With the publication of Invalid Format, Triple Canopy and design studio Project Projects asked, How do you print an Internet magazine? Triple Canopy’s Ingrid Langston speaks with Prem Krishnamurthy of Project Projects about the book as a translation, an archive, and an object that performs its contents.
Ingrid Langston: Project Projects designs websites, books, magazines, exhibitions, and identity systems. You must be deeply invested in the specificity of each medium in which you work, even as you push its boundaries.
Prem Krishnamurthy: From the start our studio has been medium agnostic. We were always interested in working on books, exhibition spaces, and Web projects, while also in expanding our roles as editors and curators. At the same time, we are keenly aware of the specific restrictions, constraints, and opportunities of any given medium. There’s a significant investment in craft in our studio, and in making things well at the most basic level—whether that means attending to a book’s typography, developing an interactive element of a website that is fundamentally logical and intuitive, or creating an architectural space that is carefully detailed. We’re very interested in the specificity of each medium, but also in how you can use something beyond the native medium to inform how we might think about a given project.
IL: One trope of Project Projects’ book designs is the effort to make visible or expose the issues being dealt with by the contents, whether through typographical selection or the physical construction of the book.
PK: A book ought to not only document its contents but actually perform or enact its contents. In an ideal case, those things are so seamlessly integrated that sometimes it’s hard to tease out the content from the form.
One book we’ve done that I think addresses this particularly well is the Omer Fast catalogue In Memory. The book consists of a set of texts commissioned and annotated by Fast,which gives them a highly specific graphic form. In Memory has an interwoven structure, with multiple textual levels nested almost Talmudically within one another—comment upon comment upon comment. Therefore, it’s intentionally difficult to distinguish between the design, the content structure, and the writing.
We’re also working on a series called Inventory Books, edited by Adam Michaels, the other founding principal of Project Projects, and published by Princeton Architectural Press. The third book in the series, The Electric Information Age Book, looks at experimental paperbacks of the 60s and 70s, focusing on The Medium Is the Massage and other Marshall McLuhan and Jerome Agel books. These integrated text and image in radical ways, but within the very affordable, portable, and mass-marketed form of the paperback. The Electric Information Age Book, itself a paperback, manifests all of these concerns: medium specificity and what constitutes a book, but also how you can speak to content through thoughtful design in an integrated way.
IL: The static nature of books means you have a limited toolkit compared to Web design.
PK: We still have newspapers and radio (and even fax machines) — each medium has just become more specialized. For example, there aren’t many Web experiences that can adequately present a long text meant to be read in a contemplative mode. There are still books that you’re going to want to read as books. And those books often require a specific form of visual presentation or have particular material concerns—I’m thinking of Anne Carson’s Nox, which is a sort of reproduction of notebook as a continuous leporello. These books really take the object to a specific place, precisely because such moves are the things that you often lose in the normative environment of an e-reader or on a website.
IL: How did Project Projects’ media agnosticism influence your work on Invalid Format?
PK: Typically, when we design a Web or an interactive project, the first thing we do, before making any visual form, is create wireframes that map out the site’s content and consider how a user might navigate the site. We call this the “information architecture” stage of the site’s design, and approached the challenge of designing Invalid Format with a similar process, which proved to be a very interesting exercise in discovering how to map out information across these two mediums that are often considered at odds with each other.
IL: The design of Invalid Format is deliberately spare in terms of color and texture, in contrast to the spectrum of media online; the aesthetic of the book doesn’t mimic that of the website.
PK: Triple Canopy is originally and primarily an online journal; it does that very well and we didn’t need to make something to reproduce that form. The point of the book is to do the things that print can do well and let the website do the things that it can do well. One of the functions of the book throughout its existence has been to function as a kind of archival object, a repository of information over time. We still have very, very old books. We know that we’re not going to have any browser compatibility problems! And books are going to keep working as a medium as long as somebody knows or can decipher the language in which they’re written. So Invalid Format, as an anthology and as a kind of archive, is serving a different and complementary function to the website.
IL: I’m curious about your comment that the best space for contemplative long-form reading is still the physical book, in light of Triple Canopy’s attempt to make a case for an immersive digital reading experience.
PK: One of the things I find commendable about Triple Canopy is that it questions and is critical of accepted paradigms, and is trying to create a Web space for reading that is contemplative. But this doesn’t always work better than the codex, and there are many text pieces in Invalid Format that are much more legible in this form. Of course, there are also interactive pieces on the website that are quite hard to translate to print. In those cases, the book becomes a reference. Hopefully this sense of translation between mediums will work in two directions—there is artwork that obviously can’t be represented in a black and white book, and so you end up being led back to the website. The experience becomes richer and more recursive through this.
IL: Invalid Format is posited as a collaboration between Triple Canopy and Project Projects. I’m interested in the way you problematized the concept of collaboration in a roundtable discussion published in Print last year.
PK: The term collaboration has a lot of currency at the moment and is often used to give nearly any project a sexy sheen. One of the questions we asked while editing that issue was, When you call something a collaboration, who benefits from this designation? One definition of a true collaboration that emerged in our conversations was the idea that both parties enter into the project without a fixed end goal, and that the end product could only have come into being through this interaction. So it’s not a matter of assistance, or of contracting or hiring, but rather co-creating. In that sense, Invalid Format is not a book that we could have made in another situation. It arises out of many of the concerns that Project Projects has been pursuing for the last eight years; yet at the same time, we couldn’t have made it with anybody else. And that’s exciting—the anthology feels specific, the result of a very particular dialogue between a group of people, bounded by time and resulting in a singular form.
Photo courtesy of Project Projects.