WHILE VIEWING Object Focus: The Book at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC), I slipped into what's become a fairly regular thought experiment—one I call, "What if it was the internet?" Taking notes about a collage (Mischa Petrov's "Junior Historical Theatre Playroom Kit") I began identifying its HTTP analogs: photos of a claw-foot bathtub, pillar, and stone lion, like the results of an image search; three plastic bags (filled with glitter and small trinkets) stapled to a panel of text, like animated GIFs embedded in the "About Me" of an old-school MySpace profile.
Though I'm biased by heavy internet use, the introduction to the show's 142-page guidebook is equally aware of the digital context in which print applies its ink: "Collectively, the exhibition... employs a teaching collection as a tool for public exploration of the book as a form, a site, and an interactive object at precisely the moment when emergent technology challenges the materiality of the book in popular culture."
Admittedly, this mission statement sounds a bit clinical, but don't be fooled; it's a show that comes to the hospital bed of Uncle Print and, with a photo album in its lap, "focuses on the good times"—surveying a few of the medium's ambitious experiments. Culled from Reed College's Special Collections, the exhibit spans many movements and artists, from Takako Saito's chessboard (populated by miniature black-and-white books) to a text documenting the making of Ai Weiwei's film, Beijing 10/2003, and on to John Cage's "Rolywholyover: A Circus," a "composition for museum" designed to accompany his 1993 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The show includes objects created by Roy Lichtenstein, Marcel Duchamp, and Yoko Ono, among others. But while revering the yellowed distance of past print objects, the show spends a surprising amount of time on more modern offerings.
A standout example from the works of Xu Bing—particularly "Post Testament" (1993), described in the show's guidebook as "a hybrid text in which Xu Bing alternates every other word between text taken from the King James version of the New Testament and a contemporary romance novel." (Xu's intention was to blend visual and literary arts—the shape of words, as important as the meanings they carry.)
From the "Contemporary Livres d'Artiste" section is one of the most visually elegant pieces of the show: Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino's collaborative The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, an accordion-style text coupling Scalapino's poetry with Smith's swift line drawings. Here, I found myself circling the glass case, trying to read Scalapino's stanzas and coming to terms with the exhibit's central flaw. In presenting the works as don't-touch academic objects, the most basic function of printed text—author-to-reader communication—gets lost.
That isn't to say The Book is a show to shrug off, just that to experience it through MoCC's weighty guidebook is to keep the artists' intended interaction under the protective glass of academic interpretation. Moreover, this unfortunate situation could be remedied by embracing the emergent digital technologies to which the show reacts. To be blunt, it would be nice if the texts were scanned and put on readers (iPads, please!) and viewers were given the option to directly access the information in each book.
When my imagination draped the internet over Mischa Petrov's piece, it wasn't far off from the improvement I'm suggesting now—an improvement that would reflect modern-day, easy-access information, rather than a scholarly viewpoint.