’s certainly not the usual way of working: a lot of the choices we like to be involved in making typically have been decided in advance. So, Steven and Cory were okay with it. They had also talked about the book with Paul Morley, a British author who writes about media, and whose work we like a lot—that was important. We made a point of meeting with him too, in order to make it clear that we would design the book around the way in which he’d write his text. This was a very specific approach, as we knew he considered text structuring very carefully. He designs his writing in a very conscious way, based on fragments or bullet points or footnotes, et cetera. In the end the book really isn’t about Cory’s project at all, or at least not directly. It’s more a kind of parallel version of the exhibition—and based completely on Paul’s text, called “210 Possible First Lines.” Paul’s text begins with about 15 actual first lines, and thereafter 210 different “openings” to other possible essays, based on found fragments of text, but ordered in a more or less narrative way. So, his text has 15 possible titles and 210 possible first lines resulting in 210 × 15 possible versions!

AK So who is implied or implicated by these fractured beginnings?

DS Wendy Carlos and Genesis P-Orridge and Stanley Kubrick and Gary Numan and Robert Moog and Glenn Gould and Thomas Edison and The Monkees and Tangerine Dream. (laughter) The first lines introduce aspects on or around any of these people and what they stand for, the technologies and other developments they’re associated with. We took each first line and set it on a page by itself, so they have the graphic quality of poetry, or the reader can imagine each one being the beginning of something that continues later in the book. The book also contains other shorter pieces, which we then positioned as appendices, such as a text that Cory wrote and that we all edited called “On Compression.” It describes how jpeg compression works, complete with all the math and technical background.

AK Does this serve as a kind of stochastic or generative frame?

DS Yes. The book also includes an editorial overview, a text we wrote about random numbers, the sheet music from the Bach Goldberg Variations that Cory used, the code to his program, and an unedited interview with him. Each book also has a unique jpeg image tipped into the first page by hand. These are frames from Cory’s piece. Since it has 1,106 unique clips, we printed 1,106 copies of the book. Like Cory’s artwork, Paul Morley’s text, Glenn Gould’s studio techniques, and even the Bach Goldberg Variations, the book revels in a kind of combinatory free play. Additionally, they all share an interest in the recording of the work—its documentation—as much as in the work itself.

Finally, the entire book is typeset using a specific system used throughout the academic math and science communities. It’s called TeX and was developed by computer scientist and mathematician Donald Knuth. TeX handles all the line endings and gives the text a quality that belongs in a certain academic milieu. It’s an absurdly arcane process that involves marking up a text file, compiling it, and outputting a PDF of each page. The whole process is run on the command line. (laughter). It made the typesetting of the book a rather involved process, but also yielded satisfyingly specific results. Cory had originally set his text in this way, by default, so we followed suit and decided to typeset the whole book in the same way.

AK Organizationally speaking this is all very baroque, which is fitting considering the Bach reference! In your process here you work backwards from a set of overlapping yet definable boundaries: economical, technological, temporal, et cetera. And from these overlaps you layer these boundaries parametrically so that a tweak here affects the other systems over there and so on. You also exploit inherent accumulated logics within each system—not exactly logarithms, but principles that you can use to play almost in a “this against that” fashion. In other words, it has this nice tension of being expensively constricting—or vice versa.

DS Right.

AK And then somewhere in between you create a text! But can’t this process lead to a kind of hermeticism?

DS Hermeticism is fine, but it’s never solely about that. Each given object or project also simply has to function on its own terms, has to speak for itself, though we talk about them when we get the chance, like now. The book is foremost a book, and the exhibition is foremost an exhibition, but each has an involved back-story that doesn’t have to be revealed or understood. All this might sound complicated, but it’s actually simple and pragmatic—you have to make the time you spend doing something as interesting and as considered as the thing itself.

AK Therein lies the fun. I think that this desire is rendered in the final form, as there are often these little clues and tags within your work which hint at some playful and possibly accessible substrata.

DS I would agree with that; we’re happy if some of the complexity is legible, or at the very least implied, in the finished object. For example, for this book we very consciously pushed the text to end up with the smallest possible margins. When we got the books back from the printer, I wondered whether it was too close or whether it was unusable. But, of course, not quite being sure what to think—this delay in responding—is exactly what we’re interested in triggering. You pick up the book and it’s a little bit jarring, but then you realize it takes a hell of an effort to actually make a book unreadable.

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Interior view of the Commander’s Room.

AK That’s something I particularly like about your work; it definitely upsets conventions but it always does so in a preoccupied way, whether through a prescribed font or layout system, for example. So, Dexter Sinister, you have also presented projects under other monikers such as Hektor, and Philip. What’s with the noms de plume?

DS It’s nothing particularly intentional. (laughter) It’s more coincidental. The artist who started the Philip project — a collectively-written science fiction book we were involved in — basically said, “The name of the novel is going to be Philip” — nothing to do with us. Your other example, Hektor, is a spray-painting machine built by Jürg Lehni, a Swiss programmer and designer. Dexter Sinister worked with Hektor to paint a large mural at the Swiss Institute last September.

AK So it’s sort of a confederation of—

DS Yeah, first names and last names. There’s F.R. David over there too. Nothing to do with us either.

AK Speaking of incorporation, I see your coat of arms icon on the bookshelf. What was the impetus for this?

DS It’s a hangover from the ill-fated Manifesta 6 Biennial. In 2005, we were invited to be involved with the project, which would essentially play out in the form of a temporary art school—or, more accurately, the question of what an art school should or could be—in Nicosia. Their approach was to take the usual biennial resources—money, support, networks and so on—and redirect them toward something apparently more constructive.

Our approach was to offer the same principle back to them and do something similar with the printed and electronic material that would be generated for and by the school. We would act like the school secretary, printing on demand. We asked for a budget up front to set up a kind of temporary publishing workshop, to repurpose the usual budget for the typical 300-page large-format glossy catalogue toward something more iterative, ongoing, and practical. We wanted to intervene in a quiet and unassuming way, making a “work” in itself: a proposition, an experiment, a sort of model. The intention was to work with whatever machinery we could get reasonably cheaply and easily on the island. It might easily have been an old used IBM computer, a forgotten mimeograph machine, or a brand new MacBook Pro. Whatever was there…not necessarily old, just whatever was available and made sense within the specific context.

Anyway, that was the idea. The badge was a straight-faced piece of heraldry designed for the school, with a single forward-slash—a kind of open, as-yet-uncharged form. It so happened that for ostensibly political reasons the whole project was cancelled, so we transported the same ideas and principles we’d been thinking about during the previous year to a new space we’d just rented on the Lower East Side. Naturally the same ideas played out in different ways in the very different context. To cut a long story short, we ended up selling from the space rather than producing in it. At the moment it’s more or less a regular working studio during the week and a bookstore on a Saturday, with occasional events such as film screenings or performances. After a while there were three of us, all involved more or less in art, publishing, writing, and designing. To our great surprise, the shop was soon a practical as well as symbolic proposition: it was able to pay its own rent through book sales. Its marginal location fits with the marginal nature of both our publications and audience, so word-of-mouth makes sense. We don’t have a large neon sign outside with Dexter Sinister written on it. (laughter) We do have small one, and you have to be looking down to see it from the street.

AK Speaking of symbols, why do you often use the muted post horn from The Crying of Lot 49?

DS It’s Pynchon’s symbol of an alternate distribution network—called W.A.S.T.E. (laughter)

AK I’ve seen the horn as graffiti around the city lately.

DS We’re more than happy to have people walk in off the street, and sometimes that happens, but mostly it’s friends of people who know about us. Slowly the concentric circles get wider.

AK Do most of the books have other distributions besides here?

DS Yeah, most of them.

AK And is that through your efforts or does this come from the publishers’ end?

DS Take Appendix Appendix, for instance, a proposal for a TV script by Ryan Gander and Stuart Bailey. It’s published by Christoph Keller Editions and JRP Ringier from Zurich. It’s probably being distributed by a European distributor and D.A.P., or some other regular American distributor. We have it, too, because one of us is one of the authors, and so part of the original deal is that we get a 100 copies. That kind of thing happens a lot, which results in very skewed economies of scale.

AK Speaking of opportune situations, Dexter Sinister often stages or hosts events and performances down here in the bookstore. Are these meant to attract new audiences as corollary projects?

DS They are usually based on the publications. We had a reading recently in which Stuart read live from Dot Dot Dot 15 to a broadcast in London, and Will Holder, one of its contributors, read his publication F.R. David back to us five hours later, at the same time, fromLondon. It was a double launch in a kind of jet-lagged real time. We were in these two different kinds of mental zones. We had this very civilized public reading with fresh mint tea, where people on the other end were, by that time, quite drunk. Speaking of alcohol, we also had a great schnapps tasting with publisher-turned-distiller Christoph Keller lecturing on his farm in rural Germany and offering bottles of his own produce as he talked. And we hosted an after-event in the summer to a party celebrating Duchamp’s birthday, which involved the performance artist Michael Portnoy and abstract gambling. The idea has been to have an event in here every two months. At the moment we’re planning to launch Cory’s book with a party and music by DJ Salinger.

AK DJ Salinger…? (laughter)

DS That’s the idea. We’ll figure it out. These things tend to happen backwards, and only make actual sense at the last minute.

Dexter Sinister will occupy the Commander’s Room at the 7th Regiment Armory every day from March 4 to March 23, 2008, releasing a series of parallel texts through multiple channels of distribution that reflect on the 2008 Whitney Biennial. More information is available on the True Mirror website:

Adam Kleinman is a curator at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

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