Artists’ Books as Intersection of Codex and Digital Environment David Paton

Two key conventions of the digital or electronic environment are its scroll-like presentation on the screen and its interactivity. A work which introduces the first of these conventions is Giulio Tambellini’s The Journey (Scriddler’s Procession Book) (fig. 1). Unlike a conventional codex, The Journey consists of a number of independent intaglio-printed sheets of paper, rolled out from a cylindrical container and read as a scroll. As each sheet is of a different length, when the scroll is unrolled, the edge of one sheet positions one’s space on the image below. As a means of navigation, such edges and spatial relationships become, along with the thickness of the scroll still to be unravelled, the haptic equivalents of the progress gauge to the right of the monitor.

fig. 1 

The second convention of the digital or electronic work is interactivity, yet in Sonja Strafella’s The Violinator, (fig. 2) this interactivity is foregrounded. The book includes manipulating ‘buttons’ which, when activated, transform the imagery and thus the content of the book. In Drucker’s terms, the interpretive act of manipulating this active, interactive and dynamic form seems to suggest and prefigure the hypertextual function of the digital form. Of further interest to me is Strafella’s decision to bind The Violinator as a concertina-fold book. By doing this it is possible to view the book as a singular, double or multiple set of pages and thus transforms the codex into something more complex, more suggestive and non-linear. In digital terms, the possibility of having multiple windows open on the screen for comparison and referral through alteration, toggling and change, is provocatively suggested in Strafella’s binding decision.

fig. 2 

Although neither the Tambellini nor the Strafella have any conscious relationship with digital media, both containing handmade intaglio imagery and bindings, what seems most provocative is their non-conventional form and language. It is in the exploitation of nonlinear narrative, book structure and materiality that the language of these forms seems to speak of the digital.

The singular recto vs. verso and double page nature of a codex’s paper pages is, in Belinda Blignaut’s Antibody (fig. 3) provided with an interesting and important tweak. By replacing paper with acetate, the viewer is able to glimpse elements of the book’s totality, with a transparent accretion of imagery and text defining, updating and redefining the narrative on each side of the spine, as the pages are turned. It is important to acknowledge that Antibody, a bleak and foreboding little square, in which cover boards and interior are marvellously integrated, operates through the visual text and images bleeding upwards between the pages. This is achieved through the manipulation of the interplay between transparent and opaque information, signifying content as deeply imbedded wounds and the passage of time over which damage is done and healing needs to take place. As the acetate facilitates this change through each successive turn of the page, so the analogical Antibody becomes metaphorical, indeed in Drucker’s term, a ‘program’ for the way in which the digital image may be overlapped, made transparent and brought into conjunction with other visual phenomena.

fig. 3 

Cheryl Gage’s A Dedication to the History of Medusa (fig. 4) exploits more than transparent layers and foldout pages, which provide a potentially nonsequential narrative, emulating the manner in which we can negotiate information on a screen. Here, Gage acknowledges, as part of the imagery of her domestic goddess, the digital origins and manipulations of the original images, by including screen grab information, such as clock and date data, battery life and other information associated with a digital source. Through the inclusion of these visual/technical elements Gage builds her content by associating her historical protagonist with the contemporary moment. Along with self-conscious remnants of the digital manipulation of her imagery, Gage’s book facilitates the domestic tensions of a digital goddess.

fig. 4 

Fascinating examples of hybrids of digital animation and the sequential turning of pages in a conventional codex are William Kentridge’s Macba Flipbook (fig. 5) and Cyclopedia of Drawing (fig. 6). All aspects of these books have been digitally prepared and manipulated from existing historical texts – the former includes a series of charcoal and colour drawings onto Jeroni Marva’s 1933 Curs Practic de Gramatica Catalana Grau Elemental, and the latter, a series of charcoal and coloured crayon drawings imposed upon the original book published in 1924 by American Technical Society, Chicago, U.S.A. Kentridge has scanned and printed the drawings upon the original texts and faithfully reproduced the paper quality, including foxing, in these editions. Notwithstanding the handmade visual elements of these digitally produced books, the cinematic and animated element is only brought to life when the reader rapidly flips the pages to reveal their stories. Macba Flipbook and Cyclopedia of Drawing provoke an intriguing interplay between the haptic and the digital, the cinematic and the static in book form. This allows the hand to control the pace at which the narrative unfolds and indeed at what point the narrative should begin and end. The physical structure of the codex is the dynamic agent here, reminding us of the centrality of sequential drawing on paper in the history of animation and film. What is also of importance here is the dominance of the image over the text, a rare occurrence in a tradition where visual illustration often serves the ‘higher’ need of the textual narrative.

fig. 5 

fig. 6 

What I restate here is that it is often in the mediating space of the artist’s book, what Drucker terms the ‘phenomenal book’, that we find a shift from the codex as “fixed artifact to that of a work whose existence is contingent on the active engagement of the reader. Always true…this principle re-imagines the space of the book through artistic imagination, revealing the dynamic properties of the codex.”

I am intrigued to find that these qualities are beginning to enter the commercial novel, albeit slowly, when visionary writers like Jonathan Safran Foer exploit the dynamic properties operational in artists’ books in an attempt to expand and deepen the content of their narrative. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) Foer exploits the conventions of the flip book in suggesting a hypertextual, parallel narrative with which to end the book. By altering text through strikethroughs and the dramatic manipulation of leading and kerning; with the conventional typeface sometimes imposed upon by seemingly haptic additions in red pen; and with the text block dismantled and redistributed in a manner which recalls Stephen Mallarmé’s seminal 19th century Un Coup de Des, Foer explodes the notion that the textual narrative of the novel alone carries the full responsibility of constructing and delivering content.

This active, participatory, multimedia and phenomenal experience, so familiar a convention in the gaming world needs, it would seem, some mediation and handholding in the world of the book and the visual image. Marcus Neustetter’s (2001) curatorial decisions, in switch on/off, acknowledged that: “Viewing works of new technology also requires a new approach…The majority of the art audience in South Africa has not been exposed to such conditions of viewing and therefore many require an entry point to such works. One solution is to illustrate the transition of artists’ creative interventions by showing works by the same artist, related in subject matter, but realised in different media.” The resulting dialogue between digital and conventional media seems now, to have been taken up explicitly by the artists.

There are two books which present themselves as both bound codexes, as well as digital presentations. The first, Abrie Fourie’s Philippians 4.8 (fig. 7) is a digital book consisting of changing screensaver images which rapidly appear and change in a matrix of 16 blocks on the screen. The seemingly random changes, both in order and location within the 16 blocks is undermined and ordered somewhat by the position of the cursor. When the cursor is moved into a block, subtitles appear providing a textual theme to the images playing out in that block. As visual representations of the chaos and unexpected beauty of the urban environment, the viewer is encouraged, as the biblical passage asks, to think on “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” imploring us to reconsider our notions of beauty. The codex, which accompanies the digital book, when flipped through, provides a starting point for the observation and rendering of the complex mutability and changeability of the urban world. This is something which the flip book can suggest and prefigure for more complex digital arrangements.

fig. 7

The second book is Gordon Froud’s Turning the Tables, (fig. 8) a flip book of manipulated black and white images. Here, Froud presents both a digital and a flip book codex of tables turning in space, gaining speed and morphing into new forms as a witty pun on both the subject matter and the form of their rotation. In interrogating the stasis associated with black and white photography by presenting them as sequential images to be flipped through manually, a wry comment is made on the book’s ability to reconfigure iconic references, alter them and undermine the stasis associated with the medium. It is, in fact, the book which gives rise to the digital work as the codex has the ability to realise first what the digital can achieve.

fig. 8 

Tambellini, one of South Africa’s most prolific makers of artists’ books, attempts to combine the digital screen’s elements of rapid update, transparency, image manipulation, animation and the potential to read multiple open windows simultaneously in his Pig’s Ear Merger (fig. 9). Layered scans of direct male relatives are overlaid with digital photographs to show different levels of identity through genes and blood. The result is a quick journey through a slice of time in which lineage, self and other are explored. In this form, the artist expects the viewer to handle each page of the book – as it is unbound – as if it were a window open on a screen and consider the subtle transformations which each screen manipulation offers. The pages appear like transforming ‘screen grabs’, each locking in the graphical manipulation of the image through time. As the pages are unbound, it seems possible to reorder them and reconstruct the book afresh with each viewing.

fig. 9 

Like Kentridge’s books, Ian Marley’s Dyslexic ABC (fig. 10) incorporates scanned drawings which, when viewed together in a line of images, transform to become letters, words and sentences. In this way, each image can be deciphered as a code in the construction of textual meaning, with tags and bookmarks abounding like electronic indicators in virtual space and on the page. Similar to Tambellini’s dot matrix-printed Nice Game Nasty Stuffing (fig. 11) which was drawn using the relatively random accuracy of a mouse, this work derives its meaning from the digitisation of haptically derived images and texts – in Marley’s case, exploring the complexities of dyslexia and in the Tambellini, the transmission and ravages of AIDS.

fig. 10

fig. 11 

I have included John Moore’s A Book of Dreams (fig. 12) as an example of the digital’s ability to be integrated into diverse media. At first glance the book consists of images, texts and blind embossed elements, hand cut and printed from relief linocuts. On closer examination you will see that the text is in fact produced digitally from a font developed by Moore which he has named ‘Bushman Iconography’. The text is then digitally transferred to offset litho plates and printed in close registration with the hand cut lino blocks. The integration of handmade and digital imagery in such a seamless and unified manner seems unique to the artist’s book.

fig. 12

Another book which exploits a particular digital process or function is Abrie Fourie’s Giant Protea (fig. 13). The artist presents images of casual and available sex “amidst the bizarre back drop of Afrikaaner, Voortrekker, narrative. It is impossible to sanction such acts in our society, that is why these images are so provocative” (Kellner 1995). What is of interest to me is Fourie’s cutting of squares and rectangles into the page similar to censor’s strips. What appears to be a deliberate and strategic cut on the recto often becomes arbitrary and non-aligned on the verso allowing for seemingly independent, new visual and content-based relationships to be forged between the main image and the view-through-the-cut. For me, what is suggested here is a haptic program of hypertexts, ‘links’ to an ever expanding body of information and inference, remote and virtual, yet surprisingly attainable, even if the ‘link’ is, in Kellner’s terms, a bizarre one.

fig. 13

Donna Kukama’s Hair (fig. 14) seems to embody the idea of images as a set of singular steps in an attempt at becoming something other: in this case, the transformation of hair into visual static, visible noise, a silent transmuted otherness locked on paper as a record of some Brad Hammond-like digital interference. In becoming, through this interference, something unlike hair, Kukama seems to need the idea of a book as a record of this temporal electronic event. The book thereby seems the ideal space of recording what, in digital form and like the static which builds up on hair, might be lost.

fig. 14 

I have included two books by Chris Diedericks. Diedericks describes Residue (fig. 15) as a “survey of the audiovisual residue of the previous century, both macroscopic and microscopic.” In it Diedericks explores the parallel texts of exhibition catalogue and sociopolitical critique of prejudice and bad taste.

fig. 15

Bitter Love (fig. 16) was digitally printed by the artist and bound in mauve linen with a slipcase by Peter Carstens. The seven linoleum cuts are hand printed and stamped and signed by the artist. In working one’s way through this book, the reader/viewer is confronted with a multitude of graphic and book conventions. But it is in the act of manipulation: turning, folding out, folding back, viewing one set of visual phenomena through the visual trace of another, revealing and hiding, that the full extent of the book as a virtual space is revealed.

fig. 16 

It seems fitting to end with another work by Giulio Tambellini. I find parallels between his Breaking Doll (fig. 17) and Diederick’s Bitter Love, not only in the overlaps in content but also in the way in which both the haptic and the digital find a home within the coverboards. Hidden in the page binding for each digitally and self-consciously manipulated page of Breaking Doll is a drawing on buff coloured paper. These literal pull-downs and pop-ups infuse the work with a wonderful interactivity which reminds the viewer of the work’s source as well as its hypertextual links to a field of related ideas, concepts and processes.

fig. 17

As these two books unfold, their very dimensions alter. They seem to breathe, reaching for and revealing information, seemingly outside of themselves, and then revealing more, literally from within. These are exquisitely conceived and crafted objects and seem apt examples of what Drucker terms: “An interface that creates a platform for interpretive acts to be noticed as such, called to our attention as performance” marking a shift from book as artefact or vehicle of delivery of content, to “the living, dynamic nature of works as produced by interpretive acts.”


Drucker, J. 2003. The Virtual Codex from Page Space to E-space. Saracuse University. [O] Available at Modified 24 July 2004. Accessed 5 August 2005.

Foer, J. S. 2005. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Kellner, C. 1995. Title : Mirror in Fourie, A. 1996. Giant Protea. Self published. Np.

Richards, C. 2000. Distance Close Up In Lieberman, K. 2000. Blood Relatives. Johannesburg: Camouflage Art, Culture, Politics. pp4-5.

Neustetter, M. 2001. switch on/off. Outshoorn: KKNK 2001. pp5-21.