Last December we published Material Conditions, a set of eight commissioned books exploring what it means and takes to be a professional creative practitioner. Inspired by the title of a behind-the-scenes blog post which followed, we’ve added a new chapter to the series, continuing a discussion which seems ever more relevant in the current climate.
Material Conditions: Epilogue is both a companion to those books – for those who read it, for the artists involved – and, as a pleasant paradox, an introduction for those who are not familiar with them. Five of the original contributors – Sarah Butler, Jane Prophet, Karla Brunet, Janet Owen Driggs & Jules Rochielle and Ruth Maclennan – have created new pieces for this publication, as they look back on the series, reflecting on their book and those by the other artists. Far from mere commentary, these responses are works in their own right, and are as poetic and profound as the initial eight books.
It’s also the first publication to launch the Periodical, to suggest the kind of iterative and experimental forms we hope to see being made and shared with bookleteer. As Giles stated eloquently in his ‘manifesto of sorts’, we’re striving for publishing as conversation; despite the finality of its title, this book can be seen as only the most recent part of a process. Here’s hoping for more.
Subscribe to the Periodical to receive your own eNotebook. Complete and return it to Proboscis for digitisation. Several times a year – depending on the quality and quantity of what we receive – we will select and print a Field Work eNotebook for inclusion in a Periodical issue.
For a decade or so we’ve been designing custom notebooks and sketch books for use in projects and workshops – for individuals, groups of participants, communities and some just for anyone who wants to use them. There’s a small library of ‘eNotebooks’ on Diffusion – many by us and some by others (see below and/or click for an example by architect Rob Annable).
Next month I’ll be travelling to Papua New Guinea to share my experiences of using our hybrid digital/paper notebooks for recording and sharing Traditional Environmental or Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Never having worked before in such an extreme climate (Tropical jungle) and in such a technologically remote setting, I’m hoping to learn more about how effective they may be and how much we’ll need to work around them and other constraints to make something locally-specific yet useful and replicable. Right now I’m experimenting with printing eNotebooks on waterproof paper stock to take with me to compare with standard paper stocks for durability and effectiveness.
All this preparation for the PNG trip, along with conversations with my old friend Brandon LaBelle, who was in London recently to teach on this year’s Field Studies summer school, has made me revisit some old concepts and plans for Diffusion Series and dust off one of them. I have also been looking into the remarkable and inspirational Sketchbook Project organised by Art House Coop in Brooklyn, NY to push my original ideas further.
A few years ago, I began to develop an idea for a series of Diffusion commissions that would take the form of a designed eNotebook being given to a number of participants who would be asked to use it to conduct and record field work according to their profession, practice or discipline. Their investigations might be around place, a subject, a process or a community – whatever they choose.
This idea for a series remained a series of sketches and notes as my ideas at the time morphed into the City As Material series of events and collaborative eBooks of Autumn 2010 (and following series). However, with my own imminent PNG field work about to take place and being in the midst of thinking about the nature of what a field notebook or sketchbook might be, the idea has returned and seems highly relevant to the concerns of making and sharing – public authoring – that are driving the ideas behind the Periodical.
Thus Field Work has formed as a new and discrete project that can exist within the framework of the Periodical – each subscriber will receive a blank Field Work eNotebook of their own to record an investigation of their own in (should they chose to do so). All completed eNotebooks sent back to Proboscis will be digitised and made back into eBooks that can be read and downloaded from bookleteer. Depending on how many we receive back, we will select and print someone’s Field Work eBook to be sent out to subscribers as part of the monthly issue – perhaps 2 or three times a year.
Why do this? There is an enduring fascination with the notebooks and sketches of artists, writers, scientists and composers etc – we see this time and again with our own modest eNotebooks for projects which take something unique and handwritten or drawn and make them into ‘shareables’, where the trace of the personal is directly communicated in the digitally reproducible. So much can be appreciated about creative process and intentions from the scribbles as well as the precision of thought, eye and hand that simply evades a ‘finished’ book, typed and formally illustrated. I think that the Periodical and bookleteer both have much to offer not just as a mode of production and dissemination of designed publications, but also as a means of sharing creative process in the raw.
When I first began the long journey towards building bookleteer, back in 2003, we built a rough working prototype of what we called the Generator. I was asked to give a presentation about my concept of public authoring at a symposium held at BT Labs campus, Adastral Park, near Ipswich – People Inspired Innovation. I presented our work on Urban Tapestries alongside the first test eBooks made with the Generator, and suggested how we might in future link them to enable both the sharing of local knowledge and data on mobile geo-annotation systems with physical outputs. One result of this presentation was a series of discussions with anthropologists Genevieve Bell(feral data) and Ken Anderson at Intel Research on how it could be used as a tool for field research : quickly capturing and sharing field work as it happens. Years later I actually got to explore this idea with James Leach when invited to help with the Melanesia Project at the British Museum.
So, working towards a very simple initial template for an eNotebook (i.e. not so highly focused as with some of the ones I’ve designed recently, such as the Soho Food Feast We Are All Food Critics notebook or one I designed for Tim Wright & Joe Flintham’s The Haunter Field Trip) we will send out a printed copy to each subscriber to take part in building up a library of field notes and sketch books. I am also thinking that some field studies and trips – extending the work we’ve done with City As Material – may also form part of this project and would love to hear from anyone interested in taking part or helping organise some.
This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Scotland with James Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen working on ideas for recording and sharing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in the field through hybrid technologies and tools. We are taking part in a symposium at the University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in late October, before travelling to Reite village on the Rai Coast (Madang Province) where James has done field work since the early 1990s.
James and I have been building on conversations we’ve had over the past 4/5 years, and on top of some earlier work together as part of the British Museum’s Melanesia project. A case study explores how we used Diffusion eNotebooks to record the experiences of two Reite villagers – Porer Nombo & Pinbin Sisau – when shown hundreds of objects in the BM ethnographic collection from their area. Bookleteer and the eBook formats proved highly adaptable and useful in this process, allowing us to record interactions on the fly – both in writing and in capturing photographs of the social interactions of the project. We used digital cameras and printed out small photos using a Polaroid PoGo printer to stick directly into the eNotebooks which, once complete, were scanned in and posted online. Some months later we also used bookleteer to print up a short run edition of the 4 eNotebooks which were used in conferences and taken back to the village.
Our conversations this week have focused around themes of process, notation and sharing. Papua New Guinea is perceived as very poor in western economic terms, yet abundant with culture and the natural world. There is a great deal of sensitivity about how indigenous knowledge – of plants, places, wildlife and culture – is both presented and shared. Who benefits? To what, if any, degree does sharing more knowledge help preserve the delicate environment from exploitation and extraction? Why and how local people might wish to record and share their own knowledge to be communicated to outsiders in ways that protect their culture and environment is at the core of this issue. What value, if any, might come to local people from annotations of their knowledge by outside ‘experts’, such as botanists and naturalists in identifying species? Might this lead to just further exploitation and depredations of natural resources?
James and Porer have already published a unique collaboration – Reite Plants – which mixes local knowledge of the flora around Reite village with social and cultural knowledge. It is also written in both English and Tok Pisin, the local creole language. This is seen as a model for working together to share knowledge that situates the plants within the lived culture of Porer’s village and at the same time fulfilling western demands for scientific classification, but without delving into complicated and thorny issues such as para-taxonomy or bio-prospecting.
James and I have been discussing how hybrids – such as bookleteer and the eNotebooks – can be used as part of a co-creative and co-designed process that enables people to use simple tools and technologies, especially ones that are readily available in PNG, to record and document what they know. Starting from the simplicity of the eNotebook format, we’ve been thinking about what kinds of process and social engagement with local people could be explored that would allow material to be created and collected in ways that allow further reflection and addition. We have been thinking of accretive processes that build up and layer the complexly interwoven customs, practices and traditions in ways that reflect the whole culture, not just individual elements that can quickly be consumed, Indigenous Public Authoring for Traditional Ecological Knowledge (IPATEK). Perhaps this itself might be another form of ritual, of patterning knowledge and experience through overlapping notations?
What excites me is the opportunity I have been offered to explore these ideas both in the context of the symposium and in Reite village itself. No doubt the ideas we have cooked up in Scotland will be transformed again and again as they evolve in our conversations and collaborations in PNG with both other thinkers and academics and local people who live within their own indigenous ‘knowledge’ and for whom its enactment is always immersed within the practice of their everyday lives.
I haven’t featured any Zine related stuff on the bookleteer blog for a while now, so whilst we’re busy producing the eBooks for City As Material 2, I thought I’d share a blog I’ve just discovered.
Zineage Kicks is a behind the scenes look at a number of the early Zines of guest contributors, chronicling their conception and what it took to get them made via interviews and testimonies. It’s a side of small scale publishing that rarely gets heard, unlike the wealth of talk that surrounds the inspirations and working practices of mainstream writers, artists and designers, and might surprise people who perceive Zines to be generally low-consideration, offhand artefacts. The blog seems to have been started a few months ago, but already I can see it becoming a regularly visited bookmark, especially due to the parallels with our latest series of eBooks, Material Conditions.
Oh, and I left the most obvious comment to last… great name, eh?
Before the New Year, we published the first series of Material Conditions, a set of eight eBooks asking professional creative practitioners to reflect on what the material conditions for their own practice are, especially now in relation to the climate of change and uncertainty brought about by the recession and public sector cuts.
Since then, I’ve come across a couple of books that draw parallels – miniature libraries of creative insights and artistic working practices – which should be of interest.
On Monday, the Guardian published an article in which the novelist Jonathan Franzen condemned ebooks, warning that they have a negative effect on literature, and may actually be damaging to society. Whilst I’m inclined to agree with his statements about the nature of physical books, that they are permanent and reassuring tangible objects – monuments to writers’ visions, inscribed with great works – it seems he is speaking with a certain style of book in mind. Grand traditional novels, or epic modern sagas (like his own) that are often weighted by matter equal to their significance. Very real chunks of wood and ink, displaying their age and history, bearing messages to loved ones inside covers and messy notes in the margins.
I own both the printed book of his most recent novel ‘Freedom’, which I’m currently absorbed in, and the ebook, which I had first but didn’t start, despite my anticipation to start reading. The steady stream of text on the flat, grey Kindle screen failed to engage. I remembered the amazing experience of reading his previous book, and how affectionately dog-eared it is now. It was several months before I came across a copy and lunged for it.
This and other seminal novels deserve a commitment, often countered by lengthy, trying reads (thankfully not in Franzen’s case), and having to lug heavy books around. The argument that e-readers are able to contain thousands of books is valid, but carefree limitless access to anything isn’t always entirely positive. I find making the effort to single out one book can heighten the enjoyment.
But books that are liable to be read once (murder mysteries, review copies etc), reference texts, or collections of short stories are perfect for e-readers. They also allow access to out of print texts and numerous edited versions, and of course don’t require masses of trees to be felled. People with sight problems or disabilities can read with greater ease.
Franzen chooses to block access to the internet and uses noise-cancelling headphones whilst he is writing. Other writers choose to work accompanied by music, or in busy places. Readers can choose to remain devout to printed books, or they can leap into the world of the digital. They can straddle both, using hybrid platforms.
This recent article from the Guardian Books blog, ponders whether or not it’s acceptable to make notes in the margins of books. Reading it, I was reminded of how annotating draft bookleteer eBooks during the editing and proofing stages of Material Conditions was an invaluable part of the process.
We were able to quickly transform the draft books into the final printed format to get a feel of what they would look like on the page, and then to cross out, change and empathise parts, scribbling notes without feeling they were too precious to make marks on. Having a hard copy of previous changes, with progressive layers all on the same page, lets you revert back if you change your mind – something I’ve also come to appreciate in my own notebooks, when early choices are all too often lost with a newly edited digital file. Working with multiple versions and backing up regularly are safeguards easily neglected, as we all know.
As an alternative, use the online bookreader to preview eBooks without messy edges or any dodgy printer issues, and to show collaborators your work instantly.
I wrote a few months back about the level of Narrative Immersion amongst different mediums – books, television, film, video games – championing the depth and unique experience that the written word affords. I was concentrating on the effects of these forms when using them purely for leisure, but the specific focus I’ve placed on literature is in part due to reading books not just for diversion, but as an active process, always mindful of ways to improve my craft as a writer and how to remain open to inspiration.
As much as what you’re reading can influence any subsequent writing, I find staying largely within the realm of text helps me to dedicate more time to these distinctly lo-fi pursuits, avoiding being too saturated with moving image mediums to concentrate, or becoming too fixated with games or other highly involving activities. Reading and writing generate imagery from within the individual (although they can be tinged by external events happening at that moment – noise, the weather, people, etc), rather than receiving it from a projecting device.
Of course, I’m influenced by all things, but it’s the more static forms like art, objects, or powerful images from films, seemingly captured with a mental camera, that allow me to visualise them later, tinkering and contrasting with other images for effect. This leads to the composition of a few sentences, and thus a starting point. There’s also direct personal experiences and sensations, particularly specific moments and microscopic details. Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of material inspired by these sources, compared to the real world counterpart, or what actually happened, but what is creative writing if not rendering what you see and feel into words, which is then liable to be interpreted differently by each reader? Hounding out the truth can sometimes seem pointless – this isn’t journalism, though that includes a fair bit of fiction these days.
Being able to impose your own prism on the world is vital to create original and humane art. It can allow you to feel competent enough to make a mark, and to be compelled to write. Which, as the universal frustration over blank pages shows, is everything.
Yesterday, Proboscis launched the first series of Material Conditions, a set of eight eBooks created with bookleteer, asking professional creative practitioners to reflect on what the material conditions for their own practice are, especially now in relation to the climate of change and uncertainty brought about by the recession and public sector cuts – part of Proboscis’ wider programme of activities, Public Goods.
For this series, we commissioned 8 artists and artist groups (Active Ingredient; Karla Brunet; Sarah Butler; Desperate Optimists; London Fieldworks; Ruth Maclennan; Jules Rochielle & Janet Owen Driggs and Jane Prophet) to produce a book each. Half of the contributors took the opportunity to design their own layouts and use bookleteer to create their books themselves, whilst the other half (often busy working on various projects and unable to make the books from scratch) took advantage of our in-house design and production team (for the most, myself, with assistance from Giles Lane) to create their books. My practice, as a writer, is usually contributing text but for this venture I took on a role as co-commissioning editor and designer – coordinating responses, reviewing early drafts and producing front covers, guided by my co-editor, Giles. In this way, the process behind this project also echoed one of its main themes – how do we continue to be creative and productive everyday in the face of limited resources?
Collaboration and co-creation are at the heart of our practice and ethos, for the riches they bring as much as resources dictate their necessity. This stance has led to a very different, and I believe perhaps more exciting, output for this series, than if all the books had simply been commissioned by us and created entirely by the artists involved remotely. I relished the chance to guide and inform, alongside Giles, the direction of several of the books, to be the first set of eyes to witness a first draft outside of its author, to design covers – sealing a visual stamp upon a beautifully written piece.
Being able to instantly generate and preview drafts in the relatively new bookreader format has also been a huge boon during the design process, and it’s accessibility will ensure Material Conditions can be read, shared and used as a resource globally, by anyone, in addition to the printed set and the downloadable PDFs. In fact, all the printed books carry a QR code link to the digital version on the back cover, so they can be instantly shared amongst smart-phones and tablet devices.
Thank you to everyone involved – we’ve got a great, diverse collection on our hands.
All the books are now available on our archive of publications, Diffusion. Delve in, and enjoy.
The next series of Material Conditions is scheduled for June 2012, for which we’re planning another experimental approach, shifting away from individual commissions to a collaborative process generated through an intensive ‘booksprint’. Stay tuned for more details.