Geert Lovink introduced this title panel of the conference by mainframing its attempt at Nietzchean thinking around the binding and unbinding of the book – not in terms of ethics or morality, beyond the book as a sentimental object, and more in terms of the exploded situation of the present.
Researcher and theorist Florian Cramer, currently, Centre for Creative Professions at Willem de Kooning Academy Hogeschool Rotterdam, threw up a series of very concrete genealogical provocations. Cramer came to new media as a classically trained philologist, precisely through interest in the situation of electronic literature 20 years ago, the 91 launch of electronic book applications such as Voyager and so on. The Unbound Book’s title panel evokes for him a troublingly “strong sense of deja vu”. Considering all the experimentation with multimedia writing in the 80s and early 90s that happened before net art and multimedia design, and that has now “completely stagnated” in the hands of its same early agents, Cramer asked provocatively about the elided techno-cultural links here: what does the history of artistic experimentation (indeed early electronic or not) have to do with this apparent present (nostalgic? or ahistoric?) conversation around unboundedness?
Florian Cramer @ the unbound book conference – photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
David Stairs’ Boundless (1983) provides an important theoretical reference point, being emblematic of the dialectic that Cramer emphasises is always at issue:
“Binding and unbinding exist in it in a fruitful paradox, a tension that nevertheless boils down to binding as the lowest common denominator of a book. A book, in other words, is almost anything bound together, or unbound in negative reference to the former. To be unbound, after all, does not mean to be boundless.” Further, there are important spatial dimensions of being bound, alongside the temporal: bound “so that it doesn’t fall apart”, and bound in the sense of enduring coherently. For Cramer, “the idea of the book is one that can be read in 1, 5, and 100 years time.” Exceptions presented by unstable books (citing here Dieter Roth and Jan Voss‘s work, available from Amsterdam’s Bookie Woekie), only prove the rule. Yet this strong dialectical appreciation of bound/unbound “bookness” seems absent from the panel description which seems to incorrigibly describe the web rather than the book. If it were really a book, “links would be broken, social tags spammed, geo-location programming interfaces would have changed, the codecs for the video and sound … obsolete, and it wouldn’t work on your screen in 2021 anyway.”
Cramer’s point is that this is exactly what happened with electronic literature 20 years ago, carrying itself on the “exact same slogans”: “linking, multimedia, interactivity, networking.” The Expanded Books series launched by Bob Stein’s Voyager company, an apple-specific project inspired by the Powerbook in 91, is the near-same event as the ipad inspiring “unbound” literary experiments and ereading start-ups today. They are even ‘unbinding’ exactly the same texts! Noting the John Cage reference, Cramer sees that we’re almost literally revisiting George Landow’s hypertext media theory:
We must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multi-linearity, modes, links, and networks. Almost all parties to this paradigm shift, which marks a revolution in human thought, see electronic writing as a direct response to the strengths and weaknesses of the printed book. (Landow, Hypertext, 1992).
Similar enthusiasm surrounded the audiovisual media/theory of the early 90s, but film and games have stayed separate for the most part, and “it’s the same with books and the web.” Of course ebook culture has emerged, but it is embodied instead by two “commercial and anti-commercial extremes, Amazon’s Kindle e-book store and aaaarg.org… the text-cultural equivalent of iTunes and mp3 file sharing respectively.” The actual historical passage of digital music and audio is strikingly similar to the present situation of the book: “people simply shared and collected simple audio files”, just as we today sample “plain vanilla PDFs, ascii and epub files.” So in fact the book’s trajectory is: “premedieval scroll, bounded codex, computer file.” Cramer predicts: “Hardly anyone will buy interactive mulitmedia books, just as they didn’t in the 1990s.” The book becomes merely solidified by the contrary nature of the web.
From a history of artistic experimentation around the book we can be sure of this, as Drucker’s work shows.
Even in their most experimental and unstable forms, books do not leave beyond their material unity or binding. They are persistently “thought of as a whole… an entity, to be reckoned with in (their) entirety” (Drucker, 122). This is not a conservative statement, Cramer emphasies. Even classical examples of “unbound” literary books such as Marc Saporta’s Composition no. 1, Raymond Queneau’s One hundred thousand billion poems, indeed “explode the corpus,” but do so by evoking it “ex negativo.” The binding here becomes only more accentuated.
Its interesting at this point to observe that Drucker’s definition of “artist books,” the continuity of their experimentalism, coincides almost directly with present technical definitions of epublications. This is Drucker:
To remain artist’s books, rather than book-like objects or sculptural works with a book reference to them, these works have to maintain a connection to the idea of the book, to its basic form and function as the presentation of material in relation to a fixed sequence which provides access to its contents (or ideas) through some stable arrangement. Such a definition stretches elastically to reach around books which are card stacks, books which are solid pieces of bound material, and other books whose nature defies easy characterisation.
Meanwhile Cramer adumbrates more recent epub specifications in the following way:
Epublications are not limited to linear content… but the basic assumption is there is an order that is not achievable through html alone. A key concept of epublication is as multiple resources that may be consumed in a specific order. They are in essence offline media, self-contained documents with downloading features.
From this point of coincidence though, the technical, political, and aesthetic possibilities of epub experimentation is much more difficult than what the present discourses of unboundedness suggest. Cramer gives the example of the Boem Paukeslag project produced at Piet Zwarte, an effort to publish a visual poem as animation on an ereader, using entirely non-standardized code. This was only possible through extreme amounts of crude technical hacking, with the result restricted to reading on this single hacked device. The gesture of the work is this exercise of difficult possibility in the era of ereading.
Cramer ended by ruminating on the increased interest in and mainstreaming of artist books today, as a “genre of graphic design.” Print itself here seems to be becoming a “boutique niche of materiality.” This is its entropy: “all print books strive to become coffee table books, often with warm, fuzzy and unbound characteristics”. The artist book becomes a real or auratic object, and tech art schools become implicated in “producing boutique collectiables for rich people,” not unlike vinyl collection. The image of the young Nick Carraway in the Great Gatsby, enamoured by the great library at the houseparty of the Long Island bourgoise, and picking up up a book from a shelf only to realise that not one on the shelf had been read, seems to resonate even more strongly in the present. Electronic books in contrast are the cheap paperback books of our time, for better and for worse.
PDF of presentation available here: Unbound Book.