15 Sep 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

At the Center for Book and Paper in Chicago, an initiative devoted to creating “expanded artists’ books” presents transmedial works that bridge what we would consider a traditional artist’s book—the concrete, physical, haptic art object—and the digital, like an iPad/iPhone application (Abra by Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin with Ian Hatcher). In these projects, old and new media deliberately link arms to declare their shared investments, investments I think of as key to artists’ books in any guise: material and formal considerations embedded into materiality and form; reading as a vibrant and immersive experience; writing that develops in tandem with its medium, shaping and being shaped by it.

For digital and new media scholars, reading this kind of writing begins with N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of “media-specific analysis.” In her now-classic essay “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep,” Hayles argues that we must read the materiality of texts, hypertexts both digital and print, as well as their semantic content. She characterizes materiality as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies”—such medial self-awareness, she acknowledges, hardly limited to digital examples (72). Many of these examples, in fact, reference “reverse remediation” in digital hypertexts, moments where the digital mimics the analog: the appearance of dog-eared pages in print codices transferred to a screen; the illusion of something like Scotch tape at the edges of ersatz photographs; the moments which, as Emily Larned wrote in an earlier post for this blog, often create an “aesthetics of interference,” where such interference is constructed for the comfort or delight of the reader. This is not a new reaction, of course: we could cast much further back to recall the moment where moveable type, as blackletter, mimicked the script to which readers had been accustomed.

Digital and new media scholars, both Hayles and those who follow, are far from allergic to more traditional artist book examples (see Hayles’s Writing Machines, which references Tom Phillips’s classic A Humument, or Manuel Portela’s Scripting Reading Motions: The Codex and The Computer as Self-Reflexive Machines, which has a chapter on Johanna Drucker’s letterpress work). Yet those with an interest in artists’ books often overlook the digital. At the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Portugal this summer, I heard about projects ranging from Taiwanese artist Hsia Yu’s book of digital remix poetry printed on Mylar, Pink Noise; to Rote Bete, a book made entirely on the copier by Portuguese artist César Figueiredo; to Eugenio Tisselli’s “Degenerative,” a web-based project which was corrupted bit-by-bit every time it was visited.

Page from Rote Bete

Yu’s book might easily be assimilated into the genre of artists’ books, perhaps Figueiredo’s work as well. What about Tisselli? Does it change our view to know the degenerative process was captured at various stages of decay before fading away completely, again suggesting, to an artist’s book reader, strange parallels with flux that might have intrigued Tom Phillips?

Day 1 and Day 44 of “Degenerative”

The truth is, of course, that both print and code are equally deep (or equally flat—take your pick). After all, both digital and analog are material. As Matt Kirschenbaum argues in his fantastic 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, it’s a convenient illusion that the digital is “hopelessly ephemeral...infinitely fungible or self-identical, and that it is fluid or infinitely malleable” (50). Instead, Kirschenbaum reminds us, “Every contact leaves a trace” (ibid). Why should we not extend our consideration from artists’ books to the digital, then, especially given their shared concerns about media specificity, self-reflectiveness, and reading?

In its digital guise, Abra, which I mentioned at the beginning, encourages the user to create new poems through casting “spells” on the screen, which can shift and mutate words, graft the user’s words into the evolving poem, erase words from the lexicon, all in a shimmering set of rainbow hues. There is a paperback version, as well, that does not attempt to replicate the app but instead extends its concerns to another form. And linking the two is a letterpress-printed, small-edition handmade codex. At the back of this book there is a space left for an iPad, inviting the user to make the connection.

Abra, from the Center for Book and Paper Arts’s website

Works Cited

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep.” Poetics Today 25, no. 1 (2004). pp 67-90. doi: 10.1215/03335372-25-1-67.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007.

Anne M. Royston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Rochester Institute of Technology. She received her Ph.D. in Literature, as well as a Book Arts Certificate, from the University of Utah. She is a founding member of the Salt Lake City-based independent book arts group, Halophyte Collective. 


  • 13 Sep 2017 4:40 PM | Anonymous
    Yes. For more than two decades book artists have been mediaizing.
    To go back a bit, or some bytes, to April 24 - June 19, 1993, when the Center for Book Arts exhibited _AGRIPPA (a book of the dead) _ William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh with Kevin Begos, Jr., Peter Pettingill, Sun Hill Press, Karl Foulkes, and (BRASH). The floppy disk had a virus that deleted the text as you read it.
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    • 15 Sep 2017 11:50 AM | A Royston
      Yes! Agrippa is the ur-text, I think, for this kind of work. It certainly is for Kirschenbaum: he talks about the black box of the artist's book as well as the black box of its contents/code...
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  • 18 Sep 2017 12:08 PM | Robert Bolick
    Don't forget video in the media-bending at which Borsuk and others excel ( Borsuk's essay "Abra: The Kinetic Page" covered above cites Ann Hamilton's work as a haptic-digital inspiration, and in the essay's inclusion of sound and video, she manages to create a supplementary work of art that also performs a role in distribution (which Steve Woodall wondered about during the V&A symposia).

    Over here in Europe, book artists like Johannes Heldén (mentioned in the link above), entrepreneurs like the founders of Visual Editions (see the app for Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1 in the link above, too), "video catalog artist" Giulio Maffei, son of book artist Giorgio Maffei ( and Louisa Boyd ( provide additional examples of media-bending and play with the distribution function (wasn't the "distribution thing" a feature of Sixties book art?).

    Many thanks for a piece to expand my appreciation of this art.
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    • 21 Sep 2017 12:25 PM | Anne Royston
      Thank you for the comment! And for the names to investigate, as well. I'm familiar with Composition No. 1, and Visual Editions as well; less so with the Maffei(s) and Boyd...
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