Carnegie Mellon University
June 04, 2020

Art Meets Tech in Born-Digital Artist's Book

By Andrew Prisbylla

Shannon Riffe
  • University Libraries
  • 412-268-7260
A project created by a recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate dares to challenge the traditional definition of an artist's book, and you can find it in the University Libraries' catalog.

Unlike a print book or monograph that showcases creative work, an artist's book is itself considered a piece of art. Although it maintains the form and function of a book, the item is considered an artistic object. Artists' books may differ in size and shape from traditional books, and play with content and technique. Using this physical format allows an artist to experiment with the medium to reach a larger audience than the conventional art gallery setting.

The born-digital artist's book "Asterisk" is the first of its kind to be digitally preserved by the Libraries, with the final work entering the collection in April after a year-long process.

The term born-digital refers to materials that originate in a digital form. The artist's book is traditionally a physical format, making this unique title an example of a work that bridges the gap between art conservation and digital preservation. It's a notable addition to the Libraries' Artists' Book Collection stewarded by Senior Librarian of Art and Drama Mo Dawley.

"Asterisk" was created by School of Computer Science 2019 graduate Julia Hou for Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English Jim Daniels' Advanced Poetry Workshop in April 2019. A portion of the workshop is devoted to artists' book creation, where students can transform their poetry into a one-of-a-kind, artistic object. Upon seeing a website collection of digital poetry, Hou — who holds a bachelor's degree in computer science with a creative writing minor — became fascinated with the format and the possibilities it allowed for creative expression.

"Words and language are a way for me to express myself, but I've struggled with them for years, which I feel is a fairly common experience," Hou said. "As a quiet, soft-spoken person, sometimes it's difficult to marshal my thoughts and speak my mind. Words are a blessing and a curse."

Using the 2016 HackCMU-winning game created-index as inspiration, Hou retrieved the open-source, three.js code from KiltHub and experimented with its contents. Three.js is a JavaScript application used in 3D computer animation. Once the basic functionality was understood, Hou remixed elements of the source code in order to create the text-based trees, stars and skies found within "Asterisk."

"I wanted to create a digital poem that expresses this idea of living in a world that is built of words and feeling trapped inside it," Hou said.

Professor Daniels showed the finished work to Dawley, who was thrilled with the results, and wanted to include it in the Artists' Book Collection.

"It's not so easy to articulate my experience viewing this work in a few sentences and it's different every time," Dawley said. "I love its intimacy and mystery. I am exhilarated by how my sense of control is dashed to pieces as form and text coagulate then disperse. It's mesmerizing."

Cataloging an artists' book for a library collection is typically a straight-forward procedure, with one department overseeing the entire process, but the challenge of indexing and preserving "Asterisk" became a collaborative effort involving multiple divisions within the University Libraries.

"I had no idea about the issues and challenges that needed to be taken into consideration to transform Julia's book into a searchable item on the Libraries' catalog platform," Dawley said.

Web and Applications Developer Jonathan Kiritharan was responsible for transferring a copy of Hou's original website to the Libraries' digital preservation server for hosting. With Hou's work initially hosted privately, Kiritharan referred to documentation Hou uploaded to the Libraries' KiltHub repository to ensure that the JavaScript functioned properly in its new environment. Both versions are on view in the catalog.

"This project raised questions about the nature of preservation," Kiritharan said. "Since we are taking this object and placing it in a new realm that the artist didn't originally envision, does that compromise anything about the work?"

Digital Humanities Developer Matthew Lincoln served as a consultant on the project and assisted in the transition from traditional conservation practices to those of digital preservation. He urged the group to think of the project as a preservation of an artistic object rather than the maintenance of a piece of software.

"Jonathan's query raised all kinds of questions about the integrity of the piece, and art conservators have many strategies for helping to answer these questions that can sometimes seem unanswerable," Lincoln said. "What was particularly useful in our case was differentiating the tasks of preserving versus presenting the work."

With the project complete, Hou is surprised and excited for the attention she has received from the Libraries, and hopes the work inspires others on campus as well.

"I never thought anyone besides the people in my workshop would see it," Hou said. "But now that it's out there, I want 'Asterisk' to be able to reach people and inspire them for years to come. I hope to see other kinds of digital-born poems pop up from other CMU writers too."