'THE BOOK AS...': Interview with Magda Polo

By Cristina Álvarez Cañas. January 2, 2013


It’s not often that you get to see the present and the future which is already the presentof books together. The stimulating and interactive exhibition ‘The Book As...’, by the Spanish National Library (BNE), however, has provided such an opportunity. Debunking myths about the incompatibility of physical and digital books, Magda Polo, curator, publisher, doctor and professor of Universidad de Barcelona, ESMUC and Universidad Ramon Llull, talks to us about this indispensable exhibition to help us better understand where we are coming from and where we are going in the midst of an era in which everything is becoming digital.

The digital era is in full swing, as the curator of The Book As..., we would like to know what books mean to you?

To me, a book is a vessel of information and knowledge but it is also an aesthetic experience. The medium therefore forms part of that experience and all content has to be designed for one medium or another. I believe that paper and digital books can co-exist perfectly and that neither poses a threat to the other.

The exhibition has offered visitors an interactive journey, a display of sounds and experiences. Thanks to the possibilities offered by digital devices, do you think the fact that they can extend the reading experience is an advantage?

Yes. Digital books allow for a high degree of interaction, they enable the reader to participate, to intervene in the content and reimagine them. Digital devices obviously represent great progress, not only due to being able to store thousands of titles on one device that is the same size as a paper book but also because the readers’ experience can go further. The fact that you are able to share text, moving images, sound, and more enriches and simultaneously determines the readers’ experience by providing more information than a paper book.

The structure of a narrative book can, generally speaking, be quite closed, it has a beginning and an end. However, 'The Book As...' refers to the opposite, it highlights the physical and metaphysical possibilities of books. It’s as if it were a window to the outside as opposed to the inside. Would you describe it like that?

The Book As... talks about the possibilities that have opened up to artists' books since they began to proliferate in the 1960's as regards the use of different languages: literary, artistic, sculptural, and others. It also highlights the fact that creators from very different disciplines can participate in the same project a poet and an artist, for example. This, in turn, gives the book an added value making it special and unique, and creates the ideal space for aspirations of manifesting the transcendent.

As we have seen from the examples of several of the books in the exhibition, many artists need books to act as the object so that their work gains as much meaning as possible, how has your relationship been with the artists and authors of the books exhibited?

The exhibition is largely based on the resources held by the Spanish National Library. The exhibition has therefore provided the opportunity to display many interdisciplinary projects by artists who have donated their books, or whose books have been bought and that were mainly catalogued in the fine arts section. I have really been working with the library's gems, some of them had never seen the light of day and for that reason I think that the artists' books have given readers a different view of the resources held by the Spanish National Library as we have come across works by Miró, Saura, Picasso, Chillida, Palazuelo, Perejaume, etc.

There are people who fill their bookcases with object books, is publishing a kind of fetish?

I don't think that readers who fill their bookcases with object books or artists' books do it merely because they consider it a fetish. It’s not about devotion to the object book but admiring many artists’ efforts to adapt to a format, to materials that enable the democratisation of art since many people can’t buy a large work of art but can buy an artists' or object book.

Have you published a catalogue for the exhibition as is customary? Is it a catalogue that can be used?

Yes, we have published a catalogue for the exhibition but it's not a catalogue for use. Because the exhibition focuses on artists' and object books we have extended the idea of creating something artistic, playful and participatory to the catalogue. The Book As... is therefore in itself a catalogue that can be customised. In other words, there are 9 dust jackets the reader can choose from to dress the book, and then attach one of the 9 titles that appear on stickers to make a unique book. On the inside you can find the detailed information on each of the pieces that have been exhibited and a text, drafted by me, about the artists' books, their origin, their evolution, etc. The design of the book really makes it a special object.

How has the book that visitors have played a part in turned out? Will it be published?

Once the exhibition finishes, on 13 January 2013, the finished book will be put together. We will then evaluate the exquisite body of work we have gained through the participation of visitors who wanted to write a fragment of a book that was being drafted day by day and is going to be published as an e-book. It will almost certainly feature on the Spanish National Library's website.

One of the titles displayed in the exhibition says: "That which is not written, is forgotten". Do you agree with that?

Yes, I do quite agree with it. We are all aware of the role that books have played throughout our culture’s history. In their most basic form, tablets served to memorise accounting calculations and were used for religious ceremonies. Scrolls continued with that objective until incunabula. The fact that those objects have been preserved enabled us to find out a lot about very distant cultures. Memory has been one of the tasks served by books, maintaining the wisdom of the people, their customs and creative capacity.

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