Julia Hou’s Asterisk (2019) may remind you of an E.E. Cummings’ poem or a Hasegawa Tōhaku print or the Xu Bing animation The Character of Characters. Just as appreciation of Cummings grows with exposure to broken syntax and playful typographic layout in other poems — or of Tōhaku, as understanding of the depth effects minimalism, size, definition and tone can have on the eye — or of Xu Bing, as his inspiration from Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (c. 1296) and The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma (c. 1315) both by Zhao Mengfu is learned, appreciation of Asterisk grows as more is understood about how Hou made her digital artist book. Screen grabs of Asterisk, such as the sequential ones below, only hint at the work.
To read Asterisk, click here and press the letter “f” to move forward through the work. Hou’s poem reveals itself in black text that turns red as a “refrain”-like block of text over which the poem’s lines sit dissolves into characters that fly up like leaves or birds, fall down like rain, float down like snow, or coalesce into foreground or tree-like shapes.
Colored in blue, the asterisks take up a left foreground position, bubbling up and falling back like a fountain of water available to refresh the tree-like forms made of letters, but as the artist book is scrolled forward from left to right, the asterisk fountain disperses across the screen like spray, butterflies or bluebirds. Here is a transcript, as it were:
Asterisk the last time you were here was years ago before you were punctured by asterisks and written into footnotes. the night your mother read your first published story and told you it was too sad too linear. she told you to let in the light to rip away whatever fears you'd stapled to your chest to see the forest for the trees and you tried. you raised your voice spoke with confidence, loud and red but it all seemed to fade into whitespace as if God Himself had decided to erase and rewrite you [Refrain - which varies in length with each forward movement or refresh] what do you see what do you see what do you see what do you see what do you see an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky an ink speckled sky and tree only traveler and tree only traveler and tree only traveler and tree only traveler and tr ee only traveler and tree only traveler and tree only travel er look behind you look behind you look behind you look behi nd you look behind you look behind you
Where appreciation on each revisiting of Cummings, Tōhaku or Xu Bing increases with the perceiver’s personal growth, Asterisk itself varies with each accessing, with access from the artist’s site or from the Carnegie Mellon University libraries’ Artists’ Book Collection, and with keyboard/screenpad interaction. As if in an online game, the reader/viewer must keep up. Hou has created her artist book with Satoru Ozaki’s created-index, a game app exploring a surreal 3D typographical world. Depending on how the reader/viewer touches the screenpad or moves the cursor and presses “f” to go forward or “b” to go back, the viewpoint tilts and pivots. It is like manipulating a sculptural bookwork such as Francisca Prieto’s The Antibook (2002).
Artist books born-digital vary wildly from one another — perhaps more so than analog artist’s books or even hybrids, or perhaps it’s just that we are not used to the artist’s “new material and tools”. Carnegie Mellon University’s acquisition and preservation of Hou’s digital artist book leads further into thinking about Asterisk‘s material status. The files can be downloaded here, but what is it that has been collected? Is its shape-shifting merely analogous to a viewer’s shifting perspective on an artist book in a physical environment? It would be interesting to have Matthew Kirschenbaum’s perspective on the preservation effort that Carnegie Mellon has put into Hou’s artist book and how that relates to his Mechanisms‘ analysis of “the textual and technical primitives of electronic writing that govern writing, inscription, and textual transmission in all media: erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability” — in essence, the materiality of works like Hou’s.
Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book also provides a useful context here in its 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.
To add to Borsuk’s history (and conclude) with an analogue precursor, consider Livre de Prières Tissé d’après les enluminures des manuscrits du XIVe au XVIe siècle (which translates as Book of Prayers woven after illuminations in manuscripts of the 14th and 15th century).
Created in Lyon, France (1886-1887), Livre de Prières Tissé presents a bridge from the illuminated books on which it is patterned to Hou’s Asterisk, driven by a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine. Every image, letter, ornament and page of Livre de Prières Tissé consists of silver and black silk thread woven on silk looms programmed with the punched-card system developed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834). Those perforated cards inspired the famous “Analytical Engine” conceived by Charles Babbage (1791-1871), which in turn inspired Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) to compose its first computer program: a set of instructions designed to be carried out by a machine.
Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).
Hindman, Sarah. “Meet Me at the World’s Fair“, Abebooks.com (ND). Accessed 22 June 2020.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
Norman, Jeremy. “A Prayerbook Entirely Woven by the Jacquard Loom: The First Book Produced by a Program or Digitally Produced Book?“, Jeremy Norman’s History of Information, 20 April 2020. Accessed 22 June 2020.
Prisbylla, Andrew. “Art Meets Tech in Born-Digital Artist’s Book“, News/Carnegie Mellon University, 4 June 2020. Accessed 21 June 2020.