Sumerian clay tablet; Chinese silk, Egyptian papyrus, Greek parchment scroll; rewriteable Roman wax tablet, the original “tabula rasa;” Coptic codex, Medieval illuminated manuscript, press-printed edition, pocket-sized paperback; laptop and Kindle; unique artist’s volume… The book has always been a fluid form, responsive to the pace and the nature of thinking.
The evolution of “bookness” is hard to extricate from that of writing itself; each method of transcription and preservation has chased the next down the centuries to the present. But a book can of course convey any sequence of symbols, or for that matter of tactile traces, sensuous smells, or simply of spaces.
Leaves, spine, dust jacket, prologue, epilogue… The language we use to describe the anatomy and syntax of books connotes their history: archaic materials, the handcraft of bookbinding, and the progression of sequential time. This is a lexicon from the prior millennium. What is the lexicon, literary and visual, that might describe the present and indicate the future?
From the time when “scriptura continua” gave way to punctuated pages and reading became a silent and solitary pursuit, books have inspired, and required, interiority of mind. The practice of individual contemplation became articulated and refined over generations, within the deep spaces of exploration framed between two covers of a book.
With the technological leap of communication from printed page into binary code transmitted by tiny portable devices, our experience of “here and now” is at once dramatically expanded and compressed. On the World Wide Web, the horizon becomes ephemeral; it can seem quite limitless. Familiar distances from moment to moment and place to place evaporate in the immediacy of global real-time. We navigate a present pressurized by synchrony.
We confer through a multiplicity of coexistent technologies that create previously unimaginable palimpsests of readings. Cloud storage, file mirroring… such innovations ease the sharing of thought, and can inspire collaboration. We have become adept at reading the world through multi-directional referencing and browsing. In a zeitgeist of constant connectedness, multi-tasking is a ubiquitous state of being. But it is difficult to find an unmediated moment. Our attention is fractured, continuously fragmented.
In this hyper-linked present, how is our relationship to the printed page changing? What will become of the interior search, the historicity that is the legacy of literacy? Is the physical book destined to be revered as a nostalgic icon, a treasured totem, but otherwise obsolete? “Shelved?” Are we forgetting how to dive into a book and swim, fully immersed, from cover to cover?
Artists stake claim to a type of time that seems endangered. The freedom to muse, ponder and mull, to consider the unlikely… Within this “downtime,” artists incubate and sometimes act as premonitory agents for cultural imagination.
The exhibition X Libris was conceived as an exploration of the book as a vulnerable, morphing body in a moment of accelerated transition to digital communication. Through the lens of creative intuition and interpretation, X Libris questions our shifting relationship to a form in flux.
-Glenna Cole Allee
Introductory essay for X Libris
A catalogue for the exhibition created by MicroclimateCollective, 2012