The Structure of the Virtual Book

Interactive CD-ROMs and hyperlinked multimedia networked art have a lot in common with earlier art forms. William Blake began his first book, "There is No Natural Religions and All Religions are One" at age 30 and proceeded to self-publish for many years. Self-publishing allowed Blake to make his poetry, art and craftsmanship available for a presumably larger audience, although his best seller "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" sold only thirty copies in thirty-five years.

The Structure of the Virtual Book


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For the Love of Books

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we\'re involved in it. Last month we looked at the bookness of books from a traditional point of view.

There is a great debate in theoretical circles about exactly what an artist's book is.

I'm not a theoretician and this column is not an academic treatise, so I will sidestep that debate and offer a definition from Chris Peregoy's online paper The Structure of the Virtual Book: "An artist book is an object that deals with or extends the function of a book. A book provides a reading and sequence of images, words and other conceptual ideas. Artist books extend upon this reading and create new ideas or structures to question or comment on our traditional notions about books."

What are some of these notions?

We traditionally think of text as an essential component of a book. If a book does not contain text, we refer to it as a "picture book" or a "coffee table book", a subcategory of the quintessential "book."

This convention is highly related to technology. During the Middle Ages, when books were laboriously hand copied, text and image were inextricably interwoven. When moveable type became the technology of choice for producing books, it became difficult to print text and image on the same page--hence the separation of text from illustration. This same technology made book distribution more widespread and literacy more accessible. Thus began the privileging of word over image.

Both the separation of text from image and the elevated status of text over image remain conventions of bookmaking to this day. Writing in the Journal of Artists' Books {#13], publisher Brad Freeman notes: "It is an unfortunate habit of some book artists to insert a text into a visual narrative with the sole purpose of having some writing in their books...This arbitrary insertion might occur because of the misconception that a proper book has both words and pictures and without one or the other it will cease to be a book."

Donna Morris, a Florida artist, has created a book with no text that, while it appears mute, speaks volumes. A series of richly colored six-inch square pages are bound together simply with a ribbon through three punched holes. This is not a blank book waiting to be filled. It needs no further content or decoration. It is a book, complete in itself. As we touch the pages and turn the planes, we discover a story of an artist who loves color and tactile experience and enjoys spending an afternoon in her studio creating rich random designs with tempera paints.

Last month's column referred to the idea that content and form must be related and that the planes of a book must have a relationship to one another. Most often, that relationship is known in advance-it's intentionally established.

But artists exploring the meaning of books discover that a sense of relatedness inheres within the book form itself and attaches to the book's content, whether visual or textual. In Mixed Media Exploration, a class taught by Florida artist Mary Segal, students arrange the flotsam and jetsam of their daily lives-ticket stubs, grocery lists, credit card receipts, junk mail, personal notes-in a book. As they do so, they see that these objects reveal a pattern to their life, a meaning that may not otherwise be perceived. Multiple Planes
We also discussed the idea of multiple planes being an essential element of a book. Planes introduce the idea of revealing and concealing and bring to the fore concepts like time, motion, and sequence.

Approaching multiple planes from the opposite side, sometimes an artist will choose to present otherwise sequential items on the same plane. For five years, Mary Segal maintained a visual journal, a collection of 3x3 inch drawings done on Mylar. She had many choices for presenting this work, and some, indeed, was put in book form. But when she transfers a month's worth of these drawings to one large canvas in storyboard format, this simultaneity gives the viewer a sense of Mary's life during that period-coping with her youngest child's departure for college, periodontal work-that would be obscured had she chosen the traditional book format.

Binding and Fixed Sequence
Many of us have learned-some with frustration and anxiety, others with a sense of relief-that the presentation of information in a fixed sequence is rapidly being replaced by the random access afforded us by hyperlinks in new media. Linear progression is one of the legacies of the traditional book form. Something has to be first, something has to be last, and everything in between must line up in some sort of understandable order.

Artist books have a long tradition of breaking the barriers of fixed sequence. An alternative to the familiar codex binding is the dos-a-dos book, which has two text blocks bound on either side. Such a book can read left to right, right to left, forward, backward, or in a host of combinations in between. Even trade publications are beginning to break down traditional barriers. The Color Book by Jill Blake [Chronicle Books, 1997] cleverly uses a wire binding and split pages to allow the reader to see a virtually infinite combination of ceiling, wall and flooring colors. When pages or signatures are left unbound an infinite variety of sequences arises.

The economics of manufacturing and marketing have squeezed books and print publications into standard sizes and shapes. The primary virtue of the rectangular format is the ease and precision with which its right angles can be measured and manipulated. But in one-of-a-kind or limited-edition artist books, which travel outside conventional distribution channels, anything goes.

Baton Rouge artist Sherry Lane, writing in the Journal of Artists' Books {#13], recounts her experience creating memory pods. These are skeins of very thin fabric strips [some up to fifty yards long] with another strip of fabric containing a written text woven into it. If the viewer is enticed by the first few words, they will unwrap the skein in order to read more of the text, just as they would turn the pages of a traditional book. In the center of the skein, the viewer comes to the end of the story. An object of memory-a clove, an orange peel, some fresh-cut grass-which has been the subject of the text throughout the engagement, is revealed.

Again it is tradition and economic forces that define a book as an object made of paper. Artists books may be made of paper, but just as often are composed of wood, metal, fabric, bones, canvas, glass-whatever is at hand. And while I'm chauvinistically attached to the idea of materiality in books, many artists working in electronic media are challenging even that fundamental concept.

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer who studies and experiments with artist books. Contact her by email.