Author: Helge PetersAs a full-time research associate at the Hybrid Publishing Lab, Helge is currently investigating scholarly communications and learning environments with a focus on business models and digital technologies. He holds a BA in Strategic Communication and Planning from the Berlin University of the Arts and an MA (dist.) in Media and Communications from Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Two weeks ago at Transmediale, Janneke Adema and Gary Hall reminded us that it might be worthwile to investigate past and current artistic engagements with the book in order to reimagine the book for the digital age. In the past, artists have turned to book production as a way of enacting institutional critique, using cheap and widely available production techniques for exhibiting their work via independently produced and distributed art books, thereby circumventing the gallery system. And then, of course, there is the rich history of zine culture and self-publishing rooted in the DIY ethos of punk.
Currently a project on Kickstarter called The People’s Ebook aims to give artists the tools they need for producing art ebooks. Having their backgrounds in visual arts publishing and alternative arts funding, the initiators want to develop a free ebook publishing software with the promise that “what the photocopier was to zines, we hope The People’s Ebook will be to digital books.” With the funding deadline still 16 days away, the project already exceeded its funding goal. The slick mockups and video surely helped. However, I wonder whether the technical constraints that will surely follow from using an easy-to-use WYSIWYG tool might not hinder the medium-specific experimentation we know from paper-based art books and consequently yield homogenising effects. But hopefully someone will soon come up with an ebook as ironic a statement as David Stairs’ Boundless was in 1983.
If you have a chance to visit next week’s Transmediale media arts festival in Berlin (and hopefully drop by at our workshops), make sure you don’t miss Andrew Norman Wilson’s performance Movement Materials And What We Can do.
Wilson’s video piece Workers Leaving the Googleplex made the rounds in the blogs some time ago. In it he narrates his experience working for a subcontractor of Google at the company’s US headquarters, and his encounter with the Google Books ScanOps division which eventually led to him being fired. He found out that the workers who perform the rather repetitive work of scanning books must wear special badges, are kept separate from other employees in the more knowledge-intensive divisions of the company and are denied access to Google’s famed amenities. Noticing how these second-class workers are overwhelmingly people of colour, Wilson approached some of them with a video camera and the intention to find out more about their labour conditions – which quickly led to security intervening and his contract being severed.
As a follow-up, Wilson made the manual labour cloaked by Google’s secrecy visible again through a photo series pulled from Google Books. Scanned fingers of workers flipping the pages of classics like Adam Smiths Wealth Of Nations leave traces of the human labour necessary for digitising our cultural heritage.
To my mind, Wilson’s works are a most welcome reminder of the persistence of manual labour underpinning the knowledge economy, and of the ways this mostly invisible form of labour – precarised and always under threat of automation – is deeply entangled with issues of class and race. In his performance at Transmediale, Wilson will use “corporate, academic and artistic lecture techniques” in order to further interrogate this theme.
In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr takes a skeptical view on ebooks. Noting a decline in sales of ebooks and ebook reading devices, he argues that the death of print might have been called too early. While his numbers might be flawed (as a commenter notes, declining sales of dedicated ebook reading devices do not amount to declining sales of ebook reading devices overall if growing tablet sales are accounted for), Carr nevertheless makes some interesting observations which focus on the cultural contexts of reading across media forms:
From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales. Digital best-seller lists are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances. Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks … E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format — an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback.
I especially like the paperback metaphor, its emphasis on the ephemerality of the ebook resonates with what Alessandro Ludovico has to say about post-digital print. Ludovico argues that print as a medium that guarantees stability and longevity, and signifies through its very materiality something of lasting value, might be here to stay after all. The more ephemeral textual forms formerly realised through cheap print, however, are rapidly turning digital.