Introduction Robyn Sassen

Some years ago, I wrote an article on artists’ books in South Africa which I premised with a quote by Ezra Pound. He said "a book should be a ball of light in one’s hands". Thinking of the challenge that David Paton has set himself in curating this exhibition and masterminding this project, this quote becomes not only a poetic reading of any book, but also a literal explication of the cleavage between traditional codex and its electronic or cyber counterpart.

This exhibition aims to do several things. On the one hand it showcases what has been done with the traditional parameters set by the notion ‘artist’s book’ and what can be done with the nebulous and often difficult to define medium, container, discourse. On the other, it aims to open up questions around what the digital interface can bring to the conventions of the codex. In teasing out these possibilities, Paton commissioned five artists to make work to contribute to the show, and to justify and balance their work in defining it.

But is the artist’s book about reading, about looking, about thinking, or about all three? Is it about the artists’ sense of wonder and exploration in creating an interactive thing that brings the audience as a collaborative participant in the experience of the work? Is it about the quietude invested in the act of paging through a sequenced narrative of sorts? Each commissioned artist confronts and plays with the notion artist’s book from a different conceptual space. Multi-media specialist Marc Edwards commented that his work aims to “find my place in the world through a practice of care, which is rooted in writing”. The result of this project is a daily digital self-portrait which earnestly gazes toward an authentic representation of self.

Giulio Tambellini who has been making artists’ books since the mid-1980s characterises his grappling with the mediums associated with books: “I basically hold onto the rules while thinking in different directions at once. I am excited by the idea of hybrid technology and multi-sensory experiences through my books”. He fundamentally still works with the physicality of the book, dovetailing his thinking practices with contemporary insight into so-called ‘new media’. “What I have made through the process of interrogation is still a book, not a new-media-based simulation of the experience typical of engaging with a book”.

In her approach, Kim Lieberman uses a bibliography for her sources as her visual link to a traditional codex. “The artwork, Human Current (Circle) (2006 | 5766), uses the book as source…the work is about the energetic impact we have on the whole and the information provided is necessary to…give a context for the figure”, she explains. Her images are affixed to a digital matrix and thus they “rotate very slowly. The bibliography of each figure folds out into a shape, a pattern that moves, as a current would. These words flow…and interact, intercept or ignore the other flowing words”. As though in a kaleidoscope, the words are enabled to take flight and re-form themselves as they move digitally.

Context is something honed by Paul Emmanuel, who draws from his The Lost Men (Grahamstown) (2006), a series which exploits the idiosyncratic beauty, yet moving significance of blind embossed text inflicted onto his own body. He takes a conceptual step back in saying “…making and working with material objects as a way of ‘cheating death’ ”, yet “the digital world is a fragile, tenuous place, always subject to the threat of wilful or arbitrary change; the ravage of power, interruption, corruption…” In this series, he uses the touchsensitive screen to replace the page of a traditional book, and “the cold unforgiving surface of a glass screen to talk poignantly about intimacy and alienation”. The Lost Men (Grahamstown) comprised the names of the men who died in the Frontier Wars fought in the Eastern Cape between 1820 and 1850. “The names were set in lead type and then pressed directly into my skin.” He conflates the notion of touching warm skin, inflicting dents into its surface, with that of touching a computer screen in the act of changing an image, developing a concept, disassociating material. The transference of the work from literal to digital represents poetic insight into the nature of touch but also the transience of the gesture of turning a page.

Edwards comments that “as the convergence of mediums brings a dynamism to the digital interface, so does the book find it difficult to keep up”. The notion of "keeping up", but also the notion of change is one which André Venter teases out in his work. “The discourse of the book is ultimately what keeps it stable”, he says. Engaging with the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, Venter has created a piece which digitally throws back a continuously changing pattern of the 64 hexagrams of this ancient Chinese means of foretelling the future.

Practically, the book has indeed become as a ball of light, both literally and figuratively.Yet the notion of the codex as an interactive and in many respects collaborative set of read values has a history which goes back to the 15th century Gutenberg bible, and beyond that to hieroglyphics on tomb walls in ancient Egypt, texts for the dead to read. Traditionally it has been about edification and didacticism as much as it has been about beauty and ownership. It remains to be seen how the digital interface continues to offer potential shifts in contemporary artists’ ability to manipulate an understanding of all the values associated with the act of engaging with an artwork, designed and governed by a set of sequences. Venter suggests that old assumptions be let go and process forms and strategies be rethought in the context of new material conditions of possibility. Ultimately, though, artists confront the human condition, whatever they perceive it to be. In this contemporary world, with all its sham, drudgery, broken dreams and ideological givens, with all of our shifting of values, with all of our hubris, the notion of a ball of light in the hands retains that idea of being fragile and yet potentially volatile.

Robyn Sassen freelances as an arts writer and academic. She writes regularly for numerous print and online publications, is the Contributing Arts Editor for the SA Jewish Report, and teaches contractually at several universities. Robyn holds a Master’s degree in Art History and is a printmaker and book artist.