The Book Society

Founders of the Book Society in Seoul, Helen Ku and Lim Kyung Yong, talk about the origins of their bookshop and publishing house

Helen Ku and Lim Kyung Yong opened The Book Society in Sangsu-dong, Seoul, in 2010. One aim of the space was to provide somewhere to distribute the artist books and ephemera that they produce through their small imprint, mediabus. However, the project also grew out of a curiosity about how publishing is evolving in an increasingly digital world and the way in which communities gather through and around printed matter. All publications are the product of collaboration and, from its opening, The Book Society has used books as a means to gather people – through events, music and art performances and reading groups. Deeply informed by the use of printed materials by conceptual artists of the 1960s and by the critical writing of the period, The Book Society is interested in printed matter as both artefact and network. It has translated many important English-language art theory texts of recent year and introduced these to a Korean audience through its various discursive platforms.

The Book Society has participated in many exhibitions and art book fairs across Asia and beyond, and has collaborated with brands such as COS in addition to hosting innumerable international writers, artists and publishers for events in the cosy, stacked-to-the-rafters shop space, which is now located in Jongno-gu.

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‘An Incomplete List: Graphic Design 2005–15’, Ilmin Museum, Seoul, installation view. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

‘An Incomplete List: Graphic Design 2005–15’, Ilmin Museum, Seoul, installation view. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

Amy Sherlock  How did you start?

Lim Kyung Yong  In 2008, we set up a small publishing house called mediabus. We both have arts backgrounds – Helen in design and myself in film and video art – and it was initially intended to be as a platform for printing books of colleagues and friends. The first book we made was an interview with Ryu Hankil, a sound artist. We printed 200 copies. Another early title was Monami 153 Chronicle (2010) by Kim Young-Gle – a fictional work based on a famous ballpoint brand, Monami, which is ubiquitous in Korea.
At that time there was no bookshop in the city that handled the kind of informal publications we were making, so we decided to set up The Book Society in Sangsu-dong. We envisioned the bookstore as a project space for distributing and introducing the things we were printing. It was important for the project that we could use the space to hold various kinds of events, talks and presentations.

We’ve also used the bookstore to conduct a study session called ‘reading room’, where we have translated texts such as Claire Bishop’s Radical Museology (2013) and discussed essays by US artists of the 1960s and ’70s, such as Sol Lewitt and Lucy Lippard, whose work has been a touchstone for our thinking.

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'Artist's Documents: Art, Typography and Collaboration', exhibition view at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2016. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

'Artist's Documents: Art, Typography and Collaboration', exhibition view at National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 2016. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

AS  Approximately how many titles do you stock and from how many countries? What kind of publications are they?

LKY / Helen Ku  There are now about 3,000 books in the bookshop. They are mainly from Korea, Japan, Europe and the Americas. We primarily deal with contemporary art and design. It’s hard to generalize about the kind of publication we stock or what attracts us to a particular title: it’s about a certain attitude to publishing or the context in which it was produced.

AS  What kind of things does mediabus publish?

LKY / HK  We publish Korean art theory books, a moving image journal called ‘Okulo’ and a research series called ‘Public Document’. We have also produced many artists’ books with both Korean artists and artists who have exhibited here, such as Søren Andreasen, who participated in last year’s Gwangju Biennale.

So far, we’ve published 87 books in total. The largest print run was 20,000 copies and the smallest was 100 copies.

mediabus is also a kind of curatorial project; we’ve been involved in several exhibitions about publishing culture.

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Korean translation of Alessandro Ludovico’s Post Digital Printing: Changes in Publishing since 1894, 2012. Published by mediabus, 2017. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

Korean translation of Alessandro Ludovico’s Post Digital Printing: Changes in Publishing since 1894, 2012. Published by mediabus, 2017. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

AS  What is the latest title that you printed?

LKY / HK  Our most recent book is a Korean version of Seth Price’s ‘Dispersion’ (2002), which is an essay about the ways in which digital technology is affecting the way that art is produced, circulated and experienced.

There are several books that have had a profound impact on my thinking in terms of what we are doing as both a publisher and a distributor. ‘Dispersion’ is one; another would be ‘Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing since 1894’ by Alessandro Ludovico, which was published in 2012 and translated this year. The writings of the Mexican conceptual artist Ulises Carrión have also been very influential. Works like these help me to image how knowledge production will change in the future. They are important. I would like to introduce these books to Korean readers.

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Poster for ‘The Incomplete List’ exhibition in Beijing, 2016, showing printed matter by Korean designers (mostly one-off prints) collected by The Book Society since the early 2000s. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

Poster for ‘The Incomplete List’ exhibition in Beijing, 2016, showing printed matter by Korean designers (mostly one-off prints) collected by The Book Society since the early 2000s. Courtesy: The Book Society, Seoul

AS  Please tell me about one unrealized project you wish you could do, or one artist or writer that you would like to work with.

LKY / HK  In 2012, we did a project called ‘Temporary Service’ about art and labour, which covered some issues about the so-called ‘creative industries’ and ‘immaterial’ production. These are topics of great interest and I intend to publish a book about the project someday.

Sadly, the artist who I would most like to work with is already deceased, Ulises Carrión. Some of the texts he wrote about books are very meaningful to me.

AS  If you could own only one piece of printed matter – book, magazine, poster etc. – what would it be and why?

LKY / HK  Actually, bookstores are full of collectible things. Most are samples left over after sales, many of which are rare. Clearly, the book I want to have because I want to read it and the book I want to have to because I want to own it are different. I would like to avoid the situation of having to choose, but if I could only have one, I would take Seth Siegelaub’s Xerox Book (1968).

Main image: The Book Society, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London.

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