Interview with Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor
How did The Operating System start?
The Operating System evolved out of a Dada-inspired magazine called Exit Strata that began in 2011, which I was working on with a team of writers and artists. Collaboration is great and hard and complicated, and ultimately in this crucible it became clear that I wanted to create something that was not only a magazine but also all these other things that I thought were both possible and necessary…but not everyone agreed.
So, basically, there was a lot of tension as I tried to grow Exit Strata into this multifaceted, interdisciplinary thing, which wasn’t really everyone else’s original plan. That tension was really important, though, because working closely with people who disagreed with some of my core ideas about how art and literature needs to engage in the world made me look hypercritically at what we (and others) were doing—and clarify my language, desires and intentions for what would become The Operating System, as I tried to win them over to this vision.
I wanted to build a digital network and platform, first of all, because I had already been blogging and coding and part of these futurist, open source networks, and was super inspired by that. But I also wanted to publish books (as I’d begun making my own books, and had a lightbulb moment about this illusory ceiling regarding waiting for permission in publishing) and I wanted to curate—to do art shows, and interdisciplinary events—related specifically to social practice and questions of process and economics. NBD, right?
The good thing, though, was that even if folks weren’t wanting to join in, generally I was told “but go right ahead and do it yourself,” so I did: starting series online, holding events, curating exhibits and panels, and workshopping / publishing the first series of chapbooks. By mid 2013, it was clear that it was time to molt, so poet / filmmaker Benjamin Wiessner and I migrated the work into a new organization we called The Operating System. We published one more periodical under that name, late that year.
By then Ben had already moved to California to focus on film production (with the incredible Ornana collective), so while he remains an emeritus and strong supporter of all things OS, he’s not really able to work actively on projects. Peter (Milne Greiner) and Jay (Besemer) came on board, more recently, as did the translation series editors, and we continue to grow—really we see all our collaborators as being active members of The OS. And of course, it’s continued to evolve substantially since then, in many ways.
Tell us a bit about The Operating System. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Well, I’m approaching publishing personally as an artist, really, first and foremost. And during the reckoning/reality check period of the 00’s I was engaged via both art practice and activism with exploring structural inequalities—in part with the culturejamming movement, and with other spaces in which the line between design / commerce / protest / and production was problematized and blurred. Partially out of financial constraint, my art moved towards using my computer as a one-stop studio—doing graphic design, hybrid work, and teaching myself webdesign and basic code—as well as exploring various early iterations of the horizontal commercial platforms that were available then. I got hooked into open source / peer to peer / futurist communities, too, as well as early citizen journalism projects, and actively maintained a blog on blogger beginning in 2003.
The reason this is relevant, though, is because this is where the work that became The Operating System actually began. The notion of a project that is a question rather than an answer, that invites folks in to possibility, and that evaluates and learns systems from across the spectrum of organizational strategy is this ongoing life-art-project writ large. It’s a big game, in a way, a space of modelling what is currently viable given the resources uniquely available in this time and place: art meeting activism meeting production meeting digital networks and tools.
What I hope(d) to do through The Operating System platform is to aggregate and disseminate critically valuable resources that can amplify and assist creative individuals and organizations in their own process of evolution. This is why we’re called “The Operating System”: because we’re literally inspired by systems of social, cultural, bodily, institutional, network (etc.) operating, and we’re constantly searching for ways of improving those systems, for the good of all of us.
The goal remains to transparently model this work, and to have whoever works with The Operating System as a collaborator (or, hopefully, even as a reader) leave with better tools, a deeper working understanding of systems and strategies, and more confidence in their abilities / possibility, vs. the dominant narrative of the scarcity economy, which is not only damaging but false. Also, The OS is committed to always providing an open platform via which those people can build their own projects, and/or to which they have an open invitation to return. It’s an infrastructure.
What this means is that part of what you see on the site and in our books is always process writing, as well as conversations about the brass tacks of doing and making. The notion that art and writing and other creativity is this clean end result, devoid of back story, isolated from context, is something that I see as very dangerous. We have this hagiography around artists and writers that school only serves to reinforce, where we position creativity as this fickle muse sort of situation, and where we often don’t hear the financial or labor realities of either the work itself or the other jobs that were necessary to get the work made.
These stories are equally important. As an arts organization it’s an honor and a responsibility to take seriously our role in the writing of the history of who the artists and writers are who work with us, and what they were doing in the world. So much of what I do with The OS is driven by an obsession with the archive, and with future history. I think a lot about how stories of different eras are written, how they are reconstructed, and what sorts of documents are studied and rearranged in order to tell the “history” of a time and place. We are all too familiar with the hindsight mythologies surrounding “The Beats” or “Black Mountain” or “The 80s” or “Punk” or “Modern Art,” and so too familiar with canonization—and its bosom buddy, erasure. Especially now, when so much of our ephemera (letters, ticket stubs, culture periodicals, etc.) are “born digital,” it’s hard to know what will become of these documents. Of our videos and audio recordings, of our blogs, our correspondence. How will the official story be written, and what will exist to help correct that account, assuming that fighting the dominant modus operandi is still a struggle?
So a huge part of what I’m doing here, really its beating heart, is a commitment to getting work, voices, and stories into the archive that otherwise wouldn’t be there—and encouraging everyone we work with to tell their story, to take ownership of that story, and to include context and process writing in the backmatter of every document we produce.
This means, in particular, working with hybrid work or other work that struggles to find a home, increasingly with work in translation, with LGBTQ voices, with unknown writers and first books, and so on. And, critically, I do consider the OS an arts organization—we work with creators from all disciplines, trying to break down the silos of professionalization that threaten to separate us from other makers brimming with inspiration! We also facilitate documentation of ephemeral / time bound productions (like performance art, dance, and music) that otherwise are in danger of leaving little trace.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
I have officially lost my mind, by which I mean to say that we’re at 20-ish books for 2017! But really it’s just another test / hurdle / part of the “what is possible” experiment in the OS laboratory. Hopefully it won’t explode in our faces! Ha. [insert nervous laughter here.]
In 2017 so far, we’ve published Johnny Damm’s incredible hybrid poetry/graphic novel, Science of Things Familiar; To Have Been There Then, Gregory Randall’s memoir of growing up in revolutionary Cuba, (translated by his mother, Margaret Randall); and dancer / poet Stephanie Heit’s collection, The Color She Gave Gravity. In April is agon, a scholarly cross-genre meditation on violence from Judith Goldman, and in May What the Werewolf told Them / Lo Que Les Dijo El Licantropo, a dual-language Spanish-English collection from transgender Cuban poet Chely Lima. June will see our 5th annual chapbook series, (Connie Mae Oliver, Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Jacklyn Janeksela, and Susan Charkes) with art from Barbara Byers, as well as another hybrid work with translated elements, Tom Haviv’s A Flag of No Nation. In addition, later this spring, we’ll put out the first release of a new Bowery Poetry OS imprint, soon to be announced.
From summer through the end of this year we’ve got Shabnam Piryaei’s Nothing is Wasted; an expanded edition of Jerome Rothenberg and Harold Cohen’s Flower World Variations; a book of three plays called The Furies, from William Considine; Filip Marinovich’s Fugue State Beach; social practice artist Chloe Bass’s The Book of Everyday Instruction; Jessica Tyner Mehta’s Secret-Telling Bones; Margaret Rhee’s Love, Robot; Peter Milne Greiner’s science fiction / prose / poetry collection, Lost City Hydrothermal Field; another Cuban translation, Israel Dominguez’s Viaje de Regreso / Return Trip; composer / musician Andrea Mazzariello’s poetic manifesto on vinyl, One More Revolution (which will be a paired release with an LP); and the project contributing editor Jay Besemer and I have been working on for some time now, the IN CORPORE SANO : Creative Practice and the Challenged Body Anthology.
And we’ve actually already got 6 titles listed on our catalog for 2018, and that’s not counting the chapbook series and three other titles in the works. I could talk at length about how each of these titles is doing real boundary pushing, vital exploration in ways that I feel are critically important, especially now, if we had time.
At current, we’re also actively evolving the infrastructure to onboard other OS collaborators as editors, to midwife books through the publishing process with me only coming in for guidance. One title already coming on board that way is Blake Nemec’s Sharing Plastic, which Jay Besemer is editing, for publication in 2018.
As much as possible in future I want to continue to seek out archivally critical work, scholarship appearing in nontraditional forms, and to continue growing our Unsilenced Texts translation series. And, I’m hoping to move towards a more evenly distributed ratio of genres, encouraging and facilitating more work with creators who might not be documenting their output in text without the OS’s help. And, as we have since day one, The OS will continue to be committed to upending the canon—publishing work by creators diverse in gender, sexuality, race, age, disability, and access, seeking out that work actively, and offering invitation, rather than solely waiting to see what shows up on our Submittable.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
In this absolutely BANANAS political environment, with threats like loss of the NEA and proto-fascist leanings threatening a space in which free speech and creative expression are not only ideologically but systemically on the chopping block in the US, indie presses / small arts organizations are recognizing more and more that they HAVE to evolve in order to remain sustainable.
Which, for me, becomes an answer to both of these questions: I think one of the reasons this is a really exciting time is precisely because organizations are seeing the light about how we need to change, and become more open to new strategies and models (even if, in some cases, begrudgingly so).
I think a lot about gatekeeping, MFA / institutional silo creation, cronyism, and hierarchies of privilege, and how these elephants are hanging out in so many of our rooms, at our readings, and in our publications. It strikes me that independent, small presses—even ones that may have begun with a radical idea—often end up reproducing the systems of power they ideologically are positioned against. And this all too often happens because after coming up with the theoretical idea of what we want to do, many folks aren’t aware of alternative organizational structures, and fall back on the broken ones that are familiar and easily reiterated. (Max Weber can you hear me? Yes that should be sung to the tune of Tommy, thanks.)
I deeply believe that we can make the process of not only creating work but also publishing it something that makes us remember our potential rather than one in which we feel exhausted, rejected, and potentially guilty for wasting time and money on work that is, clearly, “bad,” since it’s not getting accepted…right? But no, I mean, in actuality a LOT of very very good work is getting rejected, for a whole *host* of reasons—not the least of which is the fact that if we are funding our publishing organizations via reading and contest fees, the financial model is reliant on the rejection of more than 90% of applicants. So, the math just sucks, out the gate, especially in terms of the psychological repercussions of the way that system is built.
Not to mention that requiring creators/writers to battle this system to get published also reinforces privilege in so many ways—unduly handicapping those of us for whom betting on these odds with investments of time and money is either not feasible or feels deeply irresponsible—in particular those of us who are already battling physical or mental disabilities, whose financial circumstances already require working multiple jobs, who have to handle childcare or eldercare responsibilities without assistance, and so on.
I am much more interested in investing those dollars and hours in positive ways, towards sustainable production models based on peer-supported learning / skill-sharing / training and cooperative industry. (Peer-editing, peer-design, cooperatively funded and ergo cooperatively earning publishing is what I’m talking about here). We have a lot to learn from other movements and industries along these lines, too—and there’s also so much room to organize our community in structural ways that can make not only publishing but also life more sustainable…for instance, unionizing—for which Actors’ Equity (health insurance! credit union!) is a good model.
But, you know, baby steps. Admittedly I am personally kind of a baby godzilla, so I’m like RRROOOOOOWRRRR tear it all down change all the things all at once!!!, but I’m learning to approach it as tenderly as possible. Change is hard and scary! So we’ve got to be gentle with each other, even while lighting a match to set the old on fire.
There’s certainly some personal reckoning that has to happen though, with people admitting (even to themselves) that they *like* and benefit from the systems that are in place in some way, and that they’re scared of losing a foothold of “power” or “importance” if things truly were to get horizontal up in here.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at The Operating System?
Yo, I eat snacks like you wouldn’t believe. I have chronic illness so I can’t drink COFFEE and I barely drink alcohol anymore, and you’d think these were the blood and water of literature the way they’re positioned in the social canon (fyi, more disability PROBLEMS here!), but legitimately I survive via a wide range of snacks and through the grace of my cat.
Financially, though? The OS was built on a super-agile model based on running strict numbers on tight margins for multiple small print runs. Pre-order sales and author sales at 60% of retail cost need to cover an initial intended print run to establish enough interest to put a book on SPD for distribution and to print via our small printer (Spencer, who is AMAZING), otherwise we have the option of using IngramSpark. It’s also built on the I’mwillingtovolunteerupwardsof80hrsaweeksometimes model, which is not really sustainable, but this is what I’m doing in the world, right? So I can’t imagine being disappointed or feeling like I’m missing out on things. I’m working to strategize using a less centralized, community-facilitated marketing roll out for our books, because this is an area that can suffer in small presses like ours with limited time and money. But so much of what we do is work with our authors on being better operators within the network, and thinking about the long game. The idea that a book has to have all its press before its release is just antiquated, and not built for the short-term memory of these times, nor for the deafening signal-to-noise ratio. We can be getting reviews on a book that came out a year ago. It’s about attention for the book, getting it in hands, having a reviewer who really gives it time and a sensitive read. A lot of these ideas about when things have to happen by are just unnecessary stressors. So I also cope, in actuality, by reminding myself about the ridiculousness of these things, and how to work around them, while giving advice to my authors.
We’ve never charged fees for submissions or had contests, simply because I feel so strongly about how damaging that model is to the community. Ultimately, what the OS is built to be is a peer-facilitated publishing infrastructure—so while I’m de facto editor, handling the numbers for the majority of our books right now, I see what I’m doing as just being the first iteration, setting into place strategies, procedures, and channels which any of our community members can now follow editorially. If they use the OS’s agile set up, they won’t need to worry about significant upfront financial outlay.
In terms of who should carry the financial burden of publishing, well, it’s complicated. Because on the one hand, we all want artists and writers to be paid for their work, because we believe in its value. But on the other hand, in an economy when the publisher is entirely volunteering their time, and maybe breaking even simply on costs, and when that person is just another poet/artist who’s built a cooperative infrastructure for others to use, it’s a little different. You, as an author, are an entrepreneur, in a way, and like an entrepreneur your work—not the hours of labor you put into that craft—is a product, for sale. And, just like in any other enterprise, you have to convince the market that your product has value. We confuse this a lot with absolute value, or the value of artistic labor.
As a publisher, when one is willing to take on, in particular, totally unknown or even little known authors, and put many unpaid hours of labor into producing a book with no pre-existing market, with little hope of even recovering costs, this is already a huge statement of belief in the absolute value of the work. It’s an investment, actually, that we’re making in the person and their value.
A critical part of what we do with the OS is really make sure our authors fully understand the how costs work in the process. When I work with musicians, for instance, they’re amazed at what costs I’m willing to cover, because coming from the recording studio setting, they’re looking at what I’m doing and being super appreciative for all the services they’re getting for free, whereas authors are sort of primed to anticipate the book as this moment of finally “making money” and may feel somehow like a press is making money off them and wonder why royalties aren’t rolling in, which is just not how it works, structurally, at all. The reality of the distribution situation is that after all the middlemen have been paid their cut and various fees, the publisher is often left making, what, a dollar per book? And that’s not something that most authors or other people seeking to get published are aware of, so I am fully transparent with our authors about how the monies break down. We spent about 20K in 2016 on printing alone, and this year we’ll spend more than double that number. So I’m happy to just be making enough back to cover that, but it’s pretty much a book-to-book pipeline.
That said, looking at this through a “business” or entrepreneurial lens, as a visual artist, I feel super excited that production is so high, with so many books in the world, and that I’m even covering those costs. I’m not paying myself, but what has been produced is of inestimable value.
Is there anything you wish we’d ask presses that we don’t?
Perhaps what we’d do with our organizations if we had no financial limitations whatsoever? I love this line of thinking, and would be curious to see what other people say. Immediately I would exponentially expand our output, after hiring, training, and offering GREAT pay to an amazing staff! And dedicate resources to resources! Radical archives, skillshares, moocs, all free! Then, naturally, I would absolutely establish a brick and mortar community space, with an entirely open source infrastructure / governance, that I’d then help plant in other cities until we had a full network of community spaces for writers and publishers to drop anchor in, find resources, support, and allies wherever they found themselves….also a school…and a farm…and a boarding house….? I haven’t given up on this as feasible, btw. 2020? Shoot for the moon!