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Category: reading

The Agility of the Book in the face of the Digital and the Censor

Tim Tate: Video book artist

I have shelves of books, some that trace back all the way to my childhood. A few others were passed on to me from my grandfather, through my father. I expect my long relationship with books will continue throughout my lifetime. However, the book seems to be in transition, and it’s not clear if the current package can survive the challenge of the digital. As a non-volatile storage medium, the book has many virtues, and currently provides substantial value. In the shadow of this looming threat, the book has inserted itself into my thoughts recently through two upcoming shows:

San Francisco Center for the Book
Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship 

In the Gallery: Fri Aug 15 – Wed Nov 26
Opening Reception: Fri Aug 15, 6-8pm

Donna Seager Gallery
The Art of the Book
Third Annual Exhibition of Handmade and Altered Artist Books 
April 25 – May 31, 2008
Reception for the Artist: Friday, May 9, 6 to 8pm

The Center for the Book show will feature artists reacting to the act of censorship and the recovery of texts and thoughts. The show at Donna Seager’s  gallery features artists exploring the form and expanding the meaning of what it means to be a book. When artists engage with books at this level, there is a profound conversation that occurs outside of language. It’s an excellent reminder that substantial thought can occur across many modes of expression.

The artist book is generally singular; it’s not meant to be mass produced as an inexpensive package for text or images. In that sense, it’s the opposite of what has made the book successful as a form. The digital is no threat here. The artist book is singular and original, the digital is a copy at its origin. The leaves of an artist book aren’t limited to text and images; and the book form itself explodes out to its boundaries and beyond. We’ve lived with the classic form of the book for so long that it’s become part of us. A show like “The Art of the Book” reminds us that even with a familiar object, an infinite realm of possibility abides in every moment. And the book reveals itself to be an agile species changing its form to adapt to new artistic landscapes.

The question of banning a book in the age of the digital is an interesting one. One might ask if it’s even possible. Certainly we’ve seen books banned by governments, by school systems, religions and other social collections. And yet, it’s not the form of the book that is being banned, it’s the ideas and stories that are considered dangerous. All books aren’t banned, just certain ones. The digital and the network make it much more difficult to stop ideas through the banning a particular package and delivery method.

Our country’s history of banning books is a series of markers on our trek toward a more perfect union. As we contemplate the banned book, we need to look both backward and forward. In the future, it may not be the book that is banned—and interestingly, that could provide a new opening for a kind of book to route around the ideologically filtered network.

The work at the top of this post is by Tim Tate, and is called “Page 100 of Each Volume of the 1954 World Book Encyclopedia.” Mr. Tate has created a compelling vision in which a book is revealed through cast glass, electronics and video. As the book traces its evolutionary arc, it emerges here for a moment or two as an interesting kind of amphibian.


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In Dialogue: Shirky, Anderson, Bateson and Schumacher

Technology annihilates distance. There are some good things about that and some bad. While it’s at it, I’d also like technology to do something about time. I’m reading Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” and I can’t help but want to thread some conversations together. Unfortunately, time gets in the way. I guess I’m looking for something like what Norman O. Brown created with his book “Closing Time.” Two texts rubbing up against each other, Brown put James Joyce and Giambattista Vico into conversation across time.

I keep imagining a conversation between Gregory Bateson, E.F. Schumacher, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson. It’s the podcast I’d like to listen to on the BART train tomorrow morning. Time prevents that from happening. When will technology do something about that? Perhaps it doesn’t have to, if I listen closely enough, I can hear hear the texts in conversation.

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The 2-Way Web by Starting Small: 6 Word Bios, Twitter & @newsgang

Bertolt Brecht

I’d seen it before, but I was reminded again today driving and listening to the radio. It was a show about the 6 word biographies collected by the folks over at Smith Magazine. The 6 word biography is based on a six word novel by Hemingway:

For sale, baby shoes, never used

The interesting thing about the limitation of six words is its liberating effect. Professional writers become addicted, and “everyday writers” are enabled to create great work. This brings to mind the two-way web and the ability of users to write, take photographs, make music, make movies, create complex hypertext documents. But what users have really embraced are things like the structured life narrations via social or interest groups, and short creative forms like Twitter.

With Twitter it’s the simplicity combined with the constraints that produces the outpouring of writing. It’s biography in 140 characters; it’s a novel in 140 characters; it’s a dialog among citizens of a democracy in 140 characters; it’s the conversation about what’s going on right now in 140 characters. Twitter is one of the most successful forms of the two-way web because it stays out of the way and lets the voices come through.

Sometimes it takes a long time for an idea to reach fruition. The names that come to mind are Vannevar Bush (As We May Think), Ted Nelson (Hypertext), and Doug Englebart (GUI HCI), among others. One that you might not think of is Bertolt Brecht. After listening to the Friday, March 14th NewsGang and Gang podcasts, I think Brecht would be smiling. Here’s something that he wrote in 1932:

…radio is one-sided when it should be two It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction.

Radio has begun genuinely moving in two directions. We live in interesting times, and according to Brecht, we seem to be moving in the right direction.

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As though language weren’t of humans, but eminated from the world around us

Alain Robbe-Grillet passed away earlier this month. I first became aware of Robbe-Grillet as the writer of “Last Year at Marienbad.” I saw that film twice in one day. (At least I seem to remember it that way) There are a few movies I’ve found so compelling that I had to see them again right away. “Wings of Desire” was another one. The film lead me to the novels, and I read them one after another.

Robbe-Grillet’s writing seems very much of a particular time and place as I look back on it now. But what he accomplished was very important; it’s as though he created an element, a fundamental substance which were added to the periodic table of writing.

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