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(1) The book?

Oslo National Academy of the Arts
by Martin Lundell

Being interested in books is in many ways paradoxical. They say the book is dead, or at least dying: as a technology, as a medium, as an idea. Still it is quintessential to us – as a conceptual superstructure, and as the centre of our educational approach.

Earlier this year, Shoshana Zuboff published the mastodon The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Her theory is that capitalism has entered a new phase. A stage where capital has come to encompass everything human: Who our friends are, what we eat, who we sleep with, our taste in music, our facial expressions, our feelings – all of these have become the raw material for a capitalistic translation to data that can be sold to the highest bidder. Without us knowing to whom, for what price or for what usage. Smart phones, smart homes, smart towns are not developed for human progress, but in order to constantly find new ways of harvesting more types of data. Data about us. We have become the raw material, Zuboff claims, as the iron ore in the ground or the fish in the sea. We allow all this to happen under the banner of innovation in a haze of technological optimism. The zeitgeist demands full speed ahead, accompanied by the zuckerbergian slogan Move Fast and Break Things.

Books don’t move fast. And they don’t harvest data. Nobody owns the technology. They are open and transparent, without hidden algorithms. The book is not innovative. But it has survived because it is a perfect tool for its purpose: to present and preserve knowledge. The book is interactive. Nobody can control your usage of a book. You can scribble notes in it, dog-ear it or tear out pages if that is what you prefer. We know the book is a part of the entertainment industry, of the capitalist market forces. But it has also been central to the growth of democracy and free speech. While the book has contributed to the spreading of knowledge, surveillance capitalism, fronted by Google, has concentrated knowledge on a small number of companies that know more about us than we do about ourselves. In the time of surveillance capitalism, the book is a counter culture.

In our educational approach the book is our anchor point. Our students work with almost everything: film, dance, animation, pattern design, drawing, cartoons and programming. It is important to us to lead a continual discussion about the outer limits of our subjects. But by insisting that our subjects spring out of a book culture, we reveal our position. The book is closely related to enlightenment ideals, it is associated with Western civilization and it is closely linked to an idea of a bourgeois public sphere. All are things we should problematize.

And this is precisely why the book is important. Because it is a common reference point, a target standing still. We believe that tradition, craftsmanship and a clear stand make opposition easier – as opposed to thinking that everything flows. What we want more than anything else, is to cultivate confident practitioners, who dare to take chances, experiment, provoke. Not just in relation to the themes they explore, but also towards us as an institution, and towards our professional positions. The academy will therefore need to be clear about what we are and where we come from. And our origins are in the book. The academy I represent has an unbroken line 201 years back in time. My department found its modern form in the 1930s; as the Book Art Class.

The book is not a static technology, as many might think. It develops continually. Every generation of book makers do things differently. They add and subtract. The same goes for educational approaches. Teaching is a continually developing process. We hold on to our courses in graphical techniques and book binding. But the students themselves chose what to do with their acquired knowledge. They will bring the book as a medium further on its journey through the centuries.

An artist I know says that when he opens a book, he hears the sound of a whole symphony. In the orchestra pit you find authors, type designers, publishers, photographers, printers, book binders, repro technicians, illustrators and book designers. And you find everyone who has contributed to the book developing from clay tablets to what we have today. We believe in this collective effort.

Instead of moving fast and breaking things, we want to move slowly and build things. Build a community and build each student’s ability to meet a world that seems to be driving full speed ahead in the wrong direction. Meet it, understand it and change it.


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