The changing role of books

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading a couple of articles that discuss the changing role of books in the rapidly developing digital era, how book arts as a genre is becoming more established and respected as part of contemporary art, and how the physical book, although harder to sell, will ultimately, never die. I’ll definitely make sure that it won’t…I love them, as you all know by now. The first article is ‘Bookstores for Gazers’ by Randy Kennedy for The New York Times calls bookstores ‘parallel art worlds’ and ‘art book establishments’ where ‘the books and posters and magazines seem to have taken on an autonomous life as well, communing conspiratorially with one another across decades, subject matter and format.’ This is a very articulate take on New York’s developing bookstore scene that I wish I could experience…I’ll be there next summer, so I’ll definitely been indulging then. Rather than seeing the decline of book sales as a creative opportunity, the second article ‘Do we still have a thirst for coffee table books?’ by Tim Walker for The Independent takes a more pragmatic view from the publishing industry stating that people buy coffee table books in order to make a statement about themselves, where a divide will form ‘between cheap, e-book convenience reads, and the books that people want to live with, put on their coffee tables or shelves’. He questions ‘What happens to the coffee table book when there are no more bookshops?’ but as Kennedy examines, we really have nothing to worry about considering all the ‘parallel art worlds’ that are popping up across one of the worlds biggest cities.

In response to this, I thought I’d mention another library I found. I keep on coming across reinventions of libraries in the name of public art and audience engagement, such as the current ‘AMAZEme’ installation at Royal Festival Hall as part of the Southbank Centre, London, ‘The Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers’ in Tel Aviv, and ‘Bookyard’ by Italian artist Massimo Bartolini for the Belgian Art Festival, TRACK: a contemporary city conversation in Ghent.

‘Jardin de la Connaissance’ was part of the 11th International Garden Festival at the Jardins de Métis in Quebec, Canada. It is a temporary garden involving approximately 40,000 books, multi-coloured wooden plates and several varieties of mushrooms. In reference to the festival’s theme of paradise, it aimed to ‘expose the tree (of knowledge) as the central semiotic theme of the paradisiacal garden. Rather than reopening a way through the proverbial enclosures, we are interested in its manifold textures. From the single tree of knowledge we have gone to the many of the forest; from one truth to the plenitude of multimedia and the overwhelming world of information…The garden engages the mythical relation between knowledge and nature integral to the concept of ‘paradise’. By using books as material in the construction of the garden, we confront these instruments of knowledge with the temporality of nature…we invite an emotional involvement of the visitor. The book assemblages establish a framework amidst the forest that embodies a variety of experiential activities…becoming a sensual reading room, a library, an information platform, a dynamic realm of knowledge.’

The books are used to mark and determine the physical space in addition to being knowledge building blocks, where dispersed amongst them are bookmarks of brightly coloured wooden plates, which bind the wood stacks together and provide a further vibrant colour palette to the organic landscape. Furthermore, to extend the notion of transformation, mushrooms are cultivated within the book pages to add the dimension of a continuing life cycle, something that the books are unable to achieve. This installation, along with the others mentioned and the article cited, got me thinking about the changing face and role of books…how they are now being re-appropriated, re-used, transformed, and put into new environments and contexts through which to be understood and appreciated. It seems the digital era is now turning the physical book into a monument or idolised relic – the book is now “art” in its own right. Finally.

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