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Brian Dettmer: Are books dead?

Brian Dettmer, The (Re)Emergence of Man, 2010, altered book, 9 1/2 x 7 3/4 x 2 inches. Photo courtesy Saltworks gallery.

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.

The Amazon Kindle. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Brian Dettmer, The (Re)Emergence of Man, 2010, detail. Photo courtesy Saltworks gallery; click image to zoom.

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.

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    April 18, 2012 at

    Very cool, I always enjoy what people are doing with altered books and the upcycling of ephemera…  for some great links to altered book stuff I have included a blog link for an upcoming show, they have some great link to artists and how to.   http://deconstructionreconstruction.wordpress.com/

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    July 1, 2011 at

    Here is a recent and relevant article which recently appeared in the marvelous Frieze magazine about the electronic publishing of art books: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/off-the-page/.

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    August 5, 2010 at

    Kindle is another symptom of selfishness and loss of communication in our society. If someone is reading from kindle, I am not comfortable asking, “How do you like that book?” There is no title or cover to see. The person reading the kindle can’t say, “I’ll loan you the book after I’m finished.” It has been downloaded for themselves. This in itself causes selfishness. My books are like old friends, as you reread them or just handle them again, memories come surging up. I remember where I bought them; was the day rainy or cold? Who was my boyfriend at the time etc.
    When on a plane I asked a woman who was reading from a kindle book if she liked it. She said, “Frankly I got it as a present, I have the feeling that although I paid for it to be downloaded, it doesn’t feel that the book is mine.” Wow! We need books, libraries and all those good things that poor people have access to also.

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    Alana Wolf
    June 8, 2010 at

    Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” is one of my favorites; anyone with a fondness (that, yes, sometimes borders on obsession) for words and a passion for the textual company they keep can relate to it. It is very much because of the relationships that people develop with the books in their library that I cannot believe that they are going away anytime soon.

    There’s an interesting article that only touches on the possibilities of inscription and marginalia here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/weekinreview/30khoury.html?ref=weekinreview (I’d be hard-pressed to relinquish my first editions, author signatures, and the mysteries of inscriptions and dedications to parties unknown). Then there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of book design: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/books/31covers.html. And on a related note, what of the book cover itself as identity-marker? A friend and I who met through mutual book-admiration might never have connected had we been carrying Kindles: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/08/wolcott200908.

    Now, lining one’s birdcage with a Kindle? Seems possible: wouldn’t that, after all, be at least a reference to the whims of technology and the necessity of having to update your gadget every few years? I think it might.

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    June 7, 2010 at

    Interesting post. See Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”, which includes his recollections of where particular volumes were bought, prompted by handling the books again. I have a number of books which belonged to my parents & grandparents; inserted in them are letters, post cards, drawings………messages from beyond. Will it ever be possible for us to embed notes to our children and grandchildren in an e-reader?

    A few weeks ago, I was looking for a particular passage in a book I read sometime in the mid-80s. I went to my library (yes, we have a room mainly just for books, as well as shelves in other rooms), took the book off the shelf and opened it. I knew which chapter the quote had to be in, so it was a simple matter to flip the pages until I saw my markings in the margin.

    If I had read that book on a computer 25 years ago, I suppose it would have been with the DOS operating system! (Younger readers should ask older siblings what DOS was.) I don’t know how I would have retrieved that passage now. Would I have had to buy a new copy? These electronic technologies change every few years, while a 300 year-old book uses the same “technology” as the latest novel. The music business wants us to keep buying new technology every few years, too. (Yes, I also have a good turntable for listening to LPs.)

    Even for magazines, there are drawbacks to the online form. (Obviously there are plusses, such as these comment features. Right?) I find that the physical magazine format is much better for reading long articles, in for example, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New Republic.

    Also, the act of buying a physical book actually encourages one to go ahead and read the thing “cover to cover”. I wonder whether there have been any studies on the relative likelihood of one finishing a novel, or a history, in book form versus on a machine of whatever type.

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    Tom Zarrilli
    June 5, 2010 at

    The irony is that most books, texts and information are not preserved. Vast amounts of information have been lost destroyed or forgotten with almost no ill effect. There is just not room for it all. But the decline of print, especially newspapers will have some repercussions in that one cannot make paper mache’ from a Kindle. One also dares not line a birdcage with their Ipad. But these practices might work quite well as conceptual artwork.

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