Harsh Patel

"I have a real talent for picking friends who are more patient and forgiving than I am."
Interview by Asher Penn
Portrait by Jessica Williams

Sister 59, Heart Tape by Asher Penn, 2009

Did Free Association inspire Sister?
Sister came a few years after Free Association. Sister came out of an understanding of the realities of large-scale publishing. I knew that if I designed these things a certain way, made them a certain way, and made sure that only certain people got them, you could get the same feeling without all the hassle of that system. At the time I understood it well enough to know I couldn't contend with it.
For the record, what was Sister?
It was a mail order label.
Why mail order?
Mail order was important to me because it meant that anybody could get it, they just had to pay attention. 
Why did you decide to make such small editions?
If you make just 20 copies of something, at home, and don't even count on selling them, you get to just keep working with your friends, and don’t have to set aside three months to work then sit around biting your nails about money. You can make 40 books in one year if you want, and I did. You can keep that model indefinitely. And, if you’re disciplined about it, which I wasn’t, you could probably make a little bit of money, or break even with what you put in at least.
Did you plan the whole framework before you started? 
Yeah. I think I always do that. Setting up a plan that's based on ideas and what type of resources I have. I’m very used to thinking like that, and looking for it in other work.  
What were the other rules?
Over a year, I would just make 100 things, only with friends, and sell some of it to the people who knew about it. Then it'd be gone and there'd be no real trace left. You couldn’t just walk into a store somewhere and buy the things in the catalog either. Not that I wanted my stuff next to something I may have thought was garbage, anyway. It was hard to keep track of, but anybody could have affordably bought about two thirds of the Sister catalog that was buyable. Some people bought a lot, people I’ve never met. While it was going on, I was constantly erasing releases and replacing them, too. So there was actually a total of about 130 things, but I redacted enough to where it was just 100 like I'd planned.
Not everything on there was for sale.
Sometimes, you could buy them, and sometimes you couldn’t. Depends on what my mood was. It was personal. 

Lesson One Invite, 2011

What were the the things that you were looking for in the people you were publishing?
You were the first one.
Yeah. I didn’t understand what you were trying to do, especially with the quantities. I remember you explaining it to me over the phone.
I believe in getting a good start on something. Your book set up a lot for what was gonna happen after. I didn't know you as well as I do now, but I knew enough to bet so much on that one. I had to trust your work, and where it was headed, and I expected the same in return. 
Was Sister your first project without a client?
No, I’ve been doing work like this for a long time. I used to make fonts, and would sell them online, I’ve also done other things that have time limits, things that come and go and are then buried. I would just rather they stay buried so I don’t ever want to talk about them, but they’re still important to me. The label I have going now, 3DX, is the first one that has no end planned. I have done enough of these now and put them to bed that I'd like one to just go on forever.
There were also things in Sister, like discography books for other labels.
Yeah. I looked around, and couldn’t find that information when I really wanted it. So I had to make it myself, put all that information together from these places that usually have incomplete information about these things I admire from a distance. Afterwards, I have some kind of instinctual thing to want to put them in a form that I think is deserving of their beauty. I’m careful when I make those things that it’s understood that I am not asserting any kind of alignment with it, or that I own any of it. Nor that I have any kind of a "real" understanding of it just by making that. I hate when people do that, it's a punishable offense. Those things were always sold for zero profit, too. I stuck by that, and a couple of people responded favorably. I was always scared that someone from XPRESSWAY Records would be upset that I did this, but, I found out they weren't at all, which was great. I mailed them a few copies last year.
I know you collect a certain type of music, but, you also share it on the internet. It's a pretty big thing, right?
Yeah. The work I put into that helps me think bigger things through. What I like about this music is it's based on a way of making things and sharing things that is special, but tried and true through other music, like dancehall. If I dedicate a few hours a day looking for it–and it's pretty hard to get through any traditional channel–talking to other collectors and serious listeners, while making sure I'm not piggybacking on someone else's culture, then it sort of keeps me in check about everything else. I don't use my real name, there's no branding, no ad dollars, no book or documentary in the works. In order to keep my privileges as a trader and collector, I have to make sure I'm square with the producers, MCs, DJs, and listeners in equal. That's some of the enjoyment for me anyway, making sure I don't screw that balance up.  

Sister really set up a style of collaboration. You also do design work for a spectrum of independent companies. Is it the same?
I’ve worked with a lot of people in the same way before. They know that I’m paying super close attention, closer than most anybody else. So they already know that I’m going to do something that is about them first and me second. They know that they’re handing it off to me, and they’re gonna see it when it’s done.
Are they approaching you or are you approaching them?
Did you approach John Roberts?
I approached John offering any type of work. I was put onto Dial by a good friend, and liked what I saw of their operation. I knew about him as the lone American on that label. I read an interview with him where he said some key things I agreed with. And just being somebody that’s always liked house music enough to where I can listen and make out a distinct personality, I knew he was cool in that way. We talked a while, then I proposed designing a website for him. From start to end, it was maybe a four-day thing. It conveyed what he wanted it to convey, with no editing. I met him face to face a bit later in Berlin.
This way of working seems to cut out micromanaging. 
There's no micromanaging because it’s usually a handoff.  My close friends know I never talk about my work process or ask about theirs, or solicit feedback on work from them, or give them feedback on anything they're working on. So, it's in line with that, too. 
It seems to work.
I have a real talent for picking friends who are more patient and forgiving than I am, too.

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Art