Pulp to Pixels: Artists Books in the Digital Age

The following is a guest post by Jimi Jones, Archivist of Hampshire College.

Images of the Pulp to Pixels works on the Hampshire Library Magic Board digital gallery

From November 7th through the 16th, the Harold F. Johnson Library at Hampshire College hosted an exhibition called “Pulp to Pixels: Artists Books in the Digital Age.”  This exhibition of artists books, curated by Andrea Dezsö, Steven Daiber and Meredith Broberg, is a celebration of both traditional, physical book construction and innovative digital books. Many of the artists featured in the show have created works that bridge the chasm between the analog and digital realms.

As I moved through the exhibition space I was struck by the blurring of the lines between the analog and the digital. Time-honored bookbinding techniques blend with soldering, QR codes, LEDs and computer monitors. Pop-up books share the floor with iPads. iMacs peaceably coexist with a Commodore 64. As an archivist I’m more than familiar with collections that are hybrids of analog and digital materials. The artists in this exhibition are also working in a hybrid milieu and their work shows how well the tangible and the digital can enhance and complement each other.

One work that directly and physically integrate the digital with the analog was the “telescrapbooks” by Natalie Freed and Jie Qi. These books use microcontrollers to communicate with each other. The Electrolibrary by Waldemar Wegrzyn is a book that is full of electric contacts that allow the user to access additional online content when the book is plugged into a computer via a USB cable. These pieces utilize physical, hard connections to make the book interactive.

Other pieces, like Manja Lekic’s Aunt Pepper have no apparent “digital interactivity” until the user holds the book’s images up to a webcam. When the webcam “sees” certain portions of the book’s pages the computer plays music.  Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s aptly-named Between Page and Screen also uses webcam. This work is a book with human-indecipherable geometric shapes that, when exposed to a webcam, conjures words on the computer screen which allows the reader to follow the epistolary novel encoded in the book.

Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE, displayed on an iPad

Not all of the artists books featured in the exhibition have a direct analog component, though. There were many pieces for which no trees gave their lives. One that immediately caught my eye was Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE, which is an e-book that consists of screen captures of a computer desktop with various text and images files that come together to create a cascade of content. Moving through Cortright’s e-book is especially fun for an archivist – the content is all there, and the order starts to emerge as you move through the material.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “what about apps?” One of the apps (displayed, appropriately enough, on an iPad) on exhibit was Jason Edward Lewis’ Speak, which is an application that allows the user to drag her finger through a field of letters to create instant poetry. The user can also import text from a Twitter feed to play with.

One of the things that occurred to me as I played with Lewis’ piece was the performative nature of the Pulp to Pixels show. I’ve attended a lot of book art exhibitions, most of which feature books in cases and on pedestals, and I’ve never seen a more interactive/hands-on experiential celebration of the book.

Oh and if you’re thinking apps are a new thing in the book world, I’d direct you to Paul Zelevansky’s The Case for the Burial of Ancestors Book Two. This book – which is a physical, printed-on-paper book – included a floppy disc (oh the preservation issues there!) with a computer game on it. This book dates back to 1986 – likely before many current Hampshire students were born!

There was also Nick Montfort’s 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, which features both a print book but also a Commodore 64 (which some whippersnappers may claim is an “obsolete” computer) in order to “consider the phenomenon of creative computing and the way computer programs exist in culture.”

Interactivity and performance were the hallmarks of this show.  While both of these concepts did not begin with e-books (pop-up books, puppet books, choose-your-own adventures, anyone?) they definitely find impressive and often instantaneous expression in the digital world.

Telescrapbooks by Natalie Freed and Jie Qi

Gretchen Henderson, who gave the keynote speech at the exhibit’s reception, created the impressive Galerie de DifformiteThis crowdsourced book and website invites “subscribers” to take images from the different exhibits on the website and manipulate (deform) them in some way. Subscribers are invited to then send the images in for inclusion on the site. The book and site thereby become a gallery – a wunderkammer – displaying these deformed, reformed, manipulated and repurposed objects. With Henderson’s work the Internet becomes a conduit, allowing subscribers to take part in a growing, changing, ongoing performative work.

As I moved through the exhibition that word “performative” kept coming back to me. As an archivist my chief mandates are the preservation and access of information. How do we preserve the kinds of artworks found in the Pulp to Pixels exhibit? Is it reasonable to believe that in fifty years a user will be able to not just view one of these interactive pieces but also interact with it in the way(s) intended?

While we can preserve these kinds of works as-is and we can also preserve records of them, it remains to be seen how – or if – we will be able to preserve the infrastructure (displays, software, Internet communication protocols) needed to make them interactive. In many ways the questions we face in trying to preserve these kinds of dynamic artworks are also faced (and being treated by) the Preserving Virtual Worlds project as well as many members of the National Digital Stewardship Project.

Archivists, librarians and curators will continue to look at this kind of scholarship and research to guide our preservation decisions. In the meantime, artists will keep creating works like those showcased in Pulp to Pixels – works that integrate analog processes and digital technologies and expand our notions of what books are and what they can be.


This post was originally published on the Hampshire Library Media Services blog.


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