What aspect of the book are we transforming? The object, the physical codex and its potential to be reimagined digitally? Or the identity and features of texts? Both are being changed rapidly. However it is much more difficult to imagine how books – resolutely analogue and physical forms – can find a digital identity without losing their character completely than it is to grapple with changes in textual production – though even there, the integration of varieties of media into the ‘pages’ or contents of e-books is testing limits.
The panoply of devices now used to access content – Kindles, Nooks, e-books, iPads, and other readers – is driving artists and writers (as well as publishers) towards new formats. Business issues and monopolistic impulses struggle to control the markets, distribution, and revenue streams in publishing. Artists, as so often, are a tiny part of all these machinations, the little marginal fish swimming upstream against the forces of cultural transformation – or, sometimes, taking advantage of intellectual and aesthetic manoeuverability to track an independent and idiosyncratic path among the battling behemoths. What artistic innovations are making a mark on the literary landscape? And what are the trademarks of new digital writing practices that go beyond mere change of material substrate.
No doubt all kinds of scribblers and web monkeys are working away. One high profile experiment is Steve Tomasula’s ToC, created in collaboration with designer Stephen Farrell, and launched as a ‘new media novel’. The ‘book’ runs from a DVD and contains video clips, visual materials, sound and combined, hyperlinked story lines. Multi-mediated and genre-bending, ToC maintains its ‘book-ness’ mainly by virtue of a narrative line and consistent characters, while the media serve up segments of story in video, audio or image files. All elements of the work are authored in the traditional sense, each piece a facet of the whole, which is still bounded, contained and discreet.
By contrast, a piece produced in 2004 by Sarah Jacobs, Deciphering Human Chromosome 16: Index to the Report, used an e-book to connect directly to a live feed of data from about 250 websites. Her program gathered fragments of information published in response to the official report on genetic information. Her work was a constantly changing expression of the various feeds and content.
The distinction between pre-packaged content (ToC) and living textual material (Report) is dramatic. Even though we argue that books are produced anew in each reading, the rework of the material inscription of text adds another dimension to that reworking. In addition, the Jacobs piece is authored collaboratively. Her mash-up text culls phrases, fragments and passages from the work of others. The collage technique and cut-up rework of preexisting texts is a familiar trope in contemporary literature, as David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto 2010 illustrates by its dramatic use of citations to compose its substance while commenting on the phenomenon and its history. In the past commonplace books used similar collage techniques in pre-print and early print eras, serving as a site of collected excerpts, hand written, or cut-and-pasted into place, for inspiration or contemplation by their readers.
So what distinguishes new platforms is not the unoriginality of writing, or the ability to constantly recombine textual elements, or the integration of a variety of media into combination with texts (the novelty of which will soon pass). The more dramatic shift is from bounded to unbounded forms. What Jacobs’s project gestures towards that Tomasula’s does not, is the condition of continual contingency that embeds the very content stream in a distributed network of material elements, each of which is part of the entire system on which the work depends. The same argument might be made of print artefacts, but only in a metaphoric and theoretical way, since the book object has artefactual stability – even if it is merely a snapshot taken at a particular moment in the full stream of production and reception processes. The illusion of stability in an analogue codex is supported by certain material realities. As a material object, a book is relatively stable. Yet the distributed materiality of a networked digital environment can produce a ‘book’ as a set of contingent dependencies. When a work, like that of Jacobs’s, depends on feeds from various sources, across a range of bandwidths and data transfer protocols, from a range of servers whose profiles may each be configured using different proprietary software and so on, then the material conditions that support the display of any specific screen of information produce an object that is temporary and ephemeral, a demonstration of the principle that no screen ever displays the same data stream twice. Recovery may be possible, but each instantiation is inscribed anew. Analogue materials hold their inscriptions as physical traces, and no matter how material we may imagine and understand our digital environments to be, the distinction between inscribed and reinscribable conditions remains.
Other features of Jacobs’s work link it to work by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, Gretchen Henderson and other experimental writers; in particular, the play with the condition of bounded-ness. By this I mean discursive delimitation and definition. 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? Henderson’s book-gallery project Galerie de Deformité 2011 invites participation by a wide number of contributors and users. 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. In a curious inversion of the nineteenth-century French writer Stéphane Mallarmé’s dictum, it results that a book exists to be a projection onto the entirety of the world, not merely to take the world into itself as a representation.
So what of ‘book’ in the future? A momentary framework, a call to networked content that configures a temporary organisation or arrangement of materials from a distributed field into a portal or frame that may last only as long as a reading, or even less, and be permeated by live stream feeds from any number of sources, media, and data banks. As always, the challenge with aesthetic artefacts is to create work that transforms experience into form so that it returns some value to the imaginative, perceptual, intellectual and social life of individuals and cultures.
Johanna Drucker is Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography, UCLA, Los Angeles.
The Transforming Artist Books research network held a series of workshops in 2012 to discuss the potential of the digital to change the understanding, appreciation and care of artist books.