Window Dressing

This is not an image of water damage, an art project or a disaster recovery workshop.  Instead, it is the current window dressing of the Anthropologie store located at 5th Ave. and 16th St. in New York City.  At least a couple of thousand books appear to have been opened 180 degrees, wetted, then rolled into these large cylinders, as if the books were returning to the trees from which they came.  This display could be interpreted as an incisive a comment on the relationship between advertising and narrative structure– even a non-functioning narrative (the destroyed book) is powerful enough to be co-opted by advertising. Maybe this display is a political statement on the torturing of physical objects, denying them of their own meaning, forcing them to deliver another message, in this case to sell items in the store. Most likely, however, the relationship between this display and the overpriced crap luxury consumer goods that this store retails wasn’t even considered.

I’m always a bit uneasy when I see books that have been mutilated, whether it is done in the name of art, censorship, vandalism, or commerce.  I would have given no pause to this window if it were filled with broken laptop computers or ebook readers, which indicates some fundamental differences between our relationship to virtual and “real” books.  It is a sign that book arts have entered the mainstream when designers adopt their techniques– part of the filtering of ideas from “high” art to popular culture.  I noticed  Brooklyn Public Library and Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) stamps on some of the tail edges, but all libraries have to deaccession books. Is it better to do a surreptitious run to the landfill or recycling center, or should they “live a second life” as some might argue this display illustrates? 

Many librarians subscribe to the broken windows theory — books that are poorly shelved and messy tend to encourage more disorder and damage.  And many conservators bemoan the thoughtless handling that many patrons (and sometimes curators!) display when handling a fragile, rare book with the careless aplomb more commonly observed at telephone booths–holding the telephone book precariously in one hand while inserting the change and dialing with the other, for example.  

Although this display sets a horrifying example about how books can be handled and stored, what concerns me more is that it represents an insidious cultural trend — specifically a disregard for the physical substrates used to transmit and store information, and generally a de-privileging  (perhaps denial?) of human interaction with the physical world.

14 Replies to “Window Dressing”

  1. When I saw and read this post I loved your connection to the tree trunk-like quality of this installation, and it made utter sense in a conceptual way. I came back an hour later for another look and suddenly saw blowsy roses — which deflated me a bit, and made it seem as shallow as it probably is. I wonder what gave the window dresser the idea? Thanks for the post, anyway.

  2. (visiting from Ampersand Duck’s site) I just saw a whole heap of books that might have been something someone still wanted to read. My first thought was ‘but what if something really good is in there, I’ll never get to read it now!’ Presumably they used inexpensive books, but who knows?

  3. Richard-
    There is little content yet, but Victoria Stevens of Oxford, England and I are setting up a blog about board slotting:
    Since it is a somewhat esoteric book conservation treatment, we thought it might be a good forum to allow slotters world wide to discuss tips, techniques, selection of materials, trainning methods for staff, etc. If successful, it might serve as a model for other conservation disciplines dealing with similar advanced treatment methods.

  4. Hmm….. those images look suspiciously similar, except that the Anthropologie version looks kind of crappy by comparison.

  5. The following (poem?) about altered books was sent to the Book-Arts_L listserv, and Michael Andrews has given permission for me to repost it here.

    On Sep 29, 2008, at 11:30 AM, Michael Andrews wrote:

    Here again, such openness is a disguised form of ostracism –
    it throws out reasoning, words, discursive thought, text as irrelevant
    and excludes, by implication, anyone and everyone who is capable of thought,
    words, text, learning, education, etc.
    It throws out literature and history,
    it throws out science and philosophy
    and, certainly, it would be mortally offended by mathematics.

    Sadly, for democracy, it throws out an intelligent electorate.
    But that is an obvious horse of a different color.

    A book is not a book if meaningful text cannot be read.
    That is the definitive use of a book.
    It is why the object “book” was invented.
    Anyone is free to apply any name at all to anything that exists.
    That is called a civic right or freedom of speech,
    which, by common defintion is not about definitions
    but about content and protest.
    But, I digress.
    If actual communication is to be involved
    we have to agree on definitions and rules,
    or else discourse becomes nonsense.
    It muddies the clarity of discussion
    to dispense with commonly accepted words,
    to redefine them as anything and everything –
    it dispenses with discourse and communication period.

    More to the actual point, it muddies markets.

    The idea of defining a book simply by calling it a book
    applies strictly to the idea of intention,
    the intention of having some object considered as a book.
    So far, that is acceptable.
    But it fails in its intention because it cannot seem
    to confine itself to simple rules of communication
    in which a book is commonly defined as an object
    that has a meaningful and readable text,
    and a sculpture as a different form of art
    that is spatially oriented as opposed to a form that is linguistically oriented.

    It is further confusing to contemplate whatever it is that impels
    someone to redefine an obvious piece of sculpture as a book.
    What is it that makes them want to redefine one form of art, a sculpture,
    or a painting as another art form altogether?
    Are they offended by the concept of sculpture?
    Is it simply confusing to people who do not read
    because books often are encapsulated as objects
    that have sculpture like attributes such as tactile weight,
    smell, or visual appeal?
    Or is it simply a failure to attract any
    positive feedback from the sculpture market that
    they feel impelled to invade the dying book market,
    and thereby erode that market even further
    by preying on and confusing the weakened intellects
    of those who do not understand
    that books are objects that require
    attention and that least denominator of discursive reasoning,
    they require reading?

    Oops, that’s a complex sentence
    so I am sure the point is lost there.

    Better to seal it up in a block of concrete and call it book art.

    The fact is that Littlewood’s sculpture depends for its impact and meaning
    on the fact that the inaccessible texts are commonly known,
    made famous, in fact, by readers of those very same texts.
    It is actually a sculptural comment on what are in fact books, and not a book in itself.
    It depends on its meaning as sculpture by representing an object
    whose form is only known to represent the containment of a readable text.
    The form, as form, has no other meaning except as abstract art
    and that is a discussion better left to them
    what can clearly use words.

    The meaning of a sculpture of a book depends on the objects known as books.

    One wonders how many of the proscribed texts Littlewood has actually read
    before sealing them off?
    The suspicion is that Littlewood simply likes both books and sculpture,
    but does not create texts, so she creates sculpture about books.
    Nothing wrong with that, commendable even –
    it is simply beyond any intellectual grasp why she can’t call it sculpture.

    If it walks like a duck ….

    No matter what claims to openness are made
    if you can call anything anything
    you have just excluded language,
    and yet, utilize language to justify
    an anti-language esthetic.

    Go figure.

    Oh well, who needs all these pesky words and thoughts anyway?
    For that matter this culture has already excluded actual books,
    so why fret?

    Book arts, anyone?

  6. It reminds me of something John Milton said: “He who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.”

  7. Hi, I am Jacqueline Rush Lee, the book artist mentioned here . I came across this site accidently–lately there have been lots of blogs popping up about my book art. I was not familiar with Anthropologie ripping off artists’ works until now, and was rather surprised to see this, and amazed that they have an apparent history of doing this with artists. Can I prove that they ripped me off? It’s a hard one to prove. It could be coincidental even though the process of wetting the books in particular is very specific to my process as well as a body of work that I made back in 2001 (see VOLUMES on my website Maybe if Anthropologie is getting a reputation for this perhaps they should cite the artists just to be gracious.
    I will actually be having a solo exhibition of my work in NY this January that will feature some of my Volumes pieces. I’ll send Anthropologie one of my postcard announcements…..

  8. When and where is your show? I’d like to see it. I doubt there is anything legal you can do, ethically, however….

  9. Oh Hello Jeff. I was mostly intrigued that Anthropologie does this. (They didn’t do as a good a job as me though). 🙂
    I’d love to invite you to my show. It’s at the Center for Book Arts, NY, opening reception 6-8pm on January 15th. I hope you can make it. I like to think of myself as a conservator of books also.

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