Friday, November 02, 2007

Book Nook

As part of a conversation about the editor as book designer and book designer as editor, I was very pleased to introduce Peter Lunenfeld and Lorraine Wild today at the day-long symposium sponsored by the campus's new "Design Alliance," The Book, the Brand, and the Box. Of course, I don't think that you can really talk about media studies without saying anything about print culture, so moderating this discussion felt like a natural extension of the scholarly issues about interfaces that I was already exploring.

The first Lunenfeld book I read was The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, a ground-breaking collection of stereotype busting essays of the highest intellectual caliber about matters digital that includes work by Lunenfeld, Kate Hayles, William Mitchell, Lev Manovich, Erkki Huhtamo, George Landow, my UCI colleague Mike Heim, and creator-critics such as Bob Stein and Brenda Laurel.

Just this week, I assigned students the chapter on “The Interface” from Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, which I noticed opened with an extended discussion of the significance of Lunenfeld’s work, specifically his famous interrogation of the lopsided influence of Ridley Scott has had on shaping public attitudes about technology for decades through Blade Runner (1982) and Scott's Macintosh computer ad (1984).

Lunenfeld is also the author of the influential Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media & Culturess, which I think was one of the first books to write about hypertext and virtual reality without resorting to utopian or sci-fi clichés or poststructuralist jargon. In the book Lunenfeld questions an ideology of aesthetic freedom, by looking closely at how computers shape the artistic practices and thereby sets the stage for today’s research in code studies or software studies that looks critically at questions of constraints. The artists Lunenfeld analyzes in this influential book include Char Davies, JODI, Christian Möller, Stelarc, and William Gibson.

As an interface designer, he appeared as creator and editorial director of the Mediawork project, where he produced a pamphlet series for the MIT Press that was intended to redefine the relationship between serious academic discourse and graphic design, and between book publishing and the World Wide Web. I had been reading Lunenfeld's USER in connection with some of the things said about the term "user" at the 4S and AoIR conferences this year and had been savoring its wide-ranging exploration of contemporary culture that includes graphically dramatic commentary on apocalyptic warnings, bumper sticker rhetoric, blockbuster art shows, 24/7 schedules ramped up to the speed of “25/8,” and the semiotics of equating technology and videogame play with masturbation. It was interesting to see how Lunenfeld described this polemical work as something other than a manifesto, since Lunenfeld claims that in the current mediascape “part of the excitement is that the old categories don’t hold; there’s no coherent, oppositional avant-gardes anymore. There are still cries of rage and acts of violence, but not much in the way of compelling manifestos. I’m interested in utilities anyway, not manifestos. A utility adds functionality to a software system, and can be built upon in turn by further utilities later on down the road. Utilities are evolutionary rather than revolutionary . . ."

As someone who studies both intellectual property claims and cultural narratives about theories of information, I'm looking forward to Lunenfeld’s forthcoming monograph The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: How the Computer Became Our Culture Machine. Kudos to innovative MIT editor Doug Sery for choosing yet another readable/teachable title to bring to the press.

Lunenfeld opened his talk with a wonderful image of a book whose pages were woven on a Jacquard-style loom, a copy of which you can also see here on this page from the Institute for Figuring. Like Adrian Johns, Lunenfeld is interested in how the alternative histories of computing also can be read in the alternative histories of printing manufacture. Lunenfeld described this book of prayer as a "brilliant fiasco" and "outlier in the history of information-delivery devises" that sold only sixty copies, despite its luminous presentation in silver and black thread. However, in response to the death-of-the-book debates that were going on when I was writing my dissertation, Lunenfeld argued that the book was a "highly adaptable object" and that even "dry and dusty" academic books can be enlivened by graphic presentation techniques borrowed from the design explosion taking place in the magazine world.

He showed layouts from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage and the ubiquitous alphabet-city "junkie wear" leather jacket for which Baudrillard's Simulations was designed to be interior pocket-sized. He also pointed out that the once visually innovative series from Zone Books could no longer be put in the laptop bags now commonly carried by both men and women, since they were now more like "medieval manuscripts chained to a library." Lunenfeld described himself as a maker of "interstitial literature for an interstitial time" and was willing to acknowledge the importance of "chunking" and "pull quotes" to serve current practices of dilatory reading.

He closed by looking at perhaps the most controversial area of academic publishing: web delivery of content. The most radical authors in favor of the free culture model are those who like Lawrence Lessig and Chris Kelty are putting entire books from academic presses online with Creative Commons licenses, apparently without harming sales. In contrast, Lunenfeld showed what had been developed for the Mediaworks pamphlets, which included supplementary "Webtakes," such as an extraordinary web comic essay by Scott McCloud in response in to the Brenda Laurel book from the series, and delivery of content that included multimedia modes of production that enriched otherwise insufficient text, such as DJ Spooky's music+text+sticker graphics packaging.

In Lorraine Wild's talk, the editorial policies of MIT Press continued to be an important theme, since she discussed how the controversial image on the cover of the catalogue for Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution had generated considerable outrage and explication in the art blogosphere, after MIT Press rejected a restrained painting of a pile of white laundry against a hardwood floor as insufficiently attention-getting for the cover of the book.

As one of the principals of Green Dragon design and a person who helped radically revamp the curriculum of graphic design education in America in her role as a pedagogue at Cal Arts, Wild also had a lot to say about Los Angeles as a regional site for exchanging ideas and techniques. She talked about the "Ed Ruscha" effect and the way that artists could engage with industrially printed books. She also claimed that print designers were now in a position much like painters in the late nineteenth century as photography and cinema were on the rise and that working during the "birth of another medium" in the digital realm created challenges when clients wanted screens with icons rather than books. She also talked about the art catalogue business and how branding strategies could be so important for the printed matter she had designed for the Murakami show up now at MOCA that also makes copyright and intellectual property central subjects for art.

Speaking as an LA native and one who dabbles with collaborative pedagogical experiments designed to get students to think critically about the natural and built environment that surround them, perhaps the most exciting part of Wild's talk was the making of l.a. now as a collaboration between students of architecture, public policy, and design in the area. Although she described the book initially as "one giant copyright violation" with pages and pages taken off the Internet posted around a room in their first interdisciplinary session, this collection of census data, cinematic images, snippets from regional literature, etc. turned out to be a remarkably successful project, both as a publishing venture and a sadly now-dated portrait of the region.

During the question and answer period, there was considerable talk about why book design wasn't a factor in academic hiring, promotion, and tenure, with some like Catherine Liu arguing against the "deconstructive preciosity" of books like Avital Ronnell's The Telephone Book and the value of "kicking it old school" with "tough-minded" academic tomes.

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