The National Library of the Netherlands advises, “for [Shirley Sharoff’s La grande muraille/The Great Wall (1991)] to be read, the book first must be rolled out”. And that is what I did, using the large table in the Special Collection’s seminar room.
Enjoyable as that was, enjoying it again with the video afterward, something seemed awry. The texts had gaps, or so I thought. So I returned a second time. Perhaps if I re-shot the video. Perhaps if I took more stills and close-ups. Perhaps if I shot the rolling up as well as the unrolling.
No doubt, the second effort added to the pleasure. Looking at the videos and stills, I can again feel between my fingers the Arches paper and engravings’ impressions on it. But still I detected gaps, seeming mismatches between the French and English. I wondered to what degree they
followed the Chinese text or whether some of Lu Xun’s text had been omitted. So, I returned a third time, and then came my “ah hah” moment. Unrolled, La grande muraille looks like a double-sided leporello or accordion book like this one: In Mexico by Helen Douglas.
To read La grande muraille as the double-sided leporello it appears to be, however, is to overlook the multi-page spreads that Sharoff conceived with François Da Ros (her typography and print collaborator) in putting together this forme en escargot (snail-shell form as she calls it). The snail-shell form, its multi-page spreads and the text demand that you read La grande muraille as you unroll it, or rather, as you unfold it.
With the book laid flat, the “page spreads” are easier to recognize, the text is easier to read, and the forethought needed for the “imposition” of text and images to deliver the sequential text, easier to marvel at. As each recto page is turned to the right, two new pages appear to the right. This unfolding approach to reading the book offers several intriguing “double- and multi-page spreads” and an experience of the texts and eight prints in the sequence driven by the text. When you have finished reading in this sequence, you will have read both sides of the scroll.
Reading the text
Now that the so-called gaps in the English and French texts were resolved, I wanted to understand how the English and French matched up to the Chinese text. For that, I asked help from two acquaintances in The Hague: Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song. They obtained a copy of Lu Xun’s text, traced it through the photos I had taken and found that the three languages run almost in parallel as the work unfolds.
“Almost” because the order of the languages is not alway the same. On pages one and two, we see the French and English titles but must wait until page five before the Chinese title appears. Then, on page six the order changes: English first, then French, then the corresponding ten Chinese characters. On pages seven and eight, this order is maintained. Later, with the turning of page fifteen, the French comes before the English and Chinese; the first Chinese character aligning to the French and English (其) appears on page seventeen. Then, as page seventeen is turned to the right, the order changes back to French then English on page eighteen, but on page nineteen, it moves to French first then Chinese. The book’s textual conclusion on pages fifty-six through fifty-nine runs Chinese, English, then French.
The juxtaposition and weaving of the three languages often seems painterly as if intended to evoke the layering of the bricks and the intertwining vines and foliage along stretches of The Great Wall. Here is the uninterrupted Chinese text:
Even though following the forme en escargot results in having reading both sides of the scroll in the end, Sharoff also uses it to play with the notion of intended sequence. Completely unrolled and standing on its edge, the work echoes the Great Wall. The tint of red along the top edge recalls the blood spilled in the Great Wall’s construction. The prints echo the Great Wall’s bricks, the vegetation in its crumbling gaps, even the gates. The completely unrolled work is an intended sequence, also — an invitation to walk the wall. Coming upon each of the eight copperplate engravings in the unfolding sequence is a different experience than walking up and down the “outer wall” and then the “inner wall” to see them. Five are on the outer wall, three on the inner.
Reading the form “in time”
As the force of the snail-shell binding resists the unscrolling and pulls the standing pages inward, the work has another echo: the eroding maze in the Ancient Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) outside Beijing. The faint markings on the paper, created by printing the results of repeated photocopies of a manuscript, amplify the echo.
Although Lu Xun’s text does not mention the maze, Sharoff introduces contemporary text that, alongside the interweaving Chinese, English and French of Lu Xun’s text, evokes a maze-like, time-travelling effect. The autobiographical texts from the English-language students she taught at the Central Institute of Finance and Banking (1987-88) reflect on their childhood and adolescence in the Maoist era and their recollection of representations of foreigners in books and television. These “new bricks” in their modernness and fracturedness interrupt the flow of Lu Xun’s prose praising and cursing the Great Wall. Yet, in their segmentation and placement, they also physically echo the prints and reinforce Lu Xun’s expression of the paradox in the construction, fragmentation, reconstruction and erosion of the real Wall.
Sharoff’s La grande muraille is a treasure that rewards repeated visits and contemplation: not only for itself but also as a parallel or forerunner.
La grande muraille’s physical impetus (The Great Wall), the seemingly decipherable/indecipherable characters on the Arches paper, the wry paradox of Lu Xun’s observations, the socio-political-cultural implications of the “new bricks”, the work’s innovative form and the pulling of past and present together parallels the work of Xu Bing and his play with language across East and West. His Book from the Sky appeared in 1988.
Sharoff’s use of Lu Xun’s contemplation on The Great Wall also foreshadows Jorge Méndez Blake‘s Capítulo XXXVIII: Un mensaje del emperador / A Message from the Emperor (2017?). The title refers to an anecdote in the story “The Great Wall of China” by Franz Kafka, a contemporary of Lu Xun. The narrator tells the reader how the emperor has dispatched from his deathbed a message to the reader, entrusted to a herald who, struggling as he might, cannot escape from the confines of the palace to deliver the message — yet which we the reader await hopelessly and with hope.
What more should we expect from art?
*For help and permissions, thanks to Paul van Capelleveen and the staff at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag, and Shirley Sharoff, Paris. For help with the Chinese and calligraphy, thanks to Bee Leng Bee and Yingxian Song.
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 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, nor 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?
Bridging history, the book arts, and contemporary electronic literature, this volume reminds us that the book is a fluid artifact whose form and usage have shifted over time under numerous influences: social, financial, and technological…. 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 — from Sumer’s clay to Amazon’s Kindle, from Johannes Gutenberg to Project Gutenberg — Borsuk reminds us that human artifacts exist 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, the Blakean flashpoint does not illuminate these six particular themes. Rather Blake and his work represent three other recurrent themes or “energies motivating artwork in book form”: 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. In fact, Borsuk notes these additional themes:
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 Moseley’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. With his famous 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. 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 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 — is Borsuk’s fourth choice of flashpoints. In several respects, Ruscha and Carrión are counter-flashpoints. 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 manifestoes (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 fifth 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)
She 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 arts’ 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 sixth theme — the book as mute object — 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 and 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.
“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” now appearing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 7, 2018, includes work from Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping. The exhibition attracted animal rights protestors and removal of works, one of which was Xu Bing’s video of his 1994 installation A Case Study of Transference. In a pen littered with books, Xu Bing presented two pigs, one tattooed with words in his now famous nonsense Chinese calligraphy and one with nonsense English words. The piece became infamous when the pigs, bored with the intercourse offered by the books, engaged in more mutually interesting discourse.
The exhibition also occasioned this article in “Art in America” by managing editor Richard Vine. He has held up art’s hard mirror to us all in this essay.
At 6 minutes in, there is a wonderful riff on the book as elemental cultural artifact, being able to stand for each of the four elements. Here are links to the images to which Spector refers – so much more enjoyable to see as well as hear!
The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.
I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.
After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop. Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands. The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”
They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.
Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning. Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.
The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aestheticareview of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.
Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.
With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning. We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages. We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.
On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.