Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: The New Structure of the Visual Book
   by Keith A. Smith

This is a pretty crazy book, no way around it. But it's awesome, as well.

There are some core ideas in it, which I will just present in a sort of jumble. These can be applied most obviously to books, but one could as well find them useful when presenting anything at all, but most especially anything with multiple pieces of content and some builtin organizing structure. It could be five photographs hung along a hallway, a movie, a web site, an iPad application.

Page-turning as an important mechanic. The binding determines the way the mechanic operates (codex, foldbook, fan, blind, etc). Turning pages defines cadence. It creates a moving shadow. Flipping pages quickly can create a sense of motion.

As a particular example Smith does not reference, there is the Amandine Nabarra-Piomelli's Bernoulli's Equation book currently on display at the Whatcom Museum, in which flipping the pages of the blind-bound book recapitulates the flow of water, which is the subject of the book. Which is artsy-fartsy as hell, but pretty neat. There's a video that is worth watching.

For non-book objects, what is the mechanic by which we move from one piece of content to the next? How is it relevant, how can we make it relevant, what problems can it create, and how can we use it?

The ability to see through one page to the next: transparency, translucency, cutout. This creates a stacked combination recto when you open to the first page of the relevant collection, and as you turn the pages, the pattern or collage is disassembled and rebuilt upside down verso. Smith does not mention it, but this occurs in a weak form with thin papers and with vellum -- you can see, murkily, the reverse of the page you're looking at, and there are problems and possibilities inherent here.

Using the blurb platform to make the cheaper trade books, you get slightly translucent pages. How can you use dark masses on the reverse of a page together with the main content of the page?

There's a lot of material about organizing, well, things. We can think of them as pictures, but the ideas are pretty general.

  • Group: Just a bunch of things.
  • Series: A bunch of things that organize themselves into a line, by physical order, allusion, reference, etc.
  • Sequence: A bunch of things with a mesh of interconnection, allusion, reference, etc.

A portfolio is most often primarily a group or at most a series. Certainly I tend to organize my portfolios in some order, and I present them in that physical order, which defines a linear order in which you can look at the things. A series.

A novel might well be a sequence. You have the linear ordering of words and pages, and a possibly second and distinct linear ordering of events in time if the novel is not told chronologically. You will often also find foreshadowing, references to prior events or images, and so on. A novel is a group of words, a group of pages, but it is also several series, and finally also a mesh of connections layered atop that. A poem may also be, in terms of its images and metaphors, but also simply in its rhyme structure.

These organizations can be imposed by the author, but the reader may not perceive them. The reader may, probably will, impose and discover their own.

Multiple organizations can be (are) in play. You almost always have elements of each in play.

Smith believes, and I agree, that you often (usually? always?) should strive for his notion of "sequence" simply to provide the reader, the viewer, with the richest possible experience, the most to enjoy, to discover, to feel.

How can structure and organization emphasize and support your ideas? Is it useful to your project to insert a reference to somewhere else inside the work, and how would you accomplish that? Does a mesh of references make the idea more or less clear? Which references can you remove to clarify things, and how would you do that?

This is an important book, as Mike Chisholm pointed out in a comment here earlier. What it's not is a how to manual, or even a dissertation on book forms. It is really a survey piece, surveying both book art that exists, and Keith Smith's ideas about books.

I suspect that the author has a good sense of humor (he defined "sequence" in a very personal and idiosyncratic way, and then berates other sources, including dictionaries, for getting it "wrong"), and would not particularly mind the following characterization:

The book is, I think, most usefully used as a device for prying open one's mind. It is a torrent of ideas, many of which will almost certainly seem completely outré, but they're all worth thinking about.

The weakest points of the book, unfortunately, are the tied up to the actual work presented. Mr. Smith's own content seems to be quite weak. He takes banal pictures and often does banal Art 101 things with them. His examples of sequence are usually quite forced and seem to originate with a particularly annoying branch of critical theory, the sort that finds Christ Figures in every novel, and is sure that every circle in a picture relates to every other circle in every other picture in some deep and meaningful way.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes you actually need an idea.

But the ideas in this book are killer, even if the cited books are weak. If you're interested in presenting work in book form, you should read this thing, and throw out whichever 90% doesn't do it for you. But keep the rest.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for the link (the cheque is in the post). For anyone interested in the scope of the non-photographic artist's book, there are two quite useful surveys, both confusingly with the same title : "A Century of Artists' Books" by Riva Castleman, and "The Century of Artists' Books" by Johanna Drucker (or is it the other way round?).

    Obviously, for the enthusiast of the photo-book as such, the three Parr/Badger volumes "ThePhotobook: a History"are essential catalogue porn.

    On sequencing, the now much-ignored Minor White had interesting things to say.