Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Artists’ Books and Appropriation

An ongoing project of mine (hidden away in the background) is making new artworks from books by Virginia Woolf (particularly Mrs Dalloway), in the hope of teasing new voices from her beautiful, intricate narratives. In this blog post I wanted to look an example of an artist whose work also does this, an artist whose work also raises questions surrounding copyright.

In 2010 Simon Morris published the book Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head through his own imprint informationas material in 2010.  His book started life as a blog in which Morris copied a page a day of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road as an exercise in better understanding the book and the author’s writing process.  As blogs are displayed showing the latest entry first, those wishing to read On the Road through Morris’s blog will be faced with the book in reverse order.

The printed book retains the reversed page order and uncorrected text of the blog and the cover is designed to resemble the 2007 Penguin Modern Classics edition (compare image 1 and 2).  Although the text in the book is ostensibly Kerouac’s these minor differences distance Kerouac’s work from Morris’ in a dramatic way; if a reader were to pick up On the Road, they would find a linear story about a road trip; if a reader were to pick up Morris’ book, they would find a disjointed story, a story that prompts the reader to question the nature of the book they were holding.  The difference here is a conceptual one.

I heard Morris speak at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2011 about his own approach to using the material of others as a starting point. He said that ‘If there is no danger of being original it can be very liberating.’ Morris’ view implies that it is Kerouac’s On the Road, which carries the burden of originality and not Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head.  It is this weight however that makes copyright such a fiercely contested terrain. I think this sense of freedom is apparent in the work, as the book comes across as a game in a way, one that one that Morris has played with commitment and determination.

Copyright and reproduction are important topics in the book world, particularly with the threat of Google’s mass book-digitization programme, which has dramatic implications for the global publishing industry (according to Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books).  Google’s quest to scan and make available millions of books has triggered legal action from publishers and re-raised questions of intellectual property and ownership. Morris’ book can’t help but touch on that as it is almost (but not quite) a word-for-word copy of Kerouac’s.

Questions of copyright and ownership first came about in the 18th century when it was created to break monopolies in book publishing, ensuring authors were protected and other publishers were able to distribute works (Lessig, Free Culture, 2006).  Two hundred years later copyright now appears to protect the interest of corporations, ensuring that intellectual property can be controlled long after the death of the original creator.

Several publishers (and notably the author J. K. Rowling – who released the digital versions of Harry Potter) are moving away from such strong digital encryption, allowing books to be shared more easily. And perhaps these gestures, along with the works of artists such as Morris, are pushing the boundaries and encouraging others to play with content and give it a new or alternative life. 


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

intimate // public

Through my own practice I have become fascinated with the place in which text or language sits. This might be within the intimate confines of a book or in an open ‘public’ space such as a gallery. 

In terms of the intimate book Holland Cotter sums up nicely the intimacy shared with the object. ‘…books are created for one-on-one interactions. They are, by nature zones, of privacy. There is no way, short of censorship, for an outside observer to or control the intimate encounters they offer…’ (Cotter, 1994)

There is a certain quality in reading that absents us from the world around us. A certain skill in the author perhaps that takes you beyond the world in which we are. None more is this escape apparent than in the work of André Kertész. ‘Thriving on the paradox that even in the most crowded, public space one can enjoy such a solitary, private activity’ (Smart, 2009)

Figure 1: André Kertész, Long Island University, New York, 1963

‘Blissfully unaware they are being snapped, Kertész's subjects appear transported, fleetingly removed from life as we know it, into their realm of reading.’ (Smart, 2009) 

I find that intimate engagement with a space fascinating. All your attention given over to an object. Or rather language/text within an object. It is a direct connection with language.

Figure 2: Carey Young, Consideration 2004

In a public space however this may change. Carey young an artist who works within the realm of officialdom, legal contracts and bureaucracy become the method of communication., The control is often subtle but can be brash. The language and place are key elements to her practice. Place that is dictated by language and language that is dictated by place. Often working with legal teams, the work is about the boundaries we share everyday between rules that govern our place and that place we move around in.  ‘In this work, a legally-impossible contract is established between artist, art gallery and viewer, questioning the notion of information, independence and control in liguistic and special terms.’ (Young, 2005)

The language subverts the space in which people move around. This is the space at large taking control of movement and understanding. It is a shared connection with language. 

The language/text will always reference the place it is put in, as it relies on this space for existence. Words sit on walls and on pages. The joy language has in space is that it is in that space; on paper, on screen, in the ear, always held by the physical. As much control language can have over a space with regard to the words, the space is always there as a constant reminder of the words fragility. Language will always be about space if it conjures up a world or describes an environment, even floating though a concert hall and connected though the internet. But language is not solid and it can change states through this space. Language can so easily transform from the intimate space to the public and vice-versa. As much as it relies on this place as a carrier it can so quickly take control. Words read aloud are transformed from an intimate space to a public one. Spoken language written down goes from the public to intimate. It is not so much the control these spaces and the language has it is the fluidity of language to bridge these spaces. Space whether intimate or public will always hold language. It is only in languages power to make us realise this space where its control lies.



Cotter, C (1994) Drucker, J. The Century of Artists' Books . New York: Granary Books 

Smart, A. (2009) André Kertész: On Reading, at The Photographers' Gallery. The Sunday Telegraph. 17 July. Seven Magazine

Young, C. (2005) Consideration. [internet]. Available from <> 

Young, C. (2009) Speech acts. [internet]. Available from <> 


Figure 1: André Kertész, Long Island University, New York, 1963 [online image] Available at: <> 

Figure 2: Carey Young, Consideration 2004 Available at: <>

Wednesday, 14 January 2015



Generally, I prefer reading straightforward linear texts in straightforward linear books page by page in a non-confusing arrangement of thoughts where one idea follows another. Unfortunately, as I look around myself at this very moment I can see two open books to the left, a small pile of photocopied pages to the right, an iPad, a laptop and my notes all annotated, cross-referenced and collated to accompany my re-reading of Katherine’s Hayle’s Writing Machines (Mediaworks Pamphlet) . My reading, in fact, is an act of multilayered and multicursal pathway of linking, reading, connecting, proceeding. How very appropriate for this book, I suppose. 
How cybertextual!

The term cybertext was coined by Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997). Regardless of what it may sound like, cybertext is not a genre of literary or digital text, it is not a type of link or hypertext (even though hypertext can be present in cybertext) - cybertext is an approach to "communicational strategies of dynamic texts". The term itself is confusing in many ways (no clear definition, broad area of application, some ambiguous terminology - such as trivial/nontrivial effort), one thing is certain, though - it is not media, period or genre specific. It is about communication, interaction, performance within the text and with the text - it is not about literary or visual style.
"The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange. However, it also centers attention on the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim.
...cybertext is used here to describe a broad textual media category. It is not in itself a literary genre of any kind. Cybertexts share a principle of calculated production, but beyond that there is no obvious unity of aesthetics, thematics, literary history, or even material technology. Cybertext is a perspective I use to describe and explore the communicational strategies of dynamic texts.(Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature )


One of the examples of cybertext, that Aarseth gives himself is i-Ching (The Book of Changes) - an ancient Chinese divination book. Six yarrow stalks or tossed coins are used to determine the pattern of broken and unbroken lines in the hexagram. The pattern is then looked up in the book and the prophesy is read out for interpretation. The book does not form a linear narrative, but a multitude of possibilities and paths to navigate through.
Here is one of the online i-Ching reading sites  →  易經.


 Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is another work that Aarseth mentions as a cybertext. Pale Fire consists of a 999-line poem, written by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy line-by-line commentary by a neighbor and academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Aarseth suggests, that a reader can choose between a linear or non-linear reading of the work, i.e. to read the poem first and then notes as one sequential story; or to keep jumping between the annotations and the poem.


Nightingale’s Playground is a piece digital fiction by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston. It is an extraordinary interlinked work in four parts: a browser based read/walk-through, an e-book text, a virtual exercise book, a downloadable 3D immersive experience of Alex's house. The reader discovers the story himself through exploration of those four spaces.


Here is one more beautifully produced piece of digital art! Hollowbound Book by Erik Loyer is an interactive response to N. Katherine Hayles’ book Writing Machines, in which a newly liberated book binding testifies to its liberation at the hands of Hayles’ theories. It is not a cybertext in it's own right (for what I understood about cybertexts). However, it can be considered part of cybertext that N. Katherine Hayles’ Writing Machines (Mediaworks Pamphlet) is - a book that exists as an elegantly designed 3D object (also available as a PDF for a less elegant DIY binding) and an extension of the book Web Supplement, which includes the lexicon linkmap, notes, index, bibliography, errata, and source material. The reader/user can explore alternative mappings of the book's conceptual terrain with additional functionalities unavailable in print, then print insert pages to customize the book itself. 


Children's books - like artist's books - often allow themselves the sort of ingenuity that adult books do not. A few blogposts behind I mentioned Myriorama or tableau polyoptique - a form of cards entertainment that became especially popular in the 19th century: a child was able to arrange and re-arrange the cards into any order to build visual narratives. Similarly, my own children in their own time could not have enough of Mixed Up Fairy Tales (Mixed Up Series) - a lighthearted contemporary split page book, where a child can make up their own stories using starting lines, names, events from well known fairy tales. It is the book that provided me with hours of piece on the plane - cybertext or not.


Aarseth's cybertext is an idea of a multicursal text, which allows readers to biuld their own path though the labyrinth of reading - for example, through a possibility of physical rearrangement of narrative modules. Some of those objects mentioned above are books, while others are games or "whatever they are" (my very very favorite quote by Johanna Drucker in relation to digital book models). As cybertexts, they are a form of text - a text, which is a big metaphorical leap away from it's definition in linguistics. As reader-led narratives, they are a form of story-telling tradition.


PS. The idea of cybertext is  confusing in many ways - as I have mentioned above. I would be happy to hear from anyone with useful links on the subject.


A curious note that had no space in the text above:

At the start of the book Aarseth cites Penelope Reed Doobs discussion on physical and metaphorical labyrinths of classical antiqity and Middle Ages. She distinguishes two types of labyrinth paths: "unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually toward a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices". The two ideas of labyrinth have co-existed until Renaissance, until the concept was "reduced to the multicursal paradigm that we recognise today". As a result we have since grown to regard linear and labyrinth and incompatible ideas.




Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Tom Phillip's A Humument - The Book As Archive

One thing that intrigues me about books is that such a simple form can carry very diverse contents – the book acts as archive for information and images. One artist whose work plays on this is Tom Phillips and his artwork A Humument.

Pages 20 and 21 of the first revised edition (1980) of 'A Humument'
A Humument is an ongoing project which started in 1966 in response to William S. Burroughs’ use of the cut-up technique.  It started with Phillips’ arbitrarily picking up a book (a novel entitled A Human Document by W. H. Mallock) and crossing out unwanted text on various pages to create new writings.  The project developed quickly as Phillips began to paint, draw and collage, using each page as a starting point for a work of art.

The publication of A Humument began in 1970 with the gradual release (over three years) of ten volumes of assorted, worked pages. This was followed by a self-contained book entitled Trailer in 1971 by edition hansjörg mayer made of black and white vignettes (created from remnants of worked pages salvaged from the cutting room floor). In 1973 A Humument was released as a complete book and revised four times until 2012 - each edition featuring amended or reworked pages, making each edition unique. In 2011 a version for the iPad was released.

Pages 20 and 21 of the 4th edition of 'A Humument' (2005)
Between the first revised edition (1980) and the 5th edition (2012) around 200 of the  367 pages are modified.  To those familiar with the book, this difference is clear and surprising.  Without a side-by-side comparison one might wonder which pages have changed and why, questioning how the loose narrative may have developed through omissions and inclusions.  Visual changes in style (simple early treatments, such as drawing or over-writing by typewriter, now sit next to collages and intricate paintings) also give us a subtle, inexplicit sense of history.  Both of these imply a sense of archive, without being direct.

Speaking of A Humument Phillips suggested that his original intention was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, an art work that embraces and includes many different styles and forms.  Phillips stated that the book contains ‘poems, music scores, parodies, notes on aesthetics, autobiography, concrete texts, romance, mild erotica, as well as well as the underlying text of [the original] …’.  Although these distinctions may be difficult to single out for the general reader, the fact that these categories are present in the document implies that A Humument also acts as a physical kind of archive.

Aside from a feature called The Oracle (which casts two pages against each other – like a form of divination), the iPad version of A Humument is in many ways like the print editions. Perhaps a future version may play on the implied archival qualities of the book, using the new techniques that technology allows.

'pages' 20 and 21 of the iPad version of 'A Humument'

I look forward to seeing the project develop as in some ways A Humument has reflected many changes – developments in artistic production, the growth of an artist’s practice and advancements in technology.

Reference: Phillips, T. (1975) Works, texts: To 1974 Germany: edition hansjörg mayer