On “The Book” (MIT Press, 2018)

With apologies to the preacher:  Of making many books [on books] there is no end. 

                                                                                                                (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

With the choir of its forebearers, Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018) sounds an “amen” to that truth. The proliferation of degree programs in book studies covering the history of the book, the book arts and even book art ensures The Book will not be the last. What distinguishes Borsuk’s book are her perspective as an artist and the book’s breadth and depth despite its brevity.

The book has a long history of existential crises. What is a book? Is the end of the book nigh?  For more than a century, those questions have returned again and again. The most recent recurrence stems from the ebook’s threat to dematerialize the book and the online world’s threat to take us into a post-text future. Even before these latest threats, book artists have long lived and worked with their own existential questions, a kind of higher existential calculus, or derivative of, the book’s crises: What is an artist’s book? What is book art?  Stephen Bury, Riva Castleman, Johanna Drucker, Joan Lyons, Stefan Klima, Clive Philpott and many others in the last quarter of the 20th century dwelt on defining and categorizing book art.

Borsuk belongs to a later generation of book artists that has embraced these existential crises and recognized that the book’s existential crises are what make the book a rich medium in which and with which to create art — from bio-art miniature to the biblioclastic human-scale to large-scale installations and performances. Even to the digital.

The Origin of Species (2016)
Dr. Simon Park, Guildford, Surrey
“The small book shown here was grown from and made entirely from bacteria. Not only is the fabric of its pages (GXCELL) produced by bacteria, but the book is also printed and illustrated with naturally pigmented bacteria. ” Posted 27 March 2016. Photo credit: Dr. Simon F. Park
Silenda: Black Sea Book (2015)
Jacqueline Rush Lee
Transformed Peter Green‘s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and the Black Sea Letters
H9.5″ x W12″ x D6.5.” Manipulated Text, Ink, Graphite
Photo credit: Paul Kodama. In Private Collection, NL
Enclosed Content Chatting Away in the Colour Invisibility (2009)
Anouk Kruithof
Reproduced with permission of the artist
Field (2015)
Johannes Heldén
Produced, and premiered, at HUMlab, Umeå University
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Performance artist and academic as well, Borsuk brings that later generational and creative perspective to the existential question — What is the book? — and, with an artist’s perception of her medium of choice, displaces the old companion existential question — Is the end of the book nigh? — with an altogether more interesting one — Where next for the book?

To see where books might be going, we must think of them as objects that have experienced a long history of experimentation and play. Rather than bemoaning the death of books or creating a dichotomy between print and digital media, this guide points to continuities, positioning the book as a changing technology and highlighting the way artists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pushed us to rethink and redefine the term. (pp. xiii-xiv)

In The Book, the future is not far from the physical past. Where once we had text on scrolls, now we scroll through text (albeit more vertically than horizontally). Where once human consciousness changed with the invention of the alphabet and writing, now it may be altering with our reading and writing through networked digital devices. Like the many historians before her, Borsuk starts with cuneiform (those wedge-shaped accounting marks on baked clay), hieroglyphics and the invention of the alphabet to set the scene for the advent of the book and its ongoing physicality:

  • its shape (scroll, accordion, codex)
  • its material (papyrus, vellum, paper, charcoal or mineral-based watercolor and ink)
  • its manufacture (scribing, printing by woodblock and movable type, design and typography, illumination and illustration, folding into pages, methods of binding)
  • its constituent and navigational parts (cover, book block, title page, table of contents, page numbering, index).

But Borsuk reminds us — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — the book as human artifact exists in a social, political, technological, economic and even ecological context. Who is allowed to make it, how it is transacted, how and where we use it, how we perceive and speak of it — all have affected the physicality of the book object and are reflected in it. 

In the first half of The Book, Borsuk steers us through these interdependencies to a turning point. That turning point is where the pinnacle of the book arts — Beatrice Warde‘s and Jan Tschichold‘s vision of the book as a crystalline container of content — and the book’s commodification combine to cause the book’s physicality to disappear because it is so taken for granted, leaving us with “the book as idea”.

With the perception that books are ideas bestowed on readers by an authorial genius whose activity is purely intellectual, the book’s object status vanished for much of the reading public as we raised a glass to happily consume its contents…. Even though innumerable material elements come together to make the book, these features have been naturalized to such a degree that we now hardly notice them, since we have come to see content as the copyrightable, consumable, marketable aspect of the work. (pp. 106-9)

At this turning point — where “the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (p. 112) — the second half of The Book introduces book art. It is telling that the longest chapter in the book begins the second half, that it is called “The Book as Idea” and that it comes before any extended engagement with the digital dematerialization of the book. It is a wry pivot: the artistic genius supplants the authorial genius; what the latter takes as invisible background, the former re-makes as self-regarding foreground.  As Borsuk shows and her book’s cover neatly demonstrates, works of book art are inevitably self-referential and self-aware.

As such, works of book art

have much to teach us about the changing nature of the book, in part because they highlight the “idea” by paradoxically drawing attention to the “object” we have come to take for granted. They disrupt our treatment of the book as a transparent container for literary and aesthetic “content” and engage its material form in the work’s meaning. (p. 113)

Rather than offer a chronological history of book art to explore what “artists’ books have to teach us about a path forward for the book”, Borsuk offers “flashpoints” that represent “the energies motivating artwork in book form”(p. 117).  These “flashpoints” are William BlakeStéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha and Ulises Carrión. Following these flashpoints, Borsuk organizes the rest of the chapter into “key themes that recur throughout artists’ books of the twentieth century: spatiotemporal play, animation, recombinant structures, ephemerality, silence, and interactivity” (pp. 146-47).

Oddly, Blake as flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes.  Rather Borsuk notes three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” that Blake and his work represent: centering or re-centering the production processes on the author/artist; using the book as a sociopolitical and visionary platform; and redefining, developing and challenging the relationship between word and image.  

Blake refers to himself as “The Author & Printer W. Blake,” making clear the union of creativity and craft in his work. (p. 121)

Blake’s engagement with the social issues of his day, and his use of book form to respond to child labor, urban squalor, and slavery, established an important trend in both artists’ books and independent publishing—the utility of the book as a means of spreading social justice. (pp. 121, 124)

Blake used his craftsmanship to develop the relationship between word and image (p. 140)

One need not look far among twentieth and twenty-first century book artists for resonance with those themes. That Blakean union of creativity and craft resurfaces in artists such as Ken Campbell (UK), Cathryn Miller (Canada), Pien Rotterdam (Netherlands), Barb Tetenbaum (US) and Xu Bing (China)  — some of them even to the point of carving or setting their own type, making their own paper, pulp printing on it themselves or binding the finished work themselves. Vision and sociopolitical observation have risen up in the works of artists such as Doug Beube (Canada), Julie K. Dodd (UK), Basia Irland (US), Diane Jacobs (US), Anselm Kiefer (Germany) and Chris Ruston (UK). Blake’s redefining the relationship of word (or text) to image often reappears in book artists’ abcedaries and their children’s books such as A Dictionary Story by Sam Winston (UK).  As for emulators of Blake in technical innovation, consider the analogue example of Australian Tim Mosely’s works created with his patented pulp printing process, where the “ink” is actually colored pulp, or the digital example of Borsuk’s work Between Page and Screen, where the pages contain no text—only QR codes that, when scanned with a webcam, activate the text’s appearance on the reader’s browser screen.

For her second flashpoint, Borsuk selects another visionary, Stéphane Mallarmé, who like Blake was reacting to his own perceived Satanic mills draining poetry of its spirituality. Mallarmé’s Satanic mills dispensed rigid columns of newsprint to the masses and bland expanses of poetry and fiction set by Linotype machines in the neo-classical Didot font. With his famous visionary dictum — “everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book” (p. 135) — Mallarmé nudged the book toward pure concept and opened its mystical covers to the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists, Vorticists, Lettrists, Conceptualists and biblioclasts. With spatiotemporal play — mixing type sizes and fonts, breaking up the line and even breaking the page — Mallarmé used text to evoke image and, in his view, remake the book as a “spiritual instrument”. His post-humous book-length poem Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), published in 1897, embodies that vision and continues to cast its flashpoint light across multiple generations of book artists’ efforts. From Marcel Broodthaers in 1969, we have his homage to Un Coup de Dés. From Jérémie Bennequin in 2014, we have his serial “omage” to Broodthaers’ homage. And, most recently, we have the 2015 new bilingual edition A Roll of the Dice by Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno, for which Borsuk provides a perceptive reading.

Where Mallarmé’s flashpoint enlisted his vision alongside the cry “épater le bourgeois” from Baudelaire and other late nineteenth-century poets, Ed Ruscha’s later flashpoint illuminates a democratic counterpoint, a Zen-like vision and a very different way of changing the relationship of text to image. Ruscha’s self-published photobooks were cheap and distributed outside the gallery-controlled channels of art. As Borsuk shows — directly with Ruscha and indirectly with the many book artists influenced by him — the text is restricted to the book’s title, which interacts with a series of deadpan photos and their layout to deliver a wry, tongue-in-cheek work of book art. Ruscha’s spatiotemporal play manifests itself across the accordion book format and out-of-sequence juxtapositions. Ironically Ruscha’s works now command thousands of dollars per copy, and one has more chance of seeing them in an exhibition than in a roadside stop’s rack of newspapers, magazines and mass-market paperbacks.

Display of Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, at the Gulbenkian’s Pliure: Prologue (la Part du Feu), 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo credit: Robert Bolick
Reflected in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; in the lower left hand corner, Bruce Nauman’s 1968 Burning Small Fires;  and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s 1974 La bibliotheque en feu.

Mexico’s Ulises Carrión — polemicist, European bookshop owner, conceptual artist and Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints — is a counter-flashpoint to Ruscha. Where Ruscha reveled in self-publishing commodification, Carrión sneered at the book in its traditional commercial form. Where Ruscha has resisted the label “conceptual artist”, Carrión played the role to the hilt. Where Ruscha’s work has elicited numerous homages (see Various Small Books from MIT Press in 2013) and achieved a high profile, Carrión’s work, much lower in profile, has provided a more compelling range of hooks or influences on which to hang many different manifestations of book art (or bookworks as Carrión preferred). In fact, Borsuk’s six stated key themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form” come from Carrión’s manifestos (pp. 146-47).

The first theme — “spatiotemporal play” — comes from Carrión’s initial definition of the book as a “sequence of spaces”, which Borsuk traces to tunnel books, pop-ups and even large-scale constructs, the latter illustrated by American Alison Knowles‘ inhabitable The Big Book (1968). One more possible future of the book implied by spatiotemporal play manifests itself in Borsuk’s own augmented-reality (AR) works, those of Caitlin Fisher (Canada) and Carla Gannis’ Selfie Drawings (2016), in which portraits on the hardcover book’s pages animate and change when viewed through smartphone or tablet.

Borsuk takes the second theme, that of “animation”, from Carrión’s dictum: “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment— a book is also a sequence of moments”. As her several examples illustrate, much book art is cinematic. Borsuk’s exposition of Canadian Michael Snow‘s Cover to Cover (1975) comes closest to reproducing the experience I enjoyed of “watching” that photo bookwork from cover to cover several times at the now closed Corcoran Art Gallery. Borsuk is quick and right to remind that the cinematic future of the book has been with us for a long time, even before the cinema. She bookends her exposition of Snow’s book and  and the text animation of American Emmett WilliamsSweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s The Readies (presumably pronounced “reedies” to follow Brown’s comparison of his scrolling one-line texts with the cinema’s “talkies”).  

A forgotten modernist, Brown declared the obsolescence of the book, predicted a new form of reading and technology to enable it, an optical projector emitting text into the ether and directly into the eyeball. But what does this tell us about the future of the book? Borsuk notes Craig Saper‘s resurrection of Brown’s Roving Eye Press and how he even put together a website that emulates Brown’s reading machineIn her phrase describing the machine’s effect of “turning readers themselves into a kind of machine for making meaning” (p. 168), Borsuk hints at a future of digitally interactive books, which she takes up in the next section and more extensively in the next chapter. At this point, however, the reader could use a hint of practicality and skepticism. Linear-one-word-at-a-time reading, however accelerated, eliminates affordances of the page, ignores graphics and strains against the combination of peripheral vision and rapid eye movement we unconsciously (even atavistically?) deploy as we “read” whatever we see. Although in the next section Borsuk does bring on more likely examples of the book’s future exploitation of its cinematic affordances (manga, graphic novels and children’s books), this section’s treatment of animation misses the chance to cite actual recent successes like Moonbot Studios‘ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (2012) and others.

Once into the third theme — “recombinant structure” — it is clear that Borsuk’s chosen Carriónesque themes overlap one another. Like the cinematic, the recombinant structure manifests itself in accordion books. It extends, however, to something more interactive: volvelles (or medieval apps as Erik Kwakkel calls them), interactive pop-ups, harlequinades (flap books) and more.  Borsuk uses Raymond Queneau‘s harlequinade Cent mille milliards de poèmes ( One hundred thousand billion poems, 1961), Dieter Roth‘s slot books and works by Carolee Schneemann to illustrate book art’s celebration of the concept. The fact that Queneau’s book is still easily available on Amazon vouches for book art’s predictive qualities. The example of Marc Saporta’Composition No. 1 (Éditions du Seuil, 1962), “a box of 150 leaves printed on only one side that the reader is instructed to shuffle at the outset”, goes Queneau one better —ironically.  In 2011, Visual Editions reissued Composition No. 1 in print and app forms. Alas, the former is out of print, and the latter is no longer available for download.

Composition No. 1 (2011)
Marc Saporta
Translation by Richard Howard, Introduction by T.L. Uglow, Google Creative Lab, Diagrams by Salvador Plascencia and Designed by Universal Everything Photo credit: Robert Bolick

Borsuk draws her fourth theme — ephemerality — from Carrión’s dictum: 

I firmly believe that every book that now exists will eventually disappear. And I see here no reason for lamentation. Like any other living organism, books will grow, multiply, change color, and, eventually, die. At the moment, bookworks represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books. (p. 145)

To illustrate, Borsuk begins with the physical biblioclasts — those who in Doug Beube‘s phrase are “breaking the codex“. They include Beube himself, Bruce Nauman (see above), Brian Dettmer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Marcel DuchampDieter Roth and Xu Bing. While some of these artists reflect a twenty-first century surge of interest in altered books and book sculpture, “facilitated by the overarching notion that the book is an artifact not long for this world” (pp.82-84), others have taken a more generative archaeological approach — erasing or cutting away a book’s words to reveal another. Examples include Tom Phillips‘ A Humument (1966-2014) and Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes (2010). Phillips’ bookwork serves multiple purposes for Borsuk’s arguments.  Not only does it represent the book art of “erasure”, its success across multiple editions, digital formats and presence in art galleries supports her notion of book art’s predictive qualities.

There is a variant on her theme that Borsuk does not illustrate and is worth consideration for her next edition: the self-destructing yet regenerative work of book art. Examples could include American Basia Irland‘s series ICE BOOKS: Ice receding/Books reseeding (2007-), which gives a formidably tangible and new meaning to “publishing as dissemination”; and Canadian Cathryn Miller‘s tail-chasing Recomp (2014); and Argentinian Pequeño Editor‘s Mi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.

Recomp (2014)
Cathryn Miller
Copy of Decomp, Collis and Scott (2013) nailed to a tree. Photo credit: David G. Miller
Recomp (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller
Recomp vandalized (2015)
Photo credit: David G. Miller

The last section in this chapter expands on the fifth theme — silence — drawn from Carrión’s statement:

The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say. Every book of the new art is searching after that book of absolute whiteness in the same way that every poem searches for silence.  Ulises Carrión, Second Thoughts (1980), pp. 15-16.

Among her several examples are Pamela Paulsrud‘s Touchstones (2007-10), which look like stones but are books sanded-down into stone-like shapes, and Scott McCarney‘s 1988 Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green), a sculpture composed of stacked library discards that narrows as it ascends.  Paulsrud’s, McCarney’s, Irland’s and Miller’s works are what Borsuk calls “muted objects”, but they speak and signify nevertheless: 

Muted books take on a totemic [metaphoric] significance…. The language of the book as a space of fixity, certainty, and order reminds us that the book has been transmuted into an idea and ideal based on the role it plays in culture…. Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form. (pp. 193-95)

 

Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist
Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist
Never Read (Opposed to Ever Green) (1988)
Scott McCarney
Reproduced with permission of the artist

Borsuk is a superb stylist of the sentence and expository structure. The words above, concluding chapter three, launch the reader into Borsuk’s final theme of interactivity and her unifying metaphor: “the book as interface”. Owners of Kindles, buyers from Amazon, perusers of Facebook — we may think we know what’s coming next in The Book and for the book, but Borsuk pushes the reader to contemplate the almost real-time evolutionary change we have seen with ebook devices and apps, audiobooks, the ascension of books to the cloud via Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and Google Books, and their descent to Brewster Kahle‘s physical back-up warehouse (to be sited in Canada in light of recent political events) and into flattening ebook sales of late. Chapter 4 is a hard-paced narrative of the book’s digital history from the Memex in Vannevar Bush‘s 1945 classic “As we may think” to T.L. Uglow‘s 100-author blockchain collaboration in 2017, A Universe Explodes from Visual Editions’ series Editions at Play.

Borsuk reminds us:

Our current moment appears to be much like the first centuries of movable type, a cusp. Just as manuscript books persisted into the Gutenberg era, books currently exist in multiple forms simultaneously: as paperbacks, audiobooks, EPUB downloads, and, in rare cases, interactive digital experiences. (p. 244)

Borsuk weaves into this moment of the book’s future a reminder that print affordances such as tactility (or the haptic) and the paratextual (those peripheral elements like page numbers, running heads, ISBNs, etc., that Gary Frost argues “make the book a book”) have been finding fresh ways into the way we read digitally. The touchscreen enables us to read between the lines literally in the novella Pry (2014) by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizaro (2014). Breathe (2018) by Kate Pullinger, another work in the Editions at Play series, uses GPS to detect and insert the reader’s location, the time and weather, and when the reader tilts the device or rubs the screen, hidden messages from the story’s (the reader’s?) ghosts appear.

At this point, an earlier passage from The Book should haunt the reader:

Artists’ books continually remind us of the reader’s role in the book by forcing us to reckon with its materiality and, by extension, our own embodiment. Such experiments present a path forward for digital books, which would do well to consider the affordances of their media and the importance of the reader, rather than treating the e-reader as a Warde-ian crystal goblet for the delivery of content. (p. 147)

Borsuk convinces. Art, artifact, concept — wrought by hand and mind, hands and minds — the book is our consensual tool and toy for surviving beyond our DNA. So now what? Metaphor, hints and historical flashpoints may illuminate where we have been, how it shows up in contemporary books and book art and where we may be going with it. In ten or one hundred years though, how will a book publisher become a book publisher? Given the self-publishing capability today’s technology offers, will anyone with a file on a home computer and an internet connection consider himself or herself a book publisher? Borsuk thinks not:

The act of publication — of making public — is central to our cultural definition of the book. Publication might presume some cultural capital: some editorial body has deemed this work worthy of print. It might also presume an audience: a readership clamors for this text. But on a fundamental level, publication presumes the appendage of elements outside the text that help us recognize it as a book, even when published in digital form. (pp. 239-40)

How will future book publishers learn to master the appendage of these elements outside the text (the paratext) that make a book a book “even when published in digital form”? Borsuk’s commentary on the ISBN as one of these elements sheds oblique light on that. She points to the artist Fiona Banner’s uses of the ISBN under her imprint/pseudonym Vanity Press — tattooing one one her lower back, publishing a series Book 1/1 (2009) consisting of sixty-five ISBN’d pieces of mirrored cardstock and then collecting them in a photobook entitled ISBN 978-1-907118-99-9 in order to deposit those one-offs with the British Library as required by the UK’s Legal Deposit Libraries Act. What can a future ebook publisher deduce from this?

That the use of a globally unique identifier (GUID) matters.

The backstory of the transition from ISBN10 to ISBN13 and that of ebooks, ISBNs and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) might provide interesting fodder. The notion that the book industry was running out of 10-digit ISBNs was a red herring used to convince industry executives to adopt the more widely used format of unique identifiers overseen by GS1. The real reason for moving to ISBN13 — reduced friction in the supply chain — was too hard to sell. About the same time, some major publishers proposed incorporating the ISBN into the DOI for an industry-standard ebook identifier.  The DOI offered an existing digital, networked infrastructure already being used by most of the world’s scientific, technical and medical journals publishers. It is an offshoot of the Handle System, established by Robert Kahn. Sad to say, few book publishers adopted the DOI for their ebooks; still fewer used the DOI’s application- and network-friendliness to enable their ebooks to take advantage of the network’s digital affordances.

The DOI shares with the ISBN a feature that Borsuk points out as a limitation to more widespread use: it is not free. A significant percentage of ebooks exist without ISBNs, much less DOIs. If a digital GUID is to be used in ways that help us recognize the identified digital object as a book, future book publishers and their providers of a network ecosystem supporting ebooks, linking with the print ecosystem and reducing friction in the supply chain still have wide gaps in commerce and knowledge to close. Perhaps this particular paratextual element is unnecessary for the book’s digital future, but until those gaps are narrowed, the ecosystem for eBooks will remain balkanized by Amazon, Apple, Google, Lulu and the more digitally literate denizen of the print publishing industry. In the meantime, as Borsuk’s examples throughout her book show, there are boundless other print and digital affordances with which publishers, authors, editors, designers, typographers, developers and readers can play as they continue to shape the book.

The Book‘s publication month, June 2018, is auspicious, being the same for the Getty Center’s exhibition “Artists and Their Books/Books and Their Artists“, June 26 – October 28. The Center and MIT Press would do well to have stacks of The Book on hand.  The Book will also serve as an excellent introductory textbook for courses on book art or the history of the book.  And by virtue of its style and artist’s perspective, Borsuk’s book will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in this essential technology of civilization and its growing role as a material and focus of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

Bookmarking Book Art – Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox, Vienna, 28 January 2018

Last Sunday, 28 January 2018, this ambitious exhibition curated by Luca Lo Pinto closed.

The metonymic metaphor of the glazed roof tiles’ evoking the concept of “home” in support of  the individual and common ritual experience of reading as being translated into space is a bit topsy turvy if not strained. Overall, though, the effect was pleasing, playful and distinctively European (as was the selection of artists) in the cast concrete hall. The simultaneous warmth and cold of the color proved a pleasing contrast with the items displayed, although its glare and the occasional protective plexiglas made viewing and photographing a challenge.

In Section 01 Artists’ Library and propped on stainless steel shelves were artists’ own publications and choices of books from 1989 to 2017 that have influenced their view of publishing. So then, with the usual sly humor of book art, we have “artists’ books” and artists’ “books” — from Cory Arcangel to Heimo Zobernig.

Arcangel’s The Source Digest (from his series in which he rings the changes on selling us annotated source code in varying metaphorically driven and recursive manifestations) struck the first of several common notes in the exhibition: the digitally driven artist’s book. At the far end of the hall, in Section 05 Expanded Publishing, Antoine Lefebvre‘s La Bibliotheque Fantastique (an online library of free artists’ books) echoed that note and added one of its own: book art’s genre-reflexive, form-reflexive and self-reflexive tradition.

The ninety-item display is a genre-reflexive nod to series such as Dick Higgins’ Great Bear Pamphlet series. One row here on its own embodies multiple forms of reflexivity: Jérémie Bennequin‘s homage to Marcel Broodthaers’ homage to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard. 

Bennequin’s homage is the result of a decomposition performance in which he and Lefebvre — sometimes each in two different cities — decompose Mallarmé’s poem by rolling a die then locating and erasing the syllable corresponding to the number rolled. 

The title’s missing “s” from “Dés”the subtitle’s missing “h” from “homage” and its isolation of  “dé” in the hyphenation of “decomposition” pun self-reflexively — as book art so often does — underscoring here the paradoxical technique of creation/de-creation. 

Section 02, devoted to periodicals and zines, occupied the most space in the hall. Although the coverage was wide, it seemed odd not to find Brad Freeman’s Journal of Artists’ Books or Sarah Bodman’s Bookarts Newsletter or The Blue Notebook. But Lo Pinto did not set out to present the encyclopedia of everything within each compartment of the toolbox. The unexpected — like Lefebvre’s display — and the provocative depth of resonance within Section 01 and across sections more than made up for omissions of the expected.

Among the “interventions” in Section 03 The Medium as Message was Michael Riedel‘s Frieze CMYK (2007), now, like so many other items in the exhibition, out of print — a reality-imposed dollop of self-reflexive irony given Riedel’s paradoxical view that an exhibition must generate ephemera to live on.

As with the echoing Section 05 that sent me back to look at Arcangel’s contribution in Section 01, the color play of Riedel’s Frieze CMYK returned me to Tauba Auerbach’s entry in Section 01. But I was misremembering and thinking of her work titled 2,3, (2011), RGB Color Atlas (2011) and their color play. On display here was her Z Helix (2014) behind plexiglas. Only the interlocking blue and red spiral bindings hinted at the color inside.

Strolling back to Section 05 and thinking of the physicality as well as color of Auerbach’s works, I stopped at Section 04 Autoretrospective, which focused on Philippe Thomas’ fictitious ad agency readymades belong to everyone® that he “installed” in the Cable Gallery in New York in 1987.  The section’s title seems ironically unfair to Thomas’ self-effacing, deconstructivist intent. Given what was on display in Vienna, it was inescapably — like the mythological World Turtles — Thomas “all the way down”. Perhaps there is something to the row-upon-row of roof tiles metaphor after all.

The remaining sections — one being a space for performances and readings, another a screen showing the home page of Silvio Lorusso’s Post-Digital Publishing Archive and another entirely elsewhere in the city — began to push the limits of the senses and imagination to make up for that lack of three-dimensionality that limited the impact of Auerbach’s and others’ shelves. (It was commendable, however, that visitors were allowed to touch the works not behind plexiglas.)

Being familiar with Lorusso’s site, I looked back over the roof top shelves and wall projections and momentarily found myself slipping into that  “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions … in every nation, … A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data” (William Gibson’s definition of “cyberspace” from Neuromancer, New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1989, p. 128). As with all white cube spaces, though, the physical arrangement did not fail to reassert itself and draw me out of the exhibition through Section 11 The Bookshop as Medium, which much like Sections 01 through 05 offered unexpected tangible and intangible compensations.

Section 11 The Bookshop as Medium
Austellungsansicht: Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox: 1989–2017, Kunsthalle, Wien
Photo by Stephen Wyckoff

As noted at the beginning, an ambitious exhibition: one also reminiscent of Germano Celant’s  effort in 1973 Book as Artwork 1960/1972.  With the hope for more to come from this talented curator and the artists and publishers gathered, here are some favorites on the way out … best enjoyed with the downloaded or printed catalog close to hand (links after the favorites).

For a copy of the catalogue/journal, go to http://www.kunsthallewien.at/application/files/6015/1021/8686/Dallas-Journal-Publishing.pdf

See the following for interviews with the curator Luca Lo Pinto about the exhibition:https://daskunstbuch.at/2018/01/04/interview-i-spoke-with-luca-lo-pinto-about-the-current-exhibition-publishing-as-an-artistic-toolbox-1989-2017-at-kunsthalle-wien/http://www.c-print.se/single-post/2017/10/24/Curator-Talks-Luca-Lo-Pinto

Bookmarking Book Art – More Manutius in Manchester and More to Come

Merchants of Print from Venice to Manchester,                                                          

Aldus Manutius, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
Aldus Manutius, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester

29 January to 21 June 2015, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK

‌This exhibition celebrates the legacy of Aldus Manutius (1449 – 1515), an Italian humanist scholar who founded the Aldine Press at Venice. His publishing legacy includes scholarly editions of classical authors, the introduction of italic type, and the development of books in small formats that were read much like modern paperbacks. The firm was continued after his death by his son and grandson until 1598.  John Rylands Library, University of Manchester website, accessed 17 May 2015

Back in February as I enjoyed Oxford’s recognition of the 500th anniversary of the death of Teobaldo Manucci, the Manchester exhibition was already running. Where the Oxford event focused on the more architectural motifs distinguishing early Venetian from Roman printing, the Manchester event dwelt more on the educational thrust, technical and business aspects of the Aldine legacy and provenance of the Manchester collection.

The Manchester focus on provenance wends its way back through the library’s donors dedicated to the cause of education (if not to impressing its practitioners with the importance of  the woolen industry’s contribution to it) to the Renaissance circle on which Manutius depended:

Giovanni Pico della Miradola, 1463-1494 Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, 1463-1494
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

In 1482 Manutius lived with Pico della Mirandola and served as tutor to his nephews, the sons of the Princess of Carpi. Like the later, beneficent Manchester merchants, Pico’s family contributed financially to the cause:  they funded the opening of the Aldine printing office in Venice in 1494. Of course, Pico made more than a patron’s financial contribution to the cause.  Along with Cardinal Bessarion, Marsilio Ficino, Leon Battista Alberti and Erasmus – all known intimately to Manutius –  Pico drove the revival of learning embodied in the output of the Aldines and numerous other printers (John Addington Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, Volume 2 (of 7): The Revival of Learning, John Murray, 1914).

Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete , Le Cardinal Bessarion (Les Hommes Illustres)
Cardinal Bessarion, Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete , (Les Hommes Illustres)

Marsilio Ficino, Duomo, Florence
Marsilio Ficino, Duomo, Florence

Leon Battista Alberti, Piazza degli Uffizi, Florence
Leon Battista Alberti, Piazza degli Uffizi, Florence

Desiderius Erasmus, 1523?, Hans Holbein the Younger
Desiderius Erasmus, 1523?, Hans Holbein the YoungerThe Manchester exhibition closes this month.

The next major Aldine event is the summer school hosted by The Catholic University in Siena (31 August – 3 September) and jointly organized by the Centro di ricerca europeo libro editoria biblioteca (CRELEB). Other events with dates still to be confirmed are planned in Brighton, Treviso, Milan and Arezzo.

More on Aldus Manutius at the University of Glasgow Library here.

Bookmarking Book Art – Giorgio & Giulio Maffei

Display of Ed Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, at Pliure: La Part du Feu, 2 February - 12 April 2015, Paris. Photo by Robert Bolick. Reflected in the lower left hand corner is the display of Bruce Nauman's Burning Small Fires; in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut's 1966 Fahrenheit 451; and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's La bibliotheque en feu, 1974.
Display of Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964
Pliure: La Part du Feu, 2 February – 12 April 2015, Paris, Fondation Calouste-Gulbenkian.
Photo by Robert Bolick, 11 April 2015.
Reflected in the lower left hand corner is the display of Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968; in the upper right corner, the film clip of Truffaut’s 1966 Fahrenheit 451; and in the upper left, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva’s La bibliotheque en feu, 1974.

The Studio Bibliografico Giorgio Maffei specializes in original texts and book art by twentieth century visual and literary avant-garde artists such Baldessari, Lewitt, Munari, Man Ray, Ruscha and Warhol among others. Recently the owner’s son – Giulio Maffei – “started making film as a side activity” and introduced a series of short animations “to put on the social networks and reach new potential customers”.  An anonymous pair of hands displays a variety of the books and book art in stock.

But Giulio’s videos are not always the straightforward marketing effort intended. They provide an experience of book art or artists’ books that most of us will never hold or touch. And that may be Maffei’s point in his series “Le Vite dei Libri” (The Lives of Books) in which these usually glassed-off works are playfully handled, gently made fun of and still honored.

Some of the videos are derivative artworks in their own right in the same vein as Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires, 1968.  Nauman poked fun at Ed Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964, by composing a book of photos recording the burning of a copy of Various Small Fires. Maffei’s Nauman-esque handling of Various Small Fires and Milk involves flash paper or its Photoshop equivalent.  His celebration of Ruscha’s The Sunset Strip is still more endearing with its soundtrack and toy convertible. His cheeky animations of the pop-ups in Warhol’s Index (Book) and the ironically daring destruction of Papa Maffei’s copy of Some/Thing No.3 are even better.  In the latter, the plastering of a Banksy-like mural with Warhol’s “Bomb Hanoi” stickers torn from the perforated cover is a sharp-edged example of the arch, reflective commentaries throughout Maffei’s videos.

Most of the films’ credits pay typographical homage to the work at hand, which is a nice self-deprecating and affectionate touch.  At my last viewing, there were twenty-two works in the Lives series.  They are listed below, but once you reach one on YouTube, the others follow. Giulio Maffei has also created a longer video catalogue for his father’s enterprise: Tra Libro e Oggetto (Between Book and Object). The Maffeis are a knowing team. The catalog title can be read as the beginning of a statement displayed on the cover.

BETWEEN BOOK AND OBJECT

The artists’ book, the multiple and the object

become an artwork

A statement that refers not only to the works in the catalog but to the video catalog itself and to the elder Maffei’s lifework of collecting, selling and writing about book art.

1 – An Unreadable Quadrat Print, Bruno Munari

2 – The Sunset Strip, Ed Ruscha

3 – Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha

4 – Various Small Fires, Ed Ruscha

5 – Andy Warhol’s Children’s Book, Andy Warhol

6 – Choosing Green Beans, John Baldessari

7 – Kleve 2009, Ettore Spalletti

8 – Made in Machine, Jean-François Bory

9 – Cieli ad Alta Quota, Alighiero Boetti

10 – Il Merlo Ha Perso il Becco, Bruno Munari

11 – Mémoires, Guy Debord, Asger Jorn

12 – Zang Tumb Tuuum, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

13 – Acervus, Luigi Ontani

14 – Toiletpaper JAN 2011, Maurizio Cattelano & Pierpaolo Ferrari

15 – Toiletpaper JUL 2012, Maurizio Cattelano & Pierpaolo Ferrari

16 – Les Illuminations, Fernand Léger & Arthur Rimbaud

17 – Man Ray, Man Ray

18 – The Biggest Art-Book in the World, Enrico Baj

19 – Fable, John Baldessari

20 – Air Condition, Allan Kaprow

21 – Andy Warhol’s Index (Book), Andy Warhol

22 – Some/Thing No.3, ed. David Antin, cover by Andy Warhol

Bookmark – Aldus Manutius, 6 February 1515 – 6 February 2015

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice: Aldine Press, 1499.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice: Aldine Press, 1499. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Venice: Aldine Press, 1499.

Late afternoon before the long worn wooden benches in the Bodleian’s Convocation Hall, 500 years after the death of Aldus Manutius, Oren Margolis served his audience well, providing them with a richer appreciation of the “finest printed book of the entire Renaissance”* – the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – and of its publisher Aldus Manutius.

Drawing our attention to the more sculptural qualities of Venetian Renaissance printed books over the Florentine and to the  evidence of the humanist agenda that drove Manutius, he led us to the page where Poliphilo (lover of all things, but in particular Polia, the ideal woman pursued to the end of the book) stands before a carving that foreshadows the Aldine Press device: a dolphin entwined around the shank of an anchor. The Aldine Press device was inspired by a similar image on an ancient Roman coin given by Pietro Bembo to Aldus, who wrongly associated it with Augustus and his proverb Festina lente (“Make haste slowly”) and adopted both for his printing and publishing business.

Erasmus praised Aldus, saying that he was “building a library which knows no walls save those of the world itself”.

For all of 2015, the world enjoyed a multitude of celebrations of the contribution of Aldus Manutius to publishing, printing and the book. After Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer, Aldus Manutius was perhaps the most important printer of the Renaissance. His portable books are still here, although locked away or displayed under glass, no longer so portable. Until now.

The Manutius Network 2015 provides a running list, links for some of which are provided below, including the online exhibition associated with Margolis’s talk.  See also below, added in May 2016, the belated exhibition “Aldo Manutius: The Renaissance in Venice” at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

See the New York Times coverage here.

Aldo Manutius: The Renaissance in Venice http://www.mostraaldomanuzio.it/exhibition Exhibition poster containing detail of ‘Portrait of a Woman as Flora’ (c1520), by Bartolomeo Veneto © Eton College
Aldo Manutius: The Renaissance in Venice
Exhibition poster containing detail of ‘Portrait of a Woman as Flora’ (c1520), by Bartolomeo Veneto © Eton College

More from the University of Glasgow here.

From Crispin Elsted’s review of the Thames & Hudson facsimile edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Parenthesis, December 2000, No. 5:

I once spent three hours in a library with a copy of the Aldine edition of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and I have never known a book take my breath away so consistently. Every page is a masterpiece: the dance of text with the more than 170 woodcuts; the firm, male stature of the typeface; the crisp spring of the impression; the elegant proportion of the page — all combine to an end in which the craft of printing and design carry the text into an atmosphere not of its own making. This new edition has the appearance of a fine actor in a part lately played by a great one. Here are the signs of the grace that greatness lent the commonplace five centuries ago; and in these signs, the commonplace finds here another advocate for its small claims to our time. 

*Alexander Lawson. The Anatomy of a Typeface. Jaffrey, NH: Godine, 1990.

Bookmark – Education for the Future of Publishing

The Elements, Theodore Gray
The Elements, Theodore Gray

When it comes to acquiring skills and professional training in book publishing, from the early days of the printing press onwards, learning by doing has been book publishing’s order of the day.  Consider the following interview exchange between Mac Slocum (Tools of Change) and Theodore Gray (The Elements):

.

MS: What skills — or people with those skills — must be incorporated into the editorial process to produce something like the iPad/iPhone editions?

TG: Specifically in the case of “The Elements,” the skills required were writing, commercial-style stills photography, Objective-C programming, and a whole, whole lot of Mathematica programming to create the design and layout tool and image processing software we used to create all the media assets that went into the ebook.

Other ebooks might well require different skills. My next one, for example, is going to include a lot more video, so we’re gearing up to produce high-grade stereo 3D video. That’s one of the challenges in producing interesting ebooks: You need a wider range of skills than to produce a conventional print book.

Starting out in book publishing late in the last century, a novice would have consulted Marshall Lee’s Bookmaking and the Chicago Manual of Style to learn the basics of design, editorial and production.  If it were Trade publishing that beckoned, a familiarity with A. Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins (“Editor of Genius”) would have been likely.

Maxwell Perkins, half-length portrait, seated ...
Maxwell Perkins, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing slightly right / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If scholarly book publishing, then Harman’s The Thesis and the Book, Turabian’s A Manual for Writers and maybe Bailey’s The Art & Science of Book Publishing.

But as with the acquisition of print publishing skills through learning by commissioning, designing, editing, printing, marketing and selling, the acquisition of the skills required for ebook publishing could use a hand up from appropriate resources.   People like Joshua Tallent, Joel Friedlander, Liz Castro, Craig Mod, Matthew Diener are those resources — either by example or authoring — and novices today would do well to start bookmarking their output.

For notes on the availability of formal training and career conditions in publishing, see Thad McIlroy’s The Future of Publishing.

Related sources:

“Joshua Tallent of Ebook Architects on the State of Digital Publishing,” Bill Crawford, Publishing Perspectives

“Understanding Fonts & Typography,” Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer

html, xhtml, and css: 6th edition, Elizabeth Castro

“Our Future Book,” Craig Mod

“Resources,” Matthew Diener, David Blatner and Anne-Marie Concepcion, ePUBSecrets

The Chicago Manual of Style Online

English: Image of the cover of the 1906, 1st E...
English: Image of the cover of the 1906, 1st Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

 

Ads In Books: 1884? Try 960-1279, Sung China!

Ads In Books: 1884.

In 1973 in an article in The Library Quarterly and in her 1979 dissertation, Mingshen Pan (or Ming-Sun Poon) concludes from her examination of books during the Sung period that the colophon gradually changed in form, content, design, and placement,  demonstrating an increasing use of the colophon as an advertisement of the printer and his wares.   This shift embodied a critical transition in the printing trade of that time.   As support from governmental and private sources waned, support from diversified sources were sought in which the commercial element played a significant role.

Familiar?  As the European printing press began to make books available to a wider economic circle,  manuscript books ceased to be supported by commission and patronage. One of the earliest and famous printers of Venice, Aldus Manutius, reportedly printed only one commissioned book (Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499); the rest had to make their way in the market.

In Sir Isaac Newton’s day, “Printers secured their livelihoods by advertising medicines, . . . Physicians told each other that if they want to market a new drug then they ought to go to the booksellers to do it.” Adrian Johns, Piracy (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 84-85.

Publishing has always been marked (or marred) by the struggle to establish a stable business model.

Bookmark – The “LookStore” and, Now, “Wall to Wall-papered Books”

These are Tony Sanfilippo’s slides used for his Ignite presentation at the 2012 meeting of the Association of American University Presses.    The slides have been transferred to YouTube with a voiceover.

As the book evolves, so too the ways in which it reaches us, or we reach it.  We have lived through one stage of that evolution with online bookstores.  We are living through another with ebooks.

It’s not over yet.

Two years on, a Romanian company offers customized wallpaper showing shelves of book spines with your choice of free ebook titles and their QR codes printed on the spine. To “pull a book from the shelf”, scan the code with your favorite ebook reader and settle in for a good read. See the video: http://www.bibliotecapemobil.ro/

http://www.psfk.com/2014/06/digital-library-wallpaper-qr-code-scan-books.html#!0GAL3