As a publisher of short-run artist books, I often feel like each publication I make is being thrown into a forest. I run over, look around, repeatedly glance over my spreadsheet of sales, and wonder if it has made a sound. With the proliferation of e-books, blogs, and other (free) forms of online publishing, the activity of printing text and images onto paper and gluing them together into a money pit seems completely irrational. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to let go of my love for making books—and neither can many others.
Art books are a form of curating and sharing an artist’s work, and as printing becomes more accessible, there is a growing excitement in exploring this form and its possibilities. In the last few years, more and more art book fairs have popped up around the world. Printed Matter, a non-profit bookstore dedicated artist books, has been organizing the New York Art Book Fair annually since 2006, and the Los Angeles Art Book Fair since 2011, which together bring over 43,000 attendees each year. Their success has sparked in a worldwide interest in art books. From San Francisco, Detroit, Vancouver, Mexico City to Melbourne, Tokyo, and Dubai, more cities are organizing their own art book fairs, attesting to the form’s popularity. Clearly, print isn’t dead, and books aren’t going anywhere. But where is this growing desire to create and consume books coming from?
My own interest in creating publications lies in the book’s ability to promote and extend discourse. While that might be a bit obvious, for art it means taking an artist’s work out of the gallery or institution and bringing it into a more intimate space—one that is perhaps more permanent than an exhibition, lecture, or performance. As personal objects, books exist physically in space, and can be passed along, shared, and revisited again and again.
Much of my love for books, admittedly, is largely due to nostalgia. From the smell of books to the discoloration of aging paper, books have imprinted a sensorial experience in my memory—one of comfort. A study by linguist Naomi Baron found that when it comes to textbooks, “92 percent of college students prefer reading print books to e-readers,” citing one of the reasons as smell.
Different types of paper also have their own distinctive tactile qualities. You already know the feeling of a cheap sci-fi paperback: the paper is shitty, the ink seems like it’s going to rub off onto your fingers, but somehow, it’s still so wonderful. As Baron explains, “There really is a physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading.” Our bodies react to material and to touch. When we’re reading a book, it’s much more than just the information on the page.
If the textural and olfactory experiences of printed books are their only appeal, the forward-thinking and tech-savvy might find it an easy solution to translate the nostalgia of the printed form into digital media. Here, I’m imagining a version of Jinsoo An’s Project Nourished, a gastronomic experience in Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Project Nourished invites its users to eat a slice of algae jelly, placed in front of them, which appears in VR as a plate of steak, cake, or a piece of art. Additionally, an aromatic diffuser is triggered to shape the way the food tastes. An’s project allows us to imagine the future possibilities of VR/AR books: an array of VR texts appearing on otherwise empty pages in front of us. We could play with the textures of these pages, and as a final touch, the aromatic diffuser could release different smells (preferably the smell of old books). Ahh…
Anteism Publishing, based in Montreal, has already made the jump in bringing art books into AR with their new series AR•BOOK. While the books can be viewed on their own, readers are encouraged to interact with each page through AR•BOOK’s app.
In this format, artists can insert their work directly onto the page via AR, pushing the boundaries of the traditional publishing form. Still images become animated. Two-dimensional becomes three-dimensional. The interactivity of books via VR/AR is certainly an exciting development to observe, but at the same time, I’m not convinced.
My aversion to the VR/AR experience might place me as a “realist,” if we were in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, but to be clear, technology has actually helped pave the way for small presses to thrive. Digital printing options have made print-on-demand and short-run books possible. In thinking about technology’s relationship with books, it’s more than just the conversation between digital vs. print—it’s important to recognize how technology is changing the way books are being printed physically as well.
Most of the books at the art book fairs mentioned are short-run. The high-end publishers often market their books as limited editions, sometimes as art objects. Then, there are the self-funded, artist-run publishing projects that can’t afford to make more than a few copies. For the books I publish, I have never printed more than two hundred copies of each book, making it not even a small press, but tiny. While much of digital publishing aims to reach a wide audience—an audience that can be tracked and measured—much of the appeal of books, and art books, in particular, is precisely because they are produced in such limited quantities. If digital media wants to invite as many people as possible into the forest, small presses create exactly the opposite: it’s an experience you’re invited to stumble upon.
Part of the experience of books, beyond their tactile qualities, is how we discover them. There’s a pleasure in sifting through piles of books and finding a gem, much akin to a thrift store find or antique shop treasure. (It still gives me joy to have found an experimental electronic music album titled “Children’s Music for Adults, Volume 1” at the $1 section at Amoeba Records.) Art is often experienced similarly—performances occur in basements, exhibitions pop up at the observatory, installations transform architectural gems, and sculptures are peppered along the street. In this context, the discovery of a book is an experience in and of itself, separate from the book’s content, but nonetheless shaping our understanding, memory, and love for it.
The Internet is a medium for unpredictable discovery, which artists have embraced. In his Image Search series of lightbox work, artist Anthony Discenza recreates screenshots of google image searches.
The term he searches for isn’t disclosed, highlighting the puzzling results, which seem random in their juxtapositions and pairings. Discenza’s work evokes the horror of mass consumer culture, with images that seem contrived for commercial purposes. Because search results are constantly changing as new information is being uploaded, Discenza sees these works as photographs, capturing a specific moment in time.
On Twitter, there’s a community of folks making bots for artistic purposes. Tiny Star Field (@tiny_star_field) by Katie Rose Pipkin tweets out a random placement of symbols every three hours to form a star-filled night sky.
The Tiny Gallery (@thetinygallery) by Emma Winston tweets out a “gallery” with different emoji artwork and visitors inside. The works are computer-generated and created through unpredictability, giving a sense of joy and excitement in viewing each iteration whenever they pop up on our Twitter feed. Bots can be used to encourage discovery. The New York Public Library’s Twitter bots, NYPL Dogs (@nypl_dogs) and NYPL Cats (@nypl_cats) are connected to the library’s database. Four times a day, the accounts post a photograph from their public archives, marked with the word “dog” or “cat,” with the idea of leading individuals to use their physical collection as a resource.
There are so many aspects beyond a book’s content that make up the experience of the book. Instead of thinking about books as simply transmitting information that needs to reach a wide audience, we should think about the multi-dimensional properties of books that still make them so enjoyable. There’s a pleasure in the material and olfactory senses, and there’s also a great joy in discovering books in real life, haphazardly. For those in digital publishing, it’s worth considering those aspects, how they can be incorporated into the digital format, and ways of making discovery spontaneous and enjoyable beyond an overly curated App Store.
A version of this essay was first presented at Books in Browsers VII at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco on November 4, 2016. Check out Vivian’s presentation here: