DATE: 3/5/2013 | BY SHARON GALLAGHER
These are remarks I presented for the lively panel discussion "The Future of the Art Book" at the New York Public Library on February 12, 2013. The panel was moderated by Arezoo Moseni of the Library and organized by ARLIS and ARTBOOK | D.A.P.
A complete audio recording can be found at www.nypl.org/events/programs/2013/02/12/future-art-book-publishing
Thank goodness the title of this evening's panel is not "The Fate of the Art Book," but rather its future. Confusing ideas about the future with predictions of fate is the very mechanism of defeatism. I'd go so far as to say that once a medium's practitioners start talking of its “fate,” their medium may well have begun its devolution to the dread, dead status of "legacy."
But the data about the printed book in our culture does make tough reading. All of the trend lines do show an increasing adoption of e-books over print books and of web browsing over sustained reading.
Given those trends, how can we imagine the future of the art book as not being its fate, as not being pre-destined, as not being already plotted in advance on next year's data survey?
Perhaps a small dose of American Pragmatism can help us shake off defeatism. It was just over a century ago that William James wrote, "Our minds are not here simply to copy a realty that is already complete… In point of fact, the use of most of our thinking is to help us change the world." And boy has the world changed since 1910. Unpredictably so.
So, let's set prediction aside. Instead, we should be asking what kinds of ideas about the future art book we want to turn out to be true, remembering -- as James wrote -- that "the truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events." Or, of course, the idea fails the test of reality.
At any given present moment, culture only exists if we imagine it as having multiple possible futures. That just is the premise of culture, of creativity and of the arts. Another way of putting it: failure has to be an option.
What, then, are the futures of the art book that we want deeply enough, passionately enough, to be willing to fail at in trying to realize them?
How can we imagine those futures? Let's start by ordering up a blank bulking dummy and begin making the art book of the future.
But wait; do we even want the future art book to be three-dimensional? Well, yes, I say. Yes, we do. Why? Because we enjoy experiencing this kind of book as a book object somatically in real space. Lesson one: the advent of the e-book and other digital reading spaces brings to the fore a qualitative distinction between the art book and the novel: while in the reading of fiction, or what Terje Hillesund calls immersive imaginary reading, "readers are carried away into imagined worlds," with the art book images dwell not on the imaginary plane but on the visual plane. But that's not all. Seeing reproductions of art as themselves physical objects in our space acts psychologically to remind us of the physical existence of the object of art itself. After all, art does exceed your own image of it.
And how big should our future book be? This is where digital space has so far failed us on screens both large and small. If the digital is good at zooming in, it is (so far) less adept at "zooming out" just enough to give us a sense of spatial scale relative to the reader. Our future art book should be just right for humans, not for devices: Not so big that we can't hold it, but big enough to allow for the representation of scale within it. About the size of a framed human face is a good place to start.
Do we want our art book of the future to have pages? Or would we prefer to do without them? This is not a facetious question. Surprisingly, it turns out that many readers of fiction and narrative non-fiction prefer their reading page-free! Perhaps pages get in the way of the very books we call page-turners. It's a key technical feature of the original e-book epub format that the text is reflowable and page-less. This turns out to be less than ideal for multi-modal content like the art book where the page holds together -- or synchs -- the different "tracks" of an art book -- narrative continuous text, illustrations, and caption or sidebar text. I vote for keeping the pages as we make our future art book.
And with the page comes a remarkable feature: the recto and the verso and the extraordinarily simple and deeply profound gesture of turning a page to move forward in time and space through the architectural space of the book. Paging through a book is like closing a door behind you that simultaneously opens another onto a new room -- all the while keeping the previous room available, just behind the now-closed door of the turned page. Here I am in the hallway of the introduction, here I am in the living room of chapter one, the dining room of chapter two, the bedrooms upstairs of the plate section, and, now, I've gone down the back staircase to the footnotes and apparatus in basement. At any time, in any chapter, I know where I am within the whole. The paged structure -- completely apart from any narrative or plot device -- spatially organizes the temporal experience of a book into a perceptible whole in which we can proprieceptively locate ourselves. For the art book -- with its multimodal content -- this spatial organization of the reader's experience is key. In the absence of the imaginary timeline and space of narrative plot, this paged structure is essential to the reader's own ability to maintain his or her bearings and integrity while being open to the passivity -- sometimes threatening, sometimes delicious -- that is inherent in becoming informed. It is this architectural multi-planar organized space of the book that makes Ulises Carrion's “space-time” experience of the book possible. So yes, my art book of the future will have pages, signatures of them.
And until screen resolutions and calibrations and indeed backlit technology develop to an entirely new level of fidelity, my pages will be made of paper and printed with ink. Today, high-quality art book printing still renders an image at 8 times the fineness of typical screens. But more importantly, a craft of color proofing has developed to ensure that individual images are printed so as best to reproduce the particular work at hand. And different choices of paper stock allow for further appropriate tonal fidelity.
I will also keep for my future art book the simple affordances that decades of design experience have built up: tables of contents, chapter titles, headers and footers, page numbers, captions and the like. We use them without noticing them, like door handles that invite turning. Unlike the current state of web navigation, they don't blink or change color or open unexpected windows, they do not distract or tempt me away from my focus. Compared with the elegance and functionality of book way-faring devices, digital navigation is still at the level of an infant who looks up at the mother's pointed finger first rather than immediately and seamlessly at the object pointed to. No, I, for one, will stick to running heads and footers for my future art book.
But digital technologies can also enable the art book of the future to be quite different from the art book we know today. Certainly good exploratory work is being done by the Getty Online Scholarly Catalogues initiative and our community will learn more from the Yale / Mellon study about what art historians do and don't want out of digital publishing. At ARTBOOK Digital | D.A.P. we are working with museums and publishers to bring curatorial writings and other projects -- with illustrative material -- into the e-book space.
But as a community, we should be thinking more boldly -- less about replacing print than about leveraging what digital technologies make possible. Why not move footnotes and backmatter out of the printed book and into a hyperlinked digital space that the reader could access on his or her I-phone through QR codes -- invisible to the human eye -- on each page of the printed book? Or an app that allows a user to bookmark the dedicated URLs of favorite images through advanced image recognition -- supported by much better, semantically rich meta-data coding? Why not add multimedia content on a dedicated website visually designed to synch with the structure and pace of the printed book? Why not make available longer form text on an e-reading device or web browser for students and scholars who wish to study the text in depth rather than dip in and out of it as most people do with art books? Why not an online subscription service to key art historical texts in a reading-friendly HTML5 format? Why not designed integration of museum exhibition websites with their catalogues using cleaner screen design that allows the reader to focus on content rather than on the museum's own branding and visual identity? Perhaps the "killer app" is not a new e-reader or i-pad app, but instead one that integrates the experience of the physical book with that of digital information. But perhaps the "birthing app" would be one that coherently organized all the fragments of our digital visual experience with both depth and ease, one that rewarded sustained looking rather than the itch to click or what I've called the "wow of poke."
Let the digital do well what it does well while it evolves. By "handing off" some of its functions to the digital space, why not then allow the art book to learn from the burgeoning field of the artist's book to become more of an aesthetically conceived book object in its own right? Though let me say clearly for the record that art books need to give artists' books their own space as art works and not infringe upon their territory. But certainly the explosion of interest in artists’ books specifically and in the print form generally that we've seen over the last decade suggests a market as yet largely untapped by conventional trade and museum publishers. Obviously the ways in which and places at which books are sold will need to evolve along with the object themselves. But we see this beginning already both in the proliferation of "fair" set ups and in the desire of independents to distinguish their offerings from those of online shopping malls. The emergence of specialized or deluxe retail outlets offering premium products has followed upon the heels of mass merchandising in most other industries. I see no reason in principle why this cannot happen with printed goods.
The future of the art book object is, however, only one piece of the puzzle, because the art book only exists within a context made up by other objects and institutions, the publishing and tech industries, of course, but also the university, the museum and the library. These three foundational institutions of American twentieth-century culture reproduced their viability from decade to decade as much within their own walls as they did in the broadly shared middle-class cultural aspiration embodied by two shelves of Harry Abrams and Rizzoli art books on a bookcase in the living room of the American home. That twentieth-century world is now past. It's that world -- and its system of values -- which has become legacy.
Circling back around, now from print to digital, once we've explored the future we want for the art book, maybe we can look at the digital space with fresh eyes as an opportunity for a new kind of publishing in its own right rather than as a replacement for the book. That said, the book is a pretty tough act to follow.
For now, as art book publishers, we should be inspired by designer Irma Boom and treat each art book we make as if it were going to be the last.