BY Sarah Hromack in Frieze | 01 MAY 11
Featured in
Issue 139

Off the Page

Paul Chan’s new publishing venture and the relationship between physical and virtual methods of book production

BY Sarah Hromack in Frieze | 01 MAY 11

Paul Chan, The essential and incomplete Sade for Sade's sake, 2010. Courtesy: Badlands Unlimited, New York and the artist.

A question of form lies at the heart of the current critical interest in electronic book publishing. The Internet, coupled with a rapid influx of electronic readers and tablets – the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, Barnes & Noble Nook – is perceived to pose a threat to an industry reliant on paper. No one mistakes a Kindle for a codex any more than they might an iPad for a canvas – that much is clear. Yet the impact of electronic publishing on the book itself is becoming increasingly relevant to the art world, where the recent advent of art e-book publishing has posed an entirely new set of challenges – technical, philosophical, political and otherwise – to the artist’s book.

In the autumn of 2010, artist Paul Chan launched a publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited, out of his Brooklyn studio as a means of negotiating the rapidly shifting relationship between physical and virtual methods of book production. Aided by a cohort of designers and developers, Chan has since published a small catalogue of books, DVDs and artist-designed ephemera, rendered in both digital and print forms. ‘We make books in the expanded field’, claims the company’s website, a deceptively simple mission statement that belies the implications of re-calibrating an entire process – and by proxy, the history of a genre – in order to broach the digital divide.

E-book publishing complicates the interplay between the image and virtual page; the limitations imposed by code and hardware alone necessitate a somewhat radical re-thinking of that relationship. For an image-heavy e-book to retain its visual legibility across platforms, its author must consider the image in service of the electronically produced book and not the other way around. Hallmarks of a well laid-out publication – a strong correlation between text and image; a sense of visual rhythm; considered choices in typeface, paper stock, printing and binding methods – are impossible to replicate in some cases, and in others elusive at best. Whereas the printed book bears its maker’s mark more readily, the e-book places a comparatively stringent set of limitations on the endeavour from the outset; software and hardware developers dictate the platforms and products that publishers have to negotiate with during the production process.

Badlands Unlimited’s growing catalogue of e-publications confronts these visual and textual challenges in various forms, some of which are more successful than others. Stunning among them is the digital version of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide (print edition, 2010; digital edition, 2011) the definitive account of Chan’s 2007 production of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, a collaboration with the Classical Theater of Harlem and Creative Time that introduced a much larger programme of educational workshops, conversations, dinners and funding to the devastated neighbourhoods of New Orleans. The printed book, a 338-page compendium of research materials related to the project, resembles an academic textbook in size and heft. Artforum art director Chad Kloepfer, a longtime graphic designer at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, who recently established a studio in New York, designed both the print and digital versions; the digital edition was his first foray into e-book design. Kloepfer’s spare, information-driven graphic sensibility suited the digital guide, which bears a strong visual resemblance to the printed version. However, retaining a one-to-one ratio between the print reading experience and the digital environment is a complicated if not outright impossible endeavour, as e-readers allow users to alter certain aspects of a book’s layout (by manually adjusting its typeface and size, for instance, through the device’s settings). Although initially discomforted by this, Kloepfer was able to programme a structure for the book that was flexible enough to maintain the visual feel of the print edition.

Images, however, proved tricky to position within the layout, requiring Kloepfer to reconsider the direct relationship between image and text on the printed page. Photographs, maps, documents and other images are rendered splendidly as the backlit glow of the iPad screen fills them with a luminosity that the printed page can’t approximate. Embedded audio files, another form of digital enhancement on the iPad version, begin to make Waiting for Godot… feel less like a publication and more like a tangible representation of the event it shows. Equally remarkable is the video documentation of Sade for Sade’s Sake, Chan’s video projection which premiered at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, which is embedded in the iPad version of the The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake (2010), a collection of project-related ephemera and black and white drawings otherwise free of colour.

Paul Chan, The essential and incomplete Sade for Sade's sake, 2010.

Stumbling upon audio or video files during a reading experience, while novel, is also foreign to the task at hand, which begs the question of whether e-books aren’t actually something else entirely. Publications such as Mans in the Mirror (in 3D) (2010), a three-dimensional e-book billed as a collection of images based loosely on Henri Michaux’s 1956 book Miserable Miracle, play up the sense of mimetic awkwardness that characterizes certain aspects of the e-reading experience. Mans in the Mirror requires its reader to wear 3D glasses in order to achieve the desired visual effect, which is blurry, at best. Unlined Notebook (2010), another absurdist offering, is a series of blank, rule-lined pages.

As technical and conceptual proving grounds, these smaller, more esoteric projects effectively point to future, unknown possibilities for e-book publishing. It is useful, in this nascent stage of coalescence for art books and digital publishing processes, to recall how advances in electronic typesetting and printing technologies in the 1960s helped expand artist-driven book production, enabling small galleries and individuals to independently produce and distribute publications on a larger scale. In 1970s New York, then newly established Franklin Furnace Archives, Inc. and Printed Matter became cornerstones for all book-related activities. Chan sees Badlands Unlimited as a continuation of the city’s long independent publishing tradition, citing a sense of camaraderie with other young, local presses including Primary Information and 38th Street Press, with whom he will collaborate on both print and digital projects in the near future.

If anything, the advent of art e-book publishing will test the strength of the community that has historically supported artists’ publishing efforts, requiring a new willingness to engage with emerging technologies and their channels of distribution. This is, perhaps, Badlands Unlimited’s more easily overlooked contribution to the future of digital publishing: The Essential and Incomplete Sade… and Waiting for Godot… are distributed through the Apple iBooks store, along with Amazon and Badlands Unlimited’s own website. Mans in the Mirror, however, has been rejected by Apple three times for unknown reasons; Phaedrus Pron (2010), which is typeset in a computer font designed by Chan to render text (here, Plato’s Phaedrus) into distinctly X-rated erotic verse, passed muster on the first go.

By publishing e-books whose content deliberately tests the boundaries of major distributors – and by developing self-sustaining alternatives to their systems – Badlands Unlimited is forcing several lines of inquiry: who decides what constitutes an art object or a book, when art and digital publishing meet? What is an exhibition catalogue or an artist’s e-book – or rather, what could they be – when materially bound to a physical format rife with implications, commercial and otherwise? Art e-book publishing invites institutions and artists alike to imagine a new and different future for these forms while reconsidering their historical and ideological positions. Clearly, that future is now.

Sarah Hromack is a writer living in New York.