Navigating the Bookscape: Artists’ Books and the Digital Interface David Paton



This exhibition, in many ways, picks up threads left tantalisingly at the end of the Artists’ Books in the Ginsberg Collection exhibition held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 1996, then purportedly, the 2nd largest exhibition of artists’ books ever staged in the world. In the final room of the JAG exhibition, three isolated computer monitors looked down on the viewer; the centre monitor blank with changing images and texts moving silently within the screen space of the outer pair. In this work, entitled codex, Michele Sohn attempted a number of things: a questioning of our expectations of what a book is, a meditation on the silent mutability of content and where exactly this content resided, and a critique of the alienation which technology often imposes. In taking ‘the digital’ as a loose basis on which to explore some contemporary artists’ concerns with the book, I have attempted, in this exhibition, to open up a place for debate and ponder on what the ‘digital’ and the book have to offer each other when they meet, blend and collide.

I have no intention to offer conclusive evidence of the superiority or inferiority of one form in relation to the other, despite the frequent claims that digital or electronic books ‘supersede the limitations’ and the ‘drawbacks’ of paper-based and traditional books. Clearly a bound codex is fundamentally different from a digital image: the light absorbing nature of the paper page as opposed to the light emitting nature of a screen, and the defined sequential narrative of a book against the rapid update, varied and optional window organisation of the screen. In addition the ability to resize images and manipulate a document is something which the codex does not allow. The belief, however, that the codex embodies fundamental limitations and drawbacks is premised on the book as a supposedly static, fixed and finite form. That these limitations and drawbacks can only be overcome through the interactive features of ‘the digital’ is a position I wish to contest.

Johanna Drucker (2003) states: “The distinction that supposedly exists between print and electronic books is usually characterised as the difference between static and interactive forms. But a more useful distinction can be made between two ontologies, active and passive modes that are relevant across media. Interactivity is not a function of electronic media. The capacity of a literal book to be articulated as a virtual dynamic space is exhaustible while any attempt at reducing a work to its literal static form is probably almost impossible”.

It is the book in the hands of the artist which upsets claims of limitations and drawbacks and which provides examples of active, interactive and dynamic forms. This reminds us that the idea of a book should be grounded in replacing the identity of what a book is with what it does and that we should “ask how a book does its particular actions rather than what a book is”.

And so with Michele Sohn’s codex repositioned to ask us what it was in fact doing, I encountered Kim Lieberman’s Amazon.com - digital on Marcus Neustetter’s switch on/off exhibition at KKNK in 2001. “In this work” says Colin Richards (2000), “we can link the dots between forests, books, information and in fact the entire cultural ecologies we inhabit. The wired world in which everything comes to connect with everything, nothing is ruled out…The intimacy of the globe is woven by threads of a million messages floating and spinning in ethereal space.” In Amazon.com - digital I was confronted by what was happening, what the work was doing. The screen was a book containing pages; each page became a book containing more pages and the pages contained threads of text, each containing the whole image and starting the reading process from scratch.

The Amazon, a place from which paper is derived; amazon.com, a place from where books are purchased. I read this work as a book whose pages, like digital images of the forest, seemed to be, at once an image of the connectedness of life and, at the same time, a text in which everything comes to connect with everything and in which nothing is ruled out. What the work was doing was suggesting that pages of a book be digitally constructed (without the kitsch simulacrum of page drape and gutter as nostalgic icons of the codex as a material object) as a program for the way in which a book facilitates a visualisation of the textual narrative. Amazon.com suggested to me that an exhibition on the intersection between the codex and the digital book was needed.

If, as Drucker suggests, “the idea is to mark the shift from the conception of books as artefacts, or documents as vehicles for delivery of content, and instead demonstrate the living, dynamic nature of work as produced by interpretive acts” we realise that “the traditional codex is also, in an important and suggestive way, already virtual”.

My experience has been that many of the conventions of the digital work or electronic screen have been presupposed, suggested or in fact achieved in the ‘phenomenal’ or Artist’s Book and that the book, in the hands of the artist, becomes infused with interpretive acts. And so the first part of this exhibition is devoted to the suggestive ways in which the codex is already virtual, where the codex is an interactive and dynamic form and in which the idea of a book is grounded in what it does rather than what it is.

The exhibition is centred around two parts. In the first I have again plundered Jack Ginsberg’s remarkable collection of artists’ books. I have attempted to find South African work which, in some way, uses and exploits the digital, but also, and most importantly, suggests that the differing conventions of the codex and digital media intersect within them. These artists’ books presuppose, suggest and exploit some important and fundamental conventions of the digital environment which the traditional codex cannot do.

The second part presents the work of five South African artists, who I have invited to explore the slippery terrain between the book and the digital interface. I am indebted to them for taking up the challenge by producing new work for this exhibition and offering new readings on this interface. In this part I purposefully open up, rather than focus in on, this interface and what the book has to offer and be offered by the digital environment.