A moveable [artist’s book] feast

EXILE books at Locust Projects. Photo by Nabil Moo. 

The EXILE Books display cases have a minimalist, clean design. They are both an installation and a tool, elegant, but also sturdy and purposeful. 

They also have wheels.

EXILE Books is an itinerant artists’ bookstore, and for the next year, it will move around various locations in South Florida. The first stop at the Locust Projects, in the Design District, concluded with a site-specific performance by the Peter London Global Dance Company on Oct. 9. Up next is Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, where it will reside from Oct. 15 to Nov. 20. And from there, on to Miami Book Fair International.

In a border town often defined by movement and reinvention, it is a statement, poetic and practical. 

Miami has that atmosphere that allows people to do things that are more experimental or provocative. That’s kind of the beauty of Miami, and clearly, it’s generating a lot of attention,” says visual artist, curator, writer and Knight Arts Challenge finalist Amanda Keeley, the architect behind EXILE Books. “Miami is still forming an identity and it offers so much opportunity. There are a lot of entry points for people to start whatever they like to start. That’s very exciting, and probably why I was drawn back.”

A Miami native, Keeley moved back after many years in New York, where she earned her MFA from Parsons The New School for Design, collaborated with artists such as Yoko Ono, Matthew Barney and Thurston Moore, and also managed Printed Matter Inc., a bookstore described on its website as “one of the world’s largest publicly available [sources] for artists’ books.”

Returning to Miami to visit family and friends, but also to produce events at Art Basel and to work with the National YoungArts Foundation, Keeley couldn’t help but notice the commitment represented by institutions such as Pérez Art Museum Miami,  “the flux of people coming in and out” and “Miami declaring itself a contemporary art capital.” 

It all led to her decision. “I kept seeing so much opportunity, I felt this is the right time and place to launch EXILE Books.”

She chose the name EXILE Books to underscore the project’s  “nomadic nature,” she says, but also because the exile condition also “allows people to create their own identity and their own community and that is what I’m trying to build, a community focused on print culture.”

Designed for change, as it moves from venue to venue, EXILE Books “will evolve,” Keeley says. The roving bookstore will not only feature thematically curated selections, but also lectures, performances and events or, as in the Miami Book Fair International, set up an artists’ book lounge.

“I want to allow the structure to adapt and see what works and doesn’t work. For Books & Books we are almost doing an occupation, a store-within-a-store.”

The stay of EXILE Books at the Coral Gables bookstore will include talks and panel discussions with visiting speakers such as Max Schumann, associate director of Printed Matter, on the opening evening, Oct. 15; Ruth and Marvin Sackner, founders of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, on Oct 23 for  a presentation titled “Six from the ’60s,” and artist and writer Gean Moreno, discussing the origin and work of the Miami-based nonprofit [NAME] Publications, on Oct. 30.

Conceptually and commercially, it’s an innovative arrangement, even for an innovative bookseller such as Mitchell Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done something like this,” says Kaplan. “And I’m just thrilled to help launch it.”

“I had my own interest in artists’ books for many, many years. In fact, in the early days of Books & Books we even carried a fair amount of them. We stopped because the market hadn’t really been developed … and we didn’t have a big enough space to carry enough to make a difference. So when I met Amanda and heard what she was doing, I found it tailor-made for my interests as well … and she’s helping to develop the audience for artists’ books. I always thought that if more people got to know what an artist’s book was that they would find it as fascinating as I do.”

While the practice has a rich history, Keeley — who worked with Yoko Ono, an artist whose landmark “Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings” (1964) is perhaps the most popular artist’s book in contemporary art — notes that contemporary artists have been using the book as a work of art “because it introduces their work to an entirely different audience. It’s mass dissemination, mass distribution of an art work, and [the artist] conceived that book as a piece of art in and of itself.”

And then again, there’s the practical side of it.

“It’s a work of art you can bring home. It’s affordable,” Keeley says. “Maybe you can’t afford a Sarah Crowner beautiful big painting, but you can afford a beautiful art book.”

Measuring the success of EXILE Books will imply looking at both, sales numbers but also the big picture and its contributions to the development of Miami’s art scene.

“Obviously, I hope it can sustain itself financially and continue to build as a viable small business,” says Keeley. “But also I would measure it by the reaction of the community, like the number of visitors. At Locust, 315 people came to the opening, which, I was told, is an Art Basel-like crowd. And when I stood in that room with 300-plus people who are all excited for artists’ books and have questions, it felt great.

“That felt successful,” she says breaking into a laugh. “But we are still developing, building an audience.”

Fernando González is a South Florida-based arts and culture writer.