Interview with Amber Hickey, editor of A Guidebook of Alternative Nows
Amber Hickey is an artist, researcher and book editor who has a special focus on art activism and is currently based in Santa Cruz, California. She is editor of the book A Guidebook of Alternative Nows,1 an inspiring collection of essays and case studies by thirty-four different contributors. We met Amber on Skype for an interview to find out more about her work, the book, and the unusual process behind it.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I am an artist and researcher with a background in performance. I studied contemporary performance in Glasgow, Scotland for four years. The program was very politically engaged. We were strongly committed to the political implications of our creative output. Our art was activism, or at least that was the aim for many of us. While in Glasgow, I spent a lot of time doing projects outside of the university and I started curating very early on, although I didn’t know at the time that was what I was doing. After finishing my Bachelor of Arts I decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in Curating in Zurich, Switzerland. I also worked at the Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts2 and I continued doing independent projects. For my final Masters’ project, it made sense to do something I had wanted to do, for a while, the Guidebook of Alternative Nows.
How did you come up with the idea of the book? Why do you feel there is a need for a book such as this one?
I had been reading a lot of work that was critical of aspects of contemporary living — our economy, the way we interact with our environments and so forth. It all became very repetitive to me and I was questioning the effectiveness of such criticism. Then I came across JK Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (as we knew it).3 They propose that by criticising capitalism (or other dominant modes and structures) we are in fact lending it more power. So I thought that rather than making a project that is simply critical, I would attempt to highlight that which is different and hopeful, therefore lending those actions power by lending them pages. That’s the methodology behind this book.
There is a lack of published material about this kind of work by the people who participate in it. Often, researchers write about these phenomena, rather than the thinkers and makers themselves writing about their work in their own words. Of course there are exceptions.
Regarding the format of a book, I’ll readily admit that I’m not the biggest fan of exhibitions. There were many reasons why I felt like it was more appropriate to present this project in the form of a book. I wanted people to have something they could take home and have a direct relationship to. Something that they would continue coming back to over the years.
The book aims to shed light on different iterations of more socially, economically, and ecologically ‘just nows’. It was not my editorial aim to define these nows according to their fields. Instead, it was more about alternative nows in a broad sense, which is open to many areas. I wanted the book to be inviting to diverse publics and therefore did not want it to be too dense with theoretical chapters. However, I wanted there to be enough strong writing to support the ideas contained within the book.
Rather than divide the chapters into strictly defined categories, I decided on the placement of the chapters by imagining interesting ways to order them if they were read in succession—if they were read as a story. Of course it’s fine to read them in any order, but I chose the sequence of chapters because of the pictures they create when they are sitting next to each other. Each chapter complements the chapters it is sandwiched between in surprising ways.
How did you choose and curate the contributors? How did you approach them? Was it difficult to get people involved in the project?
Many of the people who contributed to the book are friends or friends of friends. And I’d say about half of them were suggested by other contributors. So, even though I didn’t invite every person who others suggested, in a way the book was co-curated. I also contacted people whose work I knew from before. I was pleasantly surprised that most replied positively and contributed!
When and how did you launch the book and how was it received by the public?
The book was published in June 2012. There were a few different launches. One in July at the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, one in August at Josefwiese Park in Zurich, one in September at PB43 in Copenhagen, and one in November at Forest Room 5 in Denver. I had sent out emails to the contributors inviting them to organise local launches, and that’s one of the reasons why we could do so many.
I’ve heard mostly positive feedback about the book. People really seemed to connect with the aesthetics of the book and that drew them into the content. They liked that there were two alternative versions of the cover and the playfulness of the stickers and badges. Solidarity economies and mutual aid were very prominent topics throughout the book and that was often perceived as a highlight content-wise.
I wanted this to be a project that my family could connect with too. I wanted it to be a very grounded project that many people could get something from, rather than mainly people from one demographic sector or field. When it came out my dad read the entire thing. We had some great conversations about the concepts and projects within the book—he particularly enjoyed Billy Marks’ chapter, ‘Cipher: The Economics of Freestyle.’4
There was one negative review that I found. It was by a woman at an art journal, who I’d been in touch with briefly. She’d requested a review copy of the book and I had somehow missed her email and didn’t get back to her for awhile. Anyway, it wasn’t all bad, but her main criticism was that the book focused on alternatives only accessible to the privileged. It’s an interesting comment because I see solidarity economics for instance as completely necessary whether one is privileged or not, but more-so for those in precarious situations. I can understand how she saw that in some of the contributions, but certainly not the majority of them. Regardless, it’s always helpful to get some constructive criticism and I appreciate her point of view.
Launch in Los Angeles at The Last Bookstore with talks by Fallen Fruit (David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young), the Llano del Rio Collective, Watts House Project, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Billy Mark, and the Artist Bailout, 27 July 2012.
We saw you financed your first print-run with Kickstarter – how did that come about?
I liked the idea of the funding being a collaboration too. It helped a lot to already have all the contributors on board because they shared the campaign with their friends and colleagues. So there was a large network of support already in place. I believe that’s one reason we managed to collect $6000 in such a short amount of time. I think it’s good that our funding process compliments the content of the book.
From your experience, what advice would you give when it comes to producing a book?
It’s always more expensive than you think it will be, and that can create stress if you’re not prepared. For example, the shipping was very expensive. Each copy was also quite pricey because it was important to print them in colour and to produce the stickers. The book also became much longer than expected because people wrote more, and I didn’t want to limit them. In the end, we printed 300 books which are now almost sold out. So in terms of advice, I think that would depend on your goals. You should always budget more than you expect to spend.
In the case of A Guidebook of Alternative Nows, we have a project account where all the money from book sales is deposited. When all books are sold, the money will be split amongst the 39 parties who were involved in the book.
You collaborated with the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press (JOAAP) when it came to publishing the book – why and how did you choose them as publishers? How was your experience of working with them?
I had known about the JOAAP before, some friends of mine had written for them and I liked their publications. I was already about half-way into the project when, luckily, the editors, Mark and Christina, happened to be in Zurich, where I lived at the time. I met Mark at the Cabaret Voltaire. I explained the project to him and showed him what we had so far, a draft of the design, and so forth. Mark and Christina were very open, they didn’t control anything. They were casual conversation partners who helped with things such as getting an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), giving feedback on the cover and things like that. And of course they contributed a chapter as well. When the book was done, they sent the news out to their list. It was great to work with a publisher that I could trust. It made the process much easier and more supportive.
The other day, I checked the book project’s website alternativenows.net and noticed you have also been giving guest lectures on the book in universities in the United States – how did that come about and would you mind telling us more?
Oh yes, that is a very good question! Somehow, the book made it onto several reading lists of universities, I guess because many of the contributors also teach and perhaps recommended it to their colleagues. I was very pleasantly surprised about this and pleased that the book would reach that context. I gave guest lectures at different universities, such as Scripps College Claremont5 where I was invited to speak for a class called United: Women’s Work and Collective Action. In these talks, I always try to share the process behind the book and emphasise why collaboration is an important mode of working. I realised very quickly that you cannot assume that people are already up to date on the topics within the book; for some people it was an entirely unfamiliar idea that there could be an alternative to capitalism. So speaking in educational contexts rather than art contexts presented new and interesting challenges. Then again, there was a woman in the class I lectured for at the California Institute of Integral Studies6 who was already set on integrating solidarity economics into the curriculum at Waldorf schools.7 One thing I tried with students during a talk at University of California Santa Cruz was to engage them in the topic by first doing an exercise asking what alternative nows they know of, have seen, or have participated in.
What are you working on right now? Are you planning to continue with activities connected to the book?
Currently, I am working towards a PhD in Visual Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz. The structure is quite different from what I am used to. We need to go through two years of core curriculum before being able to focus more on our own research projects. I had the experience of having a lot of freedom in my first two degrees, so maybe this will be a good exercise.
I am considering producing a second edition of the book. If that happens, I would expand the introduction and maybe work with a distributor to reach out to more people with the next print run. There were bookstores that we could not work with this time because they could not agree to the profit sharing model. If we print a second edition, everyone will already have been paid so we can focus on sharing the book with more people and be more flexible with how it’s sold. I am also working on an online archive which will map alternative nows globally. I’m also involved in a new group called the UCSC Global Nuclear Awareness Coalition,8 which will publish papers and host local events relating to the politics of nuclear weapons and energy. There are many things in the works, but unfortunately people also need to sleep, so it’s impossible to do everything you’d like to do at the same time! (laughs)
Definitely true! Thank you so much for your time and availability for this interview. All the best for your studies and projects!
My pleasure, thank you.
1 Hickey, A., 2012. A Guidebook of Alternative Nows, Los Angeles: Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press, see also www.alternativenows.net (free PDF download ) and www.joaap.org
2 Since 2007, the Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts (ICS) is an acclaimed centre for the analysis, theory, and history of culture in the arts. Further info: www.zhdk.ch
3 Gibson-Graham, J., K., (1996) The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell Publishers. J. K. Gibson-Graham is the pen name of Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, both feminist economic geographers. In this book, J. K Gibson-Graham ‘explores the possibility of more enlivening modes of economic thought and action, outside and beyond the theory and practice of capitalist reproduction’. (from the back cover of the book)
4 Hickey, A. ed. 2012. A Guidebook of Alternative Nows. Los Angeles, USA: The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, p.131.
5 Scripps College is a Women’s college in Claremont, USA. Further info: www.scrippscollege.edu
6 CIIS is a ‘creative, curious, mindful, and socially aware’ educational institution in San Francisco. Further info: www.ciis.edu
7 ‘Waldorf (Steiner) education is a humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the educational philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy’. The educational philosophy’s overarching goal is to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_education