Skinned Pixels: What is an Artist Book in the Digital Age?

On June 29 the Books Books (artist’s) Books symposium took place at Galerie im Körnerpark in the exhibition Druck Druck Druck, in which the gallery functions as a literal publishing house, bringing print communities from Berlin and beyond together. The Risograph print studio in the gallery was turned into a conference room, large-scale projections of artist books loomed over the audience, presenters swiveled on red office chairs from the Schikkimikki Reading Room. At stake were the tensions, theory, and practice of alternative and artistic publishing in the digital age.

Nina Prader

Claudia de la Torre of backbonebooks opened her talk with a Sesame Street Classics’ clip in which Martians discover a book. This illustrated the foundations of her artistic publishing practices as well as playfully showed through a pop culture lens the definition of the term book.

“Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep….smell book…..No, no, no, no….Nope, nope, nope, nope….hear book…..No, no, no, no…. Nope, nope, nope, nope……Words….Yep, yep…Aha… Read…Read Book…. Read Book…Yep, yep, yep.”

(Sesame Street / YouTube)

De la Torre’s uses the book as a medium to write new narratives. She achieves this by folding the corners of books to point at words in existing texts to create alternative storylines. In the same way, she works with color coding, skinning book covers to make the guts of the book visible. The book is a body or skeleton complete with organs and a back spine as it were. Her contribution playfully showcased material methods and content hacks.

Claudia de la Torre backbone books © N. Prader / C. de la Torre

John Holton, founder of Broken Dimanche Press, using the parable of Moby Dick, elucidated how the Internet is all-encompassing in the publishing business: everything runs on e-mails. Taking the book to the next meta-level, what shape can the notion of the book even take the digital age? Can a book be a website…Yep. Can a website be a sculpture…Yep. This excavated the tension point that we can no longer think of publishing without the Internet. A moment of silence and the sad mood became palpable in a room filled with bibliophiles.

John Holton, founder of Broken Dimanche Press
© N. Prader / J. Holton

Annette Gilbert and Andreas Buelhoff led us through their Library of Artistic Print on Demand. Thereby, the economic, political and social shifts from the print on demand sector became apparent. On one hand, the book runs on the notion of being a medium for promoting democratic values and print on demand makes publishing accessible to “everyone”. On the other, there are aspects of censorship, constriction inherent in the formatting and neoliberal distribution systems around print on demand. Their library showed successful examples of subversion. For example, The Black Book by Jean Keller which is a print on demand volume consisting of 740 pages that are completely printed in black on both sides. It plays the rules of the market while simultaneously breaking them. Ironically, ink is the most expensive material in printing, however, it is not calculated into the price of printing in an on-demand book.

Next, to the presentations, contributors displayed and traded their books. Live Risograph printing took place. Paper News reprinted their first edition on the Druck Druck Druck in house Risograph in red and black and on A4. Then, Yves Mettler and Janine Sack, representing Paper News, shared their experiences on community and networks of print in Berlin and globally from the initiative Drucken, Heften, Laden. They announced that the next paper news will be published in September but also the question: Who is doing it? The question of responsibility ever present in publishing processes. Print functions as a way to keep in touch with letters from Cuba to Bayreuth. Digital publishing served as a way to enhance information and transform networks. They joked the next initiative might be called: Laden, Laden, Laden (loading, loading, loading).

Yves Mettler and Janine Sack, representing Drucken Heften Laden
© N. Prader / Y. Mettler / J. Sack

The esteemed UK-based scholar, Nick Thoburn located the book in communist contexts with his definition of the Anti-Book. Thereby, debunking historic ideas of the book as God (“book as a packet for God”) based on its patterns, functions, and forms in relation to class, race and gender struggles and notions of the working body. Valerie Solanas served as an example to unpack how gender, race, and class influence the position and representation of the author, giving the entitlement and privilege inherent in white, male dominant authorships contour. The Anti-Book’s body is not a commodity, but the product becomes an alternative medium, redefined as “the object as comrade”. He stressed the significance of taking back forms in our current times and opened up questions about what the Anti-Book could be in our digital world. This answer: A kind of scattering or multiplying of forms.

Nicholas Thoburn, author of Anti-Book: On the Art and Politics of Radical Publishing: “Communist Forms in Post-Digital Publishing” © N. Prader / N. Thoburn

Gloria Glitzer, represented by Franziska Brandt and Moritz Günke walked us through their exhibitions, practices, festivals and works, from their origins in Halle where they planted a zine library to their cataloging process of the Herbarium Riso, a rare Risograph print collection. They also provided some motivational food for thought on the DIY and community-based ethos of print as practice. 

Gloria Glitzer © N. Prader / M. Günke

Sigute Chlebinskaite all the way from Vilnius, Lithuania spoke in Lithuanian with a German translator. She sought to build memory bridges of how her 18-year old project known as the Land of Books, a book arts studio and education format was born. Often we forget the hegemony of languages in literature and publishing and she took us on a rich journey through Lithuanian artist books. From the socialist wall paintings and children’s cafes in the Soviet Union to the kitchen’s of artists were dissident conversations took place, to the book smugglers and secret lessons taught with banned books. She complicated the term artist book as more than artistic form but also as a means for survival, by sharing books that were created in the Gulag. For example, an alphabet set written on birch wood. The word censorship gained new meaning through the trope of the scissors. She reprinted a children’s book that formatted as an exquisite corpse actually talks about a repressive regime and the color coding sheds light on a forbidden flag. In a way, Sigute Chlebinskaite took us back to the start of the symposium, somehow also responding to Claudia de la Torre’s aesthetics of skinning and gutting books, to expose the meat and the bones of a book. Her book design of the diary of a 14-year-old boy from the Vilnius ghetto, written in Yiddish and Lithuanian was created to be naked and vulnerable to capture the rawness of World War II atrocities. Here, we returned to the heart of the matter. The artist book was politicized as a tool; without finding ways to express ourselves, overwriting preexisting formats or standards or regimes, we cannot survive. In addition to expanding bookmaking technologies, these technologies must be passed on from generation to generation.

Zur Autorin
Nina Prader is an artist, curator, writer, researcher and print activist, specializing in alternative media and publishing practices. Born in Washington D.C., she studied at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston in affiliation with Tufts University and at the Slade in London in affiliation with UCL. She received her MA in Critical Studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria. She has exhibited and written internationally in the US and Europe.

Diesen Artikel zitieren: Nina Prader, “Skinned Pixels: What is an Artist Book in the Digital Age?” [in English], in Kunst zwischen Deckeln, 18. Juli 2019, https://bookarts.hypotheses.org/354.


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