A Book With A Very Special Glow

05.29.03   By Susan Walker

Artist creates the Illuminated Manuscript

The illuminated manuscript hasn’t been a thriving medium since the Dark Ages, but David Small’s The Illuminated Manuscript is a high-tech resuscitation of the form.

The American designer and artist has created a large-format book with videotext projected on its pages. You can turn and read the pages as you would a handwritten manuscript or typeset book.

Viewers are invited to touch this art and see the ways the type can be manipulated on the page at Realtime Gallery in the Distillery Historic District beginning today.

Small, 37, is an accidental artist.

“My undergraduate degree is in cognitive science,” says Small on the phone from New York City. He did his graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media laboratory and studied digital technology. Then he opened Small Design Firm in Cambridge, Mass., a company whose clients include Disney, Martha Stewart Omnimedia, The Museum of Sex and the New England Aquarium.

His Ph.D thesis, “Rethinking The Book,” was about new ways of handling information in an electronic age.

Small began looking at how type appears on the page and examining the conventions of printing. That was the beginning of the path that led to The Illuminated Manuscript and a commission from the most prestigious art exhibition in the West. Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of Documenta 11, held last year in Kassel, Germany, had heard about Small’s idea for the book, originally proposed for a building’s lobby. He gave Small a call.

“I had to ask, `What’s Documenta?’ I’d never heard of it,” recalls the designer. The piece was a popular item at Documenta. It is featured among other photo and video works shown at the exhibition in the latest issue of Prefix Photo, a classy art magazine that comes out twice a year in Toronto.

In the magazine, Small’s project shares pages with art world A-list types like Jeff Wall, Ken Lum and James Coleman.

The 26 portfolio-sized pages of the illuminated manuscript were once going to contain a graphic artist’s alphabet. But instead he prepared a text based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech about “The Four Freedoms.”

“My mom gave me a copy of an editorial my grandfather had written in 1942 for the Long Island Journal,” says Small. “He was a young lawyer in his late 20s giving his reasons for going to war and why it was important to have principles.”

That discovery took place several months after 9/11 and Small had the eerie feeling that his grandfather was putting into words things he had been thinking.

The artist had to experiment quite a bit to create the interactive piece. “I wanted it to be a real book and to have the presence of an oversized book. And there’s a limit to how small a production you can do with the size of the projector.

“I wrote the software with the people who work with me. There’s a sensor embedded in each page and an electronic reader underneath the book counting up all the pages it can see. So if you open to the 10th page of the book you’ll get what we put on page 10.

“We wanted people to touch the words on the page and feel how they change and react, so we used sonar.”

There are circuit boards embedded in the book that send out a high-frequency ping, so the manuscript responds to the touch. Passing the hand over the plastic pages can produce different effects: On one page the type rotates; on another it looks as if water is running down and rippling the lines of type.

For the Toronto exhibit, he’s going to try something new for the interactive component: a camera that follows the hand movements.

Small is also wondering whether touching pages that many others have touched is going to make people nervous, in a city beset with SARS fears. Just like the Dark Ages all over again.

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