The books the thing…

Atlanta GA artist Brian Dettmer has creates fascinating carvings out of books. Variously described as low relief sculpture, collage and (something) his work examines the nature of the book as a physical form and how that form relates to the information contained within it. His interest was sparked by the contrast between physical texts and images and their digital counterparts.

“It is exciting and empowering to have access to so much information instantly,” he writes, “but it is also disturbing if we think about the future of our personal and cultural records. I can open a box of pictures or letters from decades ago but I may have trouble opening an image or text file created just a few years ago.”

This new instability of knowledge or at least of our ability to access it is a disturbing idea in a time when we think to build a society and culture based on the availability of vast amounts of easily accessible information. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the chained library in Wimborne Minster. Here book dating back to the 13th century had been saved and stored on shelves in a small room at the top of a narrow spiral staircase.

While the language of these book maybe difficult to understand and the ideas complex the books themselves, as a format, are still usable. When viewed against the digital it would appear temporary at best. But here is also where the transformative nature of a digital format is visible as well. The books were single copies chained up in a room. Of these book some are of only a few copies still in existence. What saved so many of the books there was that they were difficult to access, preventing them from being subjected to the whims of the censor.

I honestly don’t know which is better, the forgotten repository or the open library but there are obvious advantages to each system. With Brian Dettmer, his work touches on the slipping of the tangible into the ether. As has been noted in a physical world we have static frozen material but in an intangible one there may be nothing left. Here the re-purposing of the physical object to suit the aesthetics of a new digital age. The importance of what has been removed is, while invisible, of equal importance to what is left.