The printed word is not yet an antiquated notion, but there are those who proclaim its death knell is fast approaching, pointing to electronic media as both its upstart replacement and cause of death. Then again, there are those who would insist on the death of God, painting, and rock and roll; for all the alarm bells, none of these seem to be in a terrible hurry to shuffle off our cultural stage. In the case of the publishing industry, these fears are not entirely unfounded. The electronic specter has been blamed not only for heavy losses in the newspaper industry, but for declines in book sales as well. The iPad joins the Nook and Kindle as the latest enemy of print, and more new technologies continue to herald the book’s ultimate demise.
Artists are well positioned to address our changing relationship with text. Brian Dettmer, for example, performs acts of meticulous excavation, excising page after page from his altered books. Buzz Spector has worked in this realm for over 30 years, constructing book towers, installations, portraits, and the occasional homage to Walter Benjamin.
In our age of electronic reproduction, anxiety circulates not over losing sight of an ever-receding distance to originality, but over our very connection to “thingness” itself. The traditional book carries more weight—literally and phenomenologically—than its electronic counterpart. This weight mirrors expanded anxieties about how to make peace with our existence when we must operate on both virtual and physical levels.
Heidegger noted that one does not understand an object and the sensation of the object as two separate things. One can only draw the distinction by deliberately distancing from both. In The German Aesthetic Tradition, Kai Hammermeister declares, “The thingness of a thing precedes the conscious perception of its sensual properties.” But the chicken-or-egg debate is further complicated when one considers whether their Kindle is a sensual object, or an object of the mind.
Paradoxically, rather than obliterating our need for the “real,” the rapid ascendance of the virtual stands to accelerate the fetishization of the physical. Nothing is preserved quite so well as that which is under threat of extinction. But if preservation for preservation’s sake is less than satisfying, we must allow ourselves to question print’s functionality. What can books do? What can they not do? Books have failed to preserve their position as primary carriers of information. A single volume is insufficient to contain the amount of information processed in the technology delivering the text you are now reading.
The book, now relieved of its duty to bear the burden of information, becomes instead a creative medium to comment on the very means of information production and dissemination. Dettmer’s incisions, for instance, in obsolete, mass-produced reference books result in something akin to fortuitous data mining. The books cease to function as self-contained carriers of information; Dettmer merely opens up the circumstances for physical intertextualities to occur. Text and images—aggregated by chance—suggest connections. Over a fragmented landscape of excised conversations with historicity and authorship, Dettmer’s deconstructions signal what print is still good for: the tenacity of the sensate. Like the best of books, his work is quite simply beautiful.
I must here disclose my long-standing love affair with old books—nonfiction texts, in particular. There is something about the diagrams in a manual for aspiring pilots from the 1940s, the maps of civics textbooks from the 1960s, or—heart be still—the illustrations from a 19th-century medical atlas that gets my pulse inexplicably racing. The exotic illustrations and words of these “useless” books—which act a central role in Dettmer’s works—became my first private playground of thought, spurring a lifelong fascination with the way humans communicate along the borders of image and text.
The books of my past are now overlaid with other memories: a hammock-lulled summer nap, that novel on my belly still unread. Another book, purchased on an anxious layover, words more forgettable than a glint of light on tarmac-tinted snow. Or yet another, bought on a dear friend’s recommendation, but only after his death; holding it, I see his hands. Sensory memory serves as the connective tissue to the book itself. Dettmer—an unabashed craftsman—seems to understand the sensual experiences that recall conjures.
Rather than exclude one form of text in favor of the other, the benefits of each can be considered. The difference between viewing The Raft of the Medusa online and standing before Géricault’s brushstrokes at the Louvre seems obvious. Talking to an aging aunt on the telephone and sitting in her chair that smells faintly of camphor are quite different things, even if the conversations were identical. What of the intimacy of 14 inches: the distance from your eyes to the page?
The poetic functionality of the printed form does not deny our desire for fingertip-ready, instant information. Dettmer has found a way to use analog technology to talk about the digital. I am looking forward to seeing what possibilities lay in the opposite direction.