Transforming the Book

Last weekend I went to this really fantastic exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM). All of the artists in this exhibition create their art out of printed books and book covers. Using books as a medium for sculptures gives new definition to the word “volume,” doesn’t it?

I particularly liked this work on the left, Petra, by Guy Laramée (2007). I’ve always thought Petra was a fascinating place (I’ve even blogged about it here, where you can see a picture of the actual treasury that inspired Laramée). Another work in the show by Laramée consisted of two rows of stacked Encyclopedia Brittanicas, with one side of each row carved like a canyon. (You can see a picture of the piece and an artist statement here).

There was also a striking work by the Scottish artist Georgia Russell. Most of Russell’s works involve cutting books, book covers, and photographs. The one shown here, Leurs Secrets (2007) is similar to the one in the BAM’s show. You can see more of Russell’s work here.

The exhibition also had some “excavated books” by James Allen. I thought this one, Churches of our Fathers (2007) was especially beautiful and striking.

You really should check out Jennifer Shoshbin’s altered books too. A few of these were in the show too. Her style and idea are an interesting mixture of vintage and contemporary, which is really fun.

It was interesting to go to this show and think about the history of books and print. My husband is a graphic designer, and we often have talked about the demise of printed books and printed material. I wonder how long it will take for most books to be produced online or through digital format (which is sad, since I love holding books and flipping through their pages). In a way, using books as an artistic medium in this show (and placing those books in a museum, the place where artifacts are preserved) seemed to historicize printed books even more. And some of the words used to describe the art (e.g. “excavated”) further antiquated the book medium. Although I loved this show (I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who lives in the Seattle area), I also couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for the future of books and printed material.

What do you think about these artists and their works? What do you think about the demise of printed books?

  • Rebekah says:

    It seems possible that books and book collecting will be like…hatpin collections someday: quaint, but outmoded. I used to think that was tragic, but am more and more intrigued by where The Future takes us than lamenting whether or not certain – albeit prized – things become history’s dinosaurs.

    Reading becoming obsolete would be the real tragedy.

    Also? Beautiful. Another great post!!

    Also also? HAPPY BIRTHDAY! (again!)

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I remember being in a newswriting class back when I was a freshman in college a decade ago (whooooooa) and the professor declaring that newspapers would never, ever become outdated and go digital. He argued that it was too much of an American tradition to sit down with a newspaper for them ever to become obsolete and only exist on the internet. I believed him. Now we all watch as the traditional newspaper is becoming only an internet thing.

    For that reason (and perhaps for the invention of the Amazon Kindle), I think, eventually, books will become a digital thing. I think that it will take a very long time before it is that way, but I do think it will happen eventually. Sad.

  • Jon says:

    I love the Petra piece?

    The role of the printed book may change, but it will never become obsolete despite Kindle, etc. I had a professor who said that the best way of preserving something was still the acid-free page. Therefore, for archival purposes, the printed book is still the best bet.

    And even if it’s replaced by something better (which I doubt), there will always be a demand for printed books just like there is still a [significantly lower] demand for handwritten documents.

  • Jon says:

    I really do love the Petra Piece. The question mark was supposed to be a !

  • M says:

    I agree with Emilee and Jon on different points. Like Jon, I don’t think that books will ever become completely obsolete. But I also agree with Emilee and think the digitization of books will become mainstream (although it will take a long time to reach that point).

    Jon, I think it’s interesting that your professor thinks that acid-free paper is the best way to preserve something. Obviously, that’s the best way to preserve printed material. But I wonder why he prefers acid-free paper over a digital file…do you know?

    Along these lines, J and I wandered into an old bookshop the other weekend. The owner was telling someone that the price of books hasn’t really changed for twenty years. Because of the internet and digitization of material, printed books aren’t causing enough demand to require a price increase. I guess that’s good news for poor people like me…maybe in the future printed books will get cheaper!

  • M says:

    And you’re right, Rebekah, reading becoming obsolete would be the real tragedy! As long as digital or printed books are available in The Future, I’ll be a happy person.

  • LeGrand says:

    I would really like to see that show. It sounds great.

    I had a conversation the other day with some classmates about digitized vs. printed books. Most of them were very opposed to electronic books, whereas I love them. I think library science students feel threatened by e-books and the possible demise of printed materials. My concentration is digital libraries, so I don’t share that sentiment as much. Bring on the apocalyptic end to printed materials!!! Just kidding.

    I actually love both worlds, and I think people like printed books too much for them to ever disappear. Not until all the trees are gone at least, but then we’ll have other problems to worry about. I’ve always thought of my books as trophies that I display proudly on any available shelf space! But I also love e-books–like when I was riding the train into the city last month and was bored out of my mind, and then remembered I had one loaded on my phone to pass the time.

    Plus e-books loaded onto phones take away the embarassment of carrying reading material into the bathroom…not that I do that…or anything…

  • ixoj says:

    I desperately hope I’m not around when digital books finally overtake real books.

  • Jon says:

    Acid Free paper has a couple of advantages over digitization.

    First the printed page, it will never become incompatible with anything. Digital files from the ideas are virtually inaccessible now to anyone without the right know-how and equipment. As technology and the demands exerted upon it advances, new standards and formats are introduced as old ones are rejected at a rapid pace of development. Who (but our parents) still has a VCR and VHS tapes? Will the same thing happen to DVDs as Blu-Ray becomes cheaper? Or will Blu-ray go the way of the vinyl-LP-shped Laser Disc of the early ’90s?

    Second, printed books don’t require a power source. Yes, you may argue that digital files don’t require a power source to be stored any more, but they still require power to be accessed. For now, at least, that means your Kindle or iPhone battery still needs to be charged. So while imagination can conceive of some kind of virtually limitless battery, the fact remains that, unless electricity is factored out, our use of digital files is necessarily limited.

    Third, printed pages never become corrupted. Technology this far has only succeeded in producing digital media that lasts about a decade. CDs and DVDs, even if you don’t touch them, will fade, as will flash media eventually. Yes, pages will erode too, but we’re talking in centuries rather than decades. However, this point is probably not as significant as the first two, since archival quality digital media is at least conceivable if not practical.

    Until these limitations are overcome (and I don’t think they will be) print will always be the format of choice for archives. However, the big question is, how much will we, as a society, want to archive? With the ease and accessibility of digital media, information ceases to be encyclopedic and canonized and becomes ephemeral. Academic dialogue is being taken out of books and journals and onto blogs and (dare I say?) tweets. Okay maybe not tweets yet (hopefully) but at least online. Our students will be able to access and respond to each others’ theses and dissertations within minutes. Yesterday’s seminal volume will become irrelevant within a week. Who will want to save it?

  • Jon says:

    And by “ideas” in the second paragraph, I meant ’80s. Hey, they contain the same consonants. Don’t judge me.

  • GermyB says:

    Check out this story that ran a few days ago about up-and-coming large-format e-readers (sorry for all the hyphens):

    Jon, you bring up some great points about archiving, and I agree that the big question is “how much will we…want to archive?” Certainly the issue of archiving is a drop in the bucket when compared with the decrease in consumer interest in the printed format.

    Ak – gotta get back to work. Maybe more on this later. I have lots of opinions on it. 🙂

  • GermyB says:

    Here’s a clickable version… hopefully.

    NYTimes Story

  • M says:

    Jon, those are really great points about archiving and printed books. I didn’t even think about the need for power in order to access a digital file; I guess it just goes to show how energy and power resources really are taken for granted.

    And it’s true – how much are we really going to archive? I wonder what things our society will value enough to preserve. As a historian, I often think about what things “make the cut” when it comes to preservation; there are so many things that I wish past cultures had bothered to save.

    Really, the true advantage to digitization of information is that it takes up a minimal amount of space (as long as accessing those files doesn’t require extra and/or outdated technological hardware). In this point, I agree with Josh. And I didn’t even think about how digital books make it possible to sneak reading material into the bathroom! Ha ha! Good point!

  • M says:

    GermyB, thanks for posting that link. The article really ties into what Emilee was saying about how the traditional printed newspaper is becoming obsolete.

    My guess is that people won’t get into these big screen e-Readers. It’s an interesting idea, but I think that most people will continue to read the news online. Plus, the big screen seems a little cumbersome. If one is going to read a digital book/newspaper away from their computer, I think they’d prefer something a little smaller.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I think these comments are very interesting with really good points brought up by everyone.

    One thing I keep thinking after reading all the comments is that we have to be realistic and pracitical when it comes to what will happen, and has happened, in terms of technology.

    I think about encyclopedias for example. When I was a kid, that was THE way to do research, but I haven’t opened one in I don’t know how many years.

    I also think about the radio. back in the 90’s, 97% of households had a radio (which made it the most popular/common medium of communication in a home, far surpassing TVs and newspapers), but now days? Who has a radio in their house? Pretty slim numbers in comparison.

    I don’t think books will ever cease to be — I believe people will always have collections. And even though technology is faulty, changes dramatically, and corrupts, it still continues forward and people continue to make the changes that go along with it. Think of music: record players, 8 tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3 … people complain at the changes, but we all just move onto the newest technology as we have to. I think it will be the same with books — at the end of the day (or the end of the century I should say), it will be digital whether we want it to be or not.

    However, we should all really be happy that people will still be reading. After all, does it really matter how the literature is stored and displayed as long as it exists?

  • M says:

    I like what you said about being realistic and practical about technology, Emilee. It’s true. Along these lines, I think that people are looking towards digitization of books because of their practicality (although Jon still has made some good points about why it is practical to preserve print).

    It’s so interesting to think about how technology has become practical – computers and technology used to be some cumbersome and difficult (hello, IBM computers in the ’80s!). We have come a long way, and I think that the population will move and adapt alongside the technological advances.

  • nathan says:

    I have a musician friend who made self-destructing digital sound pieces that, after opening, would stop working if you tried to quit and open again. They were stand-alone applications that had a little trick programming to render it obsolete after it played through once. He was doing it to make a statement about how the ease of access to digital copies allows for multiple listenings 'forever'.

    I love his sentiment and observation about how the ability to store lots of information digitally creates a sense of music being casually 'available' (instead of treating it like a precious event) and hence devalued. But I disagree with the notion that digital = having something forever. I think Jon explains it well: factor in the electricity, the functioning computers, the network, the platforms and applications to read the materials (which rely on standardization, really), etc.

    However, I do want to point out that although digital archiving comes with a lot of baggage to operate effectively, we're not even getting into the preservation issues and performance practices of all the work/thought that has transpired completely digitally and cannot be (for one reason or another) archived with paper. And I'm sure there will be studies down the road (and possibly entire branches of academic study) that will be devoted to trying to explain how practices and processes carried out on computers completely altered the creative work being done on them.

    I love to think about whether archiving just will go by the wayside. I hope not. I don't mind it not being canonized, though.

    Sorry for the long ramble.

  • M says:

    Here is a post on Brian Dettmer, another artist who is interested in using books as a sculptural medium. Pretty cool stuff!

  • heidenkind says:

    Very interesting! I would love to do a series about these book artists on my blog. It seems like digital media, for all its convenience, is much less permanent than physical objects and doesn't carry the same sense of ownership. When you buy a print book, you own that book; but when you buy the eBook, you're basically renting it for an unlimited time from a publisher. Even though I have an eReader, if I read an eBook I loved, I would buy the print version!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.