Introductory words by Holger Briel
It is fair to say that books and the book trade are undergoing rapid changes today. The arrival of digital texts and their easy transmission has altered the marketplace irreversibly. Kindles and other electronic “book” readers are popping up in ever increasing numbers, preempting physical manifestations of books, newspapers, magazines, and other older media. And while many may still find solace in physical books and especially their tactility, their sales figures reveal a different story. For 3 years now, since 2008, Amazon has sold more e-books than “real” ones. And indeed, when talking to people in the industry, the only segment carrying any growth is the coffee table book. But even this is not quite reason for jubilation as such; here, language, the skeleton of most books, if not their body and soul, is typically not the focus, images are. This “visual turn” is still in full swing, supported by advanced technologies supplying us with images as if they were “mere” texts, whereas the reading of actual texts is increasingly marginalized.
But platform changes always bring with them social changes as well. These might be good or bad: One might think of the 19th century portrait painter who is losing his job because photography has taken over and the middle and upper classes of the day preferred the newly found verisimilitude of the photographic portrait over the artistic impression. On the one hand, and certainly on an individual basis, this was a problematic development; on the other, it allowed painting to reinvent itself and jettison its need for reality. Thus, without photography no Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon! Without photography, no abstract, no concrete art! And what a loss that would have been!
One might compare this with the relationship between the computer and literature. While at first sight it does not become immediately clear what the two have in common, upon further inspection they do interact in many ways. On the one hand, the invention of computers has allowed for new ways of producing, disseminating and consuming text. On the other, it has set the material book free to pursue other goals.
In the beginning of digital writing, in the 2nd half of the 1980’s, this typically involved HyperText or similar programs, which are an old hat these days when we live on Google and its hyperlinks This technology allowed for a radical change in reading: multiple roads, infinite endings. It freed the act of reading from its former dictate of linearity. Examples are Michael Joyce, An Afternoon (1987), Jane Yellowlees Douglas’ I Have Said Nothing, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden(1992) and others. More recently, Spanish literature has taken up digital literature with a vengeance and especially in Central America has produced some amazing narratives. The literary theorist Bolter speaks in this regard of the “remediation” of books into another medium. One other feature of digital literature is also important here: the ability to co-operate, to co-create. While this is not necessary new (think Dada’s Ecriture automatique), many sites nowadays offer a chance to be part of an ongoing collaborative writing experiment and thus independent of the participants’ locality.
And think of the marvelous opportunities the scanning and digitalization of books opens up for literary and cultural researchers! As of March 2012, Google had digitized more than 40 million books, representing 12% of all books ever printed. This data trove is only now beginning to emerge and will be an important place for scientific enquiry.
However, and that is a big however, all the Googles and Amazons are of course unable to substitute a MOUFFLON, a Rizzoli or London’s Charing Cross Road, where quality books and expertise are available like nowhere else.
But just like the “writing-with-light” technology, i.e. photography, had freed or pushed the painters during the time of its inception to specialize and/or embrace the new medium, the digital world has given books also another lease on life: The recent upsurge in artists’ books we are witnessing today bears ample testimony to this. Artists’ books have always problematised the book and took it onto their own turf in order to make one medium another, playfully, forcefully and inventively.
When one examines the history of artists’ books, one is led to their beginnings, to William Blake and his illustrations. But also to many other, newer movements, such as the Futurists, the already mentioned Dada, Guy Debord, Fluxus, Dieter Roth, Ed Ruscha and others. Most of these though produced some kind of art and made it into a book. The present exhibition is different. Here, the artists were given existing books already and told to experiment with them and make them their own. As if to say: the function of the book as a fount of textual knowledge has ceased, long live the new book! The new book imbued with all kinds of new, artistic knowledge.
Within this exhibition, there is an amazing array of differing works, all of them contesting the boundaries of book and art and their relationship. Thus, one finds an old Argos catalogue, the symbol of British mail order consumers, made lisible, readable, in a new way by its exposure to and metamorphosis by nature. There are books, whose insides have been altered, ripped out, fortified, rewritten, overwritten, painted over, augmented, repackaged and shredded. Pages are jumping out at the viewer-reader, are folded in intricate patterns and thus drawing attention to the materiality of the book itself. The pieces turn insides out, sow pages shut and always already pose questions of authorship and property, one of the other great challenges of cyberspace vis-à-vis the book trade. Some of the books become sculptures or paintings in their own right such as the Larousse Livre de Poche, its middle elegantly cut out and now functioning as a frame or, indeed, an inside of a frame, depending on which position one takes.
Another artifact taking up the challenge of the text is the book with photographs of a semi-clad male body, who becomes more and more fettered and bound up by strips of printed paper as the story continues. Here the complex relationship between the written and the photographic text is squarely put in the middle of the discussion and is challenging more traditional views attempting to separate the two.
If e-books lack tactility, our artists‘ books certainly do not, even invite it, material allowing. It is after all the pleasure of the text, as Roland Barthes has called it, this double fold of Plaisir and even more the Jouissance inducing quality of texts that brings us back to them time and again. And in many minds these still belong between the two covers of a real book. Our artists here play with these concepts and add their own art, thus commenting on the books’ inherent qualities, but also going beyond them and taking them to their next space.
But enough! I think it’s time to finally go and look, explore and discover for yourselves. Before you go and explore, though, I would like to thank a number of people and institutions without whom this exhibition would not have been feasible.
Our Thanks goes to:
All the artists, old and new, who have participated
Anja Klos and the German Embassy which funded a significant part of the exhibition
Ruth and Horst for their time and effort
Last but not least, Natalie Yiaxi for display and mounting and her own piece.