CODEX Mexico City: a personal chronicle

In mid-February 2012, Becky Fischbach and several colleagues from the Stanford Libraries visited Mexico City to attend CODEXMexico, a three-day event that included a book arts exhibition, book fair and symposium. This is Becky’s personal chronicle of the event…

My first sensory impression in an unfamiliar place is how it smells; the caress or assault of its atmosphere in my nostrils and against my skin—thin and dry, cold and sharp, gentle, humid, floral, or funky. Walking off the redeye, I sensed the chemical odor of an industrial city at work. At high elevation and surrounded by mountains on three sides, Mexico City is renowned for the air pollution that can be trapped in by an
inversion layer of cloud cover.

As we made our way through customs and outside to the taxi waiting area my eyes overtook my nose to take in the sight of a busy city waking up—perhaps not ever having slept—already populated, productive, and congested. The chemical bouquet of the airport gave way to fresh air cleansed by recent rains, not the oxygen poor, smog-choked air I’d expected. Mild, sunny, breezy weather would continue throughout our visit.

The night of our arrival we were guests for dinner at the home of Isaac Masri and Julie Sarfati, where we met many of the artists who would participate in the CODEXMexico programs of the next three days. Masri, a dentist, and Sarfati, a graphic designer, founded the Taller Intaglio print studio housed in the lower level of the vibrant Estación Indianilla cultural center, which Masri also directs.

Named for the beautifully restored former trolley car garage it occupies in Colonia Doctores, a gritty neighborhood still recovering from the 1985 earthquake, the six-year-old Estación was the location of the CODEXMexico events.

Readers of this website are familiar with the CODEX Foundation’s biennial—and by now
legendary—symposium and book fair in Berkeley, California. Its founders Peter Koch
and Susan Filter have worked hard to expand the international event’s pan-American
reach to include book artists, printers, fine-press publishers, and bibliophiles from Latin
America and from Mexico in particular. The idea for CODEXMexico germinated and grew
quickly—in less than a year—from a seed cast at the 2011 Codex Fair and nourished by
the desire for continued cross-cultural dialogue among artists, printers, printmakers, and
poets on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border.

The 2012 exhibition Codex México: Libros de Artista in Mexico City included works by five contemporary Californian fine press printers (on loan from the Stanford University Libraries) shown with an equal number of Mexican artists’ books—more than a hundred books in all, displayed in spacious black-metal-and-blond-wood table cases with tall vitrines designed by architect Fernando Ondarza and fabricated specifically for the show.

Massive gears that in times past drove the city’s trolley car system occupied one corner
of the expansive gallery, where wood-plank floors, a high ceiling with exposed metal
girders, white walls, and ample space between exhibition cases placed for 360-degree
viewing gave visitors the best possible visual access to the work.

The Thursday night opening party and welcome remarks, attended by hundreds, was
followed an all-day Friday symposium designed to encourage cultural exchange between
Mexican and Californian artists, writers, and printers working in the form of the book. At
a small book fair on Saturday, artists, printers, and publishers showed their work to the
public and each other. Many of those who participated as both visitors and book artists
were young people—a heartening sign that paper, ink, type, and text still quicken the
hearts and animate the hands of artists in their twenties and thirties.

The symposium’s organizers, Ondarza, Masri, and Sarfati, along with an able crew,
arranged the program to facilitate dialogue among the English- and Spanish-speaking
participants. Simultaneous translation via headsets and a scheduled discussion period at
the end of each twenty-minute presentation helped promote the cross-cultural exchange.
I missed some of the discussion due to technical problems with my headset. Osmosis
worked its magic, however, and the engagement and lively interaction among participants
was instructive, even if I didn’t catch the specifics.

The five California presses and their printers—Foolscap, Ninja, Turkey, Koch,
and Moving Parts—involved in the continuum of bookwork since the 1970s, are in
their maturity both personally and artistically. Likewise, the symposium speakers
on the Mexican side were chosen for their substantial bodies of work and for their
accomplishments as writers, thinkers, and artists who bring their life experience and
intellectual backgrounds to bear on their work in the form of the book.

As co-producer of the events, Masri opened the symposium with welcoming remarks and
a thoughtful narrative summary of the encounters, conversations, and visits that gave rise
to Codex Mexico. Poet Alberto Blanco and artist Vicente Rojo, who have collaborated
on numerous limited edition books, several of which are included in the exhibition
and catalogue were next at the podium; Blanco spoke cogently on the definition of
artists’ books, referencing Ulises Carrión’s thought-provoking essay, “The New Art of
Making Books.” Luis Rodriguez showed a slideshow tour of an exhibition he curated
about the book as object, in which even the display shelving was fabricated of paper.
Roberto Rébora of Taller Ditoria Editores, publisher of “bibliophilic books,” presented
the Taller’s roster of small press publications in paper wrappers, designed to be both
beautiful and affordable. And British-born sculptor Brian Nissen, who has close ties to
Mexico, spoke about his study of pre-Columbian codices and their influence on his work
in artists’ books.

A cultural bridge between Californian and Latin American printing traditions, Catherine
Docter, a Palo Alto native who runs Libros San Cristobal near Antigua, Guatemala, spoke
passionately about the revival of traditional amate (agave fiber) paper. In a guided tour of the Anthropological Museum the previous day, we had seen accordion-format pre-Columbian codices of amate paper coated with clay to make their rough surface receptive to pictograms. During the discussion, a participant admitted that the intrinsic beauty of amate paper, different in every sheet, inhibits him from printing on it. He finds it just too beautiful for mark-making.

On the California side of things, Adan Griego and Roberto Trujillo spoke of the
Stanford Libraries’ role in promoting and collecting fine press and artists’ books. Four
of the California printers with work in the show—Peter Koch, Felicia Rice (Moving
Parts Press), Harry Reese (Turkey Press), and Carolee Campbell (Ninja Press)—gave
presentations. (Peggy Gotthold and Larry Van Velzer, Foolscap Press, weren’t able
to attend.) They presented highlights of their presses’ work illustrated with slides and
enriched by poetry, each describing his or her evolution as an artist in a way that made
clear that their work is a calling, rather than a hobby, an essential and sustainable pursuit
that is perpetually evolving.

It may be cliché that exposure to new things brings a renewed sense of excitement,
possibility, and wonder; it is also true. I spent my childhood in Southern California, a few
hours’ drive from the border. As an adult, I’ve lived and traveled in far-flung places east,
west, and north of where I began—to Indonesia, India, Nepal, South America, Europe,
and the British Isles. But until this past February, I’d never ventured to the immediate
south beyond Baja. Fifth grade Spanish with Señor McPherson didn’t imprint much of
cultural value; if I’d applied the flexibility of my youthful brain and tongue to Spanish
instead of French and Italian, I might have traveled to Mexico earlier. I felt embarrassed
that I’d yet to visit the country that shares a complex cultural history with the state of my
birth, and excited to finally make the connection, to come to my senses. Now, my aging
short-term memory is challenged to learn a new language, pero yo estudio.

The word “senses” is key. Our appetite for culture, beauty, and self-expression is
grounded in the material world. In his symposium talk, Harry Reese spoke luminously
about the tactility of the book. At Codex Mexico, the tactility of the book in all its aspects
was fully present. I’ll be absorbing, exploring, and assimilating what I experienced there
for a long time to come.

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