Pablo Lafuente is a writer, curator and academic, and the managing editor of the arts magazine Afterall. His writing has been published in Flash Art, Art Monthly, frieze, Parkett, Radical Philosophy and the Wire, and he has a soft spot for romantic philosophy and Marxist aesthetics.
Portrait: Ajay RS Hothi
Ajay RS Hothi What is Afterall?
Pablo Lafuente It is a research and publishing organisation, part of the research department of Central Saint Martins, which itself is part of the University of the Arts, London. We’ve been operating for over 11 years and we research contemporary art and publish a journal, an online platform and a series of books. The idea is that each of the platforms tackles contemporary art from a different perspective, while always trying to make a connection between art and its wider theoretical, social and political context.
Primarily it is an academic publishing organisation; we are part of the university, so we need to engage with the students, to work for them, and also for the professionals, professors and teachers who are dedicated to contemporary art practice. We get support from Arts Council England and we have working relationships with organisations such as the International University of Andalucía in Seville, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.
The context of the visual arts since the 1960s has been very open, and Afterall has always tried to deal with art in a manner that is not too difficult to grasp – not by getting rid of the complexities of the art, but by using a means of expression that makes it accessible to anyone who wants to try. It’s also important to us to make a product (a book, a journal, a website) that actually looks and feels nice. There is close attention to detail in the writing, but also in how things look and feel, when you have them in your hand or when you display them on your screen. It’s impossible to offer a completely fair, accurate and full representation of most art on the printed page, but we believe you have to try to make something that people actually want to grab, want to take with them.
AH Considering the number of partners you work with, many of whom are heavy- weight international institutions, some with their own research units and interests, do you find that there’s an impact on your editorial freedom?
PL There’s no such thing as full editorial freedom. When I first arrived at Afterall, over 5 years ago, the attitude I mentioned earlier – of starting with art and looking to connect it to the world at large – was already there, and it has remained. Every project involves a good amount of people – meeting, discussing, even arguing about how things should be done and why this particular topic is important or not right now. It’s important that such a discussion process happens with people outside of our London office – and that gives us a lot of freedom, allowing us to think outside of our immediate context. At the same time, these structures of support that we’ve put in place give us freedom from direct commercial demands and expectations. This allows us to focus on things that might not be touched on by other publishers in the English language: we’ve been spending a lot of time researching exhibition practice, in Europe and the US, but also in South America and eastern Europe, for example. We have been trying not to tell one story, but to tell different stories. If we had to look too closely at sales figures, we wouldn’t be able to do that.
I don’t want to sound like what we do is commercial suicide, as some of our titles sell very well. But some of our choices are perhaps adventurous: we’re doing a book now about the 1989 Havana Biennial. We don’t quite know how many people in the English-speaking world are interested in that exhibition and the issues it raises, but we think it’s one of the most important exhibitions of the past 50 years, so the book has to be done.
AH Eleven years is a long time for a publication, especially a public-facing research journal, to be around. Do you think Afterall carries a weight that other art journals do not?
PL I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but in the last three or four years we’ve found that the name “Afterall” carries with it a certain credit. We are better known in Europe than in the US, and more in those territories than in South America, Asia or Africa. We have a lot of interest from people who want to write for us and from artists who would like to be featured. But that weight is something that you have to keep working on. Art publishing is a curious business, especially because it rarely works as a business, and trying to do “good” business pretty much determines your choices.
AH Do you have predetermined choices in that respect?
PL Our choices are determined by an attempt to offer a range of alternative approaches to art, by commissioning different approaches to writing. We ha ve a series of books called One Work, each title offering a study of a single artwork, and trying to offer as a series an alternative canon of art history since the 1960s. The BFI does that with films, and there’s a similar series of books focusing on records, but in art it hasn’t been done before. The idea of reading art history not only through the figure of the artist or through art movements, but through specific artworks, opens up a different way of thinking about art. The focus on specific works might add to a cumulative, appreciative knowledge. You could also argue that it might add to the commercial value of the work. Art history has been dominated by biography and linear conceptions of time, and that’s not necessarily the best way of looking at art (or history) – it certainly shouldn’t be the only way of doing so. Other combinations of approaches might give a more complex picture.
The journal is now published under a Creative Commons licence. Whoever wants to use the texts – not the images, as very few artists release them under such licences – can print them and distribute them if they’re not doing it in search of profit, and all they have to do is give credit to the publication. They could have done it before, but the idea is that we are a public institution dealing with research and knowledge – we produce things with the intention of making them the subject of discussion. §