"Increasingly, data flows once confined to books and later to records and films are disappearing into black holes and boxes that, as artificial intelligences, are bidding us farewell on their way to nameless high commands. In this situation we are left only with reminiscences."
-Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter
The advance of digital technology has changed our relationship to the world of things. Information once fixed in physical media such as paper or film is now digitally transferred across vast cellular, fiber optic, and telephone networks to be reassembled into images temporarily displayed on a screen. This fluid and instantaneous movement of information across space reveals the limit of object-based media, which are bound to the laws of matter. Tangible media are no longer the only--nor the most efficient--way to store and transmit data. The proliferation of data has thus split along two diverging paths. This tension between form and formlessness in media technology has placed great emphasis on the question of physicality in the work of art.
This question was pursued at length in the 1960s when artists searched for ways to undermine the commodification of the work of art. Performance-based and conceptual art practices emerged as an alternative to object creation--as if the quality of being a material thing in itself led to materialistic sensibilities. Many artists working in the past two decades have resuscitated the immaterial and participatory strategies of the 1960s in response to the dynamic landscape of information technology. No longer are these strategies pursued towards neo-Marxist ends, as they have now become part of the normative vocabulary of cultural production. In this climate, the choice to manipulate physical materials towards the creation of a work of art is no longer a given, and thus must be defended and pursued for a reason.
It is this very situation--the evolution of media and artistic production away from physical matter--that fuels the sculptural work of Brian Dettmer. Through sanding down and whittling away at books, Dettmer evokes the process of erosion and weathering. The rigid, rectangle of the book dissolves into wave-like patterns that open into intricate strata of words and images. As content morphs into miniature geologic landscapes, the natural physicality of the book is accentuated. We experience these deconstructed books as fragile, organic matter that cannot escape eventual decomposition. Books age like humans: they become discolored and stiff, and eventually their pages crumble into dust. Dettmer's tactile book-sculptures are metaphors for the decline of natural, physical media in the face of the digital, which escapes the laws of nature through lacking any single physical form. At the same time, the sheer volume and solidity of these paper peaks and valleys suggest a sense of stability and soundness that digital information necessarily lacks. We see in Dettmer's books the simultaneous vulnerability and resilience of material forms.
Dettmer's process may also be likened to a dissection, as he uses exacto knives, tweezers, and other surgical tools to expose the inner structure of books for closer examination. The process of reading a book--of interpreting linguistic and visual cues--blinds readers to the format and logic of the medium they hold in their hands. Dettmer shifts our focus to the material organization of the book. Wafer-thin sheets of wood pulp capture only that which can be expressed in crisply printed ink. Consecutive pages force content to unfold sequentially. We see that the anatomy of the book determines the shape its subject takes, and ultimately informs the structure of human perception and knowledge.
Seeing content as inseparable from form aligns Dettmer's project with the discipline of media theory. Media theory since the 1960s has been based on the premise that a medium does not affect humanity simply through the messages it communicates, but also through its intrinsic logic and relationship to the human body. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated, "The medium is the message." This statement suggests that the true "message" of any medium or technology is the change it introduces into the pattern and pace of social, political, and psychological processes. Dettmer's book-sculptures participate in this kind of thinking, turning the content of the book inside out, bringing structure to the surface, and inviting theories of the book as a medium.
The absurdity of encountering a book that decomposes and blooms into a seemingly illegible chaos emphasizes that a linear progression is more suited to this medium. Indeed, the utility of books depends on the organization of information by subject, chronology, alphabetical succession, or some other predetermined logic that allows a reader to easily navigate and make sense of the concepts presented. Once the internet replaced the book as a primary research tool, information became pliable and open-ended. The notion of cause and effect--that B always follows A--was eradicated as single paths gave way to webs and networks. We must find our own course through a nebulous universe of data, which lacks order until this very act of navigation. Dettmer approaches his books in much the same way, forging an original pathway as he selects and discards information with the slice of his blade. Under Dettmer's hand, the static viewpoint of the book shatters into an unlimited potential of viewpoints.
The multifaceted surfaces of Dettmer's books not only resemble natural landscapes, but also mimic the haphazard, multidirectional structure of the internet. Certain book-sculptures fragmented by sharp square cuts reveal a pixelated picture, further contaminating the static vector of the book with the dynamic, digital mosaic of the computer screen. Similarly, multiple book constructions, forming wheels and s-curves, suggest shapes and patterns found in nature while also alluding to the flexible path of interactive media. By imposing a new logic on an old form, Dettmer exposes the organizing principles inherent in two different phases of media-technology, which are typically internalized and taken as given. As media theorist Friedrich A. Kittler asserts, "Understanding media remains an impossibility precisely because the dominant information technologies of the day control all understanding and its illusions." Through suspending books between the natural and the digital, Dettmer reveals the contrasts and parallels between structures we take for granted. We see that a medium is never a neutral transmitter of information.
The visual, tactile noise that erupts from Dettmer's altered books recovers the multi-sensory experience books once monopolized. With the invention of audio-visual media, printed words have become relatively inert. They are no longer needed to summon sounds, images, and movements now that we can record and reproduce all three in unison. Dettmer's book-sculptures seek to revive the book form by teasing out new sensory and cognitive experiences from the words and pictures contained within. Sanded pages form a rounded unity before breaking down again into layers of flat pictorial space, producing a simultaneous fragmented and holistic experience of the book. Layered words shift between abstract moire and unexpected poetry. A Dadaist tapestry of images weaves a new visual syntax. Dettmer's book alterations surprise and sharpen our senses, effectively reactivating this medium.
As new technologies redefine our concept of reality, the status of previous technologies becomes uncertain. Adaptation--the process of modifying a form to fit new conditions--may allow old technologies to survive and remain relevant. Dettmer shows us in very literal terms what a book might look like if modified to suit a nonlinear world. In part, this act represents an impulse to resuscitate the tangible records of information that appear dead when faced with the dynamic, instantly adaptable media of the information era. At the same time, this process of selecting and shuffling recorded knowledge allows Dettmer and his viewers to examine and rethink past and present media mindsets. The resulting eroded surfaces and budding linkages are at once morbid and promising.
- Antonia Pocock
Brian Dettmer was born in Chicago in 1974 and currently lives and works in Atlanta. He received his BA in Art and Design/Art History from Columbia College. He is currently represented by Packer Schopf in Chicago, Kinz + Tillou Fine Art in New York, Toomey Tourell in San Francisco, and MiTO Gallery in Barcelona. Dettmer's work has been shown in several museums, universities, and art centers throughout the country, including the International Museum of Surgical Science, the Bellevue Arts Museum, the Rockford Art Museum, the Illinois State Museums in Chicago and Springfield, the Kohler Arts Center, and the Hyde Park Art Center.