What’s Lost? What’s Gained?

Paul Coldwell

Often produced as limited editions, artist books generally cannot reach a wide audience. Digitisation, however, can help overcome this obstacle. Paul Coldwell reflects on a series of workshops held in 2012, considering the potential benefits of digitisation ­but also the potential losses.

Over the course of the ‘Transforming Artist Books’ workshops two ideas recurred, that of the need to find ways of presenting the content of existing artists’ books to a wider audience through digital means, and the potential for works to be conceived within the language of digital technology. Within the discussion of digitisation is the question of what is lost through this process and what is gained. This touches upon a wider question concerning the ways in which artists’ books are presented and the relationship that the artist seeks with the audience. 

There is a paradox at the heart of many artist books. Having been carefully crafted so that all aspects of production, paper, type, printing, binding etc., are considered in relation to the concept of the book, how can this content, and indeed the experience of the book, be accessible in any meaningful way for a broad audience? Coupled with the fact that many are made in very small editions, any ways in which this material can be brought to a wider audience is to be welcomed. There is another connected issue, about why printed works in general are marginalised when it comes to presenting an overview of an artist’s work, but that is for another time.

At present, an artist book, once in a public collection, is either available on a one-to-one basis, generally by appointment, or when exhibited it is presented under glass with, at best, the book open to give an example of the layout with the one open spread serving to articulate the ideas contained within the whole volume. In many ways this form of presentation, which understandably takes account of the curatorial and museological responsibilities of conserving acquisitions, can be seen as the equivalent of the film poster trying to represent the experience of the film it advertises. The first workshop at Tate set this as a challenge, with a display of books from the collection available to the attendees to browse and experience as total entities. (I observed the social aspect of viewing books, the shared conversations and the importance of touch – books being one of the few cultural artefacts that can be shared and exchanged.)

Advances in digital technology present two distinct ways forward for presenting artists’ books: first, by offering additional means of bringing the content of these books to a wider audience through digitisation, and secondly, by providing an alternative space for artists to make books with the language of digital software. While the first suggests the act of translation, from the original object into a digital form – effectively a page-turning programme – the second is an invitation to artists to work within the very form of the digital. 

One issue throughout the workshops was the slippage between discussing books in general to artist books specifically. There can be little argument over the value in making the content of, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospels available to a broad audience as opposed to a handful of privileged academics, through the technology of digitisation and page turning. In this case, the content of the book can be experienced digitally and in a museum context, where it may be accompanied by the actual volume. Here the object, the book itself, serves as a reference point to establish presence alongside specifics of scale, weight, materials and the like, while also offering the possibility of an online presence, bringing the content of the book to a global audience.

However, for the artist book I feel that digitisation is more complex. Firstly, for many artists, their book works aim to explore and challenge the very idea of the book itself. In many cases they are inviting the viewer to experience the book not only through its content but also through its actual physicality. How does it feel in the hand? Is it to be read in a conventional, sequential way or is it to be browsed? Does the experience of the book become a performance? So while, for example, page turning might make the more obvious content available to a wider audience, there is every chance that the more subtle content will be lost with the danger that the artist’s intention is misrepresented.

One approach that was raised as an alternative to straight, page-by-page digitisation was to film the book being read. This would help to clarify the scale of the book and its physical attributes, as well as serving to illustrate the performative aspect involved in its reading. The relationship of the book to the body would also be privileged. Perhaps when an artist book is acquired, the artist should be asked for their view on this issue, thinking of it in terms of appropriate documentation as opposed to digitisation.

A further issue concerning the idea of ‘translation’ is that the majority of those attending the workshops have been working through analogue to digital. We have ourselves been translating, looking for equivalents through digital means rather than immersing ourselves in the particular language of digital art. It would have been useful to have included the voice of a younger generation that has grown up with this new technology as well as artists or programmers who are experimenting with the digital language itself.

As the workshops progressed, I felt increasingly drawn back to the occasions where we had engaged with books as physical objects. The monitor screen is now ubiquitous and, while it is a portal to a wealth of information, it also serves to equalise experience. All e-books are configured to a similar layout for clarity of reading; War and Peace on a Kindle is no different to any other book. Furthermore, the experience of an actual book is different on each occasion, while the digital version is uniform and the act of navigating the book is predetermined. In Eileen Hogan’s digitised sketchbook, while the format provides an interesting means to make available layers of data, the viewer quickly learns the tricks and so although on one level the book literally opens up, the options are also immediately closed down. Likewise for Helen Douglas’s scroll, for once the pleasure of scrolling and zooming has been experienced, a certain frustration occurs because the technology cannot offer more.

It is here, perhaps, where one of the problems lies, in that while the digital offers an infinite variety of options, each has to be pre-thought, designed and programmed, in effect offering up a predetermined menu whereas the physical artist’s book offers an invitation.

Paul Coldwell
August 2012 

Paul Coldwell is Professor, CCW Graduate School, University of the Arts, London.

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.