The UNFOLD Shanghai Art Book Fair has become a key presence in the city’s M50 Creative Park over the last few years. Inevitably, the book fair, which enters its third edition this year, faced uncertainties due to Covid-19. But thankfully, after several efforts by the organizers, UNFOLD was still able to happen mid-October.

2020 has been a challenging year for everyone. But even so, the enthusiasm for art books is still going strong in Shanghai, and it means a lot to still be able to meet all the indie publishers in person at UNFOLD this year.

M50 Creative Park was packed to say the least, with long lines snaking out of all four exhibition halls. Inside, throngs of people pushed you along, past rows of rare art books or one-of-a-kind zines that sold out in no time —  you definitely needed to act fast to avoid disappointment!

Crossing Borders Through Books

In ​​this moment where we can’t cross borders freely, art publishing has never been so important. Many self-publishers are based across different time zones and piece together creative content from various parts of the world. Just thinking about this makes me feel like I’m already travelling!

At the book fair, there were several interesting publications that took us globe-trotting. Across from our booth was Shang Liang and his eye-catching mohawk, who had been enamoured with travelling to Japan in the past few years. Unable to travel this year, he took to recreating the joys and escapism of his Japan trips through past photos. In July, he decided to self-publish his first photobook Forget Japan, and also expanded the theme into interesting merchandise, such as stickers and a USB e-book among others. He even took to Google Map, and scrolled through street views of places in Japan that were unreachable for now, going on virtual journeys.

Resonating with Like-minded People

Unlike going to a bookstore, there is always a strong sense of exchange and connection at art book fairs, where you get to hear directly from the artists and publishers about the inspiration and ideas behind each publication. Among the vast sea of ​​books and people, there is always something and someone that catches my eye and resonates.

Among the familiar faces of both publishers and visitors, is where like-minded friendships are formed, and opportunities to collaborate happen. Take myself, for example — I took part in writing and translating for the latest issues of LOST and the new sea-themed magazine DRAWN, because I met Nelson, the person who runs volumepress, at last year’s UNFOLD. It’s all these exciting possibilities and partnerships that make indie publishing such a fascinating venture to be part of!

Same Paper, a self-publishing studio from Shanghai, says because their readers have a huge appetite for content, they always challenge themselves to create something fresh for them each time they meet.

And there’s always someone, who becomes inspired by their visit to the art book fair, and takes the plunge into self-publishing and indie books.

Cheney, founder of Kaleidoscope Books, was amazed by the levels of enthusiasm for indie publishing he saw at the fair when he visited last year. After his trip, he decided to open an independent bookstore in his hometown in northeastern China, without too much deliberation. Each time he connects with visitors at the art book fair, he feels super motivated.


Pushing the Limits of Publishing

Although it’s called an “art book fair”, what you see is by no means limited to photography books or publications about art. The scope of conception, design, and expression of what it means to self-publish is on full display here at UNFOLD, and it never ceases to amaze me how art and creativity can exist in so many forms.

Any preconceptions of publishing are almost always overturned at the art book fair. From creative use of lo-fi Risograph techniques to miniature “photo books” hidden in film boxes, and “collaborative creations” that require readers to take part in the making process, I’m always super excited to come across diverse and mind-opening publications that embrace creative freedom.

Rubbish FAMzine from Singapore, is a “studio” formed by the four members of the Lim family. Each issue of the publication centers on a different subject. The latest issue celebrates the humble “chair”, and starts off nostalgic by looking back through old family photos, with the Lim children sitting on various chairs. It even includes a ‘Chairfix’ kit, a palm-sized flatpack, where readers can put together their very own modernist chair.

Guilty Pleasure_Potato Chips by bonbon edition, is a small art book about the pleasure of guilt. The interactive book was designed to immerse the readers in a universe of guilty pleasures, and the protagonist is a jointed doll that needs to be assembled by the reader. The book comes alive with an accompanying stop-motion animation that can be viewed online.

I chatted with publishers on the impact of Covid-19 and how they are feeling right now. Most of them have moved on from the initial anxiety to embracing a slower pace of life now. Though putting projects on hold is undesirable, it’s an opportunity for both creators and publishers to have more time to think through their ideas.

Despite difficulties, 47 overseas publishers also took part in this year’s UNFOLD Art Book Fair with the assistance of local volunteers. Speaking with the volunteers, I learned that some of the publications did not make it in time for the fair. This will be an ongoing challenge for creators and publishers around the world, as they try to keep global cultural exchange afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the pandemic has increased the physical distance between people, it is through books and magazines that we experience shared anxieties and emotions to know we are not alone. I truly hope that the state of indie publishing can continue its ethos of supporting diversity and originality — which unites and connects all of us, with love and optimism.

Athena Chen is fascinated by how we make sense of the world through creativity—music, design, arts, literature—whatever form it may take. And whenever she can, she writes in hope of making some meaning out of it all and sharing it with you. By day she looks into the future of lifestyles as Senior Editor at WGSN, and her writings can be found in Wallpaper*China, The Artling, VICE music channel Noisey among the many. Follow her visual diary on Instagram: @athe_che