Unbinding the Book

  1. Interview with Aymee Smith

    Aymee Smith talks to us about her project, illegibility and the future of the book amongst creative practitioners.


    What attracted you to the Unbinding the Book project?

    When I first saw the call for submissions for the Unbinding the Book project, my first thought was, ‘that sounds exactly like the kind of work that I make’, and that was basically it. The project really spoke to me in terms of the ideas I have already looked at within my work, as well as those that I wish to explore further. I saw Unbinding the Book as potentially being a fantastic means of helping me to get my idea for a project out of my head and in to the physical world, and within a space that would enable the resulting work to be immediately on display.

    What drew you to the book as a medium? 

    Books have been one of my favourite objects for as long as I can remember; a book can take you on a journey to the far ends of your imagination and back, without having moved from the chair you were sitting in.

    But from the point of view of an artist, what I love about the book form is its tactile quality – Art (with a capital A) is a thing not to be touched, a precious one-off object that is to be admired from behind a rope or a piece of glass – a book on the other hand is a work that rarely exists solely as one copy and is usually affordable to purchase. It is an object that can be handled and fully explored by the reader. In this way it forms a much more intimate, and sometimes enriching experience than the traditional artwork affords.

    Could you explain your practice?

    For a number of years my practice has been concerned with the relationship between the artist/author, the work and the audience/reader, with particular reference to what occurs when there is an obstacle tossed in to this triangle, when the work becomes challenging or indecipherable.

    Recently I have been looking more specifically at finding the ‘saturation point’ of text, both on and off the page. By saturation point I am referring to the moment at which a text becomes illegible, or almost so, the point at which it becomes such a chore to attempt to decipher that it appears instead to say nothing. In this way the text could be said to efface itself, to become effectually blank, teetering along the line between both the weight of the text as well as it’s more fleeting characteristics. I wish to attempt to determine this moment of saturation, as well as considering what the result may be when we encounter a work of this kind; when writing becomes so impenetrable that it becomes as difficult to read as the blank page, and what kind of message this effectual blankness might have to communicate – what are we supposed to do with such work?

    In exploring these ideas I work mainly with print and artist books – but also have been known to delve into the realms of installation, performance and film.


    Could you describe your project?

    My project begins with the book Reading the Illegible by Craig Dworkin. It is, surprisingly, a book on texts and writers who have presented us with seemingly illegible texts, and what these signify within (and outside of) art and literary canons. I decided that this would make the ideal starting point for attempting to play with the idea of illegibility.

    The project was composed of three major parts:

    The first was to photocopy each page of the book (263 in total) onto a sheet of A4-sized acetate.

    The second was to scan these images into my computer so that they were gradually layered upon one another, becoming gradually less legible with each page. So the first scan was the first sheet of acetate, the second page was sheets 1 and 2, the third page was sheets 1,2 and 3……. and so on until reaching page 263 (which was sheets 1,2,3,4,5…..261,262,263), by which point the text has become inaccessible.

    The last part of the project was to take the scanned images and produce a book with them using Blurb’s print on demand service. The book is to serve both as a work in it’s own right which hopefully challenges the viewer’s notion of what it is to read, but also as a prop to a performance which would involve reading each page (beginning from the start) until this becomes impossible, until the words can no longer be distinguished and the normal process of reading has been thwarted.

    What materials are you incorporating into your work?

    The two primary materials within my work have been the acetate that I have photocopied on to, and the book that I have produced at the end. Both of these will form separate components of my project for the exhibition. The book will act both as an object in it’s own right and also as a performance piece. The stack of acetate photocopies was originally supposed to be exhibited as an installation upon an overhead projector – but 263 sheets of acetate have proven to be too opaque for this: I am not sure that any light would ever get through them. Instead I have found that they have a wonderfully reflective quality, almost mirror-like, and so they will be presented framed and ready to be hung on the wall. In this way I hope that the action of looking at the layers of pages of acetate will draw attention to the act of reading, and more specifically; due to the reflection; to the action of the eye during the process of reading.


    What draws you to reading as performance?

    All reading is a kind of performance, whether it is in public or private, to one hundred people or merely to oneself. What I hope to achieve through the public presentation of the reading of a book is to draw the attention of both the public and the person reading to the way in which we read – the difference between reading in your own head to reading out loud to an audience – and there is a big difference between the two. Reading aloud is something commonly attributed either to the past or to childhood, but can become a really useful exercise in really considering how we read and what happens when that process encounters an obstacle.

    Once we are presented with all the book’s contents they become invisible. Living in the modern age, we are constantly bombarded with information, and this project made me consider the limitations of the printed page as a benefit. Do you think that it’s ability to serve as such a perfectly functioning conduit for information will secure it’s future?

    I think so, yes. The physical printed page has such a perfect ability to be ‘at hand’ and instantly accessible that I do not imagine that it can ever be completely replaced by more digital conduits.

    Right now I believe that the printed page, even with ever greater forays into the digital, is at a kind of ‘back-door renaissance’. With the ever increasing methods of self-publishing that we have seen over recent years, the opportunities for individuals to put their work and ideas into print has grown exponentially, and it is something that is being put to use more and more frequently. I think that rather than see the death of the printed page, we will witness it being used in new and more imaginative ways.

    On an end note, even if printed matter all but disappears from our everyday life, I expect that it will always be kept alive by creative practitioners – like black and white photography and traditional film methods, it may be that the physical page will become almost exclusively the domain of artists – attributing to print the notion of nostalgia.


  2. Recommended Reading by Kate Morrell

    This list reflects Kate Morrell’s interest and activities within artists’ books and small presses. Whilst a fan of the book object in its material form, Morrell is also interested in considering the book from various perspectives e.g. artist, researcher, designer, distributor, librarian, reader, collector.

    ‘Doctor Ox’s Experiment’ by Jules Verne, 1872
    Reprinted by Prof George Van Den Bergh to accompany his book proposal ‘Capital Letters, Twin and Multiple Print’, 1958


    ‘Dr Ox’s Experiment’ is a short story of science fiction, first published in 1872. As part of his proposal, Prof Van Den Bergh printed a pocket book version of the title by Jules Verne. The reproduction utilised Van Den Bergh’s invention for compressing text: ‘Capital Letters, Twin and Multiple Print’ (1958). A dusty copy of the original proposal can be accessed at St Bride Library, London, including 3 different copies of ‘Dr Ox’s Experiment’. I recommend reading the edition published by Prof Van Den Bergh, complete with celluloid reading screens.

    ‘The Book on Books on Artists’ Books’ by Arnaud Desjardin, The Everyday Press


    ‘The Book on Books on Artists’ Books’ is a bibliography of books, pamphlets and catalogues on artists’ books, published since the early 1970s. The content places an interesting focus upon the varied channels for the distribution, circulation and promotion of artists’ books.

    The Reanimation Library, New York


    This is not a recommendation for one particular book, but an entire collection of material, held by a small library in New York. The Reanimation Library is an ideal resource for my research-based projects. Often my book works are generated from forgotten or overlooked material from sites of collection and archive. If only they had a UK branch.

    ‘The Reanimation Library is an independent presence library.* The books in the collection—simultaneously prosaic and peculiar—are relics of the rapidly receding 20th century. Chosen primarily for the images that they contain, they have been culled from thrift stores, rummage sales, flea markets, municipal dumps, library sales, give-away piles, and used bookstores across the country.’ 

    ‘*Presence library is a mistranslation of the German word for reference library, Präsenzbibliothek. In addition to being a non-circulating collection, the library encourages IRL encounters with actual books and actual humans.’

    ‘Variable Format’ by Lynn Harris, published by AND and designed by Åbäke with Pierre Pautler, 2012


    A project by AND publishing which explores technical scope of print on demand services.

    ‘Variable Format is a sample book, a model, a serial system that explores the technological margins of print on demand and how reading is informed by the materiality of the book object.’ 

    I’m also interested in a second publishing and exhibition project by AND publishing: ‘The Piracy Project’, which explores creative approaches to reproduction, appropriation and notions of authorship. One of my book works, ‘Hoard’ (2012), is included in this collection of touring publications.

    Four Corners Familiars, Four Corners Books


    Four Corners Familiars is a series of new editions of classic novels that feature artists responses to the material. I’m interested in this revival of ‘lost’ texts and how they can be reinterpreted and repositioned through appropriation by the artist. Two favourites from the series are: ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ by Anthony Hope, with art by Mireille Fauchon. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde with art by Gareth Jones.

    ‘The Form of the Book Book’ edited by Sara De Bondt and Fraser Muggeridge, Occasional Papers, 2009


    A selection of essays on book design by graphic designers and graphic design historians, including a conversation with Bob Stein founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book.

    ‘In a nod to Jan Tschichold’s famous collection of essays The Form of the Book, first published in 1975, this book offers in-depth analyses of key moments in the history of book design in order to better imagine the many forms the book will take, and is already taking, in our digital age.’

    ‘Post-Digital Print. The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894′ by Alessandro Ludovico, Onomatopee, 2012


    ‘How will the analog and the digital coexist in the post-digital age of publishing? How will they transition, mix and cross over?’  Alongside its focus on defining and expanding the term ‘post-digital print’, the book reflects on the history of alternative publishing, zine culture and the evolution of print. You can buy the printed book from Onomatopee or download a PDF version for free.

    ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’ by James Gleick, 2011


    Admittedly i’ve not yet finished this book – its volume is overwhelming. The book provides a history of information beginning with cuneiform tablets and the compilation of the first English dictionary, through to cloud technology.