Physical Digital: Reforming the book

To remix is to make it anew or appropriate it’s message.

The idea of mixing in itself is integral to forms of creativity, to create involves the mixing, bringing together, deconstructing and fusing of a range of materials and ideas. In remixing we take the existing and reinterpret or develop it, often through the fabric of its own production.

Text printed on a page is not often associated with being visual, the convention of what is visual pertains to a use of imagery instead of symbols, we are so used to seeing pages of text, blocks of words on a screen, that they are just seen as such. If an image appears alongside the text it can work as an anchor, the image and text take on an antagonistic relationship, with one illustrating the other, the presence of an image perhaps only further supports the correlation of the words as being anything but inert symbols. Is it possible, outside of decoration, for the words to form a visual illustrative quality? If the page of the book is photographed, the photographed pages is then understood as a photograph, a photograph of book pages and words, but its read as an image ultimately. It loses its physicality, its sense of being and in the resurrection of this process the words become fused with the page in becoming an image, an index of a book. Perhaps any book.

The importance here is the element of translation between one to another, from printed word to photographic image that presents a visual copy of the page and text. The reprocessing of forms mixes the original with new qualities and its this transformation that posits a parallel to ideas of the digital. With digitisation, nearly everything can be processed into data, into information, offering a variety of possibilities for reprocessing into various other digital outcomes. Digital images, CAD designs, three dimensional prints, vector traces, animations, surface pattern – the translations are endless once the information has become digitally encoded.

This forms a suitable technical narrative for what Nicholas Bourriard alludes to in his theories of post-production, that existing cultural forms, such as artwork, readymade objects and media, are being reused and form the blending of ideas between production, consumption and creation, copy.

“Notions of originiality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts”

As a DJ remixes the notion to remix is to make it anew and appropriate it’s message, blending and resynthesizing. The idea of mixing in itself is integral to the various ranging forms of creative practice, to create often involves bringing together of ideas along with deconstructing and making from a range of materials and processes. In remixing we take an existing creation and reinterpret or develop it, often through the fabric of its own production. 

In literature, a form of retelling of famous story within a new context, situation or an adaptation is referenced as intertextuality, instead of plagiarism. Key classic texts have often had their narratives readapted by modern authors, or scriptwriters have borrowed narrative structures to be envisioned for the screen. It’s a remix of the original text and blends it with new ideas.  

Since the desktop computers and the internet, the way we receive information has altered, it is now commonplace to read text that appears on a screen. Before this the printed word in the forms of books, zines and newspaper was the main from of literary sustenance. In an age where digital books are replacing the physical, dog-eared, travelling book, the way we read is altered and the way we experience literature is diffused and augmented. Through word processing, programming and engaging in fields of social communication via images and text, we are not only active inputters of text but also manipulators and it has become an intensive tool for the way we connect culturally.

The ability to display text on a screen, controllable, moveable like word processing, is that it can be inputted and removed, arranged and deleted to create meaning. This is the life of text that exists on a screen; being on screen is instantly related to be transmutable and somehow no longer fixed. Free to be copied and pasted, moved around, appropriated, mixed and instantly shared. 

“There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process it would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t meant for their creators” [Goldsmith 2011 p5]

Digital e-books now mean we are in control of such formal elements of the book such as the typeface, the size of it, we can now turn to a page digitally instead of flicking and feeling our way through the papers, the texture, the smell, the physical, sensual experience of reading is somewhat lost. It’s these characteristics that also become somewhat sentimental in our romantic relationship with the book, with the characters and stories we grow an affinity with, or the imagined spaces we are able to walk through visually in our mind. 

It is this arrangement of words that the digital animation The Professor’s Studyplays with, building a sense of space slowly, guiding our reading of word and phrase constellations or arrangements throughout the paragraph, reappearing and disappearing, helping us illustrate a fictive yet physical space within our imagination, one where the visual is created introspectively.

Constellation was a word used to describe the spatial scattering of words in the animated passage, the structure and spacing all remained in tact, even with many of the words removed, the arrangement then formed different patterns in proximity to each other visually with any unused words removed to reveal the original page behind – something that would be impossible to achieve except in a digital image space.

The act of conceptually illustrating Willa Cather’s description of the Professor’s study seemed to reside somewhere between the physical reading of the original book and the deconstruction of the words on the page. The decision to further experiment with this in a visual context became a decision that moved toward digital means. Digitising the page and placing it on a screen hinted at parameters for the text to behave as if being word processed, this notion of typing, removing, altering the text subtly inspired the premise to animate with simple transitions. Animating, or allowing the text to move would make possible the change of focus, along with the reading and understanding of the text, placing emphasis on different phrases and banks of words, along with allowing the words to become inherently visual through their movement and by being an obviously borrowed, scanned, image of the original as discussed.

The process of developing the illustration as an animation started with scanning the pages of the book and investigating digital methods to start to visually play with the text, the importance then being placed on the aesthetic qualities of the print, the typesetting, the quality of the page and the way the ink sat on the page, on both sides.

Instead of choosing a suitable, digital typeface from a designer, the original book was considered a valuable source to sample and recycle. Using aspects of the original book kindled a curiosity and discussion into the page and text becoming digital imagery. Other qualities of its original print such as the texture of the pages communicates the presence of the book as an object, as a symbol of information and knowledge, its yellowed pages infer an age and a sense of tradition and time. Proximity between the reader with the reading object, the tactile book, and the imaginative space it encourages with the reader would be made through association even if physically they had been flattened or seemingly lost by digitisation. These associations now exist through the presence of these visual codes and are now being mixed through a new conceptual and technical reading of the text. 

The ‘book’ is allocated as inherently visual, an illustration in itself, and a reminder of the process of reading. The act if reading is disrupted and guided by the artist’s hand - the words are no longer fixed on the page and instead become controlled by time and take on a rhythm and be concerned with movement. The text as characters in a play rather than as signs and symbols of a language.

In order to start to experiment with the words as performing characters, each with their own adjective personality, it became a detailed process of carefully cutting and removing the printed words away from the page. Separating them into single images, that were then able to be independently controlled and rebuilt onto a clean, white surface ready to be animated. It was important that the integrity of the original remained in tact and that decisions made in the reconstruction did not stray too far.

The page was retouched and resampled and a new digital version, one in which the text could be digitally printed back onto. The original page was missing important areas that physically, optically couldn’t be seen, these were the small areas covered by the presence of the printed text in the original. Underneath these were not only the texture of the page, that could be borrowed and resampled from other areas of the page, but the ghosting of the ink from the other side of the page. A reminder of the depth beyond the page and an important quality of the book as a bound, tactile, mechanically processed object. To consider the mechanics of making, it seemed that the illustrated version of the book not become too artificial in its digital rendering, that it was still inherently as faithful as possible. 

To reproduce the ghost text, other pages were sampled and blended with the original page minus the workable text, this mix of copying and blending and sampling at some points feels close to painting, where you are brushing, working into and changing the surface of an image. The finished surface would then be ready for the removed text to animate in and out of print onto the page, when the text sits on the page the texture and ghosting holds it with integrity, whilst when removed the page appears clean, as if nothing had ever been printed. 

The intricacies of rendering a workable photographic scan into a digital version conditions it with new parameters in which to be understood, the animating of the text creates a new rhythm, timing and motion on the page. Actions that are commonly in the ownership of the reader of the book, who’s hands move the pages and eyes around the static text and are allowed to determine their own pace of whilst scanning and digesting the prose.

The broken fragments here appear and disappear, the animating of the text could be likened to an old piano roll that would stand instead of the player and would play notes in response to the marks on the roll of music. Similarly each of the hundred words that make up the selected paragraph had to have their own linear instruction and be programmed when to arrive on screen, how long to stay and when to dissolve again into the page. This formed a complex process of timing and watching to choreograph the text into a pattern. 

The animation places the artist as programmer, where the words are illustrated by their deconstruction in and out of the passage, the authority of the reader is removed by its refocus by the artist, the paragraph is fragmented, collected together in parts that define its meaning, build a sense of space and also redefine the larger narrative through metonym. The animation’s illustrative properties are not only conducive to the photographic replica of the book, but also now illustrating ideas about the existing narrative.