In digital publishing we’ve so far seen a notable lack of innovation or change in exploring what an e-book can really be. E-books today are mostly simulacra of print books from yesterday largely, I think, because they haven’t had the advantage of a thriving creative culture to drive real and meaningful change. In the print world, that creative culture comes from the innumerable artists, authors, presses and institutions dedicated to artists books and alternative publishing. The creative explorations and experimentations of these dedicated souls often pave the way for new directions in the mainstream, allowing larger presses to support and disseminate new kinds of book forms, and new kinds of book content to ever-widening audiences. But what about digital?
Until very recently, the work of digital artist books rested almost entirely with Badlands Unlimited and a handful of scattered individual artists and experimenters, however with new tools and projects in the works, the landscape is now starting to look much different. Most recent to the effort is Klaus_eBooks, a project of Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery (run by partners Robert Hult, Sam Wilson and Ingrid Bromberg Kennedy), and writer, curator and series editor, Brian Droitcour.
The first of Klaus_eBooks’ many planned titles came out last spring, and after a regrouping hiatus, they’ve released three more books in the last couple months. Their full list is now TG-30, by Body by Body; Template Jams, by Deanna Havas; Twelve, by Ann Hirsch; and Alien She, by Isaac Richard Pool. Each is priced at $2.99, and have used a range of formats including reflowable epub, fixed format epub, and app. There are also titles in the works from Lance Wakeling, Bela Shayevich, Karen Archey, Michael Hessel-Mial and others.
As a publisher of digital art books, I’m excited by what Klaus_eBooks is doing. Their list of titles and their publishing approach is smart, creative, strongly independent and honest. If publishers like this are going to be part of the future of digital art publishing—like artists and alternative presses have so long been a part of print art publishing—I think we’re in good shape. And as a reader of digital art books, I’m excited as well. Here are books that I can get for less money, and in a shorter time than a Pumpkin Spice Latte and so far, each has been a breath of fresh air. They have opened my eyes to artists, writers and ideas I might never have otherwise come across and they have sent me searching for more. Print or digital, what more can we ask from a great art book?
Upon the publication of their first title last spring, I took the opportunity to talk to Brian Droitcour, the gallery’s Robert Hult, and a couple of the participating artists—Body by Body (Cameron Soren & Melissa Sachs) and Deanna Havas—about their efforts:
Rob, what got you interested in starting an artists e-book series? And what’s the ultimate goal?
Rob: Klaus_eBooks is an extension of Klausgallery.net—a project the gallery began in 2011 as a way to exhibit digital works in their native environment (the internet)—but through the context of a commercial art gallery with a physical space. In 2012, we invited Brian to curate a second season for us, and he came to us with the idea of publishing a series of e-books, which extends this digital terrain into a different format. We discussed some of the conceptual ground for this transition, and Brian felt it was an extension of his interest in the connection between art and literature in digital media (he has curated a “poetry series” on Rhizome’s blog in 2012). The e-book format also differed from viewing work on an “online wall” in that e-books are self-contained and have extended lives as downloaded onto tablets or mobile devices. They also can be time based, narrative, and can flow between text and graphics in a relatively open format—and hopefully we’ll see the artists push this in new ways as well.
Brian, can you talk a little bit about your role as editor? How did you go about selecting/finding the artists?
Brian: Around this time last year I started to get more interested in the relationship between digital media and bodies, affect, and physical sensations. When the opportunity at klausgallery.net came up I wanted to use it to feature artists whose work involves these issues, so I generated a list and then pared it down to about a dozen who I thought would be a good fit for the project. In many cases, these are artists who I first encountered through Twitter. I’m interested in Twitter as a creative platform, and the e-book seems like a good medium for featuring artists who have an affinity for Twitter. Social media is about developing a presence with short bits of information (images and text) released over a long period of time. The kind of digital art that looks good in a browser window affects the viewer quickly, so the rhythm of reading an e-book is a better approximation (compression) of the time of social media. Not all of the authors I’ve invited are active Twitter users; Body by Body, for instance, uses it rarely (although I think the first time I came across their work was via Twitter two years ago, when they were just tweeting photos of shit in toilets). But they do all work with small, ephemeral digital forms that can be collected nicely into e-books. Some of the artists have distributed their work as PDFs or zines in the past, but none of them have made e-books—this is a new medium for everyone involved.
The early stages of the editing process are more like curatorial work. I do studio visits, see what the artists I’m interested in are working on, and commission a new work from them. Once the drafts are ready, I do some copy editing—though with Body by Body this role was somewhat superfluous because they were making grammar and punctuation mistakes on purpose. I wish I could help with the coding and programming, but ever since I first tried to write programs in Logo as a seventh-grader I’ve known that this is an area of weakness for me.
Presumably the e-book format is new to the artists, and perhaps to you both as well. What has it been like working with them on the books?
Brian: It’s been challenging because we’re all learning as we go along and there’s still a lot we don’t know.
Rob: Yes, new for all of us—we’ve had some great technical assistance from James La Marre in formatting the books for epub, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Really this is such a new format in general that I feel like the boundaries of what can be done are still wide open. The term “e-book” is perhaps limiting in this regard…. but does help to define the works in some kind of package.
How are the e-books ultimately produced and made ready for sale at Amazon and Apple? Are you producing and distributing them in-house?
Rob: There are a couple of different ways I’ve seen the artists working so far (InDesign, iBooksAuthor, etc), but creating the books is really up to them (though we try to provide some technical and moral support—and a place to meet). Once we get the epub files, the gallery has been responsible for uploading and putting the books on sale through our iTunes (7-10 days for approval) and Amazon (24 hours for approval) accounts. We also bought ISBN numbers for the books and we send out email blasts to our gallery mailing list.
Deanna and Body by Body, what attracted you to the idea of creating an e-book?
Body by Body: Nothing actually, we were asked by Brian to make one. We had already been working on TG-30, and had vague plans to just release it as a PDF or print-on-demand through Lulu, so it was basically just timing. The book itself, consisting only of texts and pictures, does not really push the medium to its limits. Someone was showing us some crazy magazine e-book that had all these special effects, like the text would melt if you pressed on it. Our book is pretty conservative in that respect.
Deanna: When I was younger I always wanted to become a writer (among other things). Now I’m an artist and an acclaimed micro-blogger. I think intermedia is a natural tendency in digital production and the epub standard does a decent job of addressing that. E-books are versatile, they accept various media types so the form is pretty flexible. They are unique in the sense that they stem from a literary context so that helped inform some of the decisions I made.
What were some of the biggest challenges in either conceptualizing or creating your book?
Body by Body: We were naive about the process. We thought that we could simply click a button and convert our PDF to an epub file, but of course it’s not that simple. To be honest, between InDesign, iTunes, Amazon and Calibre and all of the little hangups with each, it was kind of a pain in the ass actually. Thankfully, we know a little bit of html/css so that helped. And don’t get us started with Calibre!! Look at its logo, that says it all right there.
Deanna: I’m trying to develop everything at the same time so I have been going back between editing and creating new content in the process. I am trying to take a super intuitive approach to this project so it’s really been all about “feeling it out”.
Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but given the opportunity, do you think you’d ever do another?
Body by Body: Probably too soon to tell. The idea of making work during a “format war” (which is what it feels like is happening with e-books right now) is not very attractive to us. We generally have an ambivalent attitude towards very new technology. We just want to focus on our work. Focusing solely on technology is sort of like guys at Guitar Center who talk about the newest guitars, pedals, equipment etc. but never play any music. That being said, we’re still pro-PDF at this point…
Deanna: It’s always challenging when you are working with a new platform, this is my first e-book. My biggest technical challenges thus far have been dealing with Apple (surprise, surprise)—their proprietary interpretations of the standard in their content creation software and iTunes store verification delay. It’s definitely had an impact on both production and distribution of the e-books in this series.