this text was written in 2009 for the COLLECTION OF POLISH ARTIST'S BOOK FROM THE END OF THE 20TH AND THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTURIES and later published in "The Artist's Book Yearbook 2011-2012" (Impast Press)
IS A HYPERTEXT (ARTIST'S) BOOK POSSIBLE?
And that's all. I don't have to write more. I asked a question. I answered it. Everything is clear.
No. Not everything is clear.
First of all the term “hypertext book” vanishes in the dusk of uncertainty. A hypertext novel? Yes. A hypertext short (or long) story? Yes. A hypertext poem? Yes. A hypertext book? No... Probably not... Rather not...
A book is an object having some weight, volume, capacity. Anybody can take a book, keep it in his or her hand, put it into a pocket or onto a shelf. A monitor is also an object having some weight, volume and capacity. It can also be taken, put into a bag or onto a table. Yes, but a monitor is a part of a bigger unit, bigger device and does not contain only stories. It can be used to make a lot of other things like watching films, drawing charts or listening to music. A book can be used in many ways: you can prop with it a falling cupboard or put some herbs between pages to get them dry, but these are absolutely side functions – a book is not made to be used as a weight. Although Kindle was designed for reading it can hardly be considered a book – it is a reading device, a container for texts, a kind of vessel where various drinks and refreshments can be poured into. Physicality of a book, it material aspect, manifests also in a way we use it, how we manipulate it: turn, open, shut, carry, put on a shelf... everything in direct tactile contact. We don't touch a hypertext, nor we caress the screen like we often do in the case of paper willing to feel its surface (in the case of a touch screen we touch it for another purpose, though it can be easily imagined that in the future screens will be able to change their surfaces adjusting themselves to the needs of works being just displayed). The way we cope with the screen does not consist in changing constantly its shape or location – to read next page we don't need to turn it, move, open, dismantle. However, the material, physical existence of hypertext can't be denied so easily, although its physicality is different, somehow intactible... We switch off the computer, the screen gets black and...? Somewhere on the hard disc there are strings and sequences of 0 and 1, some impulses recorded in the way absolutely magic for an ordinary reader, some potentials and voltages that have nothing to do with the things we can see on the screen. While we shut the book and nothing changes inside it, the letters and signs are still in the same places on the same pages and they are of the same quantity. Next day we open it and it looks the same and is the same (unless somebody has torn away one page in the night or it got wet, but these are external interferences, unpredictable and unexpected catastrophes); while a hypertext can be different: some hypertexts are completed works, some are not completed, some are open or in constant progress; it can happen as well that the chosen browser will not display the files properly, or the monitor has different resolution than the recommended one... A book shows itself entirely, as a whole, at once; we know how much we have read and how much is left. A hypertext doesn't do that, keeps it secret – we can never see a hypertext entirely, we can see only a part of it, we are never sure whether we have read everything, because it's so easy to miss something, to pass by this or that site. Two leaves in a book can stick together as well, but this can be noticed quite easily – wandering across a hypertext we usually don't notice that we have just missed some places, as if we were walking through a palace with many hidden chambers and corridors that we even didn't suspect they might exist; even the patience of an angel will not guarantee us to penetrate every nook and cranny – this could be guaranteed only by the slyness of the devil so helpful to get the top secret plans...
In the present digital era quite a big part of the book making process takes place in a computer. Writing, editing, layout, preparing for printing and many more – everything is happening on the screen, however it has nothing to do with any hypertext since the target is an ordinary book, a typical codex, or a pile of paper sheets seamed or glued on one side. Such a pile can be dismantled and the sheets can be put one by the other – this is a PDF file, it looks just like that: all the sheets appear on the screen, one after another, one under another, one by another... although we scroll them instead of turning, they look exactly like they will look in the printed book; in fact we can print them and make a pile by ourselves. The “pages” of a hypertext novel, or screens, can be put neither one by another nor one on the other. We can try to print them, but this is not a nice task; we should remember that a hypertext is not made for printing, due to this it is, to some extent, unprintable (just think of navigation and possible animations). The printed hypertext novel or story would look like a dead butterfly with badly damaged wings pinned to the bottom of a glass-case.
The space of a book is really different than the space of a hypertext, both the one created by a book and the one a book exists in. The element of a book is different than the element of a hypertext – that is why a water-thyme looks a bit different than a bush of elder, although they are also similar and have many common features, they can not be absolutely and totally different.
Of course, all the time I refer to the book as a pile of paper sheets joined together on one side, or to the codex. I do so for this object is with no doubt most often associated in our minds when we hear the word “book”. As the definition of a book is being widened my considerations, both above and below, will have less and less sense. And if we widen this definition infinitely thus encompassing the entire world, entire universe, then I will have to stop to write these nonsenses. So I keep this very narrow, let's say classical (for our civilisation), definition since I find writing such nonsenses quite pleasant – needless to say, only such narrow definition gives some sense to my mumbling. It is important, because it would be really difficult to have in The Collection items many times bigger than a reader, items with “pages” being just walls, these books-buildings, books-edifices, books-installations which we walk through and around really and literally, which we can't put into a suitcase and take with us for summer holidays, which we have to visit, go there specially to be able to enter them... It is also interesting that those works/objects/creations so hard to be defined, happening somewhere in the margin, on the boundary, far from the centre, are much closer to a hypertext story than to a normal paper book. Because hypertext reading looks really like walking through an (un)known city, or making shopping in a huge mall. Or like digging through a library, bookshop or second hand book store.
Yes, that's it – reading. Which means that although the bookness of hypertext is really doubtful, its literatureness is really doubtless. A text, either hyper or hypo, must be read. And if, due to any reasons, the author of a hypertext story told this story with pictures only eliminating the text entirely, then it would be much more convenient to call it a hyperfilm. This might indicate that the physicality of hypertext story is closer to the physicality of a film than the one of a book... Maybe the artisticness of a hypertext should be measured with the level of its filmness?
Artistic means what?
The term artistic, as the majority of terms, is not clear, its edges are smudged and the outline is hard to be detected, and of course it has at least a few meanings, it is ambiguous thus not understood unequivocally. The adjective artistic is derived from the noun artist, however it doesn't mean that everything labelled with this adjective comes from an artist. Not everything made by an artist is artistic, while a non-artist can make something artistic. For example: an artist can write a criminal story and neither this criminal story will be artistic nor the book (the book containing this criminal story) will be artistic (although it will be an artist's book). We should now think for a moment who deserves to be called an artist. It may seem that everybody who makes art, who produces art pieces, and not the one who writes about art or consumes art. However this is not that simple and obvious as it may seem. The way we treat art is very similar to the way we treat meat. So, we have meat, charcuterie, fish, poultry, offal – this indicates clearly that not all meat is meat (like not everything that shines is gold, according to the well known Polish proverb). And certainly a lot of people consider a pork chop meat while they don't consider so a pork jelly. Similarly we have art, literature, music, theatre, film... The meat of art is painting, sculpture, drawing, or so called fine arts (what a cunning term! pictures and sculptures can be ugly, filthy, hideous, can't they? one could think that a music, when it finally is honoured to be called art, with no doubt will not be fine). Because of that artistic refers, in the mind of a statistical, ordinary member of our society, to something painted, sculpted or drawn. However ordinary opinions of ordinary people can be sometimes really surprising, so one day I heard such an ordinary member of our society talk about an artistic song. Is there anything painted, sculpted or drawn in a song? Is any element of a song a visual one? In fact the singer's look was not the point, something absolutely non-visual was the point: the point was to sing poems written for reading or reciting, not for singing, not as lyrics, or to sing so called “involved” lyrics (involved politically or socially or... like a protest song is, however indicating the boundary between the “involved” and “not involved” lyrics seems just a waste of time); of course such songs should be sung only with a guitar... well, some other things could also be the point, but it was not explained. It was to be “different” singing, “different than normal”, as well as the songs were to be “different”, “different than normal songs”. So, in this very case artistic meant something weird, strange, extraordinary, rare, something that can not be heard everyday, something that needed maybe a kind of initiation, something for the chosen ones, with no doubt demanding intellectual effort... (Artistic gymnastics differs from the normal one due to the elements of ballet it has, while ballet can be called an artistic dancing, and its artisticness consists largely in fact it is useless for social (party) purposes, excluding conversations after the show – this is also quite interesting, another interpretation of artisticness.)
If we used the second interpretation of the term artistic then every hypertext story would be an artistic one, for it would be different than a normal text, different because weird, extraordinary, peculiar, a little bit or entirely incomprehensible, and so on. We can notice at once this is not the solution we are looking for and expecting. We should rather find a kind of typical hypertext and then the artisticness of a hypertext could be defined in opposition to this typicalness, although not every non-typical hypertext should be at once defined as artistic.
The first hypertext novel at all, afternoon. a story, written by Michael Joyce and released on a floppy disc in 1987 is extremely ascetic and rough visually. Each time a small amount of text appears on the screen, small enough to be captured entirely with one glance, a few, a dozen of short lines of tiny black letters on white background. And that's all. With no doubt such roughness and asceticism was at least partially caused by technical possibilities of computers in the 1980s – almost ten years later Joyce wrote Twelve blue where he quite consciously used colours. In comparison with up-to-date hypertext stories, this very first one looks weird, seems quite non-typical. Maybe it could be even labelled artistic... (If this essay was a hypertext essay, a link would appear in this very moment and bring a reader to another text trying to answer the following question: why black-and-white photography is concerned more artistic than the colour one? or: what is the difference between normal photography and artistic one? Fortunately this essay is not a hypertext.)
Because we have just mentioned the colour used deliberately in the hypertext story, let's take a closer look at the first interpretation of the term artistic. What means of espression do visual arts use? What arsenal do the fine arts have? Colour just mentioned. Line. Stroke. Drawing. Composition (of a page, screen, canvas, space)... Typography. Illustration. Construction. Texture. Structure. Animation... The writer's arsenal, of a writer writing in the most traditional way, with a pen, is very limited, although it's not so difficult to imagine he or she might use various pencils and crayons, and shifting from writing to drawing is not a problem at all even for somebody who insist he can't draw; however shifting from writing to typesetting is a serious problem and a writer having a typecase on the desktop, right to the copybook, is hardly imaginable. While a hyperwriter has all the tools necessary to edit and produce a hypertext story within reach. In any moment he can change the colour, size and shape of letters, use different backgrounds, paste images, add sounds... of course, provided that he knows how to use these tools, but even if he does not know he is aware they are available and can be used any time. Thus we can say (and write) that artisticness understood in such a way is something normal and typical for hypertext. If the elements mentioned above can be but extensions of a text, they seem the essence of a hypertext (well, maybe I have exaggerated a bit, but sometimes exaggeration helps to notice things we normally don't notice).
“The End of the World according to Emeryk” (www.liberatorium.com/emeryk/emeryk.html) is a hypertext story I wrote in 2002-2004. It presents one event described by more than one hundred various beings. Hypertext technology is a perfect tool to show various worlds occurring parallel to each other. Because this event is being described by entities so extremely different like a burdock, stone, lizard, car, cashier, or even an abstract notion, different languages had to be used. I could have invented the most bizarre languages, but, firstly, not all languages are based on verbal communication, and, secondly, I would have had to attach to my story more than one hundred dictionaries which would make navigating through this quite complex labyrinth even more complex and complicated. Instead of creating new grammars and most weird syntaxes or metaphors I used the whole bunch of artistic means, and the supposed non-human languages I translated into one human language (undoubtedly only things which could be verbalised). All artistic elements of “Emeryk” have semantic value, first of all. In fact in this case we have to do with a phenomenon a bit different than a normal web site, which is a hypertext, too, since it uses the linking technology. Sites can be more or less stunning, beautiful and ugly, perfectly designed and base on ready, dull and boring templates – however the artistic elements have mostly aesthetic value. If there is something special in the case of “Emeryk” making it unusual among other hypertexts, then it is the size, the capacity: “Emeryk” is like a three hundred page novel among thin poetry booklets.
All the more nothing artistic can be found in the new hypertext project I'm doing now, called “Liberland” (www.liberlandia.net). I used the phrase “hypertext project”, because I don't know myself what it is. It can be hardly labelled “a guide to hyperstate”. Because states are being built constantly and endlessly, Liberland will be written endlessly and constantly, too. Well, it means to my end, to the day when my life is ended. It is an open work, open on purpose. And we start reading it in the middle, in the centre, of course on purpose, too. As if we landed on the airport; there are many exits from the airport, each exit takes a reader somewhere else... But this is nothing special for the hypertext story. This is the everyday life of a hypertext. Every hypertext story (work) is based on an idea, each is a kind of concept, each is a piece of conceptual art (to some extent, of course)... And “The Book of All Words” by Żuk Piwkowski is, first of all, a fantastic idea, since physically it does not exist. It can't get a body. One can only “tear away” a page and print it. A sheer conceptualism one can say (and write)...
If every hypertext story in artistic, then the artisticness is no longer a distinctive feature. However not so long time ago I heard a term “artistic prose”. I can't imagine how the artistic prose could differ from normal prose: by the number of fancy metaphors or of fancy ogoneks? But prose is just an artistic text, or more beautiful and weird than an ordinary text. Or the extraordinary text... No – the poetry is supposed to be an extraordinary text. Does the artistic poetry exists? Very interesting... I wonder if this essay is an artistic one.