Bookmarking Book Art – Xu Bing

I count myself “magpie lucky”.

Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Kettle's Yard exhibition, 2015
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14
Kettle’s Yard exhibition, 2015

The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.

from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)
from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)

I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.

Book from the Sky, 1991 Xu Bing The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Museum of Modern Art Photograph taken 31 January 2015
Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991
The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery

After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop.  Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands.  The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”

Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and “square word calligraphy”, gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning.  Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.

The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aesthetica review of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.

Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.

With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning.  We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages.  We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.

On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery  intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.

Detail. Xu Bing Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

Bookmark – Phoenix in an Elegy for Paper?

fahrenheit-451In another elegy for paper, Mark Fox in Designers & Books leaps from the famous conversation between Ray Bradbury’s characters Professor Faber and Fireman Montag in Fahrenheit 451 that begins, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean?” to Jaron Lanier’s assertion that the remix culture is responsible for “the digital flattening of expression into a global mush.” Fox sets this against Professor Faber’s elaboration of what he means by “quality”: 

To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detailFresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Consider, however, this conversation between the artists Stefan Saalfeld and Gerhard Mantz published in the February 2013 issue of the Lumas Gallery Magazine, “The Liberation of Art“:

Saalfeld – … I’m interested in the changes that take place over time. In nature, the old sits alongside the new. There are always tensions, and injuries.

Mantz – That is exactly what characterises your images. This breaking apart and breaking through as if the colours were peeling off to reveal fragments of completely different pictures behind.

Saalfeld – Gaps appear through these breaks and dislocations. This allows something different to emerge from the image. There is always an unexplained story behind the story, another version. I no longer believe in a single, individual image.

Here is a healthy “anxiety of influence” that overcomes qualms about tradition, builds upon it and, yes, perhaps devours it as if it were seed corn. Its analogs in book publishing can be found in the work of Tom Abba, Duncan Speakman and others associated with WeAreCircumstance or in the works of Jonathan Safran Foer and others published by Visual Editions, all of which represent an intersection of narrative and the plastic visual arts.

Paper is not dead, digital is not still-born, creativity is a phoenix.

These Pages Fall Like AshThese Pages Fall Like Ash, Tom Abba

Short Films for YouShort Films for You, Tom Abba, Els Viaene, Reinout Hiel and Yoko Ishiguro

Foer2Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer

Composition-1Composition No. 1, Marc Saporta

WhereYouAreWhere You Are, Visual Editions

Bookmark – The PhysiDigi Bookmark

If the pen can be mightier than the sword, can a bookmark be mightier than Amazon? Bow Software Ltd in the UK thinks so.  Using NFC technology, Charlotte Quickenden’s firm has committed “digital metonymy”:  a bookmark that delivers the book.

A PhysiDigi Bookmark is a physical form which acts as a digital trigger to download an ebook.  A PhysiDigi Bookmark has value, the value of the ebook that it opens for you to read. Therefore if you want to buy it, you purchase the ebook just as you would any other book by exchanging money with the vendor be that bookshop, venue or exhibition. The ebook is then yours. You own it, this is not an ebook lease controlled by DRM. If it’s a good ebook you can lend it, or,  if it was a present you can wrap it and gift it.  This physical digital thing is tactile, it has visual appeal, and through the act of acquiring it you will naturally have a closer connection to it than a box that you tapped ‘install’.  Charlotte Quickenden, MD, Bow Software Ltd., via Bookshops of the Future: Where Physical and Digital Co-exist.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is the wireless transmission of data from a hardware device to another physical object within 10 centimeters of the device.

  Both must have embedded NFC chips and antennas.  Quickenden hopes that her bookmarks with embedded NFC chips and antennas will level the playing field for bookstores, which for some publishers have fallen to less than 10% as a source of sales.   Listen to Quickenden describe the PhysiDigi bookmark and watch it in action.

 

Bookmark — “How Old is Innovation before it’s New?” David Worlock

Fachbuchhandlung
Vienna’s Manz Bookstore, facade by Adolf Loos

Two interesting words: “semantic” and “innovation.”  Find yourself a good cup of coffee, a slice of sachertorte, the aroma of cinnamon and take the time to read this article by David Worlock.

“Getting” the fundamentals of digital publishing means “getting” semantics: the semantic web, taxonomies, ontologies, tagging and all that.  David Worlock’s article is a good place to start to understand why.

Bookmark — The evolution of bookselling

overdrive-retail-ebook-kiosk--134x250
Nate Hofhelder, The Digital Reader

No good history of the book in the late 20th and early 21st century will overlook this part of the book’s value chain.  In covering the earlier eras, the outstanding historians — Chartier, Davenport, Eisenstein, Johns,  Lefèbvre and Martin,  McMurtrie,  Pettegree, Pollard, and Suarez — touch on distribution and retail to varying degrees.  When it comes to our era though, the effect on the book itself of the distribution/retail roles played by Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, Apple, Google, OverDrive and a host of other smaller key players such as Project Gutenberg will loom larger.  (So will that of self-publishing if we consider BookStats‘ report that self-published ebooks represented 30% of ebook sales in 2012.  What the effect will be, though, is harder to say.)

Around since 1986, OverDrive has its roots in the production end of the industry, providing publishers with conversion and formatting services from diskettes to CDs to ebooks.  Its owner, Steve Potash, set the foundations of its contribution to distribution and retail in 1999-2000 with his participation in the Open eBook Forum, now the International Digital Publishing Forum, and his creation of Overdrive’s Content Reserve.   As of this writing, Content Reserve contains over a million ebooks; it is the “overdriver” behind the firm’s library distribution service and the OverDrive Retail Kiosk.

If the OverDrive Retail Kiosk becomes a key to unlocking the way back for book retail in the “real world,” it will by its own definition contribute to the evolution from the printed book to the ebook.   Anyplace — in the mall, the main street or high street, the coffee shop, canteen or library — can become an outlet for the purchase of ebooks, which will feed back into the supply and value chains.

No doubt, historians will note that OverDrive required no physical ereader of its own, no Kindle, no iPad, etc., to reach this point in the evolutionary path but rather, it was its dual focus on finding an effective way to rationalize the delivery of multiple formats while pursuing a standard (EPUB) and on meeting the distribution needs of libraries then retail that put OverDrive in its current position. That position is symbiotic with both “closed garden” ereaders and apps as well as books-in-browser solutions.

Just as the Gutenberg press would not have taken off without the regular supply of a more relatively standardized form of paper, the digital book has had to await — is still awaiting — a more standardized format and mechanism of delivery.  In reinventing themselves and these parts of the book industry’s DNA, OverDrive and others contribute to the evolution of the book.

 

Overdrive Digital Bookmobile
Overdrive Digital Bookmobile (Photo credit: Librarian In Black)

 

Bookmarking Book Art — Mandy Gunn

Wang 1
TEXT-ile The Unconcise Oxford Dictionary 2011                     © Mandy Gunn

Made of book pages, shredded and woven, cut and collaged,  the bookwork pictured is part of “an ongoing investigation between TEXT and TEXTILES.”    Gunn comments, “Text is usually explicit and obvious; textiles are understood in a more cultural, unstated way. By making Text into a Textile where only minute pieces of text render any meaning unmeaningful the boundaries between the two become blurred and the viewer has to look at the work differently.” (http://zoneonearts.com.au/2013-02-11-mandy-gunn.htm; accessed 12 May 2013).

Advancing in its investigation, Gunn’s work seems to be moving backwards in biographical time — the Oxford Dictionary   (hailing from her UK roots) to the Melbourne Yellow Pages (from her chosen new roots in Australia).

A work from 2010 called “Scroll” was made of hand shredded and woven Melbourne Yellow Pages.   The scroll is 10 metres in length and 60 cm wide draped over horizontal Perspex rods hung from the ceiling and cascades like a waterfall coming to rest on the floor.  The now meaningless text mingles with the colored inks of the ads and paper in a pixellated effect, blending the allusion to the pixellation of the computer screen with that to medium preceding the codex.

 

 

Bookmarking Book Art – Franziska, a typeface

The Fine Press Book Association’s inaugural Student Type Design Competition sprang from the hope that by building bridges between printers and young type designers we might end up creating new material resources for the fine press community.

A PDF document called the Making of Franziska – a hybrid text-face between slab and serif is available for downloading.  This document is quite well put together and provides a kind of tutorial on type design.

franziska-font_runge_03_text_04_freundliche-versalien

Bookmark — The ABC of Bookmarking

romandelarose
Detail from Harley MS 4425, Roman de la Rose
767479
Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum

The British Library‘s “Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts” blog is a reliable source of visual delight and provocation to think about the interplay of the print and digital worlds.  It also prompts the application of Ezra Pound’s critical technique of juxtaposing works, demonstrated so well in his The ABC of Reading.

Earlier this year, Ann Tomalak, Conservator, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, posted “Digitising Manuscripts:  The Condition Assessment,” a wonderful essay that warrants reading alongside A Degree of Mastery by Annie Tremmel Wilcox.

I have read A Degree of Mastery from cover to cover twice.  Once in New York between 2002 and 2005 when I was teaching “Professional Book and Information Publishing” at NYU and wanted readings to help provide students with a sense of the history, art and craft of the book. The second time here and now in Windsor looking for the “right something” to include in “Books On Books.”

On both occasions ebooks and digital publishing pervaded my thoughts, but only on the second time around did these questions and observations I want to raise now shape themselves as they have.

Annie Tremmel Wilcox weaves a memoir of her apprenticeship under the renowned bookbinder and conservator William Anthony.  She weaves it with her diary entries, excerpts from an exhibit brochure “Saving Our Books and Words: The Conservation and Preservation of Books,” newspaper articles, correspondence, passages from “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” by Toshio Odate, step by step descriptions of mending torn pages and crumbling leather spines and plainspoken observation of fellow workers, conference attendees, librarians, government officials posing with restored documents, children making “books” from striped computer paper with wallpaper sewn on for covers and, of course, Bill Anthony, the “Johnny Appleseed of bookbinding.”

“Weaves” is the precise word for the structure of her book’s narrative, and it would be the right word for her ebook, if there were one.  As I re-read it, this game of word substitution yielded questions that make this memoir a useful means to bookmark the evolution of the book.

Writing about some of the tools she learns to use — lifting knives, translucent bone folders, the spokeshave and others — she says of Anthony’s, “His tools were smarter than mine. They knew the correct way to cut paper or pare leather. By using them I could feel in my hands how the tools were supposed to work.” (48)  For Wilcox and her reader, Bill Anthony is the master “shokunin,” craftsman or artisan.  And when she quotes from Odate “For the ‘shokunin,’ utility and appearance must be enhanced by the tool’s ‘presence,’ that is its refinement and dignity….,” this reader asks,

What are the tools of the ebook maker? From whence comes their refinement and dignity — their “presence” — with which the “shokunin” imbues his creation as a result of his commitment to his craft?  In what tools of the ebookmaker does “the spirit of the tool that records the ‘shokunin’s’ ability through the years to face the uncertainties of life, to overcome them, and to master the art of living” reside?

Too Zen? Perhaps.

An English grad student, Wilcox relished handling the University of Iowa‘s Sir Walter Scott Collection, its Leigh Hunt Collection and The Works of Rudyard Kipling.  Confronted with earlier slapdash and botched work on certain volumes of the Kipling, she writes, “Certainly these volumes of Kipling are found on the shelves of numerous libraries across the country, but the integrity of ‘these’ volumes as a complete set has been lost.” (179)  What constitutes the “integrity” of an ebook or its constituents? Are ebooks so “immaterial” that such a question is nonsensical?

The author’s apprenticeship included collaboration on the exhibit “Saving Our Books and Words.”  In addition to coauthoring the exhibit’s brochure, Wilcox contributed to completing Anthony’s special project of developing for the exhibit a unique collection of models demonstrating “the evolution of the codex – the form of the book as we know it.”(181)  In the brochure she touches on the immateriality and materiality of the Center’s work: “Simply defined, preservation is the attempt to save the intellectual content of books while conservation is the attempt to save both the intellectual content and its vehicle — the covers, paper, endbands, etc. The former is concerned with saving what the human record contains without regard to the forms it winds up in. The latter focuses on the artifact itself, attempts to save this book, this sheet.” (192)

What is the “form” of the ebook as we know it? Is the ebook as much “vehicle” as “content”?  What are its equivalencies to the page or to what “binds” the “text block”?  What does it mean to “conserve” an ebook?  Of a digital copy, what are the materials; what is the artifact to be conserved?

Wilcox ends her memoir with the completion of her “masterpiece,” the restoration of the incunabulum that Bill Anthony assigned her before his death and which she completed after it with the help of “The Restoration of Leather Bindings” by Bernard Middleton, author of the standard text “A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique.”  The work assigned was Pope Pius II’s “Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum,” printed by Johannes De Colonia and Johannes Manthen in Venice in 1477, which when restored was “not a deluxe edition, but … had great integrity.”  In the year 2547, of what will the preservation and conservation of today’s e-incunabula consist?  Will some apprentice conservator understand the “form” of these ebooks “in the cradle” and, master of smart tools, restore them to their integrity?

With Ann Tomalak’s essay, perhaps we can see that future through her present lense on the past.  Give it a read.

Bookmarking a Book Burning – I

Julian Baggini (Aeon) has posted a thoughtful piecejulian-baggini-burning-books on the need for an important cultural artifact to evolve — not just in its codex form but in its very essence — the encyclopedia.  One reader/viewer (there’s a video as well) commented:

Which is worse? Burning books because they are now available in an electronic format? Or not having any physical books to burn, unless you steal them from a museum or collector?

Hold that thought (an “argument by false dichotomy”) and go to Baggini’s concluding paragraph:

I can’t help but mourn the passing of my set of Britannicas, but I do not mourn the passing of the institution. Encyclopædias have passed their use-by-date as fitting symbols for the esteem in which we hold culture and learning. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education have to change with it. Nostalgia for obsolete publications serves us only if we use it to remind us of the things we really value, and want to take forward into our own new world.

What if, though, the things we value and want to take forward into our new world are caught up in the “affordances” of such tangible institutions as the encyclopedia.  Maryanne Wolf hits this chord hard in Proust and the Squid when she worries about the effect of the Google universe on the nature of her children’s ability to read:

Reading is a neuronally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts as by the direct message from the eye to the text. … Will the constructive component at the heart of reading begin to change and potentially atrophy as we shift to computer-presented text, in which massive amounts of information appear instantaneously? … is there either sufficient time or sufficient motivation to process the information more inferentially, analytically and critically? … Or does the potential added information from hyperlinked text contribute to the development of the child’s thinking? …

I stray with these questions. But indeed we stray often when we read.  Far from being negative, this associative dimension is part of the generative quality at the heart of reading. … Charles Darwin saw in creation a similar principle, … ‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’  So it is with written language.  Biologically and intellectually, reading allows the species to go ‘beyond the information given’ to create endless thoughts most beautiful and wonderful.   We must not lose this essential quality in our present moment of historical transition to new ways of acquiring, processing and comprehending information. (pp. 16-17)

To go back to Baggini’s troubled reader/viewer, we will not burn books because we have them electronically.  As our different types of books evolve, some we will have electronically only and some we will have both in print and electronically.  We already have many digitised rare books and manuscripts in libraries, museums and collectors’ holdings.  Most people’s exposure to those works can only be electronic, and the more this is the case, the less the need to steal them.   But also the greater the need to understand and innovate to address the loss of tactility and the proprioceptive experience of “curling up with a good book.”  In alluding to Jerome Bruner’s collection of essays Beyond the Information Given, Wolf is reminding us (linking us?) to Bruner’s apt observation that Lev Vygotsky, the famous Soviet developmental psychologist, “was fond of an epigram from Bacon, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247).   Perhaps neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.

Bookmarking The Gutenberg Bible – The Digital in Support of the Print

The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1...

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has updated its site displaying one of the only five copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the US.   There is much to admire here, and much to be curious about.  The illustration of the watermarks that distinguish the Pforzheimer Bible, the map of locations of other copies (complete and incomplete), the page-turning interactivity and the inclusion of a kids section are welcome.

The interactive map showing the spread of printing, however, does not compare well with those at Jeremy Norman’s From Cave Paintings to the Internet Database Maps, and an explanation of how the Center’s Bible was digitized, something on the order of Ann Tomalak’s informative essay at the British Library’s site describing what conservators must do to prepare fragile manuscripts for digitization, would enrich the Ransom Center’s offering.   

Equally the history of Gutenberg the man and his work with Johann Fust could have been more detailed as could the history of printing and its spread.  Jeremy Norman’s site is still hard to rival.  Other related sites worth a bookmark:

Sarah McCarthy’s review of Hendrik Willem van Loon’s Observations on the Mystery of Print and the Work of Johann Gutenberg at the New York City’s Center for Book Arts

Jeremy Norman’s speculation on Gutenberg’s possible contribution to stereotype printing

The British Library’s site where you can compare paper and vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible

The Göttingen Gutenberg Bible site where you can also find reproduced the notarial instrument on the financial dispute between Gutenberg and Fust

The Keio University site that allows you to compare the Keio Gutenberg Bible with that of the University of Cambridge (require Javascript plugin)

And of course the Mainz Gutenberg Bible.