Sunday, November 25, 2012

A (Virtual) Humument

Can book art live as an iPad app? A Humument was transformed from a Victorian novel to an erasure text/altered book and, most recently, to an app. How did the project start and how does it hold up now?

Inspired by an interview with William Burroughs that mentioned cut-up techniques,  in 1966, Tom Phillips decided he would buy the first book he could find for threepence in order to "treat" or alter it. That first book turned out to be a Victorian novel (published in 1892) by W.H. Mallock called A Human Document, which, in Phillips's hands, became A Hum(an Doc)ument. Phillips has painted, collaged, drawn, and drawn out his own texts from within the original. In a statement he explains that he continues to divine new meaning from it, and that he can create a text relevant to almost any occasion. Among his other successful projects, which include musical composition and painting, Phillips has been working with this text and revising it for over 40 years, and there are now five revised editions that each contain many new pages. (It should be mentioned that his work is nowhere near as dark as Burroughs'. Probably a good thing.)

Page 6, A Humument app
I became aware of A Humument in the 1980s and bought the first revised edition around 1987. It seemed a novelty: a new idea. I glanced at it, put it on the shelf, and later pulled it out to show my classes. Only recently did I finally pick it up and read it through, although not in paper, and not this edition. An article saved for me by a friend from Poets & Writers, "Turning Pages: What Happened to the Book" by Ana Menéndez (article only available in print format!) mentioned that there was an iPad app of A Humument. For 6.99, I could afford it. And since I was traveling, I could afford the time to try to read it. On the train from New York to Boston (about 3 hours) I was able to read the app, muse over what made it special and worth the purchase, and notice what made it slightly annoying as well.

Page 6, A Humument (1st rev. ed.)
The app, being a different medium, contains an added benefit, something a printed book cannot do: it has an Oracle feature, like rolling the dice. Consult the Oracle to obtain two random pages for you to divine. The interface for this is a little awkward; once the Oracle presents them side-by-side, the pages can move around for no apparent reason. The feature is fun, but not absolutely necessary; it makes the app into either an interactive experience or a game, depending upon how you view it.

The downside of the app is the programming. It has no bookmarks and always starts from the beginning. Turn off the iPad without closing the app and you can save your place, but you can't do anything else in the meantime. I ended up making little notes in the Nota Plex app so I would know which page I was on. To skip the animated intro when it begins, immediately swipe at the screen. Use the thumbnail wheel to spin through to find your page. But you still have to remember your page.

I was pleased to read it. I don't think he paid too much attention to the spreads, so focusing on one page at a time works very well. Although it was originally a novel, it reads to me like a series of related poems, thoughts, and miniature essays. Much of the writing is insightful and interesting. Some of it is a bit opaque, but there are 367 pages, so not all can be virtuosic. My favorite pages are either painted or contain material like comics or photographs collaged over the words, and I am happy when those images relate to the text. The drawn pages generally don't draw me in, although I am intrigued by the rivers (his word) he created on all the pages to connect the text "so that it does not become (except where this is desirable) a series of staccato bursts of words." Breaking up the page into sections or boxes also creates a nice flow and makes the text easier to follow. 

Connect is one of the more frequent words you'll find here, along with: art, book, words, doctor, nurse, chance, dreams, children, poke; and his characters Irma, Grenville, and Bill Toge.

Once home again, I opened my print copy, hoping to be newly excited, but it did not invite me in. I was surprised to find that some of my favorite pages in the app were right there in the first revised edition. But many more were not. It is possible that later editions (0f which the app is one) have more visually interesting pages. Even so, the pages still look much better on screen! The reproductions in the book feel flat and are not crisp, although perhaps later editions are printed more clearly. On screen they are luminous and the details are lovely. I never thought I would say this, but despite the irritating lack of bookmark and the strange movement of the Oracle pages, it turns out that I much prefer reading the app of A Humument to reading the printed book.

Page 187 is the same in app and book
You can see a slideshow of the entire A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Fourth Edition on his website here.


dryadart said...

I am sure you must know about Will Ashford's work? These two artists inspired me to try this form of alteration, and my "page meditations" grew out of this experiment. A way to switch gears and get centered before I begin work in the studio. Not art or as beautiful as their work, just a way to get going.

Alisa said...

Thanks for that info! I didn't know about Will Ashford's work. His website is at