Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Alter (ed) Book, Red(e)ux


Speaking as one who likes to work with physical objects (the book in the hand, say) but has been niched as a digital composer & editor: It's certainly very difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate the altered book from the vantage point of the digital snapshot. Not to say that Drucker's repository, for instance, is not an incredible resource, doesn't provide an approximating kind of information, as well as a prompt to seek out. But artist books, as most altered books are, rely on their materiality - that is often the necessary condition for a work's being an altered book as opposed to, say, a used book. Many examples of this exist in the world - see Drucker's repository and seek out - but one clear example that is in my head right now, that of the necessary condition of materiality, its un-reproducibility online, is this: last week a student in my class (ours - I teach this course with fantastic book artist Steven Hendricks) "scented" her book object, a handful of altered pages from Beckett's trilogy. She did several other interesting things with the pages, as did the other students, but I pick this out out for obvious reasons: the altered book, altered by the scent of a particular flower, cannot be smelled differently online. Not yet, anyway.

Sometimes exceptions breed whole new sub-categories (noting that categories are always negotiable despite what the advertisers and snake oil salespeople may say - let's just call them "phenomena"). One phenomenon I've become increasingly interested in since delving more deeply into Matina Stamatakis's work, is that of the digitally altered book artifact - a form of altering via scanning, typographical erasure, warping, hyperlinking, among other things, that allows for the appearance of materiality. Or, more precisely: the digitally altered text that gives the appearance of depth. Since, in reality, the digital artifact is also sheer materiality, such that this clarification highlights the obvious fact that change in medium or materials is a change in the work, with the underlying question (or challenge) being: of what traces of the former can be retained or exploited in the later, and why may the exploitation of the trace be interesting? Susana Gardner's ruby large enow from her Dusie Press is the best example I've seen of the altered book, digitally scanned, that retains depth of field, the sensation of perforation, shadow, erasure by brute force or excision, etc., that the work-in-hand has - an aura, in a Benjaminian or Mallarmean sense. And this appearance is not simply mimetic - if that were so, it'd be something like "an attempted copy" or akin to the "reproduction" in painting. Rather, the work's apparent tactile elements cause a direct tension with its lacks - precisely these elements. It also causes the tension between its lacks and its typographical content - the characters & line structure. We have what I'd call "a performance of the text" in a double sense - the initial alteration of EBB (the work from which ruby large enow emerges) and its digital iteration of itself. Gardner, it seems, is aware of these tensions, as the poetry anti-communicates (in Herbert Brun's sense of the term) its dissolution out of surgical maneuvering and scanning...

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