Born out of a handcrafted dining table in 2012, The Perch has evolved from a dining series to publishing house, alternative exhibition space, and pseudo residency. The venue is the brainchild of Matt Austin who was the sole operator until 2014 when the organization brought on a staff of ten, each with specific duties pertaining to the operation of the multifaceted space located in his apartment. Although the operation is centered within the walls that hold The Perch in Pilsen, the venue has grown outside of these boundaries through partnerships—including one with the yearly artist residency, ACRE. Through local collaborations, The Perch holds seminars and workshops in larger spaces, including a recent stint at the MCA this summer during their Word Weekend. Choosing local artists that the team is passionate about, The Perch publishes runs of fifty hardback books documenting the artist’s current practice and publishing the book without any cost to its designer. I recently had a chance to sit down with Matt at The Perch’s wooden table to chat about the venue’s history and dedication to each artist they choose to collaborate with and support.
KS: How did you transition from a dinner-focused venue to publishing space? Why was this the obvious step for you?
MA: Bookmaking and publishing was where my individual art practice was going at the time The Perch started. The very first event at The Perch was a dinner surrounding one of my own books. I gave out copies of my book, Wake, to ten people that didn’t know each other, but all knew me. I wanted each guest to give the book to someone they thought should read it next. That’s the day that I consider The Perch actually starting. I taught myself through YouTube how to handmake books, which took many, many hours. After the project finished I realized how much I had enjoyed it, so I started teaching the method to my high school classes–how to build a zine and then make that zine into a hardcover book. I learned that I enjoyed teaching that, and that some of my friends could benefit from it. There were people in Chicago whose work I respected so much, and wanted to build a book with them too. It was a total learning experience, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but each artist and I sort of learned together.
Is The Perch’s publishing selection an intuitive process?
Yes, especially up to this point it has been super intuitive. Normally it happens mostly through Facebook. I’ll see writing or photographs that get my attention, and I will inquire and see if they have an interest in creating a book to chronicle their work. The materials that we use are those I collect from other institutions like the University of Chicago’s Special Collections library. When they are throwing out archival materials I will pick them up instead of the institution throwing it out. Another way we make each artist edition happen is through grants and other small donations. The artist then gets all of the profits. The idea is that we use our money to pay for the materials, then we teach the artist how to handmake the book. Once the edition is finished, it is in their hands. They can do whatever they want with it. Every sale goes straight to them. There are some cases where we will help them to get the book into a collection. Most recently, we met Doro Boehme at Medium Cool, and the Joan Flasch Artists’ Books Collection collected everything that we had made up until that point.
What sector of Chicago’s community are you attempting to nurture through The Perch?
We are coming up on our one year anniversary of working as a team. Before that it was just myself. What we have been learning through growing together is that it is easy to affect your immediate community, like your artist friends, right off the bat because they are so within reach, but what we are trying to do is develop systems in which our reach is expanded. What has happened in the past year is that we have learned a lot about hosting events. We are coming up with answers to reach a greater number of people.
How did you become a partner with ACRE?
That happened at the beginning of 2014, they reached out and asked if we would be a partner gallery even though we aren’t a gallery. They explained that some of their artists were not getting what they needed or wanted out of the exhibition programing because some artists were a better fit for alternative spaces. They knew we were pretty flexible, so we came on as a satellite gallery to work with people who maybe wanted something else than your standard exhibition.
Do you feel as if the space The Perch inhabits is a character of the organization in its own right? That it might be hard to exist without the specific space you have?
I definitely think the dynamic would change if it was more of a storefront space or something like that. I would say expanding is definitely a goal, but not to cancel this space out. We now have a staff of ten, but most of the work we accomplish happens remotely and in other spaces. We are pretty aware of how little our reach can be from our space, so we often partner with other organizations. The Perch has a limited accessibility, not only as a living room, but also within a building that doesn’t have a buzzer. We try to partner with other organizations to make events happen where a larger reach is possible. Probably most predominately we have done that with the Smart Museum with the residency I had last year, also at at the MCA’s Word Weekend event we held classes and were part of a micro-publishing fair on the first floor. We have a book that is being co-made by Spudnik Press, so that is also resulting in some cooperative programming.
How do you feel your personal practice plays into the organization as a whole?
I think a lot of the work I have been doing in the past couple of years has been really rooted in admitting that I don’t know a lot of things, and trying to figure out where to go from there. I feel like The Perch is maybe an extension of that attitude. No one gained their roles on our team out of extreme experience or a dense resume, they gained their roles out of interest and commitment, and what they are doing at The Perch is growing into the roles that they are interested in.
Will you explain the concept behind your monthly gift series?
It was an idea that my brother Jeff and I came up with. We thought of several people that we would love to design a notebook for, and it’s such a fun practice tool. There is no cap with bookmaking where you don’t need to practice anymore, you can always get better. When individuals we bring on give us complicated requests, it pushes us further in our bookmaking. We have to just figure it out. Coming up with solutions to the problems that they create with their request is a fun exercise.
Photos courtesy of Kate Sierzputowski.