“The Art of Hybrid Publishing” – Interview by the Hybrid Publishing Lab

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In occasion of the upcoming Post-Digital Scholar Conference (12-14 November, Lüneburg), I answered a few questions on “The Art of Hybrid Publishing”. The interview was originally posted here.

Hybrid Publishing Lab: What recent changes do you see in working with the visual aspects of publishing?

Silvio Lorusso: If we consider e-books, my impression is that the visual aspects of publishing, part of what is traditionally called editorial design, are still problematic. EPUBs are subject to the restrictions of various render engines, devices, retail platforms, etc. To realise this, it is sufficient to follow the #eprdct thread on Twitter: there’s a constant demand for hacks or shortcuts to make visual features work among different systems. Looking instead at platform-specific tools such as iBooks Author, my feeling is that the “enhancements” they produce are most of the time just an interactive “topping” on very traditional – not to say reactionary – forms of publication.

In an article recently appeared on BuzzFeed, Lincoln Michel states: “Despite the regular hyping of enhanced e-books/hypertext/apps/interactive books, I don’t see those going anywhere outside of a few specific markets like children’s books and textbooks. The problem is that we already have a whole industry devoted to interactive narratives: video games.” I would add that the Web itself seems to offer a mature and fruitful space for interactive narrative and visual experimentation. So why confining such possibilities in an enclosed and secluded form? The main reason seems to be commercial: websites are not perceived as products to buy. That said, a publication that is in some ways separated from the Web makes sense in many cases, as it triggers very different dynamics of fruition and exchange. This situation leads me to believe that designers should try to conceive publishing formats that parasitically take advantage of the existing platforms and technologies and leave bigotry aside when determining what a publication is. In this regard, I can mention a proposal by Konst & Teknik to use existing Wi-Fi signals to distribute 5–10 lines of text in the form of network names and passwords.

Paradoxically enough, visual and material efforts in print design are more lively than ever. Sometimes they represent a direct response to its alleged marginality. Take for instance the incipit of Fully Booked: Ink on Paper (Gestalten, 2013), in which the clichés about the death of paper are subverted: “Let me state this for the record: The internet is not dead.” Here the digital environment plays a crucial part as well: platforms like Tumblr foster a ceaseless visual dialogue and exchange between designers all over the world. While I appreciate this phenomenon, I perceive a certain homogenisation of styles and graphic solutions.

HPL: Can you share with our readers what the Post-Digital Publishing Archive is about? And do you think of an archive as a new digital form of publication?

Lorusso: The Post-Digital Publishing Archive actively question the meaning of publishing in a computational and networked context. In doing so, it aims to contribute to an extension of this very notion. It mainly consists of two channels. The first one is p-dpa.net, currently including around 30 projects by artists, designers and poets. It also hosts a growing series of interviews and articles. In my opinion, the index page is the most useful, because it connects the artworks by the media, technologies, and platforms employed, so they can be replicated, transformed, or remixed. The second channel is p-dpa.tumblr.com, a more or less daily activity log. Currently, I’m working on an open glossary of terms and concepts somehow related to this extended notion of publishing. It stems from the need to rethink the language used to investigate such fluid field of study. People are free to add items.

I definitely see the archive as a form of publication. I would even say that it is the contemporary form of publication par excellence. Cloud systems and social media push users towards an incessant collection and organisation of the contents they produced or stumble upon, but only within protected spaces. Pervasive archiving is the default. And when third parties construct users’ identities by linking the archived materials, it becomes critical to develop tools and methods to actively question the effects of these archiving procedures and to develop more autonomous ones.

HPL: What was your experience when developing the Digital Toolkit for publishers?

Lorusso: The Digital Publishing Toolkit consortium consists of four subgroups. The one I collaborate with is devoted to the development of a new hybrid workflow for the Institute of Network Cultures, whose publications are mainly text-oriented. We discussed about and experimented with metadata, markup languages, conversion tools, publishing platforms, etc. By doing this we realised that, while at the moment there is no ideal or ready-made solution, the process of developing custom techniques stimulates new approaches to the production of content.

As an example, EPUB is generally considered an output format for classic publication formats such as the novel or the anthology. But what about using it as a means to archive content from the Web? Or, conversely, what about looking at EPUB as a source, whereas it is easily accessible both by humans and machines? By investigating the way digital publications are produced, several preconceptions become apparent and can therefore be called into question.

HPL: Which book will you always have as an analogue copy in your bookshelf?

Lorusso: Recently I had to move, so I could only bring with me books that are: 1. easily portable; 2. not easily translatable to a digital version. The one that best fits these criteria is a small flip book by Federico Antonini and Alessio D’Ellena titled The ‘Guy Montag Flipping a Softcover Blank Book’ Flip Book. Its size is 650 x 90mm. It contains a scene from the movie Fahrenheit 451 (1966) in which Guy Montag flips a blank book while explaining where to find the books to burn. I like the way it reflects multiple materialities, by “flip-flopping” – to use a notion by Robin Sloan – from book to movie and back to book again.

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