Brass Book – books as technology

Stevie Ronnie

Is it possible to create digital literature without giving up the familiar, tactile aspects of books? Brass Book is an art project that has attempted just that, as its creator, Newcastle-based writer and artist Stevie Ronnie explains…

It is commonly acknowledged that we live in an age where traditional ideas of art and literature are rapidly evolving through the widespread use of digital technologies. What if those technologies were harnessed to enhance the traditional book rather than replace it? Brass Book is a literary artwork that uses this idea to approach the possibilities of digital literature from another angle. It builds on the idea that books are a very successful technology in themselves: for hundreds of years we have loved them for their look, feel, smell, convenience and portability as much as the words that sit on their pages.

I have collaborated with other artists, musicians, a bookbinder, a furniture designer, a brass band and a group of writers to produce three traditionally bound and printed books incorporating touchscreen technology.

The front of the books contains a long printed poem, each line of which has been individually designed in a contemporary take on ancient illuminated manuscripts. This poem doubles as a series of prompts that were used to spark a number of interdisciplinary collaborations, which resulted in the production of videos, interactive text pieces, photographs and audio recordings. These original digital works are experienced through a bespoke interface running on an iPad embedded into the back of each book.

To complement the books, I have developed and produced a series of book sculptures, installations, performances and exhibitions exploring the concept of literature in the digital age. The unique nature of this work has been recognised in the digital and visual arts worlds through awards from the Biscuit Factory Foundation and Arts Council England.

As a writer, artist and creative researcher with a background in computing and software development, I have been exploring ideas relating to literature and technology for several years. This project began as an idea for an artist audio book scrawled into a notebook in 2010 during a meeting with Canadian media artist Jamie Allen. A year later, New Writing North put me in touch with Suzy O’Hara from Durham City Arts who was looking for a digital commission to link two of the city’s major festivals: Brass: Durham International Festival and the Durham Book Festival.

Suzy secured funding from Durham County Council and Brass Book was launched at Durham Book Festival in 2011. This exhibition served as an open call to the communities of County Durham. A dozen communities expressed an interest in working on the project and from these the Easington Writers and the Lanchester Brass Band were selected. Over the course of several months, I collaborated with these communities to produce multimedia literary works.

With further support from Arts Council England and Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Brass Book was expanded to include an exhibition tour and an innovative collaboration with musicians from The Sage Gateshead. I worked with the musicians to develop a thirty-minute performance fusing poetry with brass music, video projection, live DJ-ing and song. The performance premiered at The Sage Gateshead in August 2012 and a video recording of that performance was embedded into the third book in the series.

The aim of Brass Book is to present a digital book object that retains the tactile aspects of the traditional paper-based reading experience within the context of an art installation. The first challenge was to develop a means of presentation for the books that could be installed into a public space and allow visitors to interact with them easily and comfortably. I tackled this problem by working with talented individuals: the books themselves were produced in collaboration with Deirdre Thompson, a traditional bookbinder who creates objects that beg to be handled and are presented in a bespoke seat, produced in collaboration with furniture designer Nick James. The seat is both beautiful and functional, inviting people to take the time to sit down and explore the books in full.

Brass Book’s appeal extends beyond that of a traditional artist’s book, which we might expect to appreciate visually for a few seconds, towards literature, an art form we live with and savour over longer periods of time. The books contain stories and poems that are both sensitive to the medium of the book, and specifically written for digital. Its fusion of literature, technology, music and visual art has proved immensely popular: over ten thousand people have experienced the work to date. The magical feel of the books has drawn young and old alike. This project suggests that digital technology has more to offer the book than is often imagined: the very technologies we expect to replace the paper book can be used to increase its possibilities and appeal.

The digital books and a selection of the accompanying artworks will visit London for the last leg of their tour in an exhibition at Galleries Goldstein at Goodhood, 20 Coronet Street, London, N1 from 15th – 17th November.

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