Reading as Art
(information as material, 2016)
Publishing as Artistic Practice
(Sternberg Press, 2016)
Can reading be a form of making? And if reading is making, what, then, of publishing? Two recent publications take these questions as their starting points—Reading as Art addresses the former, Publishing as Artistic Practice the latter. Both grow out of the increasing flux into which traditional definitions of bookwork and artwork have been thrown during the digital era. As these mediums shift to include the expansive landscape of the internet and digital production tools such as Wikipedia, Print on demand (POD) publishing, and Google Books scan imagery, they are taking with them the established role of the author/artist and replacing it with the role of the curator. While for some this marks a decline in the literary and visual arts, many of those engaged in the arenas of bookworks and digital artworks instead see it as a widening of once-narrow fields and the beginning of an exciting interdisciplinary form of artistic production. This expanded domain requires the redefinition of making and materiality, particularly with regard to reading and publishing within the realm of artistic production. Reading as Art, edited by conceptual writer and professor Simon Morris, and Publishing as Artistic Practice, edited by comparative literature scholar Annette Gilbert, seek to guide and hone this redefinition, exemplifying a broadening field of study that examines the reading and production of language in both gallery and book spaces.
Morris, whose book serves as the exhibition catalogue for a show that opened at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre in England, collects the responses from poets, writers, and visual artists to the notion of reading as a form of artwork in its own right. Reading as Art is an interdisciplinary investigation into the intangibility of reading as a private act, made tangible in the gallery space through the display of video projects by Kenneth Goldsmith and Morris, and framed text works by Craig Dworkin and Kate Briggs, among others. Gilbert’s collection includes some of the same writers and touchstones as Morris’s, among them Nick Thurston and Goldsmith, and brings in the voices of artists’ book scholar Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, paginated exhibition curator Anna-Sophie Springer, and media critic Alessandro Ludovico, among others. Just as Morris’s book focuses on the act of reading as art, rather than the text being read, Gilbert asks: what if we consider the act of publishing as an artistic product rather than simply the means of production? Gilbert’s inquiry begins at the root of publishing, asking what it means to publish when so much is already public in the digital realm, shared on personal social media feeds to small and large audiences, made into screenshots for even larger audiences, posted in emails and text messages that we’ve recently learned are often stored and read without the sender’s consent.
Central to both books is the tension between legibility and illegibility; visibility and invisibility. Both attempt to make visible the invisible by framing process as product. Examined through Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the infrathin, defined by Morris as “the point at which one can just begin to perceive a threshold between two states,” reading and publishing both exist as acts of transference, a moment which Morris and Gilbert seek to make visible. In his essay in Gilbert’s book, linguistics scholar Hannes Bajohr highlights various online publishers using POD as “infrathin platforms” that highlight the relationship between file and object. These platforms provide the institutionalization necessary for the work to be “published” in a time when, “on the internet, the classical distinction between non-published personal writing and published writing is moot, and with it the distinction between everyday communication and publishing.” Platforms that act as publishers by selecting and promoting bookworks on their site and using PDFs and POD technology for distribution make visible the relationship between file and object, betraying the means of their production from the start and, in doing so, making visible their digital origin.
Twelve Erroneous Displacements and a Fact (2016), a collection of Dworkin’s poetry published for Reading as Art, consists of lists of the materials used to make the object about which the poem is written. “Digital video projector” begins: “Zinc Oxide (Szex 2000, manufactured by the Sakai Chemistry Company), used as a photo-conductive powder: 88.73%.” Each poem reduces its subject into a list of materials, making visible the transition from materials to object. Collected in a paper book, the poems are neither the object reference nor the materials listed, thereby acting as a linguistic materialization of the in-between infrathin state. Briggs’s Paper Sized Poems (2016) similarly fixates on the materiality of objects, in this case of paper-size templates. The broadside shows the actual-size outlines of several outdated paper templates atop each other, several to a page, with the names of each along the top edges of the relevant template. The titles alone, appearing across the page like zigzag stairs, read as abstractly as Dworkin’s poems—“Grand Eagle / Grand Aigle / Double Globe / Atlas / Extra Atlas”—some illegible as the text layers over itself along the edges of similar-sized templates. Briggs, like Dworkin, makes tangible the intangible relationship between referent and object.
This attention to the materiality of medium—in particular, the printed page—extends to the trade of publishing as well. Cultural historian Alexander Starre, in his essay in Publishing as Artistic Practice, outlines his concept of ‘“metamedia’ to account for instances in which literary texts bind themselves to specific medial format.” As he explains, a “metamedial one is sensitive to its medial embedding”—such as book design that emphasizes the page as a material rather than a blank backdrop. This focus on the whole book, including cover design and typeface, as a narrative element is reminiscent of Ulises Carrión’s famous claim that, “In the old art the writer writes texts. In the new art the writer makes books.” Starre argues a similar point, but from the angle of trade publishing, focusing on Knopf, the pioneering graphic design of W.A. Dwiggins, and the books of Mark Z. Danielewski and Jonathan Safran Foer, who engage with the medium of the book and printed page in the design of their stories. His essay, like many others in both collections, illustrates the dismantling of the divide between literary arts, visual arts, and visual culture—the book space and the materiality of language are, at the core, interdisciplinary.
The page is not the only media to be scrutinized by this emerging interdisciplinary study; naturally, the screen is as well. Digital publishing and presentation loom large over both Morris’s and Gilbert’s collections. “Any technology is, in the process of technization, ‘always-already’ on the way toward this transparency, and becoming invisible to its users,” Bajohr writes in his essay. In his essay for Gilbert’s book, Alessandro Ludovico dissects the different sensory experiences of the page versus the screen. The page provides a “much richer sensory experience,” he argues, engaging with sight, smell, touch, and even hearing, while the screen at best make use of sight, a flat sense of touch (all screens feel the same), and sometimes hearing (that awful artificial page-turning sound). Ludovico imagines more profound ambitions for the screen: rather than try to mimic the page in design (as with that page-turning sound), it could instead “build on the ability to instantly create, combine, and calculate content, trying to accomplish an intimacy between writer and reader,” emphasizing its own material qualities to create a more multifaceted sensory experience. Much as Starre demonstrates the exciting potential of metamedia, Ludovico suggests that the success of digital publishing lies in embracing its own characteristics.
Both collections embody this attention to materiality in their designs as well as in their content. Along the bottom right-hand corner of nearly every page of Reading as Art, a black and-white photo depicts a man in the act of reading. At first, it seems that the same photo is reprinted throughout, but several distinctions between them gradually catch the eye: sometimes the man’s hands are fastened to either opened book cover, while in others one hand hovers over the book in a frozen state of page-turning, and the width of pages on the right hand side of the man’s book reveals itself to be slowly growing. Indeed, it turns out that the photographs are in fact still images from a film of Morris himself reading. The text of his book cannot be read, and thus what is being read by the viewers in these images is the very act of reading itself, even as we are at the same time reading the catalogue for the exhibition in which this video was included. This is reading as art—not text as art, but the actual act of reading as art. This places an action in the role of object and forces us to perform it as we read, keeping the act of reading materialized as long as we consume the book.
Gilbert also manifests publishing as a product in the design of Publishing as Artistic Practice by favoring a minimalist cover design that prints the book’s bibliographic details—title, editor, size, length, number of texts and images, price. By featuring what is usually hidden—the conditions of production—Gilbert makes the process and industry of publishing visible as an object. Read together, Reading as Art and Publishing as Artistic Practice evidence an evolving interdisciplinary discourse around the ways in which language is rendered and experienced through reading and publishing, making visible infrathin states and, in doing so, making visible the connection between physical and digital, object and referent, product and process.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.