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This is the first interview in Books 2.0, a new series featuring books and book-objects that more fully explore their own physicality and book-ness, an imperative for the survival of printed matter in a digital age. Future titles to be featured in Books 2.0 include Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions) and David Breskin’s, Nels Cline’s, and Ed Ruscha’s Dirty Baby (Prestel).
Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse are the wife-husband team behind Between Page and Screen, a letterpress-printed augmented reality chapbook of poetry printed in limited edition. Borsuk is a poet and translator whose publishing credits include 2010 chapbook Tonal Saw, and Bouse is a developer whose work explores the space between art and technology. We corresponded by email over the course of several months, as Borsuk settled in to her Mellon Fellowship at MIT.
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First off, can you explain the genesis of Between Page and Screen? I imagine something this complicated wasn’t come up with on a whim. There must have been the spark of an idea, then quite a bit of conversation and development, right?
AB Last fall, Brad showed me a video for an augmented reality business card created by interactive designer James Alliban. In the video, Alliban holds his business card up to a webcam, then flips it over to reveal a black and white geometric shape. Suddenly, a beautifully minimalist video of Alliban extrudes from that small black and white marker and begins to speak, introducing himself to whomever the lucky new contact who picked up the card might be. I was fascinated by the way the image popped up off the page and moved with it as Alliban turned the card. I have a book arts background in addition to being a poet, and this reminded me of a pop-up book.
My first thought was How can I use this for poetry? I wanted to find a way to connect this digital technology with the older paper-craft and to give readers that experience of seeing the page behave in an unexpected and beautiful way. I also wanted to collaborate with Brad, who is an interactive developer. We had talked about doing something digital for a long time, but the digital part always seemed welded on in a clunky way. AR suggested a way to make something fun for the reader
You’ve said that you aspire to satisfy both Johanna Drucker’s definition of the artist’s book and Katherine Hayes’ concept of the technotext. Can you tell me a little about each of those ideas, and how you’ve tried to fulfill the requirements of each?
At the time AR work began to proliferate last year (there was an issue of Esquire and one of Wallpaper done with AR, and a smart app on the USPS website, to name just a few), I was leading a seminar on chapbooks and artists’ books together with the poet Genevieve Kaplan at USC. One of the key themes of the class was that in the most interesting and successful books the form and content are closely entwined. In The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker explains that an artist’s book isn’t simply a work of art shaped like a book; it in some way incorporates its aesthetic properties and subject matter. You might say that it is self-reflexive. Drucker uses the term “self-conscious,” since the relationship of form and content isn’t always overt. Nevertheless, when an artist decides to make a book, he or she has a reason for using that form instead of a canvas or sculpture.
Katherine Hayles writes about artists’ books and e-literature in her book Writing Machines, where she defines the technotext as a text in which there is a dialogue between the technological means of the text’s production and the text’s content. When you read a technotext, you are aware of it as a constructed object—the structure is not transparent. We can’t take the structure for granted because at every turn the text wants us to notice it.
Of course, as books become available in a range of screen-based formats we can readily see that the form of a book impacts our reception of it. Reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in snippets on an iPhone, in a pocket paperback, or on a Kindle will each provide a slightly different experience.
I wanted a reason to use augmented reality in this book beyond the fact that it looks really cool, so I used it as a place to explore the relationship between handmade books and digital media. The book itself is letterpress-printed and hand-bound on fine press paper. It has the external qualities of a fine press book, yet it contains no poems. To read it, you have to visit the website and open the book in front of your webcam. Only then do the poems appear in this space between the page and the screen—the augmented reality created by the reader who can assemble all of these components. The reader plays an essential role in making the book happen, which is why the reader sees him or herself holding it on-screen.
In addition to this dialogue between the idea of the book and its construction, the content also plays with the question of what it means to write and read poetry at a time when we keep going back and forth between print and digital media. In the poems, a series of letters between two lovers, P and S, the characters use a lot of coded language to talk about their relationship. One of them really wants some definition of what’s between them, but the other doesn’t want to be pinned down. I play with the etymology of the words page and screen to lay out the continuities between them. The animations also make reference to concrete poetry from the mid-twentieth century, which endeavored to make language’s material qualities more evident (though poetry has always been by nature an engagement with the sound and shape of words).
I feel I should add a postscript here to explain that despite that heady background, the book is supposed to be fun. We did spend a lot of time thinking about the form and content, but we don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it. If we did our job right, the theoretical underpinnings buoy up the text and provide a second level of enjoyment beyond the reading experience.
[wpcol_1half_end id="" class="" style=""]How did the collaborative process work? Amaranth, did you finish writing all of the poems before Brad began programming? Brad, how much freedom did you have to manipulate the text of the poems—there are, for example, poems that make 3-D cylinders and 2-D pigs!—once they were written?
The writing and programming processes were pretty much intertwined. We began with my draft of the poems and descriptions of the concrete animations I envisioned, but while Brad was programming them we spent a lot of time discussing what would work and what wouldn’t in the 3-D field. The way the book was bound was also influenced by tests we did with an early maquette. As the physics developed, we came up with new animations for some pages based on what the technology enabled us to do.
BB Making the book delightful for the reader was the most important part of development to me. I wanted the casual user to pick up the book, hold it to the camera, and immediately understand how it worked. In practice, this meant I had to put constraints on what Amaranth wrote. We can only fit so many characters on screen at a legible size, so I asked Amaranth to shorten some of the epistles. The animations—where we collaborated more closely—had comparable constraints: the text had to be legible, and the animations couldn’t have rigid starts and stops. Most of the animations loop. and you can join them at any point. For the animations, I suggested possibilities and Amaranth chose what sounded interesting to her. We discarded a number of animations because they weren’t legible or workable.
There’s something very powerful about the physicality of the letterpress printed chapbook itself. And I think there’s something to be said about the appearance of the written word, in the augmented reality of the website, perhaps because so many popular poets talk about the aurality of poetry as its end, suggest it’s more important than its appearance on the page (or screen). What’s your take?
AB Thanks! I’m really glad you think so. We wanted the words to feel robust, like they really inhabit the three-dimensional plane, but they can be made to disappear in an instant, so they are also tenuous like that place between page and screen. When you turn the page, the letters scatter or implode. They aren’t fixed in quite the same way print is.
For me, poetry’s aurality and visuality are equally important, and in my work I try to engage both dimensions of language. The poems in BP&S are filled with sonic play—I’m prone to internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. You can see my debt to visual writers in the concrete poems, but even they make reference to sound. The phrase “spin pin into spinto” in the revolving poem that appears second in the book is all about sound: the sounds of the words revolve one into the next through a series of displaced letters, and they also tell a micro-narrative about the give-and-take between the visual and aural. The root of the word page means “to fasten,” as a pin might fasten a specimen. But the same root also gives us spinto, which describes a voice suited to both lyric and dramatic opera—a voice that can push through the orchestra and rise above it. So the phrase turns on this idea of shuttling between the fixed and the unfixed, the visual and the sonic.
Are you collaborating on other projects like this? What individual projects are you working on?
We are definitely still collaborating. We have a Twitter-based poetry website in the works and are also planning a gallery project that would involve multiple readers using markers (also called fiducials) like those in BP&S to generate poems.
I’m also working on my second manuscript of poems and a book of essays while trying to get a few projects published. I just finished two other collaborations I’m proud of—a book of poems and images with Kate Durbin and Zach Kleyn called Excess Exhibit, which is forthcoming from ZG Press, and translations and transversions of My Hypertropes by the Oulipo poet Paul Braffort together with Gabriela Jauregui which we are still trying to find a home for.
BB I am interested in touch interfaces and think there are some entertaining things we can do with touch-screen monitors. The iPhone is a wonderful malleable platform that happens to be in a lot of people’s pockets, and maybe we could do a bit of experimenting with an app.
AB We have access to a lot of wonderful resources through MIT, where I will be a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for the next year and a half, so I expect we’ll find plenty to keep us inspired and busy.[/wpcol_1half_end]