From Sexy Codicology (well, they must have thought the name would increase traffic). Accessed May 1, 2017 11:17 PM.
Scholars and programmers from all over the world are working together on providing a technology that give researchers, and heritage enthusiasts, a rich and uniform experience when viewing digitized heritage. Most of all, they want to make it possible that as many digital collections as possible all work in the same way, so that any image from any museum or library can be seen in any viewer online, together with any other manuscript or artwork that is IIIF compliant! Side-by-side!
The International Image Interoperability Framework (“triple I eff“) began its efforts in 2011. As of September 2018, over 100 universities, libraries, cultural heritage institutions and open source software companies are participating.
Some of those organizations hold book art collections. Imagine being able to examine an artist’s book “in the round”, to zoom in, to compare one artist’s flag book with another’s side by side. A query about whether any of those organizations plan to apply the technology to those collections has been sent.
Standing open at 7 foot by 5 foot, is it the world’s largest bound book? The result of Michael Hawley‘s research and field expeditions out of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is certainly the iMax of books.
With his “Medieval Letter People“, the marvelously named Eric Kwakkel opens my eyes yet again to the materiality of the letter in books and book art – and prompts this renewed but brief hunt for abecedaries.
The human body is one of the most common objects encountered in art, whether in paintings, sculptures or other objects. Things have not changed much since medieval times, when artists loved to fill their work with human figures – commonly saints or individuals affiliated with biblical stories. Among the great diversity of depictions, there is one type that stands out in that the body is used (or rather, abused) to express something other than itself. These particularly fascinating and often amusing depictions are found on the medieval page. We see people bent and stretched into unnatural shapes in order to change them into something for which the book was created: letters (Fig. 1).
Kwakkel teaches at the University of Leiden, about ten miles from where I am writing. His online essays wear their learning lightly on the screen and bring the past to life, repeatedly connecting it with our not-so-different present thinking. Seeing the date of the letter G above made me wonder, how did we think about the ABCs during the overlap between illuminated scribal books and the printed book? Kwakkel’s entry on the model or pattern books from which scribes and illuminators would learn to form and decorate those introductory letters adds to my curiosity. Even as late as 1530, eighty years after the invention of movable type, these model books were still being created in parchment. For how long do technologies overlap and co-exist?
In 1529, Geoffroy Tory — “born typographic” — published Champfleury, more treatise than abecedary, to explain the design of type according to the Golden Mean. As his subtitle declares, Tory was not bending the human form to the letter but rather explaining The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face – finding the ideal shape of the letters in the human form and face.
The 1927 translation into English, magnificently designed by Bruce Rogers, one of the preeminent typographers of the twentieth century, can be found online in the University of Delaware’s ABC: An Alphabet Exhibitionand even on CD from Octavo Editions, which also includes the original French and so brings the overlap from the born typographic to the born digital – at least in the medium if not the author.
As more recent evidence supporting Kwakkel’s assertion “things have not changed much since medieval times”, I offer up the New York Museum of Modern Arts’ 2012 exhibition “Artists’ Alphabets”, which celebrated book art abecedaries.
One entry in particular – Stop the Violence: Character Studies by photographer Francois Robert – contributes to this medieval heritage of the flesh made into word: his letters are formed of human bones.
Tien-Min Liao, a New York-based designer whose work surely deserved a place MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, offers a far gentler and more gestural ABC for my last specimen. Early in 2012 before the MoMA exhibition, she created her alphabet in what she calls a “typographic experiment” to explore the relationships between upper-case letters and lower-case letters and record how they transform into one another.
Inking shapes onto her fingers, hands and arms, she manipulated or “gestured” them into the corresponding shape of an upper-case letter. Then, without removing or redrawing the inked-on shapes, she adjusted her gestures or the perspective on them to change the upper-case letter to a lower-case of the same letter. As shown in her illustrations below, she even created an italic version of her “Handmade Type”.
The videos she created to show the transformation of each letter are exceptional, delightful. The banner headline on her site runs forward and backward, turning the HANDMADE into handmade and vice versa.
Unlike my other specimens, though, Tien-Min Liao’s abecedary is available only online. Without my imagining it as a book as well – bound in linen, with a metal handclasp closure or in a solander box including ink, brush and a CD with instructions on handmaking my own alphabet and with a Digital Object Identifier to keep up with her work – the technological overlap has now run backwards or full circle: the flesh become letter, the fleshly letter become digital.
Look here and here for more examples of ABCedarian books. And here for the online exhibition at the University of Delaware.
Helen Douglas has been kind enough to forward the notice above of her most recent work — In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James. Based on her invited residency in Mexico City, this concertina book takes the viewer through Edward James’ jungle garden Las Pozas, its buildings and staircases, James’s surreal imagination and, best of all, Douglas’s own imaginative experience of them. See the interview at BookArtBookBlogthat preceded the work’s unveiling at the London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery and Berlin Art Book Fair.
When I go to Weproductions, the website of founding partners, Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas, it is like taking a walk in Yarrow, Scotland, or taking the measure of paper samples between forefinger and thumb, or browsing in a bookstore, or lingering in an art gallery. Two of Helen Douglas’s works in particular elicit this: The Pond at Deuchar(2013) and A Venetian Brocade(2010).
Was it London Book Fair where I first saw this bookwork, appwork, scrollwork … this work of art? What you see above leads you to the app. Clive Philpott’s postscript to this work, featured on Weproductions and published by the Tate, offers all the background and appreciation of the work you need to read. Read it, then go to The Pond at Deuchar*, lean forward and trail your fingers through its waters.
A Venetian Brocade equally makes the “act of looking” tactile and the “act of touching” insightful. The work reminds me of this passage from Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992):
… bipeds go ape about shopping and dressing-up in Venice for reasons not exactly practical; they do so because the city, as it were, challenges them. We all harbor all sorts of misgivings about the flaws in our appearance, anatomy, about the imperfection of our very features. What one sees in this city at every steep, turn, perspective, and dead end worsens one’s complexes and insecurities. That’s why one—a woman especially, but a man also—hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on par. This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings. That’s why furs fly here, as do suede, silk, linen, wool, and every other kind of fabric.
If you are lucky enough to buy one of the few remaining copies of A Venetian Brocade, you will see and feel how it leads to In Mexico: in the garden of Edward James. Appreciation of that double-sided leporello work’s extension of the Douglas’s concept of Visual Narrative and its kinship with James’s surrealism can only be enhanced by viewing The Secret Life of Edward James, George Melly’s documentary film from 1975.
But having indulged the surreal elements, think back to the pond at Deuchar, think back to the Tate’s association with Douglas’s work, then consider this work also held at the Tate:
Here is a narrative of art across time and place to touch by looking and, by looking, to be touched by.
An update (30 April 2017) covering Douglas’s Winter: Celestial Mountain(2015) can be found here.
*Deuchar is pronounced “dew-ker”, the “k” as in “loch”.