What is the future of the book?

April 22, 2015, by

What could be more delightful than sipping on complimentary wine and munching on cheese and crackers in an elegant gallery? Well, how about pairing that pairing with a succinct and stimulating panel conversation about the future of books?

On Thursday, April 16, about 45 Houstonians gathered at  The Printing Museum to attend the most recent installment of Ligatures, presented by Gulf Coast. The series is aptly named—a ligature is a typographical element that combines two letters. Generally, it is redolent of threads that bind.

This event brought together four notable artists, critics, and creative writers to discuss the craft, historical artifact, and future of artist books. Raphael Rubinstein, professor of critical studies at the University of Houston School of Art, moderated the panel, which consisted of artists Suzanne Bloom and Chitra Ganesh, and poet Roberto Tejada. Each, in fact, have multi-hyphenated practices—muralist, graphic novelist, anthologist, educator, etc.

A roundtable of favorite books and seminal text-based works kicked off the discussion. Rubinstein cited An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a catalog of descriptions of everyday item on the desk of Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerri from the 1960s, which he described as “a portrait of a moment in time.”   

Tejada presented images and observations on the Enlightenment series, about “linguistic difference and verbal affect,” by Texas-based artist Celia Alvarez Muñoz. He characterized her photographs and commentary, influenced by sources ranging from Minimalism, feminism, and class disparity, as a “book as thought-form.”

Noting that it was Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Bloom discussed how she was influenced by the troubled publication history and aesthetic mastery of Anne Frank’s diary. Her collaborative artistic team, MANUAL, created a mixed-media piece of the Bulgarian, Spanish, Dutch, German, Hebrew, and English translations of the book, fastened by a schoolgirl’s strap. The books sit on a wooden beam, reminiscent of the attic annex where Frank hid, with a significant crack that separates the German and Hebrew versions.

Finally, Ganesh showed how choose-your-own-adventure books informed her current practice, which touches on Hindu mythology in a “non-linear narrative.” She further demonstrated how, with these materials, “the reader becomes a third party,” in dynamic with the text and the author.

From there, the conversation moved to the “intimacy of encounter” with physical books, as opposed to e-books. As Rubinstein said, there’s been a transformation in the “status, economy, function, and distribution” of books.

Panelists took care not to pit material and digital books in competition against each other. Bloom, for instance, started using digital media in the 1980’s. But, she also pointed out that we can more easily lose our reading and writing experience when software changes, crashes or discontinues. For her personal edification, she prefers used books, which “accrue history” and marginalia.

Tejada mentioned Matthew Stadler, a colleague in Portland, who’s broadcast innovative ideas about publishing and public space, or as he put it, who “rethinks publics” as well as “the means of production.” In Stadler’s paradigm, books and zines are only printed for those he know will read them—subscribers, and attendees of specific cultural happenings, like a fashion show or dinner party, who receive a copy with the price of admission. That way, “the emphasis shifts to developing a readership,” rather than peddling the printed word.

Ganesh broadened the conversation to include an international lens, pointing out that the shift from physical books to e-books is not as prevalent in many other parts of the world, that “not many countries are actually screen-based.”

The conversation was then opened to questions from the audience. The various inquiries by local designers, librarians, writers, and students were quite lively. Tejada observed that digital books, with its hyperlinks and search engines, encourage “hybrid reading,” whereas physical books value “sequentially.” It was one of my favorite formulations of the night, rendering a nuanced way to perceive the old binary.

 Tejada observed that digital books, with its hyperlinks and search engines, encourage “hybrid reading,” whereas physical books value “sequentially.” It was one of my favorite formulations of the night, rendering a nuanced way to perceive the old binary.

There were analogies aplenty. One audience member thought that physical books might go the way of 8-track tapes, which was fine with him as long as the information, the music as it were, is still available. Rubinstein made the comparison to the radical period of experimentation in painting, after photography became more accessible.

Of course, no one knows what’s really in store for the future of the book. But, if these two interfaces can work mutually, as painting and photography, evolving, morphing, replicating each other and moving as far away as possible—the future of the book looks bright.

The event was also a magazine release party for the most recent issue of Gulf Coast, featuring work by several of the panelists. The striking cover was designed and produced by Houston’s own Workhorse Printmakers. It was letterpressed, one of the oldest printing methods available—which, paradoxically, is making a big comeback.

Be on the lookout for future Ligatures next fall.

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