A conversation between Aurora de Armendi and / Raquel De Anda
April 19th, 2016
Aurora, you are a multidisciplinary artist that has been working in the the format of the book for the past seven years. What is it that attracts you to the book as a medium of expression?
The book has been one of the most important technological advances in the history of humanity. But today, computers, phones, iPads and Nooks are slowly redefining what a book is, replacing the sensorial experience of browsing through a conventional book with a uniform “screen” engagement. As we engage with digital technology, we no longer are touching paper or smelling the history of sediment. Sometimes, I have even remembered passages from book based on how the pages smelled.
I make books because I’m interested in the haptic qualities they offer to the viewer as well as the time-based nature of this medium. Viewing and reading books is an intimate and often individual experience and it can be done anywhere.
In many ways Libro Abierto is about memory, belonging, and disappearance. As you invite each poet to reflect upon the disappearance of these Spanish language bookstores, their memory conjures a shared experience that most people can relate to. Can you tell me what your first memory of walking through a bookstore as a child was? What was your experience of that bookstore and what are some of the bookstores you remember from NYC that aren’t around anymore?
My town of Puntabrava in Havana, Cuba unfortunately had a tiny bookstore with few books, most of them perpetuated the history of the Cuban revolution or recounted prowess stories of national leaders, but in the school I attended, Julio Antonio Mella, there was a wonderful library and a very passionate librarian, Daisy. As you walked to the second floor you could see the vast sugarcane fields at the distance. Once you entered the library you were immersed in shelves and shelves filled with books: fiction, non-fiction, history, science, memoirs. We spent an hour every day of the week in
this amazing place. Sometimes Daisy would encourage us to act out the stories, to read the poetry out loud and interact with the other students. These memories from the late 1980’s early 1990’s are very special to me.
In the center of Havana, there were a few bookstores as well. My uncle, who is an avid reader of fiction and history, would take me and my brother to the center of the city to show us the architecture and we would always end the day at a bookstore.
When I moved to New York to study art at The Cooper Union in 2001, my dorm was next to St. Mark’s bookshop on 3rd avenue between 8th and 9th streets. The feeling of exiting the dorms and looking at the large window displays full of books was always a grounding way of starting the day. Eventually St. Mark’s Bookshop moved from this location due to a rent increase from its landlord, Cooper Union, and recently closed its doors permanently. It is now an online store.
As I acclimated to the city, I ended up in Little Spain, where I found what would become my favorite two bookstores in the city: Libreria Macondo (open to the public for 35 years) and Librería Lectorum (open to the public for 47 years), both located on 14th street between 6th and 8th avenue. These two bookstores not only offered an expansive selection of spanish language classics and contemporary books but also, Libreria Lectorum had scheduled events with visiting writers and poetry readings. I remember, it was a place for the Spanish community to gather and share their appreciation for literature and history. I left New York from 2006-2009 to attend the University of Iowa to pursue my Masters in Printmaking. When I returned to the city in 2010 both of these book stores were closed. My project, Libro Abierto, emerges from my reaction to this feeling of loss of community and culture that had nurtured the Spanish speaking intellectual community in New York City for over four decades.
While you were researching for this project in Queens, did you get a sense of what the neighborhood’s relationship to bookstores was? How did your work change as a result of this knowledge. Jamaica Flux is a platform for public experience of art. As an artist, how do you feel you have risen to the challenge of engaging people in the neighborhood through your work?
When I started to visit Jamaica, Queens, I noticed right away the lack of bookstores in the neighborhood. There is currently a tiny place called Sutphin Books & Video located on Archer Street that has one bookshelf with used books, the rest of the store sells videos. Thankfully, the Queens Central Library has an extensive collection of books in different languages and an array of educational literary activities for children, teens, and adults. While I was conducting research I asked a person on the street to point me in the direction of a bookstore and he told me to go to the 99 cent store to buy a notebook.
After frequent visits, I came to understand that the best way to engage the public was through a series of workshops at the Queens Central Library. I will be teaching bookbinding to the public in Jamaica, Queens in the next month. I have also invited my friend and fellow artist of Jamaica Flux, Rejin Leys, to conduct a papermaking workshop to share her appreciation for paper with the participants. I’m hoping that during these bookmaking sessions the community will understand how books are constructed and ultimately gain appreciation for the book as a physical object. Hopefully, our conversations will continue to frame concern for the disappearance of the physical book, without excluding the turn toward digital technology. I’m also organizing a poetry reading on June 4th with the poets Iraida Iturralde, Lourdes Gil, Jennifer Tamayo, and Cecilia Vicuña. To learn more about the ratio of bookstores per neighborhoods in Manhattan for over five decades, I recommend the article, Map: Manhattan’s Disappearing Bookstores, by Nell Casey in the online Gothamist newspaper.
As neighborhoods in New York city gentrify, the stores that cater to the neighbors change and transform over time, how do you hope for your public, participatory work to affect that?
I’m wary that my work or any, for that matter, can be affecting in any lasting way. Though I acknowledge my work being present in specific communities with specific histories can’t help but be affecting. I have less a desire to re-present the problems of real estate and gentrification, but rather to provide a framework for engaging with plural, local histories–which can be of, about, or bound in the book form.