Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of the Art Book

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

By Jørgen Brynhildsvoll.

Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

At the launch of Javier Barrio’s art book Anthropos [1] in Oslo’s MELK gallery, a stack of the books were displayed on the floor – much like a sculpture in itself. On top lay what appeared to be a melted black rubber glove. At first glance, it looked like a charred human hand – the burnt remains of a person who didn’t survive the apocalypse. Also in the room were two oil barrels that looked as if they had been in a fire – misshaped and covered in some indistinct, melted material. Like the hand, the barrels are mostly black, but with a silvery gray tint on top. Adjacent to the charred hand, the oil drums forced connotations of some tragic disaster – as if the spectator had just walked in on the scene of an oil refinery fire, a gas station explosion, or a massive oil spill. Some great unknown catastrophe, caused my mankind’s unquenchable thirst for energy.

With both the art book and the objects displayed at its launch, Barrios addresses the Anthropocene in a very unambiguous and direct way. The Guatemalan Norwegian artist doubtlessly does ask “what worlds we are intentionally and inadvertently creating, and what worlds we are foreclosing while living within an increasingly diminished present”, as Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin put it in their opening essay of “Art in the Anthropocene” [2]. What’s interesting, is how crucial the book’s graphic design and its physical attributes are in conveying its message.

Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

In reality, the oil drums were retrieved from a car paint garage, where they had stayed for 15 years. “Layers and layers of dust and paint has given them a unique texture. The nature has almost taken over the barrels,” Barrios said in an interview [1]. As the barrels were taken from their original environment and displayed as art, so were the images that make up the book. Photos and illustrations are gathered from the internet over many years. This archival approach, central to Barrios’ artistic practice, renders him able to make a curated portrait of human activities that fits his outspoken motivation to criticize matters of the Anthropocene. Some of the power of this image appropriation lies in their lack of context. For example, a full-spread image early in the book shows an atomic explosion. The image is actually from the 1946 bomb test at Bikini Atoll, but there is no caption to explain this. This goes for all visual content, whether it’s wireframe drawings of faces, landscapes and geometric shapes, the inverted photo of a frog, a Edward Burtynsky-esque aerial of a highway intersection or the ash clouds from a volcanic eruption. These seemingly unconnected visual fragments have to be interpreted only in the context of each others, of the title and of the cryptic chapter names they are organized in: Trinity, Creator, Primate and Anthropos.

Photo: Pseudonym forlag

Writer Carlos Gonzales has contributed with a text in a style resembling automatic writing, split into three threaded text frames throughout the book. It portrays a sense of unrest and existential anxiety that reflects the book’s visual content and perhaps also the reader’s emotional response to studying it: “try to run away but since it is the ground itself that quakes and burns everything is in danger then there is no place for us to escape to hide from the fury of the earth and survive.” The unease is intensified by the typographic choices of the graphic designer, avoiding punctuation and using alternating text sizes rather than line-breaks to indicate metre.

It is the book in its entirety, not anyone of the standalone images, that must be considered the artwork. In that sense, the contribution of the artist and the graphic designer is completely inseparable. The book’s designer William Stormdal is also its publisher. The design is even more essential to the book than the writing, in my opinion (albeit biased, as I’m a graphic designer myself). Book design encompasses far more than layout and typography. Choices for production, the physical and material traits, are crucial to the holistic expression of the book as an object, and especially when the book is presented as an artwork. This is extra evident in the case of “Anthropos”. The book is printed on a risograph. This Japanese device, launched in 1986, was originally manufactured and marketed for high-speed and low-cost printing where production quality was inessential. Interestingly, its “low quality” has become a quality in itself, and the Riso has become the current weapon of choice for the independent art book scene.

Photo: Pseudonym forlag

German culture critic Walter Benjamin argued in the 1930s how art lost much of its inherent value with the advent of technical reproduction. In his one of his most famous essays, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin stated that “what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter's aura[2]. By aura, a term Benjamin got from his contemporary countryman and colleague Ludwig Klages, Benjamin meant the artwork’s uniqueness and its role in the context of tradition. “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” [3], wrote Benjamin. And it is not merely the copied artwork and its copies that were devalued through reproduction, but rather art itself. Benjamin argues that the mere existence of means to reproduce poses a threat to art creation, as, “To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility” [4]. This prediction might hold some truth. Both Benjamin’s and other Frankfurt School theories on aesthetic modernism and culture industries have maintained or even gained relevance as art and capitalism has fused ever more.

Photo: Pseudonym forlag

The riso, on the other hand, is an interesting case. The machine itself, and the output it produces, has an unequivocal trait of mechanical reproduction. Indeed, one of its appeals might be that the result looks namely mechanical, rather than digital. Modern print products, even though they are physical manifestations, have many digital traits: technological advances make them look too perfect, too smooth, too sharp. In technical terms, the Riso machine contains a cylinder covered in a mesh (the original) that rotates to apply ink to the paper, like the combination of a silk screen and an offset press. If the page is to have two colors, first every copy of the first color has to be printed, and then the printed paper reinserted. Even if the print has only one color, as is the case with “Anthropos”, there are great risks of imperfections. Hence, books produced on Riso machines have the symbolic characteristics of something home-made and independent. Instead of losing aura and authenticity from the reproduction, it actually gains both.

A Riso can’t print on what today is considered “regular paper”, coated with chemicals or polymers to increase durability, whiteness, smoothness and decrease absorbency. All of the ink will smear on this paper. Uncoated papers, on the other hand, absorbs the ink more, and are more textured. The paper stock of “Anthropos” is extremely coarse, with visible fibers, and the pages are stained as the printing technique makes some ink transfer anyways. In a sense, the peculiar pattern on the oil barrels exhibited as part of the book launch mirror the texture of the book itself. It appears to be a fragile object. The artist himself comments the effect of the production quality like this: “Each book is initially broken and in constant decline: the ink colors your hands and the paper behaves unstable.”

Photo: Pseudonym forlag

The design choices greatly amplify the fundamental message of the artist, and becomes a motor for ecocriticism. The art book feels almost like a relic, an artifact from a lost time. Its cover has the title and info printed in black on black paper stock – hardly noticeable, not at all legible – as if the text has vanished over time. Along with its eclectic collection of snapshots from human activity, the weathered appearance makes you think the book could be a memoir from the Anthropocene, found by one of its few survivors: A story of Earth just before the capitalistic system collapsed, nature rejected its violent parasite and the post-human geological epoch began.


[1] Plenty. “Kunst om selvødeleggelse”. September 20th 2018. https://www.plnty.no/2018/01/anthropos-kunst-om-selvodeleggelse/

[2] Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Second edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008 (originally published in 1936)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[1] Barrios, Javier. Anthropos. Oslo: Pseudonym forlag, 2017.

[2] Davis, Heather & Turpin, Etienne. “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction” in Art in the Anthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015.