Digitized Classics – Printed Imperfections

On: May 11, 2014
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About Nora Wohlfeil
Born and raised in Germany with a stop over in Japan. In my Bachelor's I studied Communication & Cultural Management. I am interested in what cultural heritage means in the digital era and how new media affect our society - in whatever ways that may be. Also I love cheese and music.


“To change the material artifact is to transform the context and circumstances for interacting with the words, which inevitably changes the meanings of the words as well” (Hayles 23).

With this sentence N. Katherine Hayles summarizes the importance of considering the material context of works, or material artifacts as she calls them, in order to enable a fuller understanding of all the components that make up the experience of reading the final product. Every change of the material properties that make up a work inevitably also brings about consequences for its content. Turning works, in this case novels, from a printed into a digital context produces a very specific set of alterations. What Rosa Menkman in The Glitch Moment(um) explorers as a form of art, are manifestations of machines, in this case the computer, failing to produce the wanted results. In some cases this very failure is even emphasized to make a point. This post will introduce five case studies of bookworks, a concept coined by the Dutch intermedia artist Ulises Carrión to describe a category of books that can include any form of signs and words in unusual arrangements (cf. Carrion 165). All of them play with this idea of digital failure. The examples used will include American Psycho by the publishing house TRAUMAWIEN, Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS) a project by the artist Stephanie Syjuco, Tom Scott’s Shakespeare.txt.jpg as well as the Frankenfont project by the information designer Ben Fry of Fathom Information Design. By highlighting the errors and lossiness inherent to processes of digitization, they hold up a mirror to the ever more sleek aesthetics of current day information technology.


Materiality Matters 

The “digitization of everything” is an aspect in our lives that can no longer be neglected, and within this aspect questions concerning the losses and the gains of this process become more and more apparent. Not only in general social regards, but also in terms of aesthetics. As literature is the primary focus here, the shift from physical to digital objects, allows for questions such as “how does the dematerialization of books effect our understanding of them? Can digital books be made physical again?” (Shaykin n.pag.) While the increase and proliferation of electronic devices has altered the material basis–the shift from physical to digital–of literary production, digital shall not be understood as immaterial or “dematerialized”. In fact the case studies will show how digital or digitized texts are material examples of software seeing that within the digital realm a “new materiality“ is created (Bouchardon, n.pag.). And while the question of materiality has oftentimes been neglected in literary studies, with the focus having been rather set on the content (Galey 216), the bookworks used in this essay exemplify why it is important to have a “medium-specific” approach (Hayles). N. Katherine Hayles argues that this very transition from a physical, or print, to a digital object and sometimes back to a print object, can change the whole meaning of the text, depending on the format the work is then presented in (Hayles 23, 24). The materiality of a work not only makes up its “physical attributes constituting any artifact” (Hayles 32), but it affects the reading experience as it transforms the actual context of the words (Hayles 23) hence leading to a different understanding of the book at hand. The work Special Collection by Benjamin Shaykin illustrates how the transformation of the format of a work may indeed alter its materiality. Shaykin used Google books to create a small collection of  books that reveal the errors and disruptions that enter the work while being scanned and digitized. These disruptions include for instance the scanner‘s hand, blurry illustrations or scans that were done while the page was still turned (Shakykin). As these were surely not part of the print edition beforehand and because “a work on paper usually proposes a materiality which appears natural to us” (Bouchardon n.pag.), the process of digitization and the subsequent turn of those works into print again asks us to to critically engage with the “unintended consequences” of digital technologies (Shaykin). Materiality of a bookwork does indeed matter when it comes to the experience of reading a text, because when it underwent a process of digitization the outcome can no longer be considered the same work.


Imperfect Aesthetics 

Apart from the aspect of materiality the topic of imperfection plays an important role in the relation between printed and digitized versions of text. As the following case studies will exemplify the process of translating texts from one state into the other is always prone to incorporating errors or noise, when considered from an angle of information theory. As Kim Cascone elaborates in his essay “The Aesthetics of Failure” from 2000, failure has its very own aesthetics, “reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion” (Cascone 13). Every sleek digital hightech device and every digital process also involves some elements of imperfections, often so minute that they can pass unnoticed. Rosa Menkman explains in her introduction to the book The Glitch Moment(um) how those very moments of failure, can be amplified and fruitfully turned into works of art. Drawing attention to the aspect of noise, according to Menkman, goes against the very idea of how technology and its design is usually meant to function – a good device is visible as little as possible. However, the encounter with the horror of the glitch opens up possibility for fruitful reflection. It raises questions of authorship, control and functionality (cf. Menkman 30). Questioning these categories can actually bring about a more aware human-machine relationship. Alan Liu in The Laws of Cool elaborates further on the concept of the aesthetics of failure mentioned by Cascone but also on the concept of noise as employed in Glitch art. In trying to find one overarching aesthetic for the information age, one of the main frames is that of destructivity, according to Liu. The idea of a destructive artistic response has already been carried out in the likes of “modernist art and its post-1960’s successors” (Liu 330). However, with the rise of digital technologies specific forms of destruction and specific aesthetics of failure apply. As a reference Liu mentions the information theory of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, a famous model portraying the transmittal of information between sender and receiver, that emphasizes the inevitability of noise in all communication. Noise is an inbuilt function of even the sleekest communication devices, itself being an outcome of electronic circuits. The following will show how this very noise becomes a part of processes of digitization. The works in a way materially manifest this noise, highlighting elements of imperfection involved in turning paper books into digital formats.


American Psycho

American Psycho is a book publishBildschirmfoto 2014-05-06 um 09.25.00.pnged by Austrian publishing house TRAUMAWIEN. For the bookwork the content of Bret Easton Ellis‘ original was sent, page by page, through two Google mail accounts. Google usually advertises on the sidebar of email accounts with ads responding to the mail content. In the course of the mail exchange these adverts were saved for each page and embedded as a footnote to the work, in this way a total of 800 ads were collected. In the final version of the printed book the original content of the novel was erased, only the chapter titles and the footnotes (ads) serve as a reference to the original text (cf. TRAUMAWIEN). In terms of materiality American Psycho shows that a whole new content is created when put into a digital format. The digitized classic becomes a work of advertisement. In a playful way the book thus shows how being embedded in an online context differs fundamentally from the context of a print book – the ads in fact become more materially real than the actual content of the original. By choosing a print version as the final output, the online environment now making up the work, the mix of ads from the mail exchange, is taken out of its context. Thus, the online processes become especially apparent. Printing the works that have been digitally altered, therefore helps to emphasize the strange processes they underwent online.


Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS)

The book installation Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS) by the artist Stephanie Syjuco from 2011 uses the literary classic by Joseph Conrad as a basis. The printed version of the books are drawn from three different online sources, including all the information available on these platforms such as ads, mistakes and mistranslations (cf. Syjuco). The covers of the books are made up of the links to the respective websites from which the content is drawn. Syjuco hereby comments on the changes Heart of Darkness underwent migrating from a printed to a digital context. In a similar manner to American Psycho it says something about the inherent noise that comes with all processes of digitization. While the ads are a byproduct of reading texts in a digital environment, the mistranslations and misspellings are inherent to machine processes of reading printed text and digitizing it. The different versions of Heart of Darkness thus show that these texts indeed reflect software processes of handling text which come with their materially very specific properties.



Bildschirmfoto 2014-05-06 um 09.45.37.png

In his work Tom Scott has created six different versions of Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet by compressing JPEG images. The text was put as a RAW file into Photoshop and afterwards saved as a JPEG and finally outputted as a text file again. As JPEG files loose quality every time they are saved over and over again, the text slowly diminishes in readability (cf. Scott). Scott’s work comments directly on processes of saving and modifying texts online. Clearly, online processes of handling text add their very own layer to a work everytime it is shifted from one format to another, adding a little more imperfection as the file moves on. Scott highlights this process by willfully distorting the original in photoshop. The import and export command is at the very heart of computational materiality Lev Manovich elaborates in his paper: “In other words”, “import” and “export” commands of graphics, animation, video editing, compositing, and modeling software are historically more important than the individual operations these programs offer (Manovich 124)”. Importing and exporting plays a part in all work done on the computer and thus also becomes an important component of handling digital text files. The JPEG Shakespeare work draws attentions to the functioning of a certain file format, but also bespeaks of the larger phenomenons that accompany releasing a text into an online environment. Far from always producing high quality rendering of texts, as the file travels it often slowly deteriorates.



Bildschirmfoto 2014-05-10 um 15.23.36.pngThis version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Frankenfont, by Fathom Information Design was created by using characters and glyphs from 64,076 PDFs that were generated through internet search (Yahoo! Search API). The search queried for the 5483 unique words in the Frankenstein book. Within the found PDF files 347,565 subsetted fonts, a font that is not entirely embedded in the original PDF and can thus not be worked upon by recipients, were found. Out of those 55,382 unique glyph shapes were used for filling the 342,889 individual letters in the newly created Frankenstein text (cf. Fathom). The final novel begins with a coherent mix of Arial and Helvetica fonts as well as occasional uses of Times New Roman, as these are the fonts most popular in the PDFs. Towards the end of the book non-Roman fonts, pictograms and special typefaces are found. As the monster in the book evolves and becomes more and more uncontrollable, the typography does so as well, becoming more and more incoherent and “out of control” towards the end of the story. In this way the design of the book with its deteriorating font also helps to underline the content of the actual story. Furthermore, the imperfection of the fonts in the PDFs is translated into the print version of the book. Thus, a new sort of materiality is created for the book. Fathom Design uses the special characteristics of PDF fonts and the restrictions embedded in each and every PDF file, in order to create a Frankenstein version that encompasses all those possible versions. While the imperfection in this example is created on purpose, it also reflects on the processes of alteration and the specific frameworks that textfiles have to undergo when entering online environments.

In summary, all the examples used in this short post on imperfection and materiality show, that the transferral from print to online environments comes with very specific affordances. As N. Katherine Hayles emphasizes in “Material Metaphors, Technotexts and Medium-Specific Analysis” changing the material artifact always necessarily has consequences for its content (cf. Hayles 23). Rosa Menkman in The Glitch Moment(um) elaborates on this idea, by explaining that the alterations brought about by machine failure and the noise in communication between devices can raise questions of authorship, control and functionality (cf. Menkman 30). All the works used in this analysis in some way commented on and played with these possible alterations. While American Psycho playfully altered the content of Bret Easton Ellis original novel incorporating Gmail advertisements into the work and finally making them the sole basis of the resulting novel, Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS) took Heart of Darkness as its basis in order to show that within the many different versions of a text circulating online many have gained unwanted baggage – mistakes in spelling, incorrect characters and the like brought about by the process of digitization. Shakespeare.txt.jpg and Frankenfont on the other hand highlight the way in which specific file formats such as JPEG and PDF come with their very own restrictions and rules that can create a software based imperfection in the works in their very own way. Clearly, these four examples show that the cleanness and sleekness of digital hightech is only an illusion and that also all processes of digitization create unwanted effects on the side. On a broader level the case studies also raise questions concerning the digitization of cultural artifacts as such, using Heart of Darkness, Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein and American Psycho as their basis. The examples have shown that software provides a new material setting as well as changing the context of a work, which hence can lead to a wider debate of the quality of cultural artifacts in digital contexts.



Bouchardon, Serge. The Aesthetics of Materiality in Electronic Literature. Conference Proceedings of Electronic Literature in Europe. September 2008, Bergen. 9 May 2014. <http://www.utc.fr/~bouchard/articles/bouchardon-bergen-materiality.pdf>.

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books.” 1975. 11 May 2014.  <http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/faculty/reese/classes/artistsbooks/Ulises%20Carrion,%20The%20New%20Art%20of%20Making%20Books.pdf>.

Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Computer Music Journal. Vol. 24. 4 (2000): 12-18.

Fathom. 2014. 11 May 2014. <http://fathom.info/frankenfont>.

Galey, Alan. “The Enkindling Reciter: E-Books in the Bibliographic Imagination.” Book History Vol. V (2012): 210-247.

Hayles, Katherine N.  “Material Metaphors, Technotexts and Medium-Specific Analysis.” Writing Machines. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002. 19-33.

Liu, Alan. “Information Is Style”. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 195-230.

Manovich, Lev.“Import/Export”. Software Studies: A Lexicon. Ed. Matthew Fuller. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 119-125.

Menkman, Rosa. The Glitch Moment(um). Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011.

Scott, Tom. “Shakespeare.txt.jpg”. 2013. 11 May 2014. <http://www.tomscott.com/romeo/>.

Shaykin, Benjamin. “Special Collection”. 2009. 11 May 2014. <http://benjaminshaykin.com/Special-Collection>.

Syjuco, Stephanie. “Phantoms (H__RT _F D_RKN_SS)“. 2011. 10 May 2014. <http://www.stephaniesyjuco.com/p_phantoms.html>.

TRAUMAWIEN. 2014. 10 May 2014. <http://traumawien.at>.



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