This final assignment was something that I had been looking forward to since I started this section and involved finding and significantly altering a book to create a new personal volume, using creative methods to give an object a new context, similarly to how I have seen other artists take similar approaches in my earlier research.
Sourcing and Examining Old Books
Last year, a small stack of 1920's wildlife magazines were brought into the museum where I work by a visitor who wondered if they would be of any interest to anyone, as they would be throwing them away otherwise. When I took a quick look through them, I really enjoyed the many pages of layouts that demonstrate the social and design sensibilities of the era and the approach to natural sciences. I offered to take them in personally if they turned out to be of no value to anyone else.
The magazines are from Hutchinson's Animals of all Countries, a series of around 48 editions that ran every two weeks when released in the 1920's, and with each new edition detailing information on different natural species of animal accompanied with black and white photography and the occasional colour illustration.
As it happens, copies are still fairly commonplace and don't hold much weight in historical value or rarity, especially with the condition that these ones were in. Several had missing or damaged covers and edges and an old musty smell that was not the most appealing. With no other interested parties, I claimed them and took them home. The original intention was that I could use them as reference books for retro designs, but when I started Part 4 and read ahead to this assignment, I knew that I wanted to try and use them to create something unique here.
I sat down and reviewed the collection, selected which editions could be the best to physically adapt, which ones to preserve and which ones were damaged enough that I could use as extra collage material. This allowed me to get a feel for the books as I looked through their pages for inspiration and made notes on my thoughts and keywords in my sketchbook.
The 1920's saw the birth of a number of modern magazine and layout styles that are still familiar today, and I found myself the most fascinated with the advertising in the front and back rather than the content detailing the animals themselves. The self-improvement and educational course adverts in the front and back covers sound so familiar to what you see today and it's clear that the act of learning a new skill has been a commercial venture for over a century.
I was also reminded that in the late 90's and early 00's, my grandparents would often subscribe to similar wildlife collectible magazines to stockpile and give to me as a gift collection, some of which I still have examples of today such as the 100 Greatest Wildlife Pictures Ever series. This particular series was more photo based and favoured glossy images rather than written scientific information, but there are still parallels between the two despite being released over 8 decades apart. Both editions are boastful on the covers in claiming to be at the forefront of observing the natural world as delivered by field experts.
Absorbing all of this started me thinking about the contrasts between the old against the new and the big jumps in how media and information is produced, advertised and consumed over time. Both these examples were released at times near to a historical shift in how information is delivered, with one being at the edge of advancements in colour printing by the 1920's and one just before the internet became commonplace in homes by the end of the 1990's. Since then, the internet has changed a lot in how we learn about the natural world, with most questions regarding habitat and location only a quick search away on our desktops or phones.
I felt strongly that I wanted to use this concept to adapt the book somehow, and to playfully contrast the internet age with the 1920's print format. With more notes and ideas in my sketchbook, I considered the ways that I could achieve this through removing, cutting, folding, reshaping and adding material. I wondered which modern techniques, text and images would be fitting to help tell a new story for this object.
I took a less detailed approach to designing in this experimental task with the briefest of notes, as I kept in mind a quote from about the process of working with found books from my research on Brian Dettmer's progress in the research task from the start of part 4. He talks about his working process being one of discovery rather than careful planning.
"I think of my work as almost an archaeology. I'm excavating and I'm trying to maximise the potential and discover as much as I possibly can and exposing it within my own work."
- Brian Dettmer
I could design some overall structures for the book and research folding and cutting techniques to use, but until I sat down and began the process of physically cutting and reshaping, I wouldn't know exactly where the outcome would take me, only the main guiding principles of my concepts and the practical ways that I could manipulate the book. The rest would be an instinctive interpretation that would change as I worked.
Adapting and Developing
The edition I chose to adapt was part 5, which attracted my attention for a number of reasons over the other copies. From a practical and visual side, it's one of the few copies from the stack that has a full colour cover, and it was also in a decent condition that would not require a complete rebinding as the rusty staples are still holding it together. The other reason is the content focusses on feline species, and as cats are widely regarded as the mascot of the internet culture as a whole, there was a connection there that I could respond to.
I started working with the material to redesign the cover, where I edited some of the words and phrases using some of the more sensational language of the original advertisements that I cut out of the copies that were in the poorest condition. I wanted to be playful here satirise the supposed expertise of the claims of the booklet being contributed to by "leading experts". For example, I credit multiple names as authors in a confusing line at the top to mirror that internet sources are inconsistent. Some of the adjustments I made were also done to be similar to the language used in exaggerated headlines from internet 'news' sites that are designed to catch the reader's attention rather than inform.
I also printed off a greyscale version of the chrome logo to replace the cover image, as I felt that as the cover of the book, this is the analogue equivalent of loading up a search engine to type in 'cats' before opening the book to see the results. Later on, I coloured in the logo with marker pens to emulate the painted greyscale images that the book advertises as Numerous fine coloured plates. This was a fun juxtaposition, as I took a modern logo and de-aged it to meet an old fashion aesthetic.
Moving on to the internal pages, I had to decide what to preserve as much as what to edit or remove. As a physical example of a google search on cats, I decided that any pages with images of cats could remain as they would be contextually relevant to the search term represented by the book.
Anything else could be adapted or changed, such as a few pages that only contained a species list. For these pages, I wanted to print off the modern directory of a Wikipedia page, which I printed out on acetate I was really impressed with the quality, particularly the images that still kept clarity. These pages then overlaid the previous information as a metaphor for an unreliable source distorting one from an academic study.
Folding Pages and Collaging Advertising
At the rear of the book for collection of pages, the information moves on from talking about feline species and moves on to the canine family that leads into the next issue on that subject. This was a considerable chunk of pages for me to work with using my 'no pictures of cats' rule and I thought this would be a great place to make something that could represents the search term going completely off topic as typically all internet searches eventually go off on tangents and reach a dead end.
I wanted to represent this physically by folding the pages at angles that distorted the information and broke free of the boundaries of the book that represents the main search term. In addition, I cut out a large collection of rectangular adverts from other magazines that represented the same bothersome pop ups and oversaturated advertising space that can burst out at us with a misplaced click, sending us back to the main page to start again. Combining these within the folds of the page using glue created a sense of angular chaos that felt appropriate to what I wanted, with each individual piece of information being reasonable, but as a whole very hard to digest.
As I mentioned earlier, this book had a fairly stable existing binding using the surviving staples, but I still needed a way to include the new pages and covers, which I had been keeping them I had been keeping together using clips. The solution I chose was a slide binder, as this is both an easy practical method of keeping things together and as a metaphor for quite literally keeping together loose information. Visually, the fact that it's also made from a sleek and modern plastic contrast with the old paper for added effect.
To provide a backdrop for the book, I also added in any leftover extracts of original advertising to a printed sheet of card as the back cover on one side, and on the other an amusing conclusion with googles iconic "the internet cannot be found" network error warning. This way as the very end the book starts to revert to its original form of advertising it's been changed and distorted still, until disconnecting completely as the book ends.
I really like how this piece has tuned out visually and think it makes for an intriguing object that shows the similarities and differences between the old and new ways of navigating and digesting the same subject of information. I do wonder though if I could have gone deeper with this idea on the internal pages though.
I love the effect of overlaying old information with transparent versions of new information on the same subject, but much of the original work remains unchanged and perhaps I could have done more to edit or remove parts of the book to make unexpected physical structures. One option for example would be to do the time-consuming process of verifying the original text and removing anything inaccurate or outdated, to see what is left behind as a physical form. I've still really enjoyed this section of work as something that has helped me to branch out from my usual design process and I look forward to hearing my feedback for part 4.
Brian Dettmer: Old books reborn as intricate art. (2015) [Online Video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqovAg11q-c (Accessed 14/02/22)
Shepherd, J. (2014) How did cats win the internet? https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/16/why-internet-loves-cats-not-dogs (Accessed 01/03/22)
Wikipedia. (2022) Cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat (Accessed 01/03/22)
Wikipedia. (2022) Cats and the Internet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_and_the_Internet (Accessed 01/03/22)
Wikipedia. (2022) Cultural depictions of cats. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_depictions_of_cats (Accessed 01/03/22)
Wikipedia. (2022) Human interaction with cats. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_interaction_with_cats (Accessed 01/03/22)