Digitising artist books could potentially open up their contents to audiences around the world. Reflecting on workshops held in 2012, Richard Clay and Eugune Ch’ng ask if they can ever be a substitute for the physical object.

In all likelihood, only a tiny proportion of Tate Britain’s visitors are aware that the gallery is home to a large and diverse collection of artist books. After all, the books are housed in the library that few gallery-goers visit. Even if the books were made more readily accessible within Tate’s public display spaces, allowing the objects to be handled and their pages turned would lead inevitably to physical wear and tear – the books’ reception would damage the objects themselves. Digitisation of artist books has the potential to make visible to the public largely unknown collections without the risk of damaging the books’ physical integrity. Yet, as this short essay suggests, while such digital simulations offer promising opportunities for enriching gallery-goers’ experiences of artist books, they also have distinct limitations.

It would be enormously challenging to simulate digitally some elements of artist books. The objects are wonderfully tactile, produced by artists who have made sophisticated decisions about the weight, texture and tensile properties of each page, about the way in which pages turn within their binding, about the precise tone of colours, and even the use of three-dimensional compositional elements that rise from the surface of the pages. The company Turning the Pageshas made great progress in simulating such variables for digital applications, allowing users to swipe a finger over a touch screen to move between the pages of a digitised book. In future it might be possible for users to gesture with two or more fingers to turn multiple pages of a book and to vary the speed of such actions to simulate the ways in which readers of a physical book might skip pages to get to a target page. However, the sensual tactility of handling a book itself remains alluringly distinct from the experiences offered by current digital interaction.

While it is the case that a perfect simulation of an artist book would be an identical copy of the book itself, digitised books do offer galleries new tools to improve access to and understanding of otherwise under-explored parts of their collections. Let us consider the example of new ‘multitouch interfaces’ that have become increasingly familiar thanks to the pervasiveness of smart phones. The computational power of such phones is now equivalent to – and is exceeding – that which NASA had at its disposal when it sent Apollo to the moon. These portable devices support up to five simultaneous touches at any given moment, allowing users to use gestures to zoom and expand images, texts or films, to rotate them, to move them around the surface, even to pan the horizon of the earth in the Google Earth application. Much larger versions of this kind of interface, often with screens of up to and beyond sixty-five inches, recognise many more touches, allowing several people to approach a ‘touch table’ from different angles and interact with numerous different pieces of digital content simultaneously via touch. As such, several people could use a table to explore digital versions of one or more artist books at the same time.

Each user of a touch table in a gallery could be turning the pages of a digital book with the swipe of a finger, engaging in the kind of solo interaction that is usual between a reader and a physical book. However, the user could also be using intuitive finger gestures to turn the whole book around and pass it over to another user on the opposite side of the table as part of a more collective engagement with digital books that might involve comparison and discussion. Users could be using the increasingly familiar pinch gesture to zoom in and out of a page, simulating to some extent the holding of a book up to one’s eyes or the viewing of a page through a magnifying glass. Or a user could be deploying the Google Earth panning gesture of two fingers dragged across the screen to move the 3D form of a digitised book in relation to a simulated light source the parameters of which (for example, brightness, colour, angle) could also be subject to users’ modifications. After all, the visual appearance of an actual artist book is always dependent on the lighting conditions in which it is seen in the physical world.

Unlike ‘real world’ encounters with books, touch table users could highlight particular pages (or even parts of them), copy those elements and with the swipe of a finger move them onto the surface of the table where they could be compared, zoomed, rotated or passed around. Users could engage with the wider readership via social media, sharing highlights of the text and images, comments, and ratings through Facebook, Google+ or Twitter. Or they could collectively co-read a book in real-time via high-speed networks. In some respects, such freedom might seem to be at odds with the great attention artists often pay to the sequential structuring of their books. That is to say, as the user moves from one page to the next, an immersive sensory, emotional and intellectual experience builds. But, as photographer Martin Parr (born 1952), a great champion of the photo book, has noted, he always expects viewers to flick between pages in sequences that he never imagined. After all, there are thousands of potential comparisons to be drawn between pages in an artist book of finite pages – viewers are always free to become a kind of co-artist by exploring the meaning-making potential afforded by creative comparison. Multi-user surface technologies could be used to enable viewers’ explorations of such rich fields of potentiality.

Galleries and indeed artists can also harness the potential of multi-user interfaces to offer visitors information about digitised books. Simple touch gestures can bring up new windows that explain how the book was bound, what paper was used and why, how it was produced, the choice of tone and colour, the artist’s methods, their biography and wider practice, the trade in artist books and their reception, or interpretations of the meanings of the book as a whole, a particular page or a single motif. Such information could be pitched at different kinds of users ranging from a school group to a professorial researcher, provided as text, video or sound files that are simply presented to be ‘consumed’ discretely or woven into interactive experiences that allow exploration of themes and webs of inter-relationships. Characters and objects in books that were depicted originally in two-dimensional images could even be animated in 3D via Augmented Reality, either through the users’ smart phones or through stereo glasses. Characters could converse with readers or perhaps lead them through narratives. However, providing any of the aforementioned interpretive tools poses challenges to galleries – somebody needs to develop the content and, given the didactic mission of the institutions, it needs to be well-informed and demonstrably valuable to users. Nevertheless, the updateability of software could allow galleries to invite students, so often knowledgeable, imaginative and creative, to become content developers and to conduct tests with diverse user groups. In the process, galleries could use development of content to promote the education of future gallery professionals.

While it seems to us that multi-user interfaces could be harnessed by galleries to enrich visitors’ experiences of little known artist book collections, we hope digital tools would not distract users from considering the striking materiality of books themselves. The gallery spaces that we imagine would contain surface displays of digitised versions of artist books would also be showing actual books brought out of libraries to be displayed before the public in the manner traditionally associated with other art forms. While the books’ physical fragility would probably mean they would need to be exhibited in cases, visitors could hold up a smart phone to an actual object, be able to see it on their phone’s camera, touch it to read a little information about it, swipe through some sample pages, move a digital version of the book to their phone’s ‘artist book shelf’, walk over to a touch table and flick the book onto the large surface for exploration. Still, we cannot help but wonder whether smart phone and touch table software in gallery spaces should occasionally freeze and flash up messages such as ‘Now please look at the books themselves, delight in their physicality, imagine how they feel and smell’.

Eugene Ch’ng and Richard Clay 
August 2012

Eugene Ch’ng is Senior Lecturer in Visualisation and Innovations Director of Do.collaboration, University of Birmingham.

Richard Clay is Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Co-Director of Do.collaboration, University of Birmingham

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.