The Artist's E-Book


In 1853, Karl Marx sent a dispatch from London to be published in the New York Daily Tribune. Reflecting on the role of the British in India, Marx decreed that “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” The pain of those material foundations, of course, merely sets the stage for the new world’s worker’s utopia. A similarly gargantuan task could describe the e-books released by Badlands Unlimited. Badlands describes itself as making “books in an expanded field,” a tall order in today’s milieu of nostalgic preservation for the printed book’s 20th century form.

The press’ latest release, How to Download a Boyfriend, features image-based contributions from 50 artists strung together by a tongue-in-cheek interactive quiz about love in the digital age. Ian Cheng offers a peek at Duchamp’s Étant donnés through a BlackBerry camera, while Sarah Chow’s tantalizing cotton candy colored, textured rock face hints at a pleasure of touch that remains unfulfilled by the flat smoothness of tablet technology. Other artists include vanguard stalwards Tony Conrad and Peggy Ahwesh, new media stars Cory Archangel and Petra Cortright, alongside Billy Rennekamp, Josh Kline, Travess Smalley, and other artists that have been previously featured on Rhizome. While the HTDLAB engages with the practice of reading and being an e-book, it's also site refreshingly free of reverence and infused with a spirit of exploration and experimentation.

Questions range from the practical (Can I use your Netflix account if we break up?) to the absurd (“What names do you scream into a car crusted pillow with OK Cupid howling on a laptop nearby?”). The interactive answering of questions to which any ...


RECOMMENDED READING: Sarah Hromack on Paul Chan’s new publishing venture in Frieze


No one mistakes a Kindle for a codex any more than they might an iPad for a canvas – that much is clear. Yet the impact of electronic publishing on the book itself is becoming increasingly relevant to the art world, where the recent advent of art e-book publishing has posed an entirely new set of challenges – technical, philosophical, political and otherwise – to the artist’s book.

In the autumn of 2010, artist Paul Chan launched a publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited, out of his Brooklyn studio as a means of negotiating the rapidly shifting relationship between physical and virtual methods of book production. Aided by a cohort of designers and developers, Chan has since published a small catalogue of books, DVDs and artist-designed ephemera, rendered in both digital and print forms. ‘We make books in the expanded field’, claims the company’s website, a deceptively simple mission statement that belies the implications of re-calibrating an entire process – and by proxy, the history of a genre – in order to broach the digital divide.

E-book publishing complicates the interplay between the image and virtual page; the limitations imposed by code and hardware alone necessitate a somewhat radical re-thinking of that relationship. For an image-heavy e-book to retain its visual legibility across platforms, its author must consider the image in service of the electronically produced book and not the other way around. Hallmarks of a well laid-out publication – a strong correlation between text and image; a sense of visual rhythm; considered choices in typeface, paper stock, printing and binding methods – are impossible to replicate in some cases, and in others elusive at best. Whereas the printed book bears its maker’s mark more readily, the e-book places a comparatively stringent set of limitations on the endeavour from the outset; software and hardware developers dictate the platforms and products that publishers have to negotiate with during the production process.