“The reader plays an essential role in making the book happen”

Interviews, News Section, Reviews

September 19th, 2012

 

(Interview) Between Page and Screen

Molossus

Books 2.0: Interview #1

DAVID SHOOK

 

You’ve said that you aspire to satisfy both Johanna Drucker’s definition of the artist’s book and Katherine Hayes’ concept of the technotext. Can you tell me a little about each of those ideas, and how you’ve tried to fulfill the requirements of each?

At the time AR work began to proliferate last year (there was an issue of Esquire and one of Wallpaper done with AR, and a smart app on the USPS website, to name just a few), I was leading a seminar on chapbooks and artists’ books together with the poet Genevieve Kaplan at USC. One of the key themes of the class was that in the most interesting and successful books the form and content are closely entwined. In The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker explains that an artist’s book isn’t simply a work of art shaped like a book; it in some way incorporates its aesthetic properties and subject matter. You might say that it is self-reflexive. Drucker uses the term “self-conscious,” since the relationship of form and content isn’t always overt. Nevertheless, when an artist decides to make a book, he or she has a reason for using that form instead of a canvas or sculpture.

Katherine Hayles writes about artists’ books and e-literature in her book Writing Machines, where she defines the technotext as a text in which there is a dialogue between the technological means of the text’s production and the text’s content. When you read a technotext, you are aware of it as a constructed object — the structure is not transparent. We can’t take the structure for granted because at every turn the text wants us to notice it.

Of course, as books become available in a range of screen-based formats we can readily see that the form of a book impacts our reception of it. Reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in snippets on an iPhone, in a pocket paperback, or on a Kindle will each provide a slightly different experience.

I wanted a reason to use augmented reality in this book beyond the fact that it looks really cool, so I used it as a place to explore the relationship between handmade books and digital media. The book itself is letterpress-printed and hand-bound on fine press paper. It has the external qualities of a fine press book, yet it contains no poems. To read it, you have to visit the website and open the book in front of your webcam. Only then do the poems appear in this space between the page and the screen — the augmented reality created by the reader who can assemble all of these components. The reader plays an essential role in making the book happen, which is why the reader sees him or herself holding it on-screen.

In addition to this dialogue between the idea of the book and its construction, the content also plays with the question of what it means to write and read poetry at a time when we keep going back and forth between print and digital media. In the poems, a series of letters between two lovers, P and S, the characters use a lot of coded language to talk about their relationship. One of them really wants some definition of what’s between them, but the other doesn’t want to be pinned down. I play with the etymology of the words page and screen to lay out the continuities between them. The animations also make reference to concrete poetry from the mid-twentieth century, which endeavored to make language’s material qualities more evident (though poetry has always been by nature an engagement with the sound and shape of words).

I feel I should add a postscript here to explain that despite that heady background, the book is supposed to be fun. We did spend a lot of time thinking about the form and content, but we don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it. If we did our job right, the theoretical underpinnings buoy up the text and provide a second level of enjoyment beyond the reading experience.

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