DATE: 3/28/2012 | BY RANYA ASMAR
Founded by artist Paul Chan in 2010, Badlands Unlimited publishes limited edition books, e-books, and artist works. Below, Ranya Asmar of ARTBOOK | D.A.P. speaks with Chan about the integrity of the book as a space, the e-book as artist's book and outsized negative reactions to Badlands' digital publishing program.
ARTBOOK: You started Badlands Unlimited in 2010 with the intention of embracing the digital book as an artist. Can you explain how your interest in the relationship between the physical book and the e-book was conceived?
PAUL CHAN: It was more rhyme than reason. Badlands was only going to make e-books. They are cheaper to publish; I wouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars on printing books that would eventually just sit in a warehouse somewhere; they can be downloaded and read instantly from anywhere with net access; and maybe the most interesting aspect—they last longer than hardcover books. What I mean is that today we are at a stage where a thing’s permanence is defined less by what it is made of, and more by how many times it has been shared and saved. A hardcover book is a file on paper and cardboard and fabric. I wanted to make interesting files without that cumbersome shell. But of course, plans have a way of straying. And Badlands ended up making physical books too, primarily because the more books we published, the more we became interested in the physical experience of reading: how we read with more than our eyes. E-readers like the iPad and Kindle were initially successful because they gave e-books weight and feel. You can now hold a file. So ironically, making e-books steered us into thinking about how this file might be experienced back on paper, within the physics of another form.
ARTBOOK: On the Bandlands site you say, “We make books in an expanded field.” This seems to acknowledge the e-book's ability to offer an enhanced experience by the very nature of it's format. Titles like Poems by Yvonne Rainer allow the reader to engage in the material in a much different way through the addition of audio and video. These capabilities change the ways we can think about a book. Can you talk about this, and how you feel such enhancements will change the concept of the book in the future?
CHAN: I don’t think it changes matters as much as people hope and fear. The one thing we don’t want to do is to make books that act like a multi-media spectacle, like interactive CD-ROMS from the early 2000s. A book is a space for a particular form of attention as much as it is a thing one holds and reads. This is why, I think, reading a book is different from, say, reading a newspaper or a webpage, or a menu from a restaurant. A book is something that enables a certain, pleasurable kind of focus and attention. For instance, in Poems, we could have loaded the e-book with even more audio and video materials. But we decided to only include materials—namely audio files of Yvonne reading a few of her own poems—that did not take the reader out of the natural rhythm of reading her poems from page to page. Badlands wants to keep the integrity of the book as a space for that unique kind of focus that only a book can give us, while messing with everything else. This is what I mean by an expanded field: everything else.
ARTBOOK: The physicality of the book, especially the art book, is of great importance to many readers—the transformation of space and time in one’s experience with the book now becomes one with a screen and a device. You have talked before about “the body as a reader, focus as space” and “time as a medium.” Can you elaborate on this?
CHAN: They are drawn from my experiences working with moving images. They are what I thought about when I made 7 Lights, the series of floor and wall projection pieces from 2007, and Sade for Sade’s Sake, the last projection piece I made, which was shown in the Venice Biennale in 2009. And interestingly, what I considered important when I made those works also applies to what we do at Badlands. How to make something that enables a full-bodied experience attenuated by a particular kind of focus and makes one feel as if time has left the building?
ARTBOOK: You have also used the e-book as a medium for your own artwork. I'm thinking of the Wht is? series of e-books, generated from 10 original limited editions by you—essentially loose sheets of paper torn from hardcover books, overprinted with collaged texts and images drawn from a very wide variety of sources. Can you explain how you decided to turn these extremely limited editions of one into unlimited edition e-books, and what it was like to go from something that has such a delicate collage-like physicality to a digital format? How did the process of transforming this material keep to the spirit of the art making process for you?
CHAN: Maybe the only way to keep to the spirit of anything is to understand that whatever it is, it isn’t it. That is how I think of Wht is?. The initial impulse was to do a series of books we hadn't done yet: by hand. So I started making the books using loose sheets from hardcover books overprinted with text and images, and then rebound back into book form. Then they were scanned and made into hi-resolution PDFs that are free and downloadable on our website. And then they were recomposed to exist as fixed-layout e-books available on Apple iBooks and the Amazon e-book store. If I had money to publish them on stone tablets, I would. That is how spirit works.
ARTBOOK: It’s fascinating to think about the immense amount of information that is available on the internet in such an unfocused and overwhelming way, while at the same time thinking about the emergence of the e-book, which can offer the reliability and credibility of traditional book publishing, but has been so criticized. How do you feel about this?
CHAN: I wouldn’t say e-books are reliable and credible. One thing about the terrain of e-book publishing today is that it is full of crap titles that resemble something more like email spam than an actual book. They are poorly paginated, barely edited and read like they were written in Google Translate. They treat content the way the net now more or less treats information: as a performance. This is fine with me. I just don’t want to make those kinds of books. Like I said, I think of books as a space for enabling a particular kind of focus and attention. So notions of reliability and credibility have less to do with the veracity of the content, and more to do with how well the book is made in order to enable you to have that space.
ARTBOOK: One great story that I have heard you tell is about the negative reaction of two women at a past New York Art Book Fair, when you presented an iPad and Kindle at your booth, loaded with e-books you had made. Could you talk a bit about this moment, and how it changed your thoughts on creating e-books, if at all?
CHAN: This was in 2010, when we had our first table at the fair. During the preview opening, two women came up to our table and basically started a shouting match, with us, and each other. One woman sneered that we were destroying real books by making e-books. Her friend tried to calm her down, saying “but look, it’s so much fun!” while she started to play with one of the Kindles on our table. But the irate woman ranted on, saying we should be ashamed of ourselves, muttered something about us burning books, and stormed off. It had never occurred to me that Badlands was actively destroying books as we have known them by publishing e-books. But I have grown to like the idea very much. If what you make doesn’t destroy something, is it really worth making?