E-books Are the Future of Art: How Paperless Publishing is Creating a New Art Form

I just purchased my first piece of artwork the other day, for a whopping $1.99 on Amazon. It was HELL_TREE, an e-book by Petra Cortright that consists of writings and images from the artist's computer desktop. I’ve been following the exploits of the Santa Barbara-based internet artist since I curated one of her videos at an exhibition in Berlin. HELL_TREE was released in a slew of summer releases by Badlands, a publishing house founded by artist Paul Chan in 2010 that makes “books in an expanded field.” Other titles from Badlands include Poems by Yvonne Rainer, available in digital form with audio and video files, and How to Download a Boyfriend, a group exhibition as an interactive e-book. 

E-books may represent a revolution in the accessibility of art. From 2010 to 2011, the number of e-books read in the U.S. increased 11%, and the rise of the tablet has witnessed the creation of many new forms of publishing, media, and now, art. We now receive and transmit most information digitally, many may wonder what we miss out on physically. A Kindle owner myself, I’ll admit I am nostalgic about the smell and look of book covers, but I can’t argue against the environmental benefits of paperless publishing. 

When German literary critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin, wrote in 1936 about the diminishing “aura” of the artwork and the new possibilities of media in the modern age of mechanical reproduction, he hadn’t yet encountered the Information Age. Internet and digital art, virtual museums (like in the Google Art Project), online art fairs, and “Art Genome” sites like Art.sy have made many wonder anew about the importance of physically viewing an original work of art, and the presence of public art institutions and museums. Although an e-book is no substitute for standing under the Louis Bourgeois' enormous looming-spider sculpture, "Maman," electronic media and digital art address our new, contemporary digital reality.

The e-book format still presents kinks that need be ironed out. Petra Cortright’s e-book is downloadable only to iPad, Kindle Fire, or an Android device. I don’t have the first two, so I downloaded the e-book to my smart phone and attempted to read it from there. I have always admired Cortright for her irreverent glorification of the lo-fi and the seemingly irrelevant, however,  this was not exactly pleasant reading. Full of detailed screenshot composites with miniscule text, the e-book was obviously viewed best on a tablet, and zooming in on my small phone screen was a laborious process. I felt annoyed that the publisher, Badlands Unlimited, has allowed the e-book to be downloaded to devices that undermine the artwork’s legibility and impact. Until this concern is addressed, I will accept that it is currently the wild west of e-book publishing and I will download HELL_TREE to my friend’s iPad.

Usability issues aside, Cortright’s e-book is an admirable and interesting direction for artists, publishers, writers, and people that fall somewhere in the middle. Cortright produced and successfully sold — to this author at least — an affordable and accessible piece of artwork in an experimental new genre.