I developed this collection of photographs earlier this year and struggled with the publication format. The images are interior views from Google Street View and depict the photographer and/or the camera’s reflection in mirror or glass. I ordered print-on-demand books from Blurb in several formats, trying different sizes and papers, but nothing felt right.
Finally, I’m self-publishing the 17 images as Las Meninas, a 32-page newsprint tabloid publication, nesting pages (edition of 50). Printed by Newspaper Club. I’m satisfied with the results. The format seems to fit the material perfectly.
Las Meninas will be available for purchase at Printed Matter’s 2013 NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 (19–22 September). Look for me at the ABC/Library of the Printed Web table.
Digital newsprint (print-on-demand)
Edition of 50
Tabloid (289 mm x 380 mm)
View the entire publication on Flickr.
Towards a new artist’s web-to-print practice.
I recently started collecting artists’ books, zines and other work around a simple curatorial idea: web culture articulated as printed artifact. I began the collection, now called Library of the Printed Web, because I see evidence of a strong web-to-print practice among many artists working with the internet today, myself included. All of the artists—more than 30 so far, and growing—work with data found on the web, but the end result is the tactile, analog experience of printed matter.
Looking through the works, you see artists sifting through enormous accumulations of images and texts. They do it in various ways—hunting, grabbing, compiling, publishing. They enact a kind of performance with the data, between the web and the printed page, negotiating vast piles of existing material. Almost all of the artists here use the search engine, in one form or another, for navigation and discovery.
These are artists who ask questions of the web. They interpret the web by driving through it as a found landscape, as a shared culture, so we could say that these are artists who work as archivists, or artists who work with new kinds of archives. Or perhaps these are artists who simply work with an archivist’s sensibility—an approach that uses the dynamic, temporal database as a platform for gleaning narrative.
In fact, I would suggest that Library of the Printed Web is an archive devoted to archives. It’s an accumulation of accumulations, a collection that’s tightly curated by me, to frame a particular view of culture as it exists right now on the web, through print publishing. That documents it, articulates it.
And I say right now because this is all new. None of the work in the inventory is more than 5 years old—some of it just made in the last few weeks. We know that net art has a much longer history than this, and there are lines that could be drawn between net-based art of the 90s and early 2000s and some of the work found here. And certainly there are lines that could be drawn even further into history—the use of appropriation in art going back to the early 20th century and beyond. And those are important connections.
But what we have here in Library of the Printed Web is something that’s entirely 21st century and of this moment: a real enthusiasm for self-publishing, even as its mechanisms are still evolving. More than enthusiasm—it could be characterized as a mania—that’s come about because of the rise of automated print-on-demand technology in only the last few years. Self-publishing has been around for awhile. Ed Ruscha, Marcel Duchamp, Benjamin Franklin (The Way to Wealth), Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press) and Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass) all published their own work. But it was difficult and expensive and of course that’s all changed today.
Lulu was founded in 2002 and Blurb in 2004. These two companies alone make most of this collection reproducible with just a few clicks. I could sell Library of the Printed Web and then order it again and have it delivered to me in a matter of days. Just about. About half of it is print-on-demand, but in theory, the entire collection should be available as a spontaneous acquisition; perhaps it soon will be. With a few exceptions, all of it is self-published or published by micro-presses and that means that I communicate directly with the artists to acquire the works.
Besides print-on-demand, some of it is also publish-on-demand, and both of these ideas put into question many of our assumptions about the value we assign to net art, artists’ books and the photobook. The world of photobook publishing, for example, is narrow and exclusive and rarified—it’s an industry that designs and produces precious commodities that are beautiful and coveted, for good reason, with a premium placed on the collectable—the limited edition, the special edition, and even the idea of the sold-out edition. (See David Horvitz’s stock photography project Sad, Depressed, People, pictured above—one of a few non-self-published and not printed-on-demand photobooks in Library of the Printed Web). Controlled scarcity is inherent to high-end photobook publishing’s success.
But many of the works in Library of the Printed Web will never go out of print, as long as the artists makes them easily available. There is something inherently not precious about this collection. Something very matter-of-fact, straight-forward or even “dumb” in the material presentation of web culture as printed artifact. It’s the reason I show the collection in a wooden box. It’s utilitarian and functional and a storage container—nothing more than that.
So we have print-on-demand as a common production technique. But what about the actual work? What concepts on view here might suggest what it means to be an artist who cultivates a web-to-print practice? And how is print changing because of the web? Are there clues here?
The content of these books varies wildly, but I do see three or maybe four larger things at work, themes if you will. And these themes or techniques have everything to do with the state of technology right now—screen-based techniques and algorithmic approaches that for the most part barely existed in the 20th century and may not exist for much longer. If something like Google Glass becomes the new paradigm, for example, I could see this entire collection becoming a dated account of a very specific moment in the history of art and technology, perhaps spanning only a decade. And that’s how I intend to work with this collection—as an archive that’s alive and actively absorbing something of the moment, as it’s happening, and evolving as new narratives develop.
So here are three or four very basic ideas at the heart of Library of the Printed Web. They are by no means comprehensive, and in each case the techniques that are described cross over into one another. So this isn’t a clean categorization, but more of a rough guide. My goal is not to define a movement, or an aesthetic. At best, these are ways of working that might help us to unpack and understand the shifting relationships between the artist (as archivist), the web (as culture) and publishing (as both an old and a new schema for expressing the archive).
Grabbing (and scraping)
The first category is perhaps the most obvious one. I call them the grabbers. These are artists who perform a web search query and grab the results. The images or texts are then presented in some organized way. The grabbing is done with intent, around a particular concept, but of primary importance is the taking of whole images that have been authored by someone else, usually pulled from the depths of a massive database that can only be navigated via search engine.
So a key to grabbing is the idea of authorship. The material being grabbed from the database, whether it be Google or Flickr or a stock photography service, is at least once removed from the original source, sometimes much more. The grabbing and re-presenting under a different context (the context of the artist’s work) make these almost like readymades—appropriated material that asks us to confront the nature of meaning and value behind an image that’s been stripped of origin, function and intent.
A defining example of a grabber project is Joachim Schmid‘s Other People’s Photographs. Amateur photographs posted publicly to Flickr are cleanly lifted, categorized and presented in an encyclopedic manner. This was originally a 96-volume set, and this is the two-volume compact edition, containing all of the photographs. Removed from the depths of Flickr’s data piles, banal photographs of pets or food on plates or sunsets are reframed here as social commentary. Schmid reveals a new kind of vernacular photography, a global one, by removing the author and reorganizing the images according to pattern recognition, repetition and social themes—the language of the database. The work’s physicality as a set of books is critical, because it further distances us from the digital origins of the images. By purchasing, owning and physically holding the printed books we continue Schmid’s repossession of ”other people’s photographs” but shift the process by taking them out of his hands, so-to-speak. This idea is made even more slippery, and I would say enriched, by it being a print-on-demand work.
Texts can be grabbed too. Stephanie Syjuco finds multiple versions of a single text-based work in the public domain, like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (part of the installation Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS). She downloads the texts from different sources and turns them into “as is” print-on-demand volumes, complete with their original fonts, links, ads and mistranslations. She calls them re-editioned texts. By possessing and comparing these different DIY versions as print objects she lets us see authorship and publishing as ambiguous concepts that shift when physical books are made from digital files. And that a kind of re-writing might occur each time we flip-flop back-and-forth from analogue to digital to analogue.
If a grabber works in bulk, I’m tempted to call it scraping. Site scrape is a way to extract information from a website in an automated way. Google does it every day when it scrapes your site for links, in order to produce its search results. Some grabbers write simple scripts to scrape entire websites or APIs or any kind of bulk data, and then they “send to print,” usually with little or no formatting. The data is presented as a thing in itself.
Grabbing and republishing a large amount of data as text is at the heart of conceptual poetry, or “uncreative writing,” a relatively recent movement heralded by Kenneth Goldsmith. In conceptual poetry, reading the text is less important than thinking about the idea of the text. In fact, much of conceptual poetry could be called unreadable, and that’s not a bad thing. Goldsmith tweeted recently: “No need to read. A sample of the work suffices to authenticate its existence.”
Guthrie Lonergan‘s 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 is a good example of a scraper project. JACK FM radio stations don’t have DJs—the format is compared to having an iPod on shuffle. Lonergan wrote a simple script to downloads all of the activity of one of these JACK FM radio stations over the course of a year—the date, time, artist and the title of every track played—and presents it as a 3,070-page, five-volume set of print-on-demand books. The presentation of the data in bulk is the thing, and the project is richer because of it. Again, the questions at hand are about authorship, creativity, ownership and the nature of decision-making itself—human vs machine. As Lonergan says on his site, “Who is Jack? … How much of this pattern is algorithmic and how much is human? You might begin to read the juxtaposed song titles as poetry.”
Chris Alexander‘s language-based McNugget project is another scraper, or so I thought. This work of poetry is a massive index of tweets containing the word McNugget from February to March 6, 2012, nothing more and nothing less. I was curious about how he did it—if he was a grabber or more of a scraper, if you will, and I asked him that directly. Here’s his response:
“Somewhere early in the process, I discussed automated methods of capture using the Twitter API with a programmer friend, but in the end I opted for the manual labor of the search because I was interested in experiencing the flow of information firsthand and observing the complex ways the word is used (as a brand/product name, as an insult, as a term of endearment, as a component of usernames, etc.) as they emerged in the moment. Most of my work is focused on social and technical systems and the ways they generate and capture affect, so I like to be close to the tectonics of the work as they unfold—feeling my way, so to speak—even in ‘pure,’ Lewitt-style conceptual projects whose outcome is predetermined. Getting entangled with what I’m observing is an important part of the process. At the same time, I think it’s useful to acknowledge that much of what I do could be automated—and in fact, I use a variety of layered applications and platforms to assist in my work most of the time. Somewhere in the space between automation and manual/affective labor is the position I’m most interested in.” [email 5/20/13]
So, his process isn’t automated. It’s not scraping. But the potential to automate and this connection to conceptual art and predetermined outcome intrigues me—”the idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (Sol Lewitt). The art may be reduced to a set of instructions (like code?), and the execution is secondary, if necessary at all (dematerialization of the art object). So does it matter if the execution—the grabbing—is done by a human or a bot? Of course it does, but perhaps along a different axis, one that looks at this idea of entanglement vs non-interference. But that’s another matter, one that I won’t address here. I’ve come to suspect, after this discussion with Chris, that the distinction between grabbers and scrapers, on its own, is not so important after all. Without more information, it doesn’t reveal anything about artistic intent or the nature of the object that’s been created.
So, let’s talk about hunters. Some of the more well-known work in the collection is by artists who work with Google Street View and Maps and other database visualization tools. The work is well-known because these are the kinds of images that tend to go viral. Rather than grabbing pre-determined results, these artists target scenes that show a certain condition—something unusual or particularly satisfying. I call them the hunters. The hunter takes what’s needed and nothing more, usually a highly specific screen capture that functions as evidence to support an idea. Unlike grabbers, who are interested in how the search engine articulates the idea, hunters reject almost all of what they find because they’re looking for the exception. They stitch together these exceptional scenes to expose the database’s outliers—images that at first appear to be accidents but as a series actually expose the absolute logic of the system.
A great example of this is Clement Valla‘s project Postcards from Google Earth. He searches Google Earth for strange moments where bridges and highways appear to melt into the landscape. He says: “They reveal a new model of representation: not through indexical photographs but through automated data collection from a myriad of different sources constantly updated and endlessly combined to create a seamless illusion; Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation.” Google calls its mapping algorithm the Universal Texture and Valla looks for those moments where it exposes itself as “not human.” When the algorithm visualizes data in a way that makes no sense to us, as humans in the physical world— the illusion collapses. By choosing to print his images as postcards, Valla says he’s “pausing them and pulling them out of the update cycle.” He captures and prints them to archive them, because inevitably, as the algorithms are perfected, the anomalies will disappear.
The remaining set of works in Library of the Printed Web is a group I call the performers. This is work that involves the acting out of a procedure, in a narrative fashion, from A to B. The procedure is a way to interact with data and a kind of performance between web and print—the end result being the printed work itself. Of course, every artist enacts a kind of performative, creative process, including the hunters and grabbers we’ve looked at so far. But here are a few works that seem to be richer when we understand the artist’s process as a performance with data.
One of my favorite works in the collection is American Psycho by Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell, and it’s performative in this way. The artists used Gmail to email the entire Bret Easton Ellis novel back and forth, sentence by sentence, and then grabbed the context-related ads that appeared in the emails to reconstruct the entire novel. Nothing appears except blank pages, chapter titles, and footnotes containing all of the ads. Again, another unreadable text, aside from a sample here or there. But the beauty is in the procedure—a performance that must be acted out in its entirty, feeding the text into the machine, piece by piece, and capturing the results. It’s a hijacking of both the original novel and the machine, Google’s algorithms, mashing them together, and one can almost imagine this as a durational performance art piece, the artists acting out the process in real time. The end result, a reconstructed American Psycho, is both entirely different from and exactly the same as the original, both a removal and a rewriting, in that all that’s been done is a simple translation, from one language into another.
My own practice is increasingly web-to-print, so I have a special, personal interest in seeing Library of the Printed Web evolve in real time. It’s too early to call it an anthology, but it’s more than just a casual collection of work. I’m searching for something here, a way to characterize this way of working, because these artists are not in a vacuum. They know about each other, they talk to and influence each other, and they share common connections. Each time I talk to one I get introduced to another. Some of the links that I’ve uncovered are people like Kenneth Goldsmith, places like the Rhode Island School of Design, and certain tumblr blogs where the work is easily digested and spread, like Silvio Lorusso‘s mmmmarginalia. I’m curious—is anyone else doing this? Who is looking at web-to-print in a critical way, and who will write about it? I’d like Library of the Printed Web to become a way for us to monitor the artist’s relationship to the screen, the database and the printed page as it evolves over time.
Alexander, Chris. McNugget. PoD, Troll Thread, 2013, 528 pages.
Burel, Ludovic. Fist. it: éditions, 2009, 32 pages.
Burel, Ludovic. Lobster. it: éditions, 2009, 32 pages.
Burel, Ludovic. Waterfall. it: éditions, 2008, 32 pages.
Cablat, Olivier. Enter the Pyramid.
Fathom Information Design. Frankenstein. PoD, 2011, 336 pages.
Hallenbeck, Travis. Flickr favs. PoD, 2010, 315 pages.
Horvitz, David. Sad, Depressed, People. Vancouver: New Documents, 2012, 64 pages.
Kosas, Karolis. Captcha, Fake, JPG, Reflection, Search. Selections from Anonymous Press (Α–Π), PoD, 2013.
LeClair, Andrew. Occupy Wall Street. Ether Press. PoD, 2011, 500 pages.
Lewis, Jonathan. The End. PoD, 2011, 30 pages.
Lonergan, Guthrie. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008. PoD, 2008, 3,070 pages (set of five books).
Lorusso, Silvio and Sebastian Schmieg. 56 Broken Kindle Screens. PoD, 2012, 78 pages.
Pujade-Lauraine, Grégoire. Significant Savages.
Schmid, Joachim. Are you searching for me? PoD, 2012, 80 pages.
Schmid, Joachim. Other People’s Photographs, Volumes I & II. PoD, 2011, 400 pages each.
Schmidt, Andreas. Porn. PoD, 2012, 80 pages.
Schmidt, Andreas. R, G, B. Set of three books. PoD, 2012, 80 pages each.
Shaykin, Benjamin. Special Collection. 12 books, 2009. (on loan from artist)
Sira, Victor. Voyeur A Midsummer. PoD, 2010, 40 pages.
Soulellis, Paul. Stripped. PoD, 2012, 74 pages.
Syjuco, Stephanie. Re-editioned texts: Fahrenheit 451. PoD, 2013. Set of 3 books.
Syjuco, Stephanie. Re-editioned texts: Heart of Darkness. PoD, 2012. Set of 10 books.
Umbrico, Penelope. Desk Trajectories (As Is). New York: 2010, 60 pages.
Umbrico, Penelope. Signals Still / Ink (Book). New York: 2011, 60 pages.
Umbrico, Penelope. Many Leonards Not Natman. New York: 2010, 56 pages.
Vredenburg, Elliot. Corporate Image Search. 2012, 78 pages.
Vredenburg, Elliot. This is Cloud Country. 2012, 450 pages.
Henner, Mishka. Dutch Landscapes. PoD, 2011, 106 pages.
Henner, Mishka. No Man’s Land I and II. PoD, 2011/12, 120 pages each.
Neilson, Heidi. Details from the Least Popular. PoD, 2013, 208 pages.
Rafman, Jon. The Nine Eyes of Google Street View. Jean Boîte Éditions, Paris, 2011, 160 pages.
Rickard, Doug. A New American Picture. New York: Aperture, 2012, 144 pages.
Schmid, Joachim. Cyberspaces. PoD, 2004, 40 pages.
Soulellis, Paul. Apparition of a distance, however near it may be. PoD, 2013, 42 pages.
Soulellis, Paul. Las Meninas.
Soulellis, Paul. The Spectral Lens. PoD, 2012, 140 pages.
Valla, Clement. Postcards from Google Earth. 2010.
Wolf, Michael. asoue. Wanderer Books, 2010, 72 pages.
Wolf, Michael. FY. Wanderer Books, 2011, 72 pages.
Zissovici, John. Night Greens. PoD, 2013, 570 pages.
Antonini, Federico. A palindrome book. PoD, 2012, 96 pages.
Cabell, Mimi and Jason Huff. American Psycho. PoD, 2010, 408 pages.
Cayley, John and Daniel C. Howe. How It Is in Common Tongues. PoD, 2012, 300 pages.
Henner, Mishka. Harry Potter and the Scam Baiter. PoD, 2012, 334 pages.
Horvitz, David. Public Access. Vancouver: 2012, 94 pages.
Horvitz, David. A Wikipedia Reader. New York: 2009, 48 pages.
Huff, Jason. AutoSummarize. PoD, 2010, 100 pages.
Lorusso, Silvio and Giulia Ciliberto. Blank on Demand (minimum edition). PoD, 2012, 40 pages.
Thorson, Lauren. Wikipedia Random Article Collection. PoD, 2013. 13 booklets.
Soulellis, Paul. Chancebook #1: 26 March 2013 (Why Does It Hurt So Bad). PoD, 2013, 112 pages. Unique copy (edition of 1).
Tonnard, Elisabeth. Where Is God. Rochester, New York: 2007, 117 pages.
Library of the Printed Web is a collection of works by artists who use screen capture, image grab, site scrape and search query to create printed matter from content found on the web. LotPW includes self-published artists’ books, photo books, texts and other print works gathered around the casual concept of “search, compile and publish.”
Artists featured in LotPW drive through vast landscapes of data to collect and transform digital information, visual and otherwise, into analog experience; every work in the collection is a printed expression of search engine pattern discovery. Many of the works in LotPW share common production and publishing techniques (i.e., print-on-demand), even as the content itself varies widely.
I’ve assembled this set of materials because I see evidence of a strong, emerging web-to-print-based artistic practice based on the search engine and other algorithmic operations; as this view matures, the inventory of LotPW may grow to reflect new concepts and methodologies.
Rather than draw boundaries or define a new aesthetic with LotPW, I posit this presentation of printed artifacts as a reference tool for studying shifting relationships between the web (as culture), the artist (as archivist) and print publishing (as a new/old self-serve schema for expressing the archive).
Library of the Printed Web exists both as a physical collection of book works and as an online representation of these works. The permanent collection is based in Long Island City, NY and includes one copy of each item in the inventory, except where noted. LotPW will launch as a table-top presentation at Theorizing the Web, CUNY Graduate Center, 1–2 March 2013.
Fathom Information Design
Daniel C. Howe
Monday and Tuesday 6–7 August / Days 8 and 9
180 books given away in nine days.
Tuesday was Frances’s last day as an Olympic Ambassador. I gave her a book and she told me a story about how she’d designed a jacket with a map of Portland and a bunny on the back for her London2012 volunteer interview, but was told she’d have to wear this uniform instead. And how she met the mayor of Portland, OR and got into a correspondence with him for twelve months.
Cheap / open / curious
On Sunday, when I changed the message to “Free Books,” I worried about diminishing the work. That “free” would signal “cheap.” It makes me uncomfortable to even show a photograph of the sign here. Of course lots of people are interested in free stuff and I could tell that some who approached me were primarily attracted to the idea of a bargain—a motivation at odds with the traditional art world model (rare = expensive = good).
And then I thought—so what? By giving the work a form that’s instantly recognizable (the printed book), and putting it in the street, I’ve opened it up. Not accessible like on Amazon (whoever wants a book can find it) but available and exposed to a diverse, chance-determined audience. I’ve shifted the barrier of entry from price (can I afford it) to engagement (who is this guy, what does he want). Anyone open to a 15-second diversion gains the potential, later, with the book, for some kind of discovery, big or small. Standing there on the esplanade, I witness people eyeing me, ignoring me, glancing over, looking away, smiling, stopping, nudging, whispering and pointing. For the most part they aren’t on the lookout for art—unlike some of the visitors to the bakery, who have come to see the books. With the town as my stage, standing in the street with my work, I’m coming face to face with key questions—who recognizes art? who wants it? who reads? whose eyes are open? who is curious?
Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables
Speaking of curiosity. On Sunday I was coming off of Town Bridge on the bicycle, headed to Hope Square. As I passed the King’s Arms pub the door swings open and Geoffrey bursts out with his arms up and a loud “PAAUL!!” Amazingly, he had spotted me from inside the tavern and said he wanted to give me a copy of his paper explaining dynamical instability. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d already found it online and linked to it here (Geoffrey doesn’t own a computer). We arranged a meeting time for Monday.
And so, on the day that Curiosity landed on Mars, I sat with Geoffrey in Hope Square and gave him a copy of Weymouths #8, about the ruins of an ancient Roman temple overlooking the sea in Weymouth. And he gave me his paper about exploding stars, rolled up in a toilet paper tube. The full title is Mass-transfer bursts and the superhumps in cataclysmic variables by Geoffrey T. Bath, published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004.
Sunday 5 August / Day 7
140 books given away in seven days.
Since buskers are allowed in front of Jubilee Clock I tried this location for Sunday’s public book encounters. Still too windy for the book blanket but the base acts like a shelf and it faces the sea so this spot is kind of ideal. I set up 20 copies of Weymouths Volume 7: Preservation / The Canoe Room at 10:40 a.m. and by 11:15 no one had approached me and none of the books had been given out, even though a constant flow of people walked by. So I decided to try an experiment—I erased my little blackboard sign (it said Weymouths Vol #7) and changed it to say FREE BOOKS. People flocked over and in 15 minutes all of the books were distributed.
Friday and Saturday 3–4 August / Days 5 and 6
120 books given away in six days.
Twice I’ve been asked to leave the esplanade by beach control, the result of local bureaucracy and a break-down in communication. After several discussions about where I’m allowed to be, I was finally told that I can be considered a busker and set up only in specially designated areas for street performers—Jubilee Clock, Hope Square, the train station and St. Mary’s Church. The irony is that this project about giving and free exchange can only be accepted into the community by mapping it back onto the familiar structure of performing for money.
I won’t pretend that this trip is easy. The performative aspect is exhausting in many ways (emotionally, physically, socially). Each time I give a book to someone there’s some kind of exchange of energy—an explanation, an acknowledgement, a conversation. In the case of beach control—confrontation.
Some of the encounters are turning into relationships—casual, public bonds, but still.
And I find myself monitoring everyone in the bakery, even if they’re not interacting with the Weymouths box. When someone does engage, they tell me stories, frequently triggered by things they see in the books. Sally said I’m sort of acting like a therapist for the town—listening to stories, associations, ideas. It’s endlessly satisfying, but draining.
Sally mentioned the phrase “live art” today. This resonates with me, as does the idea that the work is site-specific and depends on my presence and direct engagement with an audience—in this case, an entire town. Of course I think of The Artist Is Present, and while I don’t dare compare Weymouths to Marina Abramovic’s super-human feats at MoMA, both works are durational and I find myself thinking about her a lot here. What she had to give to pull that off. What she endured, how she survived (and what I’m doing here, without any training). At least once a day I think: I’m crazy. No one cares about this. Why am I bothering? Those feelings are drowned out by others (and by lots of positive feedback) so I keep going, but doubt lingers everywhere in the acting out of this work.
I’ve never done anything like this before.
Dynamical instability is as fundamental a physical process as simple harmonic motion.
I’ve had a few encounters with Geoffrey Bath, the town astrophysicist, whose reaction to the work has been immense. Something happened yesterday. I found him sitting with his morning pint and a cigarette in Hope Square, and gave him two copies of volume five. After thanking me profusely and telling me how he would give the second one as a gift to someone at dinner tonight, we somehow got into a conversation about Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability (published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004).
He started to explain it, and then I asked him to draw it. He sketched a simple experiment involving a glass of water, an elastic band and a tube. All that’s needed is a light touch to set the glass of water in motion. Geoffrey says that this particular dynamic doesn’t happen naturally anywhere on earth. But then he pointed up and smiled, and laughed. It happens all the time up there, he says—cataclysmic cosmic events. His theory explains the explosions of white dwarfs.
I love Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability, even though I don’t understand it. I love that these fifteen minutes he shared with me feel like they’re at the heart of the work. I’ve thought about why for a full day now. It has something to do with the banality of the everyday (the morning pint, the cigarette, the tourists in Hope Square) juxtaposed with larger things. An older man’s need to be heard. Deeper structures that are revealed at a picnic table, on cobble stones, at a pub. Someone opens a hole in the skin of a small town to reveal matter, time and light. Something about what we’re all made of, and the smallness I feel while contemplating an exploding star.
Exchange of energy.
It’s something I tried to do in Weymouths. It’s why there’s a narrative in the work, from banality to poetry, from present to past to time itself.
Daphne thanked me for creating a social networking project.
Weymouths Volume Six: Burial / Extinguished by purchase.
Too windy for the book blanket.
Pete found two women from Weymouth, MA!
A visit from Stephen Banks of Bridport.
Thursday 2 August / Day 4
80 books given away since Monday.
Weymouths Volume 4: Migration / Bound for New England. This is the book that I created for the original b-side proposal. It’s the passenger list of the Hull Company ship—the 104 women, men and children who sailed from Weymouth, Dorset to New England in March 1635. Theirs was the first settlement to remain permanently in what was to become Weymouth USA.
This morning I set-up next to the Boat Project, in Weymouth Harbour. The Boat Project is a beautiful thing (handmade from crowdsourced wood) and it’s a magnet for attention. I thought I could benefit from the energy it’s generating but instead, the book blanket felt small, in a very crowded context. Very different from the Aunty Vi’s effect.
I gave away most of the books in about an hour, and then it started raining.
Charlie found Geoffrey at a nearby pub and brought him over. He’s an astrophysicist and he’s featured in volume one (he overheard my conversation with Jack at the pub in the Old Rooms Inn and told us his own stories about Princeton and Oxford). He remembered me from March and I gave him a copy, and saw him again later, sitting a different pub, book in hand, explaining it to someone else, so I gave one to his friend and another one for him to take to someone else.
Jack and Mairi visited Weymouth, MA and set the whole narrative in motion. He’s the star of volume one! I gave them a boxed set.
I was interviewed by Emily Cooke from Wessex FM.
And The Phoenix Bakery was painted a new color today. Love it.
I didn’t anticipate that people would bring gifts to me, in exchange for books or in appreciation of the project. Whatever the reasons, it’s happened a number of times already and each one has been remarkable. Liz, one of the members of the Italian club who meets at the bakery every two weeks, came by today to give me a guide to the Dorset ridge—accompanied by a long story about a missionary in China, whose bones were returned to the Isle of Portland (I can’t remember it now). And Bev came to the bakery to look at the books and give me this 1918 guidebook to Weymouth.
None of this would have happened if I’d sold the books. By giving them away face-to-face, another kind of wealth flows between the artist and recipient, a reflection in return. A generosity echo.
Wednesday 1 August / Day 3
This morning I took today’s edition down to Aunty Vi’s and Bev happened to come by with her dog Zorro. Bev has been letting me use her bicycle and Pete gave us tea and cake and we sat on the sea talking about sailing, business and activity around town—small talk but talk full of life about the state of things right now. Town chatter that makes me feel I can pretend to be a local.
Pete told me to get into his truck with him. I did and he just started driving out of Weymouth and up into the neighboring Dorset hills. I didn’t know where but he seemed to have an agenda, so I went with it. He pointed out tumuli at the top of a ridge and suddenly I was seeing them everywhere. This was genuinely thrilling for me—evidence of prior civilizations, many thousands of years old, in plain sight. Permanent scars on the landscape. They belonged in the project but not—I was happy to be experiencing them right now, in Pete’s truck, as a result of the work.
At this point Pete stopped the car abruptly at the side of the road and said he wanted to show me something. We started walking into dense woods and he told me that this was the forest (“Came Wood”) where American soldiers camped out in WWII before departing Weymouth and Portland for the Invasion of Normandy, 6 June 1944. A bit further in Pete showed me the ruins of a large anti-aircraft gun, the base rusting into the forest floor.
More remains, evidence of life beyond us, before us. Things left behind, no longer there. Not quite gone.
Later Pete stopped the car again, this time in an old military lot to show me the original stone for the town’s monument to the American D-Day soldiers, now laying on its side. The new monument stands on the Weymouth waterfront.
Back at the bakery, a conversation about geology, Mary Anning and evolution. Today’s edition (Weymouths Volume 3: Sense / Weymouth can refer to) features Google searches and tweets about both Weymouths, and one in particular triggered a conversation about the perception of Weymouth within the town and in the surrounding areas. Weymouth as a “far out” place—and how this works both in the town’s favor (to preserve certain aspects of local culture) and against it (as a way to isolate).
Mid-afternoon, b-side hosted a group of Dorset artists on a tour and I gave a casual talk about the project, and distributed today’s edition. There was great energy in the room and an appreciation for what I’m trying to do here. Encouraging and deeply satisfying.
At the end of the talk one of the artists told me that she used to know Aunty Vi and Pete when he was a child (below left). Juliet Harwood (right) gave me a CD of her choir’s music, the cover illustrated by fish embroidered by the choir—that’s hers at the front, leading the choir, and her husband at the tail, leading them up from behind.
I had a visit from Charlie at the very end of the day, just as I was about to leave. Charlie told me that “in the spirit of Weymouth,” she had brought me a book. She said that she wanted to select something as close as possible to the year of my birth, so she found this directory of all citizens and businesses in Weymouth and Portland from 1971, a sort of pocket yellow/white pages. Inside, she signed a beautiful old postcard with a harborside view of Weymouth, probably from around the same time, depicting a train that no longer runs there. Here’s that view today.
And that elderly man who interrupted my conversation with Jack at the Old Rooms Inn back in March—Charlie knows him well. Geoffrey’s stories about studying astrophysics at Princeton and becoming a double-don at Oxford in the 1960s are featured in volume one, so she’s sending him over to see. I’m grateful and not surprised that this connection was made—I had no way to get in touch with him. She says he’ll be deeply moved by it.
I’ve given away 60 books since Monday.
Again and again I introduce the project to people who immediately respond with their own life stories. The work is growing larger, far beyond what I can see. It’s larger than my own creative energy. Weymouths is about giving the work up—releasing it and letting it circulate into the community.
It’s an understatement to say that my witnessing this manifestation of connections and community here, as I distribute the work, is a privilege.
This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long while. I woke up at the Dead House feeling nervous, thinking about today’s public book encounters. I’m comfortable as a quiet observer, especially in public. Knowing that most of today would be spent gathering attention and making a spectacle of myself (however benign) made me anxious, for sure. I knew this would be difficult. At various times I thought about how I could just drop the entire thing, throw out all the books, etc.
I was due at Bev’s house to pick up her bicycle at 9 a.m. On the esplanade along the way I was spotted by Julie, an artist I’d met in London at BookLive. She’d told me that she might drive to Weymouth to get one of the books on the first day, as research for her Ph.D. dissertation on archives (“Archive as Activity”). Julie, who had slept in her car on her trip down from Sheffield, was sitting on a bench and called out to me, and we exchanged a few serendipitous screams and laughs. Was wonderful to sit with her and talk about our journeys and the excitement of being in this fantastic place, and the circumstances that brought us there. Hers was exactly the beautiful burst of energy I needed to get me going this morning.
A bit later at Bev’s house I listened to her talk about her life in Weymouth while she made us coffee. Bev is a friend of Jane’s, who features prominently in volume 1, and through this connection I was generously offered Bev’s bicycle — absolutely perfect in an old-fashioned, big-wicker-basket kind of way.
Back at the bakery, I loaded up with today’s edition (Volume 1: River / The Interviews) and made my way to the northern end of the promenade (the “prom”). I set up in front of Aunty Vi’s snack shack, right on the sea, at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. all of the books were gone. It happened so fast but I spoke to everyone — Olympic ambassadors, students and their teacher from Peru (several copies of volume 1 are on their way there now). A family who vowed to take one to give to a friend who would appreciate it. Someone who said they would be back every morning to collect the entire set, making me promise I would be in the same spot every day. Somehow, 20 copies were suddenly gone, just like that.
Everyone seemed genuinely interested. Enthusiastic, even. The spontaneity of each encounter fed the energy for other people who came by, and each moment rolled into the next. Was such a great feeling.
Peter, the owner of Aunty Vi’s, was the most enthusiastic. He was the first to approach me, within 30 seconds of setting up, offering me free tea and coffee and calling out to everyone passing by to go get a book because “they’re rare and you’ll be one of the twenty!” Our temporarily shared territory created a bond and I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s “territorial gifts” (exchanging a mint with someone sitting next to you on an airplane, for example).
Later, at Phoenix Bakery, I set up the reading room for the afternoon and had visits from an Italian language club. I gave them an extra copy of volume 1 that I found, and they vowed to pass it around and share it. Fellow b-side artists Frances Scott and Niels Post and friends came by, and an Irish family who had traveled to Weymouth, MA to visit relatives there. And Joff Winterhart drew me and the books and the visitors for a good part of the afternoon.
Jane and I shared a marvelous conversation about generosity and the giving/gift part of the project. She reminded me that the connections coming out of and into this project are human. That this exchange keeps us alive.
Meanwhile, Aidan the master baker was busy making delicious things downstairs.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to give books away.
I am a designer who sometimes creates book-related artwork. This means that I navigate different content packaging and book-making terrains, trying to make sense of what’s commonly called “publishing.”
For clients, I might advise them on how to bring a publication to market. This could be brand-related work (crafting the right message) or production-based activity (designing a book or magazine or website), or understanding new publishing platforms. I work on behalf of corporate and non-profit clients alike, but in the end it’s always cultural production (making stuff) mounted upon the commercial market (selling stuff). Even as it radically transforms itself, the publishing industry continues to match audience with message via commercial exchange (or some kind of potential for economic gain). Hence, “industry”—the production of goods.
Even when content delivery appears to be non-monetized (e.g., newsletters, blogs), the drive to justify in terms of profitability is strong. We’ve learned to define everything in terms of commodification—even attention, knowledge and personal data (eyeballs, clicks, engagement). As their audiences grow, we expect our favorite blog authors to introduce advertising or sponsorship into the delivery of their content. Writers and artists ask us to fund the creation of their work—in advance. We willingly self-publish on social media platforms that leverage our content for profit. While it can be argued that these are inevitable models of exchange in late-capitalist society, monetizing the creation and delivery of work fundamentally changes the author-audience dynamic, no matter how relevant or elegant the ask.
Our need to commodify content is a consumerist urge, a natural extension of the work of art in the mechanical age of reproduction. As the idea of browsing disappears, along with physical bookstores and all kinds of libraries, the book—as physical object or virtual data—is becoming primarily a purchased experience, a mass-produced (mass-downloadable) work without unique attributes; the purchased book is without aura.
Artist’s books are no exception. Printed Matter, one of the artist book community’s greatest institutions, operates as a retail store. Print-on-demand operations like Blurb or Lulu bring tremendous ease to book production, especially for the artist, but siphon all of our creative output through digital storefronts. Profit potential pervades, but $11,000 books aside, getting rich in self-publishing is extremely rare.
And yet this remains the default position. Screen, paper or otherwise — we sell the stuff we make. Why?
In the last few years I’ve self-published print books that I’ve displayed, exhibited and given away. They’ve never been for sale. That the work exists outside of any commercial art or publishing market isn’t easily reconciled; questions about the work’s economic value (can I buy it? how much is it?) are common. My response that the work isn’t for sale—that is, that my motivation for creating it was completely non-financial—is confusing to some, and even manages, in some contexts, to diminish the work.
It’s more challenging to define value when the work is entirely removed from its economic worth.
What if—in the transfer of book to recipient—we were free to examine other kinds of value exchange? Might it be possible to develop a viable art practice that produces book works outside of financial motivation? Are there alternative positions?
Is it possible to publish outside of publishing?
Recently, I’ve started to think about how my work might function more purely within other kinds of economic systems—mainly, the gift economy.
Last fall I exhibited a limited edition of ten printed books at a gallery at the University of North Carolina. Within a few hours of installing the piece, one of the books had disappeared. I’m not sure if it was willfully stolen or if someone misunderstood the nature of the artwork. Perhaps they thought the books were meant to be taken. My initial reaction was disappointment, of course, but I quickly recovered and began thinking about the missing book’s new life. By introducing indeterminacy into the work, the book’s disappearance subverted whatever market value it had gained while in my possession. The book “escaped.” It was out of my control; if I could release the book, instead of mourning and wishing for its return, the narrative would become richer (i.e., i could imagine that it was taken as an emotional response to the show, or that the new owner wanted to sell it, or simply make trouble, etc.). Its value was opened up, and the new owner became a kind of collaborator in my work of art, helping to extend its meaning outside of my own creative intent.
This was in itself a kind of transaction. The new owner “got” the book from me, and I got a new story, even if imagined. If it had been a cash exchange, the book would have retained its market value, and in my accepting the money, its meaning, for me, would have collapsed into the cash. Instead, the book passed into circulation and I was left with a new, changed artwork—unwillingly so, perhaps—but a new narrative: uncertain, imagined or otherwise.
This was such a revelation for me. So much so that I decided to embrace the taking (or giving) of books for my next project.
In Weymouths, a twelve-volume work commissioned by the b-side Arts Festival and funded by Arts Council England, I created a limited edition of 420 books. None will be sold. Except for a few sets that I will keep for my own records, all of them will be given away in a series of public book encounters designed to encourage a gift-giving transaction, not unlike the kind I discovered in North Carolina. By remaining in circulation, I’m hoping that the book-gifts can take on other, more ephemeral values (emotional, nostalgic, spiritual, souvenir). I won’t know exactly what these values are until the work is “performed.”
I can’t totally deny the work’s entry into a for-profit commercial market (in theory, someone could choose to sell a book that they receive from me), but I can resist this by initially setting the book into motion as a gift.
In Weymouths, the “publishing” of the books is the very act of my giving them away. I would argue that the books themselves are not the finished product; rather, these public book encounters—the event itself—is the work.
My hope, however futile, is to create value by using the books to engage in real-time encounters. At best, I’ll build up a community around the work, and look for a kind of aura released in the artist-audience engagement—something everlasting and unreproducible (Aura—the divine personification of the breeze in Greek and Roman mythology; refreshing, exterior, ephemeral, uncontrolled). At worst, the books will be gone, emptied of meaning, released from my responsibility.
What kind of practice is this? Is it even publishing? If we think of book-giving in terms of these performative gestures, might it be possible to re-imagine publishing more as performance art? I think of Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ endless supplies of posters (ink on paper, printed, “published”), waiting on gallery floors, rolled up by visitors and dispersed.
I yearn for ways to subvert traditional publishing by disrupting all of its assumptions, including its default economic models. I would like to see an art-making practice that encourages the intimacy of in-person, one-on-one exchange, removed from commercial obligation, with all debt carried over in emotional or spiritual terms. I believe in the creation of community wealth via the circulation of the gift.
Someone will say: but who will pay for these books? That there are costs associated with content creation and distribution is undeniable. Sometimes these costs are substantial. Can we look for ways to transfer the financial burden away from the audience? In doing so, can we free up the artist to engage with his audience without framing the work in profit-making terms?