This tale comes from J. S. Kennard’s short 1901 tome on the colophon — that last page at the end of a manuscript or book. The colophon has served many purposes: giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more. Examples can be traced back to clay tablets and forward to websites.
Its presence on websites may be one of those decried skeuomorphic hangovers from book publishing, but perhaps the colophon has an underlying value or purpose to serve in both the analogue and digital worlds. The late Bill Hill, who wrote the 1999 Microsoft white paper “The Magic of Reading” and was an early contributor to online typography, suggested making colophons a compulsory standard for website design and asked:
Why not introduce the venerable concept of the colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?[Sadly this page at the Bill Hill’s site is no longer available.]
Fanciful? Perhaps, but not much more fanciful than Erasmus’ proffered explanation of the word “colophon”. His expanded edition of Adagia printed by Manutius in 1508 includes this adage:
Colophonemaddidit He added the colophon. This came to be used when the finishing touch is added to something, or when some addition is made without which a piece of business cannot be concluded. The origin of the adage is pointed out by Strabo in … his Geography, …
And here is Strabo from the Loeb Classical Library online:
As venerable a publishing custom as the colophon may be, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Book artists tend to be more observant, but not religiously so, and of course some works of book art might be disfigured by a colophon. Still, there are sound reasons why book artists should bother themselves with a colophon — even if it stands apart from the work. In her review of Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books (2017), India Johnson gives one of those sound reasons:
It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.
The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. “Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books“, CBAA, 1 October 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.
If craft does figure in a work’s meaning, then the more we can see how it figures, the greater our ability to appreciate and understand the work. For conveying insight — what materials and from what sources, what processes, what tools, who contributed, where and when the work occurred — the colophon stands ready. But where does it stand?
A contemporary of Kennard, A.W. Pollard declared that, to be a proper colophon, it had to appear at the conclusion or summit of the work. Artful as are some of the manuscripts and books that Kennard and Pollard cite, none push the envelope in the manner that works of contemporary book art do. Which brings us to another reason for book artists to consider the colophon: inspiration from history or tradition.
The last page of the codex may be a rightful spot for placing the codex, but what if the bookwork’s shape is challenging or musing about the shape of the book? Finishing touches might go anywhere. Think of Van Eyck’s self-portrait hidden in a reflection in The Arnolfini Portrait, or that of Vélazquez in Las Meninas.
Historians’ diligent cataloging of the “hands” of the scribes has enriched the self-identifications in colophons and connected those craftspersons with additional manuscripts. Book artists who use calligraphy or involve calligraphers should ponder the implications of this tool historians use to identify scribes by the style of their “hands”.
What potential, meaningful “tells” in a work’s colophon might the book artist or calligrapher leave to enrich the work — and provide insights for historians and connoisseurs poring over the finishing touch?
The colophon’s underlying value or purpose warrants book artists’ thinking about recording it offline and online, though this might be stretching the definition of the colophon. Our enjoyment of Kitty Maryatt’s 2018 reconstruction of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is certainly enhanced by the “colophonic” booklet she included with the work and the “About” page online.
Perhaps the story of the little “i” left over – the colophon – will prod the future historians of book art to examine bookworks and their artists’ websites for those finishing touches and stir artists to bestow that last finishing touch for the sake of the work’s soul if not their own.
Richard Gameson. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (See for the human interest: “I, Aelfric, wrote this book in the monastery of Bath”; “Pray for Wigbald”; “Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes”.)
Ming-Sun Poon, “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279”, The Library Quarterly,43:1 (January 1973). (See for the 34 calligraphic inscriptions and the colophon to the Diamond Sutra: “On the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t’ung [May 11, 868], Wang Chiek on behalf of his two par- ents reverently made this for universal free distribution.”)
IB: The book has a great future. In the statement in my little red book [Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book] I talk about the renaissance of the book. It is already happening now. …
At a recent event, Massimo Vignelli claimed ‘The book is dead’. …
I was shocked when Massimo repeated that sentence, I read it everywhere. But the printed book does not need any defender. It has survived 600 years or so. The way information spreads depends on the inventions of that time; paintings have survived, photos, and the book is another form.
An ongoing chance-based publication project in the spirit of Ed Ruscha. Images are randomly-selected Google streetviews (which are often captured at noon to avoid shadowing) of cities like Paris, Tokyo, etc. The copy is compiled from all tweets containing the phrase “this is where” between noon and 12:15pm local time for each city. Consequently the text and imagery for each 15-minute issue originates from the same, albeit ambiguous, time and place. And though text and image are randomly paired, surprising narratives often emerge. Included in the collection of the Library of the Printed Web.
This is where is where the tradition of Ed Ruscha meets the Web. Go there and see for yourself.
In 1774 the House of Lords declared that perpetual copyright was illegal and that the fourteen year limit established in 1710 was the law of the land. What this meant in practical terms is that anyone with a press could now print up their own editions of Chaucer, Milton, Swift, Dryden, Spencer, and others. If everyone could print the same texts, one way to differentiate your product from the inferior output of your competition was through editorial apparatus — introductions, author portraits, and notes. … I just want to call attention to one item in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections that was sold by one of the more enterprising publishers of public domain material.Between 1777 and 1782, John Bell published a set of 109 volumes under the title Bell’s Edition. The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. He launched the series with Milton’s Paradise Lost in April 1777 and attempted to maintain a regular schedule of issuing one new volume each week. Mike Kelly, Head of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College, commenting on William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge, 2004).
The photo here, presumably taken by Kelly, shows two boxes, hinged and stacked on one another and shaped like a stack of four or five large folios. Together the two boxes hold 109 small volumes, bound in Morocco leather and gilt-edged, constituting “Bell’s Edition: The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill” (1777-83). The Kindle of its age, as Kelly puts it.
Anyone who downloads (or ever has downloaded) the free or cheap Kindle versions of the Complete Works of [name your favorite classic author] will know how little “there” there is to differentiate the products in accuracy, quality or even typography much less editorial apparatus. Possibly a sign that we are still in the Age of e-Incunabla.
Kelly’s photos and words led me on to PhD student Jacob Halford’s related comments in “Remediation, or How Digitisation is Changing the Meaning of Texts, Part 1“. Halford explores how digitization affects how we read texts, understand and find meaning in them. The digital text gives the reader a whole new experience of the text as the printed book’s structure, font, layout and tangibility of the book are distorted or eliminated. That may seem an exaggeration, but look at Halford’s photos of Galileo’s “A Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems.” In one, he holds the book in his hands; in another it appears on a microfilm reader; in yet another it is shown on a computer screen. The perceptual differences are stark.
In Part 2, Halford illustrates equally well how digitization alters the experience of meaning through how we locate or find the work — from its position on a shelf among related works, to its entry form on the Early English Books Online (EEBO) screen or its entry lines on a screen of search results. As he says, “Historians when trying to understand the past need to understand the meaning of the book, to understand how it was read, what its value within society was. To forget this because of the removal of the various indications found in a physical book when it is placed in digital collections provides the risk of us distorting our interpretation of the past. We can exaggerate the value of a particular book and in that process miss out on, or undervalue, other crucial books because there is little to inform us of a book’s value and meaning when it is accessed through EEBO. So whilst EEBO gives us access to more books, in that process it loses part of a book’s history, and it is a book’s history that helps us to know its value, meaning and significance.”
This is not to raise another Gutenberg Elegy but rather to ask, What functions and features should we demand of today’s e-incunabula that will make one worth more than another and, more important, will urge them “out of the cradle”? And what affordances “in the network” do we need to understand the social history of ebooks?
From the e-codices project, here’s something the history of the book can teach us going forward.
Well designed digital work will be machine-actionable, but will also be capable of expressing its content when moved to other media, even non-digital media. Neel Smith, College of Holy Cross, Boston, MA.
The manuscript page in the photograph above comes from a copy of Plato’s “Phaedo,” the description of Socrates’ death. Its round humanistic script belongs to a single scribe, who identifies himself in red thus, “Marcus Speegnimbergensis scriptsit“ (fol. 75).
The attribution for the image associated with this item is Pellegrin Elisabeth, Manuscrits latins de la Bodmeriana, Cologny-Genève 1982, pp. 330-331. The item has a Digital Object Identifier: DOI: 10.5076/e-codices-cb-0137, which provides a fair bit of that metadata needed for Dr. Smith’s purposes.
Lesson? It might be a good idea for every book and ebook to have a DOI, but then the International DOI Foundation and its registration agencies would need to find a sustainable business model to provide easily accessed DOI-generators for everyone seeking to publish those items.
Smith’s comments on the Fondation Martin Bodmer Collection at Cologny also imply a tangential and harder question. In the absence of some persistent unique identifier like the DOI and well-provided and maintained metadata associate with it, what are the digital (but technology-agnostic) forensic tools with which we will uncover our ebooks’ “Marcus Speegnimbergensis” and the evidence of the social contexts and creative tools with which “our Marcus” worked? That’s a “poser” for the likes of Matthew Kirschenbaum and webliographic scholars to come.
With apologies to the preacher: Of making many books [on books] there is no end.
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.
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 Blake, Stéphane 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 Storyby 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.
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 Williams‘ Sweethearts (1967) on one side with Victorian flip-books and on the other with American Bob Brown‘s 1930s TheReadies (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 machine. In 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’s 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.
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 Duchamp, Dieter 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‘sMi Papa Estuvo en la Selva (2015), which after reading can be planted to grow into a jacaranda tree.
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)
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.
Did you read on New York Times Interactive how text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality? We are passing through an internet portal turning our evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.
The seemingly unintentional irony of delivering the welcome by text rather than by podcast or tweeted looping video meme undermines the hyperventilation a bit. But we should not roll our eyes and move on. The NYTI journalists are reminding us to pay attention.
Our literacy has always been multimodal (read and hear the orality in the opening text of Genesis in the The Douay Version). With each new medium it rapidly becomes more multimodal. In Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books”, there’s the tongue-in-cheek evidence from 1894.
In Literacies, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, trace its occurrence back to the mid-twentieth century age of radio and television. And not that long ago (2012), Amazon released Immersion Reading, enabling audio in sync with ebook reading.Leaving aside the apocalyptic speculation on the fate of letters, we should take the point: our literacies are entangled and evolve together. Putting the more scholarly view of differences between orality and text alongside the post-text Futurists’ observations about tweets, memes and other social media, we can see why we would benefit from closer attention to that entanglement and evolution.
Here is Walter J. Ong:
Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight … (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982, pp.31, 37-49).
Here is the post-text future:
An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. — Farhad Manjoo
Here is Ong:
Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.
“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph, … And it didn’t.”
“Now politics,” she said, is just “a battle of the memes.” — Nellie Bowles
These comparisons/contrasts underscore Kalantzis’ and Cope’s educational earnestness about the importance of teaching to these entangled and evolving literacies as perhaps the only systematic means we have of offering children social equity and a chance at social equality. Imbuing their literacies with critical thinking skills is paramount. The art of living depends on the art of reading.
At the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, you can step into this increasingly busy intersection of literacies at an exhibition called The Art of Reading. The exhibition is divided into six rooms labeled “Reading is Turning the Page”, “Reading is Seeing”, Reading is Touching”, “Reading is Remembering”, “Reading is Concentrating” and “Reading is Reacting”. Unusually the art is not simply on display. Touching is allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book), he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”.
Physicality or the haptic is an affordance that print literacy lords over digital literacy. We know where we are in a print book because we can feel as well as see where we are. Welcome then to the first room “Reading is Turning the Page”, where William Kentridge turns the tables on that claim. As you watch the “film of the book” across the room, you can try your hand at flipping the pages of the physical copy like a flipbook to mimic the video. Look closely though. The page numbers are not sequential.
And the entries are not in alphabetical order.
When the order of text, numerals, narrative and images collide, we are left with the literacy of art — be it digital or physical. Which brings you to the next room: “Reading is Touching”.
The names of South African soldiers, both black and white, killed in the First World War, are set in hot metal type then impressed without ink on flesh. Photographed and filmed, the names fade away. In the exhibition, a voice from the touchscreen device repeats, “Touch me, touch me”. Each touch upon the screen — on the skin before you — advances the work running as a video on the touchscreen. Touching is the only way to read all of the names of the dead as they fade away. This work is but one of several that make up The Lost Men Project.
In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.
To read the pages of Like a Pearl in My Hand, you must rest your hands on them then lift your hands away.
The face revealed on each page is the face of a blind or visually impaired child in a Chinese orphanage. As you read the page, the face fades into blackness.
The next room is “Reading is Seeing”.
Were the curators being tone deaf with this juxtaposition? No, it is the bluntness and earnestness of recognition that literacies and our sensibilities are jumbled up. The literacy of art does that. It can move us from somberness to whimsy and back. The first work in this room of sight is a children’s flashlight (or torch) book; the next, a device for the visually impaired; the next, an augmented reality app on iPads.
The curators deftly paced the impact of these rooms. Something from the one before lingers with you in the next, or something in the next reminds you of the one before.
“Reading is Remembering” is the next room. Here the artists play with re-membering text vs dis-membering text, recalling vs forgetting, excavating vs filling in, deconstructing to reconstruct, destroying to create.
Rick Myers was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center to commemorate the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The work he proposed required permission to obtain Pentelic marble fragments (quarrying is restricted for the purpose of restoring the Acropolis) and grinding them into dust. He then sourced four different translations of Cavafy’s poem “Before the Statue of Endymion”, arranged a reading and recording of each, and, for each, cut a stencil. The chronologically first translation’s stencil was positioned on stretched plastic film suspended over speakers. The marble dust was sifted onto the black plastic through the stencil, leaving the legible white text on the black background with which the video starts after the credits above. As the recording of the chronologically second translation plays, the sound’s vibration obliterates the marble dust words of the first translation. Then comes the turn of the second stenciled translation to be obliterated by the third’s recorded reading. And so on.
Here, then, is a work of art that simultaneously endorses and refutes the premise that text recedes in favor of some new universal language of sound and image. It is a textual palimpsest in motion where sound dissipates the text of the past, making way for the next version of the text to be dissipated by the sound of the third and the text of the third to be dissipated by the sound of the fourth. A moment of the work is captured in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete (see below). The work runs a little over three minutes, excerpts can be found here, but the experience under the exhibition room’s banner provides an unsurpassable frame for the work.
Inspired by The Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell (the crew that filmed a Royal typewriter being thrown out of a Buick travelling at 90mph), Simon Morris had seventy-eight students cut out all of the words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, he “threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, traveling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.” The work on display consists of a Ruscha-like book (right down to the plastic spiral binding) and a film of the epic literary littering.
If you are expecting the next room — “Reading is Concentrating” — to help you gather any scattered thoughts or words, think again.
Marinus van Dijke’s work draws your eye and ear first. Chickens clucking and strutting onscreen, superimposed small white circles the size of a chicken’s eye jerking and gliding across the screen, a sheet of paper being laid over the screen (ah, it’s a screen within a screen), and then a hand with pen enters the frame, picks a circle and, trying to track it, leaves a scrawl on the paper.
Van Dijke’s work echoes Jan Dibbets’ Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June, which Germano Celant included in his Book as Artwork show in 1973. Like the deliberate echo of Morris/Ruscha, this chance echo of Van Dijke/Dibbets recalls the grounding of contemporary textual and book art in the conceptualism of the 1960s/70s.
Dibbets documented the flight patterns of this highly territorial bird and presented that in a book as a conceptualization of an “as if” sculpture drawn in space.
There was admittedly some “artistic license” in Dibbets’ documentation — somewhat the same as when Van Dijke’s tracing pen cannot keep up with the peripatetic circles, which are projections of the chickens’ eye movements as they hunt for food.
“Reading is Reacting” is the last room. Here it seems that printed text comes out on top. Over in one corner is a Dutch encyclopedia, stacked vertically four feet high.
In the opposite corner, on shelves from floor to ceiling, is the Dutch version of Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia. The paperbacks scattered on the display table began their textual lives online.
Although printed text seems to be having the last word, attend to the curators’ last words on your way out:
Reading and writing have become increasingly open arenas: there are more readers than ever before, there are more books and publication outlets, which can reach vast readerships thanks to the internet. Readers feel more empowered and are able to combine or alter texts found online. Readers become writers. Online texts have therefore come to resemble oral literature, in that they are constantly changing and being passed on from one person to another, retold — sometimes differently. They are unstable and at the same time highly accessible.
Text in books appear to be fixed, but annotations and deletions change the printed text, just as editorial changes alter a page on the internet…. Even so, printed texts are in principle less changeable than those posted online. This makes them appear inviolable and irrefutable. Some people fear that young people believe everything they read on the internet. That is nothing new. Philosophers from Socrates to Locke thought that written or printed texts would be accepted as the absolute truth.
Where do we stand today? … How reading will develop in the future is unclear, but one thing is sure: connection and interaction will be key to that development.
Leaving The Art of Reading and thinking again about a post-text future, you can be sure of one other thing: the art of living will still depend on the art of reading.
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.
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.
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).
Created for the November 2016 issue of The Bellingham Review, “Abra: The Kinetic Page” is a polymorphic tour de force – online prose poem, video, review of and homage to an installation at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, WA, in 2014 and a promotion of the artists’ book Abra: The Living Bookby Kate Durbin, Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, published in 2014.
From where did such work spring? From a project called “Expanded Artists’ Books: Envisioning the Future of the Book”.
Inspired by the advent of the iPad in 2009 and a symposium held in 2011 with Bob Stein, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, Steve Woodall, then Director of Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, secured funding for that project from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012. That same year in a Tate Britain workshop, Woodall explained the intent of the project:
In its first phase, our project takes existing artist books and creates iPad applications that both represent and contextualise them. The apps will be made available as free downloads. With the many millions of portable devices running on the iOS platform, the reasoning goes that an under-distributed and too-obscure art form can gain wider reach and achieve greater public awareness. We will soon expand to include Android and other platforms, but we expect to stay within the ‘walled garden’ world of the app, as opposed to the open range of a purely browser-based platform – we feel that the smoother functionality and higher-quality user experience of the app work well with the expanded practices of authorship and craft engagement that define artist books.
In the project’s second phase we shall commission media artists to create born-digital artist book/apps, which will then be reverse engineered as physical books, or created in parallel with them. Owing to the creative countercharge it represents, we find this to be an extremely interesting phase of the project from a research standpoint.
It is the dialogue between the physical books and their digital avatars that provides a great part of the value of this project. … it is in the artist’s studio, whether that be an electronic workstation or a more traditional book art studio, where the dialogue will play out in the creative process. Artists will explore ways in which expression can take both virtual and physical manifestations, examining the advantages of each and how the interplay between the two can be leveraged to provide a comprehensive and powerful expression. – Steve Woodall, “Artists, Writers and the Future of the Book”, Transforming Artist Books Project, 2012.
Abra was funded by a grant from the project, and with Abra, Borsuk, Durbin and Hatcher have manifestly “embodied” the sponsor’s intent as will become clear as you read. But pause first on Borsuk’s Bellingham Review piece.
Borsuk is an inspired writer, a gifted conceptual and haptic artist. “Abra: The Kinetic Page” starts as a reflection on experiencing Ann Hamilton’s installation the common SENSE with its exploration and celebration of “touch”:
As I walked through the upper galleries, where newsprint images of the undersides of birds and small animals fluttered in the HVAC breeze, I thought about the way the exhibit invited us to read space. Hamilton’s juxtapositions, like the lines of a poem, rely on the visitor to bridge the between with their body. We provide the spark that leaps across the enjambed line where the tale of Cock Robin meets a downy hide.
I’ve strayed from what I wanted to tell you because Hamilton’s work requires it. It is, as she says, a form of attention she seeks to share with her audience—she creates installations as spaces animated by the viewer. She sets up the conditions for an experience or interaction, and then withdraws, trusting the reader / viewer / visitor to make meaning. To limn the contours of the work with their own gentle touch.
○ [Now note here how she pivots to experiencing Abra.]
As I trace my finger along Abra’s cover, whose title is also the incipit, silently voiced by the reader, which activates the text, I’m invoking not only the magic word that brings things to pass as they are spoken, I’m invoking Hamilton, whose “handseeing” videos of the late 90s and early 2000s turn the fingertip into an eye, uniting reading and writing in a gesture that links dactyl and stylus, through the digital that fits like pen in glove.
Whether read on screen or heard in the video, Borsuk’s words and sentences are tactile. Listen:
“Abra: The Kinetic Page” explores and celebrates the “fundamental relationship between the eye, the brain, and, critically, the hand” as Woodall hoped. It is a work of art as much as Abra itself.
If its artistry were not enough, The Bellingham Review piece takes things a bit further than might have been expected from the “Expanded Artists’ Book” project. Interestingly, The Bellingham Review piece also addresses changes in the value chain that hybrid books and hybrid book art must confront. As originally set out by Harvard’s Michael Porter, the value chain is the “set of activities that a firm operating in a specific industry performs in order to deliver a valuable product or service for the market.” Marketing is one of those key activities in the set. In The Bellingham Review, an online and print literary magazine, Borsuk has found not only a platform for marketing Abra, but a platform from which to offer a complementary work of art in the form of a video. An example of “art for art’s sake” that finally makes sense to the business school.
The example does not end there. Reflecting in the Tate Britain workshop on the “Expanded Artist Book” project, Woodall remarked on “digitally trained designers … being drawn back to the fundamental relationship between the eye, the brain, and, critically, the hand, … photographers … combining digital processes with nineteenth-century ‘alternative’ techniques. … [and] … the enthusiasm most contemporary graphic designers have for letterpress printing.” Web skills, videographics and the YouTube/Vimeo channels are just as remarkably important, which is clear not only from the Abrasite, The Bellingham Review piece but from this shorter directly promotional video:
Woodall did wonder whether the project’s prompting a dialogue of the physical and digital would have implications for practical matters such as distribution. While Abra has a paperback version as an entry in the traditional channels to market, that offers little insight into such implications — not like the insight realized by the combination of website, promotional video and The Bellingham Review piece.
In fact, from a perspective of craft and product, the experience promised by the videos and website is completely available only if you download the app and have a copy of the limited edition of the artists’ book. Constructed by Amy Rabas, the artists’ book allows you to insert an iPad in the back of the book creating a continuous touch-screen interface. This interactivity with the reader is one more aspect of the work that realizes perhaps more than was expected from the “Expanded Artists’ Book” project.
Another participant in the Tate Britain project was Johanna Drucker. Her comments on one of Borsuk’s earlier works – Between Page and Screen written with Brad Bouse – are relevant to this interactive aspect of Abra as well. First, a description of the book:
Between Page and Screen chronicles a love affair between two characters, P and S. The book has no words, only inscrutable black and white geometric patterns that, when coupled with a webcam, conjure the written word. Reflected on screen, the reader sees him or herself with open book in hand, language springing alive and shape-shifting with each turn of the page.
The story unfolds through a playful and cryptic exchange of letters between P and S as they struggle to define their relationship. Rich with innuendo, anagrams, etymological and sonic affinities between words, Between Page and Screen revels in language and the act of reading.
Drucker relates this interactivity between print and digital to “play with the condition of bounded-ness”:
The finitude of a bound codex quite literally defines its limits in analogue form. Even though the reference field of the work is broad, gesturing outward to the world of lived and imagined phenomena that comprise a shared realm of cultural knowledge, the book’s dimensions remain linked to its physical form. But where is such a book located in the spatial-temporal realms of networked environments? And when is a work produced? … Borsuk and Bouse’s depends on a linked connection between quick response (QR) codes on pages and files stored online. The capacity to conjure stored material that projects itself in augmented screens onto the perceived world further erodes the boundaries of interior/exterior edge and periphery that were traditionally defining features of an aesthetic work.
With its poems mutating on the iPad screen, Abra challenges the play with boundedness beyond the effect Drucker described in 2012. In its digital challenge to boundedness, Abra has much in common with Visual Editions’ reimagining of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 in an app format. The original work was published by Le Seuil in 1962 and translated by Richard Howard for Simon & Schuster the next year.
The unboundedness of Abra also has echoes in Field, the book, visual art and installation all in one produced by Johannes Heldén about the same time as Abra and The Bellingham Review piece. Field‘s interactivity, however, relies on a floor touchscreen of 20 square meters, one effect of which is to remove words from pages projected on a screen and another to animate a series of sculptural mutations of the Eurasian Jackdaw. The ephemerality of an installation combined with the effective of personal interactivity intensifies the challenge and play of unboundedness.
Which brings us full circle to the installation-inspired “Abra: The Kinetic Page” and the last aspect of Abra: The Living Text that carries it beyond the expectations of the “Expanded Artists’ Book”. The work began as a collaborative book-length poem between Borsuk and Durbin. Writing separately using a series of constraints, then weaving their words together and editing them side by side, the authors found a new voice emerging from the conjoined poem, that of ABRA herself. To give a body to that voice, they created a series of conjoined costumes, each an avatar reflecting various aspects of the poems.
When I hear sad tales of “The End of Books“, I think of these artists and authors and the distances between them – Borsuk in Washington State, Durbin in southern California, Hatcher in New York, Hamilton in Ohio, Rabas and Woodall in Illinois and Heldén in Sweden. Then I look at the distance between my finger and screen, between my hand and the copy of Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen lying on the table here. Those sad tales fade before the palpable vibrancy of book art and the transformative effect of the digital.
Last year 2015 was the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius, publisher of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili -“Poliphilo’s Dream of Strife with Love” -(1499). To mark the start of the second half millennium of the evolving book, we have an untitled online work as erudite, vulgar and almost bewildering appearing on Reddit (“the front page of the internet”):
Rachel does not dream. Rachel does not sleep. Rachel does not wake.
Rachel feels! All the time!
Rachel Head has a direct sense feed with Reinhardt Emotive FPS Blending™ for stunning clarity and total sensory presence. With the entire cultural library at her fingertips, Rachel can put herself into any scenario and create precision mixes at speed-of-mind.
And so it goes for entry after entry – a melange of characters and voices, whose utterances are attached as responses to postings in Reddit and coalesce into a sci-fi horror story that you might only find if you were a voracious Renaissance Reddit reader or clicked on the author’s name or if you were to come across The Interface Series, where other Reddit users have collected and annotated the entries.
“Interface” comes from the author’s recurrent theme of “flesh interface”:
Of all the children who had been returned from the portals, only one survived in the long term, though we didn’t even realize it until years later. She had been stolen (or rescued) from us by a rogue technician shortly after return and was thus lost to us for many years. We finally found her in Estonia and kidnapped her from her adoptive family in the middle of the night. She was seven when we lost her and thirteen when we found her again.
We did a preliminary interview, and she seemed normal in every respect. Mind you, this was a girl who entered a massive, possibly alien, biological device called a flesh interface, disappeared from existence for several minutes, then returned incased in an amniotic sac, attached to a placenta via umbilical cord with enough LSD in her bloodstream to turn all of Utah in one massive orgy. Naturally, we expected some sort of mental changes, especially since every child who returned from the portals had showed signs of mental aberration. Then again, every other child had died shortly after return, so she was clearly something special.
So “flesh” prompts the suggested title Hypnocaromachia – “Dream of Strife with Flesh”, which is not nearly as improvisational as the Netflix-style jump cuts from the Reddit postings that the author uses to spark each new entry. “Tell me of the man who does not dream”? How about Rachel who “feels! All the time!”
Like the identity of the author of Hypnerotomachia, the identity of the author of Hypnocaromachia (_9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9) is a mystery. Unlike the profusely and beautifully illustrated book of 1499, Hypnocaromachia is pure text. I suppose that, in lieu, it arrives in gobbets of those seemingly non-sequitur responses to other postings on Reddit surrounded by advertising eye candy. It would have been as if the weekly serializations of Dickens’ Hard Times in Household Words (1854) had been inserted at the end of an article in The Age in Melbourne one week, tacked on to another in Harper’s Weekly in New York the next, popped into The Illustrated London News the next, and so on.
But there was no publishing technology available for such sowing, reaping or garnering then. Will Reddit be around 162 years from now? If so, we may be reading it (or interfacing with it) from our “hygiene beds” according to _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES9.
A woman. 28 years old. Lives in a bed-rack apartment block in Alabama. She has engaged in heavy feed use since childhood, spending 70 to 80% of her free time connected. At age 16 she finds global success as mix guide, netting her a considerable sum of money. One day, when she is 19 years old, she connects to her feed. She does not disconnect again for 9 years.
9 years of continuous feed. 9 years without any direct human contact. 9 years alone in a hygiene bed. Dreaming.
Meanwhile, her feed is a veritable flurry of digital contact: mixes, life stories, role swaps, rooms, hunts, avatar makers, empathy games, sex play, and on and on. For a while, her mix tours sell well, and she enjoys her celebrity. But over the years, tastes changes, and her income falls. Try as she might, she cannot revive her popularity. She tries sortieing, tutoring, crowd matching, whatever will make her money. But the competition in these markets is harsh, and she has significant debts to several promotion companies. Her money runs out. She manages to credit bounce for a while, but the writing is on the wall: she must disconnect.
More on this cross between William Gibson and Philip K. Dick can be found here in The Guardian and previously online at Motherboard.