27 August 2012

Scented Sketches, on Books & Smell

In response to several recent comments on the SHARP listserv regarding book-scented perfumes , Ellen Garvey posted a link to Tan Lin's screening/discussion, "Powerpoint and the Perfume of Reading." The actually screening of Lin's piece -- which takes up the first twenty minutes or so of the video -- is hard to follow. Some of the text is illegible, since you're watching a film of a film happening in the room in which the screen is angled away from the camera and takes up less than half of the shot. More interestingly, the most innovative aspect of the piece, to me at least, is cut off from us Vimeo viewers: the perfume "soundtrack" pumped into the room to accompany the piece.

What does a Powerpoint-inspired bibliographic e-poem smell like? 

The perfumes are not described during the discussion, so I'm left to imagine what they might be.  I smell institutional libraries -- the off-gassing of industrial carpeting, and the humid metallic smells of concrete staircases locked behind fire doors. 

Strangely, I don't smell any paper. Libraries don't smell much like paper to me. Books in libraries are closed, and the thing about books -- the thing that makes them so olfactorily intimate -- is that they don't disclose their scent until opened up and brought close to the face. You really have to bury your nose in a book to smell it.

* * *

(A few months ago, I bought a paperback copy of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets from Amazon. As soon as I opened the box, the smell of the book hit me, a mix of potpourri and old ladies' perfume. Over time, the scent has barely diminished. I brought the book to a talk I gave this summer, with a passage bookmarked for the audience to look over. The first woman who took it wrinkled her nose. "I know," I said. "Potpourri?" She pulled it up against her face, closed her eyes and took a deeper, less tentative whiff. "More like cinnamon," she responded. I've never been able to read from this copy; the smell is too distracting.)

* * *

But: "The Perfume of Reading." A "perfume soundtrack." In the discussion, Tan Lin talks about his interest in "expanding the frame of reading to an environmental space," a space "disaggregated by fragrance." What's interesting to me about this and other comments throughout the discussion is the desire to retain a certain "bookishness" in the piece. Film brings a cinematic experience to the book, perfumes extend the space of reading a book to the broader space of a scented room. Why tag any of this work as fundamentally bibliographic? Put another way, plenty of self-described digital poetry projects verse onto a wall alongside various other media forms (audio, images). What does relating this type of work to the codex form get us? Where does it get us?

Earlier this year, Counterpath Press kindly sent me a copy of Lin's Heath Course Pak, which, if I were asked to describe it in only a handful of words, I would call one person's afternoon of 'net surfing in book form. I state that admiringly. It meanders from text to scan to image to screenshot, strung together through loose, lyrical affiliations to Heath Ledger's death or Samuel Pepys's Diary. In fact, if Samuel Pepys had had the web, he might have produced his journal something like this (a fact of which Lin is no doubt aware).

Again, the question: why print and bind it as a book?

Culturally, we position e-books as the "next stage" in the history of the book; but (this thought is still difficult to articulate well) to describe e-books as 'books' is to privilege content over form in the word 'book', which is another way of saying: it is far from clear to me that the most ostensibly innovative digital 'books' are still books at all. If we define books through the codex form -- rather than through some vague sense of 'long-form text-y argument-ish thing one reads in particular situations, usually while waiting or traveling' -- then digital innovation in the book means bringing other media into contact with the form and seeing how they play together, how they mediate each other. Which is exactly what Heath Course Pak does. It's a kind of inverted, perverted e-book.

* * *

Wendy Fernstrum has produced Literary Essences, a book of vials of perfume. 

For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.  
// John Milton, Areopagitica

Milton's use of the word ‘violl’ is interesting, since, in the Greek, it usually meant a broad, flat vessel, like a saucer; and in the Authorized Version it is still translated as a ‘bowl’. The sense of its being a small glass bottle, containing an essence, seems to have developed in the seventeenth century. I have not pursued the inquiry further but I imagine that this meaning relates to the use of glass tubes and phials in scientific experiments. Their transparency would have been important for allowing one to read the level of a liquid, as we do in a thermometer or mercury-glass, or to see chemical reactions involving, for example, changes of colour. 
In this rather new sense, then, as used by Milton and later by Robert Boyle, it heightens the idea of enclosure, of the text as contained, determined, stable, of the author within, both clearly visible and enduringly present. 
// D. F. McKenzie, "The broken phial: non-book texts," in Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts

* * *

Smells, the smells of media objects, are often nostalgic, and sometimes disruptive, but rarely signal innovations. When digital technologies smell, something's wrong.
But Oh, too common ill, I brought with me
That, which betrayed me to my enemy:
A loud perfume ["perfume soundtrack"?], which at my entrance cried
Even at thy father's nose, so were we spied. 
// John Donne, "The Perfume"

* * * 

Then there's Smell of Books™, "a revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer."
Before you get too worked up, it was a spoof. You can tell because the product is made by DuroSport Electronics, the same company who produced the Russian iPod knock-off that Roy gets Pam for Christmas one episode on the US version of The Office. Presumably, the writers of the show made the DuroSport website as a joke, with Smell of Books™ as a quirky follow-up.

Still, the fake "cease and desist" letter the company receives from the Authors Guild is amusing:

To whom it may concern: 
The Authors Guild has recently been made aware of a new e-book related product called “Smell of Books”. This product has allegedly been designed to improve the e-book reading experience by simulating the smell of a real book. 
While the Authors Guild supports efforts to improve the digital reading experience, we believe this product represents a significant threat to the development of aroma rights, and as such, will adversely impact the rights of our members. 
It is important to note that in the digital era, books, and the smell of books, have been decoupled. In the future we expect authors to participate in the development of custom aromas for their books. These olfactory rights constitute a derivative right to be licensed separately. The preservation of these rights is essential as authors explore new markets and distribution channels. 
Allowing unauthorized third parties to provide the “scent” for a book substantially changes the underlying work to a degree that infringes upon the author’s copyright, not to mention artistic vision. 
Today the Authors Guild is calling on the DuroSport Corporation to remove the Smell of Books product line from the market. Furthermore, we are advising our members to refrain from licensing aroma rights until we have more clarity on this issue.

On the actual smell of books? Try this (somewhat strange) video from AbeBooks:

23 August 2012

Building with Books II: "Bibliography"

(This post and the one before it are companion pieces about two related projects I've finished. I've been sadly dilatory in writing about these projects but am happy to share, finally, a bit about my experiences with them.)

This past spring I collaborated with Elsewhere on "Bibliography," an installation in an empty storefront in the old Trust Building in downtown Durham. The work was part of the Durham Storefront Project, an exciting initiative that makes Durham's empty storefronts bloom each spring with local art.

Bibliography was an extension of Stump Speech, a book stump I assembled as part of my time at Elsewhere in July 2011. While the stump emerged from a research project on book structures as conceptual models for plant physiology, Bibliography emerged from an interest in the relationship between the structure of books -- big, brickish things -- and the structure of cities. City sidewalks as open books; city blocks as bookshelves storing buildings, spines out. Cities are living archives, and create spaces for conversation and exchange.

More than any city, though, we wanted to evoke an experience of Durham. The building we chose, 212 W. Main Street, was once a landmark in town, the tallest building in North Carolina at the time of its construction in 1905 and home to Durham's (and allegedly the entire South's) first elevator. It encapsulates the city's turn-of-the-century expansion, driven by the prosperity of the Bull Durham Tobacco company, in its uniquely-curved corner that once jutted out like the prow of a ship.

[From Open Durham]

The Trust Building’s curved corneris now sadly occluded at the street level, and its stature has long since been dwarfed by Durham’s handful of skyscrapers --

[From Open Durham]

-- but we knew we wanted to represent this jutting prow, somehow. Other than that, we had no plans,  just six or so people, six or so hours, two sunny storefront windows and hundreds of books. This was an one-off, on-site collaboration.

We started by sorting. Funny how, when faced with a pile of books, so many of us instinctively start sorting -- by author, by title, by topic, by color. We sorted by size. It took us hours. (One quickly learns the subtle width differences between cookbooks, computer manuals and fitness hot-tos!)

Once the books were sorted by size, we laid out an arc between the two corner windows with boxes. Some of us began laying the books like masonry in the front, while others began stacking paperbacks, folded back and taped so they flipped open into a curved fan of pages. Unfortunately, I don't seem to have any images of this; but, this became the Trust Building's prow.

I had drawn and cut out some silhouettes of people walking from old encyclopedias, which we laid in front of the buildings. From there, we built out according to our whims, adding pop-ups from found images in old books to create gardens and joggers and even an oncoming train, rushing toward a giant dancer in '80s-era fitness gear.

Open encyclopedias paved the streets, while pop-ups cut from the books enlivened the street corners.

The resulting structure was neither library nor city, but a kind of biblio-geography that captured, in its own ramshackle way, the spirit of Durham's rambling, low-rise cityscape. Although I couldn't snap any decent photos from the outside, where visitors could peer into the city, it was fun to watch the bookstacks cast long shadows across the empty floor of the building, as the sun moved from one of the storefront windows to the next.

As a finishing touch, I set up a simple SMS system, like that used in Stump Speech, whereby any passerby could text the city, and receive back a transmission of biblio-chatter from inside its bookish buildings.

Those with smartphones could visit a website to observe how Durhamites had been interacting with their shadow book city. A few choice examples:
QUESTION: what do people do for fun in the book city?
BOOK CITY: gods which his chosen chariots, and stand before 
QUESTION: What is the best life?
BOOK CITY: foreigners? for their faces were backward, and to 
QUESTION: what is your favorite book about science?
BOOK CITY: These may include feedback squeals during sound checks 
QUESTION: (Who do you love?)
BOOK CITY: Moses: and Shimron. And there for he would 

All the books were received as donations, and went back into the community as donations, most of them to an afterschool program for children, some to a prison desperately in need of reading materials. I don't imagine some of the older, odder books -- like a how-to on molding gelatinized foodstuffs into various shapes -- will help either children or prisoners much; but I do hope a stray pop-up here and there may make the reading experience a little more magical.

22 August 2012

Building with Books I: "Stump Speech"

(This post and the next are companion pieces about two related projects I've finished. I've been sadly dilatory in writing about these projects but am happy to share, finally, a bit about my experiences with them.)

In July 2011, I was a scholar-in-residence at Elsewhere, a thrift-store-turned-"living museum" and all-around wonderfully creative, collective space in Greensboro. While there I completed Stump Speech, a big, chatty hunk-o'-stump made from books. Text it a question, and it responds with a random phrase pulled from one of books in the stump.

Some recent questions put to the Stump by museum-goers:
QUESTION: did you steal the poem?
STUMP: By the efforts of a persistent crew. 
QUESTION: why is yo mama so fat?
STUMP: Souriez-moi de cette bouche charmante! 
QUESTION: why did you allow such blatant corporate branding?
STUMP: Maybe it was because it was so like that first disastrous time I had called for Helen. 
QUESTION: what is the color of rain?
STUMP: It was a silent battle and he became aware of that silence and wondered at it. 
QUESTION: what is the best way to woo a woman?
STUMP: His countenance, in this repose, was mild and kindly. 
QUESTION: where do you find magic?
STUMP: To the west, America, he said, full of greedy fools fouling up their inheritance. 
QUESTION: when does recombination first exist?
STUMP: With an effort I put away from me a mental picture of two porkers facing each other over a green baize table. 
QUESTION: what type of tree were you?
STUMP: It is the first topic of conversation I heard at the coffeehouse, the Gold Doubloon. 

I love the idea of a device -- your phone -- mediating your experience, your "conversation," with an object immediately in front of you. It reminds me of the Victorian era's obsession with media as mediums, mechanisms for communicating with the dead/undead. "i think the stump is haunted," someone once texted me late at night. Like an actual tree stump, Stump Speech is an archive of once-active forms of life; technology reanimates it.*

When I came to Elsewhere, I didn't plan on making a talkative hunk-o'-stump. At the time, I was doing research for my "Plant → Animal → Book" essay, and was thinking a lot about medieval zoophytes like the barnacle goose tree, as well as bibliographic metaphors in botany -- that is, how the form and functionality of books gave shape to our earliest scientific (in the modern sense) conceptions of plant anatomy and physiology. I was loving how material the book was for seventeenth-century botanists like Nehemiah Grew. Far more than a mere platform for conveying information, the book was a physical thing to them, with a hefty weight and sophisticated structure; it folds in on itself like a seed and opens out like a flower as its "leaves" curl back. Although I had lived with books (and plants) my whole life, they had never had for me the kind of structural resonances that they had for Nehemiah Grew. I wanted to get deeper into the secret life of the book.

What better way than to spend many hours a day, delicately weaving together crumbling paperbacks?

In all the thousands of hours I've spent reading, I've never felt like I knew books better than I did during those three weeks of not reading them. I got to know how much force a spine could take before cracking; which kinds of binding glues still stretches after three decades in storage, and which dries out; the angles at which pages fanned, relative to a book's width; how the structure of a book's spine (glued or bound) affects the "chunking" that occurs when it's laid flat and open; how the weight of the paper determines the curve of a page as it turns; and so on, and so on. Though such lessons seem insignificant, they absolutely are not to a book historian: in fact, they signal entire cultures and histories in the social life of print. These material differences have framed and altered how people across time have moved through texts.

A second motivation for the stump: my desire to showcase one of the book's most artistically underutilized facets, its fore-edge. Some extant early modern books bear titles or markings along the fore-edge, indicating their owners stored their books edge out. In the nineteenth-century, fore-edge paintings became something of a fad, as evident in this online exhibit from the Boston Public Library. Yet today, the fore-edge is conceptually blank zone on the book, barely noticed. With the stump, I wanted to showcase this versatile part of the book's structure -- the soft crumplings where readers thumbed their pages; the mottled marbling of molds and water damage; the beautiful variety of colors that tip the page of vintage paperbacks, from highlighter yellows to dried-blood browns.

An intended consequence is that the stump acts as a kind of alternative Ramellian book wheel, facilitating random reading across different texts. I've watched people approach it cautiously, then peek into its bark, read a bit, pull apart another book, then read a little more. The stump has an unexpected depth and fluidity, like some rustling sea of paper you can dip in and out of. Someone once told me a circle of people had been reading across it collaboratively, each person picking a bit and sharing it as they gathered around the stump's base. An alternative arrangement of books generates new ways of experiencing them, of interacting with them.

[Part of Elsewhere's mission is to preserve its "collection," a mass of stuff that gets assembled, sorted, mixed together mashed up and moved about as artists and interns cycle through the museum each month. Most of the art there can be disassembled and in fact many of my favorite pieces are repurposed from earlier works. Because most of the books I used were part of Elsewhere's permanent collection, I couldn't harm them in making the stump; so I wove the books, fore-edge out, to a structure devised of hardware fabric.]

Ultimately, then, the project was more about my own learning process than it was about creating an object. I was brought to Elsewhere as a scholar-in-residence, and while some of the artist residents seemed a little stumped (har har) as to why a PhD student was creating what looked (kind of?) like art, the experience was, for me, a scholarly one, since it was borne of research I was doing, and was done to help answer historical questions I was pursuing. I make this point not to draw arbitrary distinctions between scholarly and artistic processes but because, right now, it seems more urgent that we invite creative "t(h)nkering" into scholarship rather than vice versa. In fact, it doesn't surprise me that the three scholars-in-residence at Elsewhere last summer ended up making things: we were starved for opportunities to engage with the fruits of our research in ways other than writing, in modes other than argumentative, and in media other than text.

We need spaces like that fostered at Elsewhere right now. They are models of what humanities labs could be, if these labs 1) were politically engaged, 2) were embedded in the communities they seek to serve and 3) following that, were constituted outside the institutional power structures that most only mildly critique at best.

*My friend and collaborator Nick Bruns is largely responsible for getting the stump to chat. Nick was helping me with the project as a way of getting his feet wet with some programming skills. He had no PHP or SQL skills going into the project, and while I had a little bit of knowledge, I was too busy with the stump to give him much help. So instead of a leisurely wade, Nick got tossed into the deep end of the pool (sorry, Nick) and within three weeks, had taught himself enough not only to get the SMS call-and-response working, but to set up a decision tree such that certain types of questions ("why," "what," "how," etc.) resulted in different kinds of answers from the stump. Nick has long since buzzed past me in terms of coder knowledge and is now completing a master's in computer science at Cornell. So if you ever need a creative, quick-learning programmer...