This essay was written
for inclusion in Code–X:
Paper, Ink, Pixel and Screen,
bookRoom, Farnham, 2015.
The methods of making printed pages have always changed and evolved, from the impression of formed metal and thick ink, to the repelling of water and oil on a photo-sensitised surface, to the electrostatic charge of fine powder fused by direct heat.
The activity of publishing, tethered by the economies particular to each publisher, utilises these various means to produce books and pamphlets, either handing over the entire process to printers and binders, or, as is often the case with self-publishing and artists publications, carrying out parts of the process, and becoming a book manufacturer as well.
The ability and willingness to self-produce a publication is as varied as the actual content. The traditional book, printed on quality stock, sewn and case bound, is beyond the inclination of the vast majority of those primarily concerned with simply issuing content to the world at large. However, the pamphlet, idiomatic of much self-publishing of the twentieth century is both relatively cheap and easily-achieved—mimeographed or photocopied pages, collated, folded and stapled—a very often domestic activity.
I began producing small publications in the late 1970s, printing on a table-top letterpress machine, with hand-set type, and images made with tipped-in parts, or via relief-cuts, or etched blocks. Plain and basic things, printed in runs of never more than a hundred copies, they were part of what was a teething process. The method was always distinctly restricting, and with hindsight the limitations probably played a large part in the content itself. So text was short, page size small, extent modest; in its way the means led to the ends.
With the restrictions always in mind, elaboration was by integrating other parts from elsewhere, to combine what could be done in house with what might be got in. Change isn’t a necessity of course, the restrictive can provide opportunity to entrench and and pursue endless variation; but, the pursuit of hybrids wasn’t the choice, this was an experiment in trying things out, to see what was possible, while at the same time looking for what might necessarily be the content and subject.
Over the next thirty years, working with, and alongside, like-minded artists/writers/printers/publishers, differences and similarities were gradually made plain. The distinct matters of choice, and concern. It became obvious that to publish was to have a preoccupation with the book itself: how it could be made, how it could be used, and how it could be read.
The structure of sequence, and direction, the gathering and grouping of content, became the subject of many attempts and demonstrations, in each instance informed by what had gone before. This wasn’t exactly a regular list of titles, a pile of books, not an accumulation in a linear sense, but an expanding whole, the parts placed at the edge of something that gradually defined its own limits.
The content was more often than not borrowed, or commandeered, for new usage. Edited piecemeal from sources such as geographical texts, modernist literature, radio transcripts, the book became a structure for fragments to be placed and read, by page, and then by the further diminishing unit of line and word and letter. Not a literary project as such, but a deployment of text as a conceptual tool for the disruption of meaning and structure. There was always a subject, or a focus, also inherited from the source: a type of place; a type of sound; a type of direction, or action.
The making of a pasted-up artwork, using photosetting and drawn or processed line-work, placed, and fixed with adhesive, was the prime activity for print production prior to computer formatting. Whether for photocopy or offset litho the means was the same, and the final printed page disguised the process, only the method of reproduction, be it ink or toner, was actually evident.
Other means were available, not used or practical in a commercial sense, but nonetheless perfect for limited use. In the early 1990s I published several substantial books in batches, small, but not limited, editions. These used an electric typewriter, with black carbon and white correction ribbons, the content printed directly and individually onto coloured stock; and similarly a series of handwritten pamphlets made with a black rapidograph pen. The activity of physically typing and writing seemed historically linked to the repetitive practices of the mechanical and clerical office, and the monastic scriptorium, the process had gone somewhat out of its time.
Means changed, but others remained constant, so, the hand-printing of short letterpress texts was used for a publication in 2003 as it had been twenty years earlier. While pages printed with a domestic inkjet machine only began around that time, the coloured content composed and designed on-screen, compressing the process of editing and production.
I can’t recall now if there was an interim period between when a job was supplied to a printer in artwork form, to physically make a litho plate, via process camera and repro film, and now, when data is sent as a high-resolution pdf, and content arrives digitally on paper seemingly without further process. The direct interplay between writing, editing and constructing pages on-screen marked the most significant change in the physical making of books. The process of gathering text and manipulating the fit and extent within one device was key to the compression of what were separate activities into a new autonomy: the publisher could be writer, editor, designer, typesetter, and printer, all from the same desk.
When, in 2007, having avoided the idea for long enough, I decided to make a website, a simple question presented itself. Was it possible to consider what you saw within the bounds of the monitor as a sheet of paper, and so was the edge of the screen equivalent to the edge of the page? I didn’t have any understanding of how to begin, but I had an idea of how I thought it should look, and how I wanted it to be structured. The coder I worked with made a template where the text and images were placed on what was equivalent to a piece of white paper.
Once we had the style for this simple format, it was then easy to duplicate page after page and begin the role of online publisher. Works that had been made primarily as books, the content interrupted by physical sequence, could now be reformatted as a single page: the format as wide as the frame of the browser, and of unlimited depth.
Basic HTML allowed simple variations to be applied to text; trial and error the process of learning. It was picked up as a system and it either worked correctly, or it was wrong. Pages could be published, then amended, and amended again, without the finality there is with print. During the next several years I published about thirty pages of online work. New versions made in and for a browser, assembled from the raw materials of scanned or cut and pasted text, digital images, manuscripts and typescripts, to be read in the identical form that they were constructed. The entire process of publishing done within the illuminated bounds of the device, and the process of reading done likewise.
For the last several years, my focus has been on publishing a general series of determinedly physical books. Models for independent publishing have changed markedly, books can now reach readers direct, via online networks of targeted information and focus. With the two modes, online publishing and printed books, the uncertainty about what publishing now is, what it has become through these parallel tools, is often characterised as undergoing some sort of uncertainty, even crisis. While the prevailing tendency is to look for what is flawed: the fugitiveness of platforms and hardware, markets and exploitation, examples with tendencies towards the potentially defunct.
The animated turning of pages in pdf readers such as issuu, FlippingBook, their simulation of the act; the books with what often appear to be just the symptoms of books, produced by Blurb, Lulu, and Lightning Source, effortlessly, and at will. (The nature of that will varying from caution to blind optimism, and thereby the production of the single unique example to the first batch, a handful, or a room-full.) The comparative effort of reading the extended and the succinct, the blog or the tweet, desire and restraint as causal components for mass behavioural change, in terms of attention at least. The polarity of total availability created by ubuweb, monoskop, aaaaarg, and the commercial aggression and self-interest of Amazon, can be turned on and off at a click, the inherent moral politics as plain as day.
The vast archival load taken on voluntarily and posted online in the last decade, the attention to accurately present the nuances of printed forms, the physicality of paper and print illuminated on screen, has had effect in creating and establishing a meticulous aesthetic of the historical. The scanned or photographed vernacular document is now uploaded and classified, searched for and located, freely distributed after the event. What had once become elusive, gone out of print, scarce and hidden and thereby of its time, can be made available once more. Republished, facsimiled, itself now.
Strictly speaking, publication is always to do with exchange; either by commerce, as in the traditional production and sale of physical books, or now, by making online content available to view and to take—a radically different quality and scope to the connections between publisher and reader.
During its first few years of activity, Uniformbooks has attempted to keep a momentum of publication, and while online platforms and social media provide formats for posting regular announcements and fresh content, the actual books appear somewhat erratically. The diversity of the titles we publish results in several arriving at once, and we go to press as soon as possible, without the planned marketing schedules of trade publishing.
Printed offset litho and launched in Autumn 2014, Uniformagazine is intended as a quarterly occurrence alongside the books, for the variety of writers, artists and contributors that we work with and publish, as well as for slighter or peripheral content; not necessarily thematic, but with that possibility. As singular as the daily blog entry, as restricted as the tweet, the plain form of the pamphlet has persisted throughout the history of publishing, its flexibility and limited extent perfectly suited to a single subject or to simple gatherings of text and imagery.