Future of Print
May 2011

The following two short articles both deal with the future of print in general, and of books in particular. We grouped them together, because they seemed thematically similar. 

The first text is a short article we wrote for ‘The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2009’ (published in 2010). We were asked by Laurenz Brunner, designer and co-editor of the publication, to write something about the ‘the future of the book’. Other contributions were written by Paul Elliman, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Will Holder, Richard Hollis, Emily King, Jürg Lehni, Norm, Daniel van der Velden, Lawrence Weiner, and many others.

The second text is a quick note we wrote for Automatic Books (from Venice, Italy), who asked us for a text on the subject of the future of print as well, for inclusion in a then-forthcoming book. As far as we know, this book was never released, so this text hasn’t been published before.   

Before we start, first a short note about our texts in general: we do think that they date really, really fast. Not that we change our opinions so lightly – as a matter of fact, our opinions are quite stable, or so we like to believe. But the ways in which we try to formulate these opinions change quite often. We constantly need new and better words to formulate our views – it’s almost as if all these words are in orbit, circling around something that remains impossible to fully articulate, at least for us. Words fail us, really.
So although our underlying views have remained pretty much the same throughout the years, our words are always changing, to the point where they sometimes even seem to contradict each other. That’s why it’s usually quite painful to re-read old texts in general – we seldom agree with what we said.  

So why do we publish these old texts, when we know they don’t necessarily represent our current ways of describing our opinions? We think the main reason for that is exactly because we want to show these changes. By publishing these old articles, we hope to capture some of the shifts that occur from text to text – not so much shifts in our opinions, but rather shifts in our ways of translating these opinions into words.

A Handful of Future
(from ‘The Most Beautiful Swiss Books 2009’)

“The future of” – there’s something about these three words that we really dislike. Whether it’s “the future of the book”, “the future of typography”, “the future of printed matter” or any other future, there’s something about the phrase that completely puts us off. What bothers us most is the suggestion that the future is an unchangeable entity, something that develops completely independent from ourselves. A pre-determined path, to which we should adapt ourselves, whether we like it or not. We don’t buy into that idea. We simply don’t believe in “the future” as a god-like force of nature, something we should humbly succumb ourselves to.

“Our future”, well, that sounds much better already. “Our future” is something that is manageable, shapeable, changeable, buildable, doable. “A future” sounds pretty decent as well. A plural “the futures”? Why not? Just as long as we can get rid of the idea of the future as something that governs us, like some kind of pre-modern deity. Let us be reckless about it: we govern the future, not the other way around.

If a small group of people believe in something, it has a future. In the case of a beautiful book, that group can be very small indeed: what you need is a writer, a publisher, a designer, a printer and a reader.
Five persons. That’s a small tea party, a medium-sized family, a quintuplet birth, a rock band, a youth gang, a secret society, a bizarre love triangle, a car full of passengers, some shop assistants in an otherwise empty supermarket, the main cast of Seinfeld plus one, a volleyball team minus one, a quiz panel, a crew of rowers in a boat. It is literally a handful. It is almost nothing. And yet, it is enough to shape a future.

Sure, we can theorize about the future. We can boldly proclaim that the relationship between printed matter and digital media, as it exists nowadays, is akin to the relationship between painting and photography as it existed a hundred years ago. Photography never replaced painting, but it changed painting in such a way that it gained a dimension of self-consciousness: suddenly, the act of painting became part of its own subject. In the same way, digital media will alter printed matter. Printing will gain a self-referential dimension, which signals not the death of printing, but a new state of maturity. That is what we believe. But it is our own, personal scenario. If you see another future – fine! Form a small group, and shape your own future. Either that, or start a volleyball team.

Experimental Jetset, March 29, 2010

Affecting the Surface:
Some quick observations on the word ‘graphic’

(for Automatic Books)

While the word ‘graphic’ is derived from the Greek ‘graphikos’, referring to both the act of writing and drawing, it can be traced back to an even earlier, Proto-Indo-European base-word: ‘grebh’, which means ‘to scratch’ or ‘to carve’. Since early times, writing has been a form of carving: whether it’s pushing a stylus into a clay tablet, or cutting a hieroglyph into stone, the act of writing has always involved the affecting (impressing) of a surface – whether this surface was stone, clay, wax, wood, copper, velum or parchment.
This affecting of the surface is still present in current practices surrounding the word ‘graphic’. Printing still involves applying pressure to that what is printed. Whether it’s manually pressing wooden or lead letters into paper, or feeding immaculate pieces of paper to large, industrial machines, or allowing pristine sheets of paper to be bulldozed between rotating metal rolls – the act of printing irreversibly damages the fibre of the paper, however slightly. Printing is always affecting the surface, adding pressure and depth to it. To print is to scar.

Let's face it: ‘graphic’ is an inherently unpleasant word. It is part of a particular family of words that all start with the letter combination ‘gr’ and that all share the same dirty, heavy, unpleasant connotations: grim, grave, grind, grisly, gritty, grey, gruelling, grifter, grungy, etc. (And let’s not forget Grendel, the name of the oldest arch-enemy in English literature).
It is as if the physical discomfort of the act of scratching, of carving, is onomatopoetically encapsulated in the word ‘graphic’. The gutteral pronunciation seems a graphic act in itself: engraving the word in the back of your throat, literally scraping the vocal cords.

Now, compare this to the effortless pronunciation of the phrase ‘World Wide Web’. While the word ‘graphic’ is physically hard to get out of your throat, the words ‘world’, ‘wide’ and ‘web’ behave like bubbles on the surface of your lips. The words don’t even seem to come from within; the sounds ‘wo-’, ‘wi-’ and ‘we-’ appear to exist solely on the exterior of your body, floating like speech balloons outside your mouth. And while the word ‘graphic' comes with all the gutteral connotations of negativity, the phrase ‘World Wide Web’ is a floating, bubbly cloud of positivity: “He’s got the Whole Wide World in his hands”.
It's not surprising then, that the language surrounding digital media is filled with ‘clouds’, ‘bubbles’, ‘streams’ and similar words. From ‘the internet bubble’ to ‘word-clouds’ to ‘live-streams’, the jargon of digital media is projecting a certain effortlessness, an airiness, an immateriality. Whereas graphic practice involves the act of physically affecting the surface (always a dirty, unpleasant act), digital media seem to be floating high above the surface – like clouds in the air.

If we wanted to sketch (or indeed, to print) the situation in black and white, the above situation seems to sum up the choice that we have right now, as graphic designers. Do we want to affect the surface, marking it irreversibly, by adding pressure and depth? Or do we want to float high above the surface, like clouds in the air, without touching the material base, utterly disconnected from the physical (and ideological) ballast of history? To grebh or not to grebh, that is the question.

Experimental Jetset, May 24, 2011


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