Some of my work has recently been selected for an exhibition entitled ‘Library Thoughts’, at the Hungarian Multicultural Centre in Budapest in August 2011. The theme is the effect of book digitisation on the culture of reading and I submitted three artists books I have created using paper from academic journals. The following paragaraphs are taken from my application.
Library thoughts: artist’s statement
As an artist and librarian I have a very particular perspective on the effect of digitisation on the culture of reading. My perspective is one which contrasts the sheer bulk of text available via today’s publishing industry and, more particularly, by the internet revolution with the paucity of information available in the past. However, the human capacity to absorb and assimilate information/knowledge remains (broadly) the same. In the past there were fewer written words, but words (perhaps) had more power. People read slowly, deliberated over what they read and, very often, memorised large chunks of text. Today, the amount of written information available is simply staggering. Working in a university library, I am at the sharp end of this: the print revolution has filled libraries to the brim. Most UK academic libraries have space crises and many are at the point of having to dispose of as much physical material as they acquire. The library I work for, a relatively small academic library, has over a million physical items. At this scale, way beyond the capacity of any human ability to absorb knowledge, information becomes brute matter. Printed books and journals are measured by the metre (of shelf space). Libraries become vast repositories of matter, which gathers dust, chemically reacts with itself and gradually turns to dust. A large library of printed material makes visible the conundrum.
In this context, the digital ‘revolution’ seems like an escalation rather than a revolution. The amount of text available has been expanding rapidly since the print revolution and that trend is accelerating exponentially. The fact of text being read on a Kindle or E-reader is not profound: technology has simply caught up with the portability of a printed book. What is profound is the amount of material which is now accessible. Have we gained or lost by this? Has our engagement with the written word become ever more superficial as its quantity has increased? What about knowledge and wisdom? Do we now have more information, but less knowledge/wisdom? Have we lost the art of reading and truly allowing a text to become part of us as we engage with it repeatedly over a long period of time? Is digital information simply so much brute matter, just like the brute matter of thousands of shelves of disintegrating paper? Is reading now more like mining and smelting of information into knowledge? How do you choose where to sink your mine shaft?
A few years ago I began collecting discarded paper journals (mostly duplicate copies sent by mistake by publishers) from the library and making work from them. Initially I made sculptures and reliefs out of papier mache, but latterly I have begun refashioning the pages back into artist’s books. The process usually begins by disbinding the journal and priming the paper with white acrylic paint, thus turning them back into blank sheets ready for new work. This is a medieval process: in the days when paper and parchment where valuable, unwanted manuscripts were routinely whitened and reused (palimpsests). Then I paint on the newly white pages and rebind them by hand back into books. I see it as a meditation on the book as matter and on the value of books and words. Paper is still valuable and worth recycling and reusing. Information, knowledge and wisdom are still valuable, despite the almost debased currency of data.
Aut tace is made from the whited pages of a journal. The words from the Latin motto ‘aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio’, which are inscribed at the foot of Salvator Rosa’s self portrait in the National Gallery, London, are painted, one word per page, through the book. The motto means, in English, ‘stay silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence’. The work is a meditation on the value of silence, taciturnity and thought. The book is short, only six pages, and each page only has one word, inviting you to think and engage deeply rather than try to absorb a lot of information shallowly. It reminds of the value of deep knowledge and thought, above wordiness.
Sit takes the ‘fiats’ from the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible, in Hebrew. These pronouncements of God (‘Let there be light…’) are short but of infinite power, having the ability to create a world. They are again painted over a whited out multiplicity of words. This is both an act of censorship and not: one could easily recover the lost words by consulting an electronic version of the journal. Sit is Latin for ‘let there be’ and I chose it as a title over the more usual ‘fiat’ (‘let there be made’) and the Hebrew ‘yehiy’ as the double meaning with the English word ‘sit’ again reminds of the value of rest and contemplation: on the final day of creation there is no ‘let there be’, because God rested.
Typhoon is inspired by a report by the Comite des Sages of the European Commission, entitled The cost of digitising Europe’s cultural heritage (2010). In it is the statistic that digitising all of the eligible (i.e. not in copyright) books in European libraries would cost the same as between 33 and 50 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. This statistic could be taken different ways, but it does seem to posit very strikingly the question of the relative value of culture and military might. Typhoon is again made from whited out journal paper, but with the form of a Eurofighter jet cut out of each of the 33 pages. The cover has a hand-painted copy of an illumination of a figure writing in a book, taken from an early printed book (Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526*).
Other works still in progress include e, which takes the commonest letter in the English language and repeats it on every page of a handmade book, and tree, which meditates on the symbolic and physical relationship between trees and books.
My job in the library, has shifted from dealing with physical books and journals to dealing with digitisation and digital objects (my current role is in the digital repository team), but my artistic practice has taken the discarded matter of that change and continues to meditate on that matter and on the things we are in danger of leaving behind.
* At a recent digitisation conference I went to, Tyndale, an early translator of the Bible into English who was executed for his troubles by Henry VIII, was cited as an early exponent of open knowledge.