The concept of an artifact—material, touchable and therefore commodifiable—has been a controversial issue in art circles for a long time. For some practitioners, the highest and purist artistic expression is one that happens without a footprint or “residue.” The absence of a material object d’art speaks to a devotion to the experiential and a commitment to stepping away from the shackles of commodification, from the sullied commerce of buying and selling unique works, from the corruptibility of materiality.
Art without artifacts—as is often the case with installation and performance art forms—has found another permutation in the emergence of the Internet over the last 20 years. In this new arena, art forms take on a disembodied existence that lives outside of time or physicality. These new modes of expression are available 24/7, endlessly repeatable, often free or priced for mass consumption, and accessible anywhere by anyone with a digital device.
For many of us however, artifacts have a power. That power is elementally linked to materiality and the fact that a thing can possess a set of actual coordinates in the space/time continuum. Just as online sex is a something but not the same something as sex with another real human body, the concept-only art expression is not a replacement for an object-based one.
Books and publishing have also been caught up in a version of this essential tension. For some people the digitization of content eliminates their need for that physical object called a book. Others, like me, take more of a both/and stance. Digital delivery works just fine for some content. But there are also circumstances where content delivery cannot be satisfactorialy digitized. Art books, like the catalogue raisonné, are better when delivered by way of an object in the hand. So is content that invites—and deserves—a conversation with the reader in the form of margin notes and commentary.
The latest book object that could never be experienced in digital form is the product of a mind not usually equated with artifact-driven art: J. J. Abrams, the famous (and at times controversial) genius behind Alias, Lost and Fringe among many other television series. Written by Abrams and writer Doug Dorst, S was “born out of an idea of a love story and the notion of celebrating the book as an object,” Abrams said. “In a digital age, it’s a distinctly analog object. It felt romantic to me.”
Of course Abrams never does anything old school, and S is not a traditional romance. Nor is it a normal book. Rendered with extraordinary detail to resemble a well worn library volume of a novel called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka published in 1949, the bookness of the project takes on a completely different form. The author and the novel are fictional creations, as is the complex and engaging artifact that uses a book format to deliver something much more multi-layered. Marginal notes are scribbled on every page in two distinct handwriting styles. Slipped into the pages throughout are tokens of the extracurricular ephemera from the lives of these two readers—handwritten letters, postcards, old photographs, newspaper clippings, a map scrawled on a coffee shop napkin. The authenticity and attention to detail is breathtaking.
The annotators are one Jen and Eric, two students who are fascinated with Straka and the novel. As the reading progresses we watch them fall sweetly in love. But the joy of this book, amazingly, does not require a linear reading of the multi-threaded narratives. At Thanksgiving this year we had guests from Greece, Italy, Venezuela, Norway and Israel. Everyone, regardless of English language skills, was fascinated with S. This is an experience that is enchanting to everyone. And it comes because you can hold it in your hands.
The universality of appeal reminds me of Sleep No More, the theatrical production by Punchdrunk that was staged in Boston and then New York. In this full immersion production, the audience is pulled into an alternative realm, one that is full of magic and evocation. (The root theme is Macbeth and so the leitmotifs include witchcraft, murder, brooding Scotland castles and madness.) While this production requires the complete conquest of an entire building, every room is painstakingly constructed to create a richly detailed, deliciously visual staging that each member of the audience can interact with at her own pace. As large scale as the theatrical intent of Sleep No More is, the stunning attention to detail is what has stayed with me years later. Meticulous recreations make it easier for the mind to let go of its predetermined sense of the world and ease into saying, this is real.
Abrams has shown his mastery of puzzles, mystery, and creating a believable other reality in TV and cinema. That he turned those energies to a book project of this scope is thrilling to book lovers like me. What a celebration of books, reading, publishing, invention and yes, artifactness.