At the end of the eighteenth century, prints, caricatures and political cartoons were posted in print-shop windows for passing gawpers. The more affluent might buy individual prints but others hired portfolios for the evening to read in their favourite coffee shop. Vic Gatrell’s book City of Laughter (Atlantic Books) describes some interesting precursors of freemium and subscription-based business models for art and satire that were alive and kicking in London back then.
At the same time the visionary William Blake was producing poems which he engraved and coloured by hand, sang aloud to those who would listen, and attempted to sell in the form of books, the contents of which changed through time as poems were added and re-ordered. This multimedia artist and radical ran a business as an engraver, found his inspiration in psychogeographical walks around London, campaigned against child labour and exploitation, and saw angels in the trees of Peckham. His printing process was eccentric, taught to him by his dead brother in a dream.
In Songs of Imagination & Digitisation, Tim Heath, Chair of the William Blake Society writes:
“Blake was always using new technologies, often abusing technologies, not for the sake of an interest in the technology per se, but what he could use it for. He believed that, rather like learning a language… if you speak a different language maybe you ask different questions. And the language of the digital age is one that Blake would have pursued.”
If:book’s main aim is to help writers and publishers learn enough about technological change to see beyond it to the creative work that can be made with the extended palette of digital culture. We need artists like Blake who will grapple with the technology they can lay their hands on, not primarily as a means to look cool or make a quick buck, but to better communicate their burning visions.
Only if there’s a genuinely original literary practice flourishing online is there any reason to create a business model to sell it.
At a recent salon on new media literature, Romesh Gunesekera, writer in residence at Somerset House, talked about how fine art changed as paint technology improved and wondered what will happen next as writers create on the Internet.
Literary minds are in the early days of exploring the extra keys on their typewriters that let them insert sound, moving image and two-way conversations with readers into their narratives, and there’s a fascinating role emerging for curators of these new kinds of reading experiences.
Where others saw the sun as a yellow disc in the sky, Blake saw ‘an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host’. What would he see in an iPad?