“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
The snowball of “digital transition” is now rolling downhill like some cartoon snowball. Today, connected virtually to everything from everywhere, we no longer take the time to recognize let alone consider the medium or differentiate it from the message. What is book, newspaper, RSS, blog, film, video, text, email, tweet, mp3 or html no longer matters to us. Desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, iWatch… it is all just impressions on a screen.
I thought this would be a good time to stop and take a breath. as the world whirs around you like a skater in a spin sometimes you have to pick a spot, mark it, and focus on it so as to not get dizzy. That is what Art often does best.
In 1973 Marcel Broodthaers made a short film that asks us to meditate on the nature of content in the context of medium in a simple openended way.
As you rush to try and figure out what is next for publishing, curation, librarianship, journalism or any industry based on content dissemination, take 5 minutes, click on the link below, and watch Un Voyage en Mer du Nord then go to lunch and quietly think about what you really do for a living.
A recent exhibition at pioneering curator and collector Thomas Solomon’s new gallery, Solo Projects, paired a 16-mm silent film, Un Voyage en Mer du Nord (A Voyage on the North Sea), 1973-74, with a thirty-eight-page, French-bound book that shares its title and ostensible subject matter: the pairing of a late-nineteenth-century amateur painting of an archetypal European ship and a twentieth-century photograph of a pleasure boat against a modern urban backdrop. The roughly four-minute film is projected on a retractable home-movie screen—a Broodthaers motif—and the book displayed on a simple wooden shelf, lit by a single spotlight.
Un Voyage’s almost obsolete format and pedagogical presentation gave the show the feeling of a historical document. In each work, Broodthaers “cuts” into the painting and the photograph by focusing on small details. The artist is said to have dated the painting to around 1900, and initially it seems that Un Voyage is delivering a rigorous structural analysis based on formal and historical oppositions marking the divide between the nineteenth century and the twentieth: novel versus cinema; painting versus photography; shipping as commerce versus sailing as leisure. But the work does more than this. By using splicing, binding, and repetition to join these apparent opposites, it performs a complex overlapping of materiality and history. Punctuated by intertitles that demarcate fifteen “pages,” the film insinuates a relationship to contemporaneous structuralist cinema—think of the wall-mounted seascape photograph that is central to (and literally at the center of) Michael Snow’s forty-five-minute zoom in Wavelength, 1967. But again the comparison unravels as the film in Un Voyage undermines its own apparent logic, repeating “page” five twice, for example, or inserting a brief closeup of cotton weave where one would expect a shot of the painted canvas.
The film and book represent Broodthaers’s interest in reproducible media, though the relatively small edition—just one hundred examples of the pair were produced—also suggests that the artist was not aiming for a mass audience. The evidence indicates that Broodthaers was interested in complicating the status of these objects by subverting any notion of an “original” or definitive version. It should be noted that Un Voyage follows directly from several 1973 works not included in the exhibition, among them two 16-mm films—Analyse d’une peinture and Une peinture d’amateur decouverte dans une boutiquede curiosities—and a slide projection, Bateau Tableau. Un Voyage itself in many ways resembles a slide show: Testing the limits of the cinematic, Broodthaers injects a dose of humor by assembling a deliberately inert motion picture from still images.
It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation. But given how much I want to support Thessaly and Jane’s wonderful work, how much I respect the remarkable roster of contributors, many of whom I know personally, and how much the project sings to my own bibliophile heart, that wouldn’t have been the answer. Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.
I respect both Sarah Weinman and Maria Popova greatly and follow them both religiously. Each represents the best of the new world of digital content and social media and both have unwittingly joined forces to illustrate the core foundational problem of this digital evolution which we have yet to adequately address - who controls the rights to reproduction and at what point do those rights shift ownership?
The book in question here is Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force’s My Ideal Bookshelf published by Little Brown. The book features Jane Mount’s beautiful paintings of the bookshelves of creators, writers, and artists selected by Thessaly La Force. Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is a wonderful and influential blog and important discovery engine for cultural content. Ms Popova was somewhat upset that Little Brown did not make available for free more than three examples of the paintings which compose the majority of the book’s content. Any more would, according to Little Brown, constitute a subrights deal and be a serialization or reprint of the content. Maria Popova instead scanned pages from the book and called out Little Brown for their “voluntary self-deportation from relevance” and bemoaned the plight of “authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience”.
What Ms Popova neglected to mention was the other half of the creators plight - content vultures who abuse the right of fair use in order to siphon off value from the content and away from the creators. Ms Popova speaks of the author’s audience but how much of her post on My Ideal Bookshelf a review intended to call attention to the authors work and how much is intended to excerpt a portion of the work to share with her readers as editorial content as a magazine would? As a review it is quite adequate to show 3 examples in order to understand the general theme of the content. In fact the 15 examples of scanned pages she includes just seems excessive (and a bit vindictive and frankly highlights the redundancy of the work somehow devaluing it). 15 paintings are just about every painting in a 32 page signature. As an editor of a review of the book I would have cut two thirds of them as they add nothing to the piece other than space and distract from the text of the article.
As an editor for the book trade’s Publishers Marketplace and a book editor in her own right I can see Sarah Weinman’s problem with Maria Popova’s righteous indignation but this also highlights another issue that I believe needs to be addressed. People within the publishing community have a smug, dismissive attitude toward bloggers who write lengthy posts about the assumed cost of ebook creation or loads of charts on sales trends based on guesses derived from Amazon site ranking rather then actual sales numbers. Most people outside the trade do not understand how a book is made or distributed let alone the economics at play and the publishing community is not terribly keen on how advertising how antiquated and inefficient it still is so rather than take advantage of these conversation opportunities we tend to just point out the commentators lack of inside industry knowledge and move on smugly.
This does nothing but prolong the miscommunication and keeps us from addressing the real core issues that are impeding our transformation into and industry of true digital content creators. Rights are about power and control of content but they are also about definition and the definitions in most publishers dictionaries were written before email existed, let alone Facebook or Instagram. We need to have more open debate and discussion about rights and how in a digital world they impact reprint, reproduction, author royalties, translation, and promotion. Hell, we still do not even have a clear idea of the definition of ebook ownership as Random House has recently shown us. As publishers we feel we have the empirical right to the content we publish and should have complete and unquestioned control of that content and it’s distribution and dissemination. The problem is the digital world is very porous.
Unless we humble ourselves and admit that the very nature of sharing content in a digital world requires new definitions and new business models and that we as publishers no longer have full control of the distribution pipeline and that the pubic has all the same tools we do in order to make and create books, movies and music we run the risk of having other redefine them for us. As a society we have to include the reader and the sharer in the discussion and redefinition of what are the inherent and acceptable rights that govern content in a digital world. Rather than be dismissive we need to be inclusive and open a public dialog.
The most interesting thing to me about this entire spat about the rights to post images of paintings from this book is that the actual creator of said paintings seems to have not been consulted. Ms Popova feels Little Brown is making it too hard for her to promote their book and show enough content at a high enough quality as to allow her readers the feeling of actually reading the book. Little Brown feels that since they paid to create the book they should be compensated for any exploitation of that book and that bending the rules on a case by case basis based on the potential promotional value of the exposure is just too hard and complicated. To both the images in My Ideal Bookshelf are jpegs and PDFs and the argument is about the difficulty in the decision process and convenience of sharing those image files and those files inherent value.
Here is a video of Jane Mount showing just how much work goes into creating one of the paintings behind those jpegs. More than one hundred of those paintings comprise the book. The book retails for $15.61 on Amazon. I am pretty sure Jane Mount has an opinion on the value of those jpegs and just where the line of compensation and fair use should be drawn.