In autumn 2009 I travelled to the University of Nebraska to deliver a presentation on visual books to students of the Creative Writing graduate programme, one of the largest such programmes in the United States. I had given similar talks at museums, libraries and colleges, but this was the first time I had addressed writing students. They turned out to be the most seriously engaged, enthusiastic audience I had ever spoken to. Several of the students were interested in creating visual books of their own, or incorporating visual elements into their writing. I recognised the influence of the graphic novel, but I also knew that contemporary writers as diverse as W.G. Sebald, Mark Z. Danielewski, Reif Larsen and Jonathan Safran Foer were inserting images and unconventional formatting into fictional narratives, and surely those writers had also exerted some influence. Many of us who make and promote artist books have been overly concerned with finding acceptance from the fine art world, and have paid insufficient attention to promising trends in literary practice.
I had a strong intuition that acceptance of a hybridised visual literature would come in a new technological environment. As part of my presentation I had distributed a chart delineating epochs of literary transmission, beginning with a very long tradition of pre-literate, but extremely sophisticated, storytelling, and ending with the Kindle. Curiously, in the midst of much highly experimental internet-based literary activity, including a mature blog culture, the Kindle represented a retrograde throwback to one-way, text-only print transmission. The time was ripe for a new device.
Within a few weeks of my return to Chicago, detailed rumours began to appear about just that device, a new product Apple was set to release in the spring: a connected portable tablet – essentially a large iPhone or iPad Touch – with the capability of downloading not just the text of books, as with the Kindle, but media as well, in colour. Of course, there was much speculation about a tipping point for business models in the publishing industry, but my thoughts immediately went to opportunities for the creative class, those who provide the content for these devices. I wondered what the students in Nebraska would make of this, and what it could mean not only for writers, but also for artists of all kinds who make books. I started talking to colleagues at the Center for Book and Paper Arts, and the following year we launched an experimental one-unit class in creating digital artist books. We brought in Bob Stein, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, for a symposium, and about that time a faculty member, Paul Catanese, discovered an opportunity for funding a more extensive programme.
Although its funds have been diminished and its awards increasingly difficult to come by, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is still the largest resource for arts funding in the United States. In 2011 the NEA’s Arts in Media grant, which has traditionally funded public radio and television programming about the arts, widened its purview to include online and digital media, with the understanding that the internet is now a broadcasting platform. We applied in September 2011 and learned in April that we had received $50,000 in funding for a project we called ‘Expanded Artists’ Books: Envisioning the Future of the Book’. That project is now underway.
The internet has evolved a self-distributing publishing system, and the inclusion of audiovisual media has made publishing akin to broadcasting, as our grant narrative acknowledges:
In opening this grant category to connected digital media, we understand that the Endowment has recognised that the categories of broadcasting and publishing are shifting and merging in interesting new ways. Our project uses a broadcast platform to advance a publishing program, with the advantages that electronic media offers, but also with marked similarities to traditional art publishing, as at a printmaking atelier: projects will be sought, screened, created, and distributed, but in the case of the electronic version, there is no limit on the edition size.
In its first phase, our project takes existing artist books and creates iPad applications that both represent and contextualise them. The apps will be made available as free downloads. With the many millions of portable devices running on the iOS platform, the reasoning goes that an under-distributed and too-obscure art form can gain wider reach and achieve greater public awareness. We will soon expand to include Android and other platforms, but we expect to stay within the ‘walled garden’ world of the app, as opposed to the open range of a purely browser-based platform – we feel that the smoother functionality and higher-quality user experience of the app work well with the expanded practices of authorship and craft engagement that define artist books.
In the project’s second phase we shall commission media artists to create born-digital artist book/apps, which will then be reverse engineered as physical books, or created in parallel with them. Owing to the creative countercharge it represents, we find this to be an extremely interesting phase of the project from a research standpoint.
The narrative goes on to explain our approach to research:
The Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia College Chicago houses two Master of Fine Arts degree programs: an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts. A core principle of our interdisciplinary approach is to create opportunities for permeability between these two areas. This project directly supports this mission and is, in fact, the perfect interdisciplinary project for a department made up of book artists and media artists.
It is the dialogue between the physical books and their digital avatars that provides a great part of the value of this project. That dialogue can address such practical things as distribution, theoretical issues, and viewer/reader experience, but it is in the artist’s studio, whether that be an electronic workstation or a more traditional book art studio, where the dialogue will play out in the creative process. Artists will explore ways in which expression can take both virtual and physical manifestations, examining the advantages of each and how the interplay between the two can be leveraged to provide a comprehensive and powerful expression.
This is a dialogue that we already see in the real world, where digitally trained designers, for example, are being drawn back to the fundamental relationship between the eye, the brain, and, critically, the hand, or where photographers are combining digital processes with nineteenth-century ‘alternative’ techniques. We believe that this dynamic has led to the enthusiasm most contemporary graphic designers have for letterpress printing, and that it has much to do with the DIY movement. In this context, we would like to see artist/designers re-engage with digital expression in a creative process that also uses the hand-eye skills they develop on the physical plane. We would also like to see work that is conceived and executed digitally be collaboratively reverse-engineered for the creation of physical books.
This proposal addresses the greatest challenge faced by each of these genres: for artists’ books it is distribution and availability; for digital media art it is transience.
The Achilles heel of digital media art is its transience. Platforms, software, hardware all constitute a quicksand of disappearing and emerging technologies that give the vast majority of digital projects a shelf-life of approximately five to ten years, after which, unless they are constantly and laboriously updated to new formats, they become either very difficult to sustain and archive, or degrading storage media will cause them to disappear altogether.
While the compelling advantages of the digital platform have occasioned this proposal, we remain mindful of these issues. The dialogue between old and new media can address this directly. The archival record of the art that is created in this project, we realize, will almost certainly be the physical object, the book. Twenty years from now, or 200 years, that is what we will still have. This is a primary reason for the project’s second phase to continue to produce a physical, as well as virtual, book.
The hoped-for outcome of our research is a sustainable publishing platform. In our vision young writers everywhere, like those I met inNebraska, will join with book artists to build new forms of narrative. We see complex and symbiotic relationships evolving through technology, and we would very much like to be in the thick of it. Changes are coming fast. There is fascinating new work everywhere, and we feel that networks such as the one created through Transforming Artist Books are extremely important, as research in the applications of technology both expands access to our field and creates radical new practices within it.
Steve Woodall is Director, Center for Book and Paper Arts, Columbia College, Chicago.