We here at The Fox Is Black love reading and especially love the work that Gestalten releases. They constantly release books that are interesting, creative, beautiful, and greatly intelligent. We had the opportunity to speak with the compiler, designer, and editor of one of their newest books: Book Art by Paul Sloman.
Book Art, which is an exploration of the physical book and how it has become the template for various forms of art, is both a history and art book. On one hand, Sloman–along with author Christine Antaya–outlines the history of the book, the technology surrounding it, as well as what the book has become. On the other hand–and closely tied to what the physical book has become–Sloman and Antaya outline various ways the physical book has been used for art, from sculpture to installation to design. Book Art does an excellent job at displaying this art form and opens up a large conversation between written texts, repurposing items for art, and the intermix of the two in the twenty-first century.
I recently had the chance to ask Sloman a few questions related to that: the physical book, the art, and the future of both. And, with that, we have an exciting opportunity for readers to snag a copy of the book–courtesy of Gestalten!
A big theme in Book Art is how the idea of a book has shifted because of technology. With the digital book bringing the subsequent loss of the physical book, what do you think was/is the most important moment for the book in relationship to modern technology? Has it happened yet? Is there a definitive moment or action that changed books forever
There are many moments in the evolution of the book that changed it forever, such as the moment that it went from being a scroll to a codex, or when Gutenberg created the printing press – and we are probably in just such an evolutionary moment now. Book Art is about exactly this – I like the fact that it is itself a bit like a book in crisis; it is a book about the validity of books, and artists’ and designers’ attempts at finding an answer.
For me the difference between the printed book and its digital alternative is simple and physical. My copy of On The Road, which travelled with me as a student, is battered, torn and weather-beaten; there are spilt drinks on certain pages that I remember drinking, and they have spilt over passages of Kerouac’s writing that I remember vividly reading at the time. The book itself is an object of memory, and it sits on my shelf as a physical moment of my past. I was trying to ‘live’ in the book at the time and the evidence is there. You can’t get that with a digital book.
Modern technology has pursued intuitive interaction as an end in itself, which is fantastic if you are trying to work quickly and efficiently; touch screens have all but eliminated the barrier between ourselves and our computers, so that the interaction is almost subliminal. But sometimes a physical engagement like this has something extra to offer. Just like a chunky slab of vinyl on a turntable feels good, or big clunky buttons on an old stereo that you know for certain you have pressed, I like the bulk and weight of a book, the feel of turning the page, of being ‘inside’ it for a period of time, and away from the rest of the world.
As the artists and designers we featured in Book Art try to find a use and tease out the relevance of books, this physicality keeps coming through. But there is an air of mortality hanging around a lot of these works too – one artist, Jacqueline Rush Lee, dumps books in water and watches them elegantly decay; Georgia Russell both dissects and preserves her books, slashing them into thousands of strands before immortalizing them in bell jars like relics. Meanwhile, designers like Michael Bom have moved beyond looking at the book as reading matter altogether and are recycling them to make beautiful functional items – in his case, amazing lights. In the face of digital alternatives, it is the book as object that seems to be celebrated.
You speak about the physical book’s potential end, losing the battle to digital books and the like. Do you think there will come a time when the physical book will actually disappear?
No, I don’t, although the argument might seem persuasive. What is the relevance of a book when texts can be consumed so efficiently on a computer screen? In terms of efficiency alone, a little handheld device holding 1,000 books that fits in your pocket is destined to win. But at the same time, how often do you need to read more than one book at a time? And does it really feel better to hold up an illuminated screen while you relax with your coffee to read your favourite novel? So my feeling is that if you are in a hurry, or need to quickly check something such as a news story or a dictionary reference, you might reach for your iPad, but if you want to read something at leisure, the book still offers a more intimate and rewarding experience.
Having grown up with a passion for both books and computers, I feel I can see both sides. Pong fascinated me as much as anything else. I am a book designer, but I make most of my design decisions on a computer screen, which I consider beautiful and a prized possession. But still, when putting books together, the thing that I really care about is the texture and thickness of the paper, the nature of the binding – and I even love the smell of the fresh ink. I always smell a book first when it comes back from the printer. I always go for a printed book when I sit down to have a proper read. It allows the opportunity to take time, forget about being efficient and luxuriate in the pleasure of reading.
This is, I think, a feeling that book artists are trying to channel. They are articulating the importance of books and why people still care about them. I love the work of Guy Laramee, who treats his books with an almost spiritual reverence. He carves mind-blowing landscapes into the sides of the pages in a way that he describes as ‘mantic’ – as if he is trying to feel his way to something quite elevated. This might sound a bit of an extreme way to describe cutting up a book, but most people deep down seem to share this sense of reverence for books – and I think this will keep them alive, albeit in smaller numbers, in much the same way as vinyl has thrived on the fringes of the music industry. Books, as rare, beautiful creatures, will live on for a while yet – hopefully forever.
What is the most important book to you?
I’m not sure I could pick one out of the many that I have as they all satisfy such different needs! However, a couple of favourites are the original editions of the Invasion titles by the artist Invader (Invasion: UK, LA and Paris), all great examples of underground publishing at its best. They are ‘street guides’ to the artists work and have silk-screened vinyl covers to make them durable – it’s an expensive printing process that would never happen if the book had been published by a conventional publisher. Another, very different, book that I love is The Complete Lights – a fantastic collection of all Dan Flavin’s minimal light installations. That the printers were able to get the subtle colours right when printing these works is a minor miracle, and the book is huge, and boxed, making it a real pleasure just to pick up and hold.
What is the most basic form of book art? What is the most complex?
When we researched Book Art, we found the variation in scale and complexity incredibly wide. On the one hand, you have an artist such as Gene Epstein, who folds books into simple, elegant shapes – she is all about aesthetics, and does it to perfection. At the other end of the spectrum you have artists like Xu Bing, who spent four years carving an invented alphabet into 4,000 pearwood blocks, then used them to fill a vast room with endless printed books and reams of printed paper, all featuring his new language. Referencing the hundreds of years of Chinese history bound up in books and suggesting a remaking for the future, this is book art on its most epic and influential scale.
And, now for the giveaway! We have three copies of Book Art available to a few lucky readers. In order to win, please tell us what your favorite book is and why. It could be the design of the cover, a personal memory, or maybe even both? The best three answers (as chosen by Bobby and I) will win a copy of the book. Feel free to include links to photos of your books as well. We will close the comment section a week from now, on May 23, 2011, and announce the winners. Have fun with it and good luck!