Spatial Contagions: In Conversation with Rachel Valinsky
February 6, 2020
Rachel Valinsky is a curator, writer, and researcher based in New York. She is a co-founder of Wendy’s Subway, for which she currently serves as Artistic Director, and is completing a PhD in Art History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Wendy’s Subway is a non-profit reading room, writing space, and independent publisher. The editors of CO— met with Valinsky to talk about Wendy’s Subway’s work at their reading room in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
CO–: Ok. Maybe before we even get into this interview, if you could just like walk us through this space, that would be awesome.
Rachel Valinsky: So we actually rearranged things last week, which was nice. [Pointing to the storefront] We’re always trying to figure out how that front space can be better used, but essentially, we set up a little reading area in the front with some free materials that people can take.
[Pointing toward the wall] These cases are usually reserved for our residents. In November, we hosted Gato Negro, a Mexico City-based publisher, and still have some of their books up here.
And then on the right, here’s our current resident. They run two projects; one called diSONARE, which is a journal of art, fiction, and non-fiction essays. They also organize this backpack project called Mochila, which is full of publications from Latin America that really don’t have any circulation here. They bring the backpack along and display it whenever they get a chance in different places.
CO–: Could you tell me a little more about this installation here? [pointing toward a hanging drawing on the wall]
RV: This was actually an intervention by our summer residents, Collective Question. They are a collective of three and were really here every day, working with the library and picking things out of the collection that had to do with radical pedagogy. Towards the end of the residency, we printed this [publication with them, titled From the syllabus to the city and back again on Riso until like 2:00 in the morning [laughs] and had a “collating party” with people who were invited to come help us make the book and hear about the research behind it. So this [intervention] was kind of their work in progress as the residency was going on—they were installing things on here as they were thinking [through] some of the materials from the book, too.
CO—: So much of the work is done coordinating with collaborators that sort of come and go, and I think that presents a lot of opportunities to make this not only the space itself, but also the development of a network. I think it makes so much sense that they would do that work here and use Wendy’s Subway almost as a model. Have you seen it become a road map for other communities? Has it germinated in that way?
RV: Definitely. I think that in some way the residency program is the most dedicated initiative within Wendy’s that hosts different communities on a rotating basis.
The residencies offer different publishers, collectives, organizations, and artists opportunities to do focused research and work here, but then also to bring in audiences that their projects can’t otherwise assemble because of lack of space and resources. Wendy’s Subway has really acted as a container for different ideas, different projects, different audiences. What’s really exciting is when those things start to cross over and when we start to see people coming back for programs that, you know, they might not have encountered [outside of Wendy’s.]
While we remain flexible and open, acting as a container, we hope our programs still have an internal coherence that audiences can trust will offer them something of interest even if it’s not in their immediate purview. The residency program really aims to do that. It’s a different model, I think, than a lot of residencies, which really center on individual work. We have always thought about how to bring in smaller scale organizations and other projects that can really benefit from audience engagement through this space and access to the library.
But [although] the question of the identity of this community somehow being subsumed by other programs is something we’re always thinking about, I don’t think we have a deep anxiety about it. I mean, I will speak for myself, but I think, in general, we feel confident that we really have a good handle on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The process of communicating those motives and the mission of Wendy’s is only ever clarifying itself, even as we try to remain as nimble and as adaptable as possible to the different groups that come in.
CO–: So what is that mission, currently?
RV: Well, we have always been interested in—on a larger level—this notion of “the social life of the book,” which we ripped from our friends in Paris, castillo/corrales who were publishing this pamphlet series called “The Social Life of the Book.” And I say “ripped” sort of jokingly, because as a very young organization, we were looking at different models and what different people were saying about an expansive approach to publications, to help develop our own vision and ideas.
For example, our collection reflects the scope of our interests. It can sort of appear like it’s all over the place. [laughing] When we are collecting books, we’re trying to work on small press acquisitions and really think about ecologies of publishing that are on a much smaller scale. What we’re interested in, at one level, is this notion of the social life of the book as an expansive spectrum of everything that happens here, from people writing in this space; to taking part in workshops and reading groups that expand on certain publications or generative writing practices; to publishing a book or collecting books that other people have published; to bringing awareness and knowledge of those publications through people reading out loud in the space and reading groups, et cetera.
That obviously is a very large spectrum for anyone to insert themselves and fit into and as a result, I would say that out of, let’s say, 10 proposals of programs that we might receive, we’ll say yes to probably most of them. We’re pretty small, so when people find us, they usually have a good reason for why they want to work with us, or a good story for how they came across our program. Many proposals come through a kind of network of word of mouth, one that we trust, and that network is always growing.
CO–: We’re a little random, I suppose.
RV: No, not at all! Not at all!
CO–: We first [met Wendy’s] at the Small Press Flea. And then it just so happened that Wendy’s Subway and [managing editor] Corinne [Butta] came out for the Yale Odds and Ends Book Fair.
RV: I mean, it’s not random at all! The person who invited us to do that for the first time designed a book for us. And there’s a reason why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, and mostly those reasons are relationships with people that we’ve worked with, that we’ve collaborated with, and whom we respect.
CO–: I’m still processing the expansiveness that’s happened from the beginning to now, and what’s funny is trying to communicate what this is to other people because there is no package there. There is no [clear] model. But how are you describing it?
RV: There have been lots of different things we’ve tried to do over the years. One year, we had a fellow working on social media for the library, because we were realizing lots of people came to the programs and were like, “Oh, my God, you have this library!”
So there’s a basic communication problem, which is that I think most people are not used to the idea that there’s a space they can enter; they can stay in for as long as they want while we’re open; they can read books for free that are hopefully interesting titles they may not encounter somewhere else; and that this model is free and open to the public. There are libraries, obviously; there’s a library down the street from us. But we’re also going against a general preconception of what a storefront space is. We’re not a store.
We’re always trying to think about how to improve this space so that people’s experiences in here are more intuitive. Many people who follow us on social media might not really understand what this [space] is, but have seen us do things in other places. We’re trying to just make the various aspects of our programming from publications, reading rooms, to the library, to our public programs more coherent, and this new website will do that. [laughs] But yeah, this is part of the challenge, and I think it’s why when people ask, “What is Wendy’s Subway?” I’m kind of like, [breathes deeply] “Here we go….”
CO–: Especially without a capital exchange. Like when I go somewhere and I want to sit somewhere, I’ll think, oh, I need to buy something just to get the Wi-Fi pass. It feels weird to just be able to come in. What I also love about this is that it feels kind of anachronistic. It’s ‘after’ the Internet, and we’re talking about access, yet there’s a huge emphasis on like physical space and physical ephemera. I’m curious what that means, because you could publish these online but that wouldn’t be what you’re trying to do regarding access and distributing information. But there’s something about this space and what it means to [emphasize] people being here.
RV: There might be a day where we have to reevaluate this because our number one expense is rent and this is obviously difficult. Out of our budget, we are all still volunteers, but our landlord gets paid—that is just upsetting. [laughs] But we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that we do and bring in people through the door for different kinds of programs if we didn’t have this space. And I think the kind of anxiety that we feel faced with a wall of books that we may or may not ever read is still a better anxiety than the vertigo I experience when I see all the PDFs on my computer.
CO–: Oh yeah. Yes.
RV: Like, you know? This [pointing to the bookshelf] is better. [laughing]
And also it is a testament to the kind of layered history of provenance of all these books. We have these books because someone brought them here. Because a reader gave a reading and donated the book. Because a publisher that we met on a trip somewhere donated things. There is a kind of social history here, which I think is very important. Maybe it’s simply a line of metadata in our catalog, and it is, but I have a spatial memory of where everything is, and where it’s from—that’s pretty special. Part of why it’s hard to catalogue in here is that we need to keep piles together for as long as possible so we don’t start to forget where books came from. [laughing]
CO–: The space kind of becomes a document in and of itself of a lot of the history that’s taken place here, which I think is fantastic. What came up in PEER REVIEW was this idea of “holding space.” And it makes sense in a place like this. There’s no sole ownership of it, but it’s something that is able to be temporarily transferable to whomever is coming in and have their voice be represented. What does the term “holding space” mean to Wendy’s Subway?
RV: It’s really at the core of everything that we do. “Holding space” is a phrase I’ve encountered in many different contexts, from facilitating discussion, to allowing for certain kinds of unforeseen possibilities. It sort of gets to the openness of what we’re trying to do—hat space can be occupied by any number of people, but there’s still a job of facilitation, administration, and care that goes into that. That’s very important.
We also hope this can happen on the other end, we entrust the audience to hold space for someone presenting; we hope that there is that dynamic that takes place as well. Wendy’s has, for many of us, become a kind of platform for our own professional and creative developments too. In that sense, over a longer period of time, it has held space for what we want to achieve for other people and what we want to achieve for ourselves. I think that’s important, and it doesn’t to my mind belittle at all the fact that we aim to be a community-based reading room. Wendy’s Subway also serves a purpose for the people who run it, and I think this is very important because it is a labor of love. [laughing] On many levels.
And I think the day that such space is no longer required, that people don’t feel the need for it—whether that’s us or our audiences—will be the day that I feel very happy to close. There are some really practical questions that I like to keep close at hand, so that we continue to consider the urgency of all the things that we do, and why we need to do them.
CO–: And also other organizations would want to “scale, scale, scale” and expand. But I think this scale is important for [Wendy’s] to work this way.
RV: Yeah, we talk about that a little bit here. We are a non-profit. There is, I think, a push within the non-profit world to keep growing in certain ways. And as the volume of work that we do grows, I certainly feel like the funds that we have available to do that work need to grow as well, so… yes, our capacity keeps growing. But to me, that doesn’t need to be tied to over-scaling of the space in any way. And I wouldn’t want to make any kind of scale jump unless we were all feeling the absolute need for it. In some way, what’s much harder is to “maintain” and to plateau, actually—to plateau without falling into obsolescence. That’s a more interesting model to me. It’s one that rejects the kind injunction to overproduce.
CO–: Maybe scale is not the correct question. I’m going to steal a term from my program director, Keller Easterling, who talks a lot about the “multiplier:” contagious ideas and contagious formats. So rather than this necessarily being something that has to expand but—this is going back to this issue of the model—that it presents a model for like-minded actors to produce similar kinds of spaces that operate not as one single massive scale operation but as a kind of a conglomerate of networks that are that are allied but not necessarily explicitly in partnership.
RV: Our first resident here was the Free Black Women’s Library. It was started by one woman, OlaRonke Akinmowo, who had a collection of books by Black women that she would put up on her stoop in Crown Heights or in Bed-Stuy on various Saturdays and have book swap sessions. That’s how it started. Now she has an enormous collection. There are chapters of this library now in other cities. But it all started with her individual initiative. I have gone to her house to get the books there and they’re in boxes all over the place. The structure is very personal, yet there are chapters all over the place–in Los Angeles, in Detroit…
This kind of contagion is really exciting—the lack of proprietary-ness, the desire to share, instead. If you’re not interested in that, then you can’t really hold space. You can’t. It’s beside the point.
CO–: One last question. This has been confusing me so much. How did you guys arrive at the name? How did Wendy’s Subway decide to be named Wendy’s Subway?
RV: [sighing] Well, there’re lots of stories about it. I was not at the naming meeting, however, so even what I understand of it is somewhat of a myth…
CO–: I do think the mythology of it is part of its allure; this ambiguity of origins is fitting for Wendy’s.
RV: I enjoy the fact that it’s not a didactic name; there is the chance that someone who has absolutely no idea what we do will ask the question, “What is this?” Then you have a conversation, you can learn more about what interests them, what Wendy’s could or might mean to them in the future..