Man of Letters

An image from Paul Chan’s book The New New Testament, 2014. All volumes pictured in this article published by Badlands Unlimited, New York.


What makes a book a book? Is it two covers, a spine and the sheaf of paper glued or tied in the middle? Is it the title page, or the information included on it—the names of the publisher and the author, the network of people and institutions that lend a book its authority and bring it into the world? Paul Chan poses the question of “bookness” in Wht is a book? (2011), but the pamphlet’s contents don’t offer an easy answer. Instead, there are quotes clipped from a book detailing key aspects of the history of the publishing business: the European cities that dominated 16th-century book markets, the power of church and state censors over distribution, the long and peaceful coexistence of printed works and manuscripts on the book market, the common use of pamphlets (rather than books) as a vehicle for experimental or political texts. These quotes are laid over maps, old broadsheets from the New York Times, image macros and other found imagery. The fuzzy status of Wht is a book? as an object pushes the question further: it was handmade in an edition of one, but there are unlimited digital copies of it available for $1.99 on Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle Store.   

Chan is the artist-author of Wht is a book? and he’s also the publisher. It’s sold by Badlands Unlimited, the company that Chan founded in 2010. The clips of text in Wht is a book? come from Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (2010), which coolly dismantles the humanist myth that equates print’s advent with enlightenment. He shows how publishing quickly proved to be a sordid workaday business, rife with piracy and overwhelmingly sustained by popular fare: political screeds, travel tales, almanacs, pornography and gossip rags. Martin Luther was initially shunned by publishers; Gutenberg got screwed by his partners. In Pettegree’s account, the halo of martyrdom that the book wears amid today’s often bemoaned digital onslaught evaporates. “Great survey of what happened when a new technology, the book, disrupted civilization,” reads an apt Amazon review of the Kindle edition of Pettegree’s book. “Very much like what digital is doing today, creating new industries while destroying old ones.”

Is Chan a disruptor? He said that his decision to start Badlands was motivated by a desire for more control over the production and distribution of his own work, likening his company to record labels that rappers launched in the 1990s to counter the music industry’s exploitative business practices. In his quick rise to art-world prominence with work that directly addressed the excesses of war and inequality under the Bush administration—from the crudely animated video My Birds . . . trash . . . the future (2004), which still draws comparisons to Goya’s “Disasters of War,” to a staging of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—Chan reckoned with institutions and authorities that capitalized on his stance of principled resistance. Small as Badlands may be, the mantle that Chan wears as a publisher allows him to navigate the art world with relative autonomy, while also serving as his interface with bigger, more pervasive power structures that govern the consumption of digital media. 

In the last four years, Badlands has released over three dozen titles. Nearly half of them are authored by Chan, including the 10 entries in the “Wht is” series (Wht is a n Occupation?, Wht is a Kardashian? and Wht is some debt?, among others) as well as The New New Testament (2014), a massive tome that pairs reproductions of Chan’s paintings on discarded hardcover books with ASCII art-riddled poems. Other Badlands titles are by art-world stalwarts. Calvin Tomkins’s interviews with Marcel Duchamp is the top seller and there are books by Yvonne Rainer, Rachel Harrison and Hans Ulrich Obrist. There are also experimental projects by younger artists (Petra Cortright, Stéphanie Rosianu, BFFA3AE) and a “digital group show,” How to download a boyfriend (2012), with JPEGs and interactive quizzes from 50 contributors

Because he wanted to make Badlands a sustainable business—not an art project dependent on a gallery or other institutions, or subsidized by sales of non-book art—Chan was drawn to genre fiction, the sort of pulpy fare that has flooded ebook markets for self-published authors. The first Badlands title of this sort was poet Tréy Sager’s Fires of Siberia (2013), a steamy romance featuring a conservative congresswoman modeled after Michele Bachmann who survives a plane crash with a mysterious rugged stranger. “New Lovers,” a series of three erotica titles, launched this year concurrently with Chan’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, “Nonprojections for New Lovers.” Part of the project, Chan says, is to get art-world people to read and discuss genre fiction that they wouldn’t otherwise read, or admit to reading. But these forays into popular narrative also help Badlands in the online market, exposing its catalog to bigger audiences. More importantly, the romances and erotica signal Chan’s expansive interest in publishing and fiction. For him, books aren’t just a means to convey knowledge; they are also a source of vulnerability and intimacy. A cheap aesthetic experience is often an effective one.

Deciding what sort of titles to commission and edit is part of a publisher’s job. Typesetting and binding aren’t matters that the head of a publishing house would usually concern himself with today—at least, not to the extent that his 16th-century predecessor would—so it’s interesting that Chan has made it his business to highlight the technical processes of publication and bookmaking. His last big project before founding Badlands was “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (2009-10), inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, written in 1785, in which a depraved company of wealthy libertines kidnap dozens of victims for an extravagant orgy of torture. One component of Chan’s project was a suite of 21 fonts that could be downloaded from his website. If the innovations of 16th-century typography made the printed page easier to read than handwritten manuscripts, Chan’s Sade fonts do the opposite. They add nothing new to the form of letters—Chan reuses Century Schoolbook from the standard Microsoft suite—but they resist rather than foster legibility. Instead of reflecting a consideration of how letters fall on a surface, the Sade fonts refer to the subsurface processes by which the computer reads keyboard inputs and transmits them through the screen. (Designers might argue over whether Chan’s works should be designated as typefaces, which denote the look of the letters, or fonts, which are the physical mechanisms for printing; but desktop publishing collapses this distinction, and Chan’s transformations play in its ruins.)

With the Sade fonts, the principle of phonetic transcription—the correlation of written symbols to certain sounds of a given language—is abandoned and individual letters on the keyboard are assigned words and phrases. These are mostly moans, interjections, ejaculations, and cries of pleasure and pain. When the typeface Oh Juliette is installed and selected in Word, typing “The” produces “cum yes yes yes,” onscreen and “about” yields “fuck me jesus more ride me oh shit.” With Oh Troll, every letter, number and symbol becomes “moar.” 

The alphabet, in part, offers a rational system for structuring the sounds made by moving lips and tongues (“Alphabetic script,” wrote Hegel, “is in itself and for itself the most intelligent,” a quote that Derrida used as an epigraph to Of Grammatology, a critique of writing as it is imagined in Western thought). But there’s a deadpan absurdity to its repetitiveness, and violence in its intelligent imposition of order onto the human body, which Chan has linked to the monotony of the libertines’ savage desires in Sade. Writing from prison, Sade created a baroquely oppressive and redundant order for the tortures that the antiheroes inflict on teenage boys and girls of indescribable beauty, with sex organs of prodigious length and jaw-dropping girth, and so on and so forth. The superlatives become tiresome to read again and again in fantasies of cartoonish excess that go on for hundreds of pages. (My notion of the book’s length in physical terms is vague because I read it as an e-book edition sold on Amazon for $0.99, but my Kindle estimates that it would take me six hours to read it in full.) 

In his essay “A Harlot’s Progress,” which discusses director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s adaptation of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Chan says that Sade’s book “has the narrative quality of a user’s manual for some accounting software.” And it really is dry, written from a stance of aloof bemusement, with barely an acknowledgment of the horror a reader might feel, let alone compassion for the victims. Chan goes on to point out the physical impossibility of the book’s debaucheries. “There are situations that Sade depicts where bodies suck and fuck in ways that defy physics as much as morality. The world he portrays is even less representative of reality than pornography is of actual sex.” The ultimate perversion for Chan is “a mind that imagines sex . . . as a form of reason.” In subjecting the alphabet’s dully predictable patterns to a cruel regimen of sadism, Chan revives a nightmare from the Age of Reason while identifying its fallout in the technological rationalization of everyday life in the Age of Information. 

The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake (2010), in both print and digital editions, was the first book that Badlands published; it contains notes and drawings for the project, photographs of its gallery installation, poetry composed using the Sade fonts, and a brief essay on torture and reason that connected the war profiteering of Sade’s libertines, who made their fortunes from Louis XIV’s military campaigns, to the lawlessness of the Bush administration, underscoring Chan’s interest in Sade, who lived during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, as a fellow wartime artist. 

The second Badlands title was another spin-off of the Sade project: Phaedrus Pron (2010), which took Plato’s Phaedrus—a “legendary dialogue on art, erotic love, and madness,” as Badlands copy has it—and rendered it in the Sade typefaces. The title’s second word is “porn” as it used to be misspelled by spammers to bypass filters. It invokes the possibility for a string of letters to be illegible to a computer but semi-legible to a human, a possibility attributable to the plasticity of the human imagination compared to the more exacting intelligence of machines—and thus neatly captures in a word the essence of the Sade font suite, which dramatizes the experience of computer-mediated life with the power dynamics of sadism. Chan’s fonts give voice to what gets muted in Sade’s text: the pitiable outcries of pain, the pleas for mercy. Oh! The pretty victims speak. 

Viewed from the present, the Sade fonts look like the middle stage of Chan’s ongoing study of power and technology through literary experiments with the erotic and absurd. The fonts continued a project that Chan had started in 2000 called “Alternumerics,” which exploited the personal computer for his artistic ends through a parasitic relationship to commonplace word-processing software. “Alternumerics explores . . . the fissure between what we write and what we mean,” Chan explains in an “FAQ” accompanying the project. “Alternumerics transforms any computer connected to a printer into an interactive art-making installation.” The program replaces typed letters with diagrams that feign logical communication but lead nowhere and expressions of uncertainty rendered in a faux handwriting. 

Badlands expands Chan’s work from writing to publishing—from interventions in the most “intelligent script” to an idiosyncratic business venture in the community of letters. The weight of Chan’s attention has been shifted from Microsoft’s font suite to the online marketplaces of Apple and Amazon and the proprietary standards those Web-commerce giants have built on the EPUB file format. Chan’s interest in the networks through which books are bought and sold, as much as books themselves, is signaled in part by the disregard for the binary of print and digital in Badlands’s promiscuous output. 

The association of social progress with the circulation of books is a dog-eared trope (think of Benjamin Franklin’s faith in libraries as the bedrock of democracy). But the sheer accessibility of information in the digital age has not produced justice or truth so much as more opportunities for mystification. Pettegree identified this tendency in the Renaissance origins of print, and it has only accelerated since. 

In online social networks, “communication and sharing blur with data collection and advertising to create and sustain connections that brook no distinction between telling someone something and selling something to someone,” Chan writes in his 2010 essay “The Unthinkable Community.” “What appears to be a point of contact is in truth a channel of distribution for individuals to pick and choose goods, services, friends—all the parts that meet one’s inner and outer needs. The network is a community as marketplace.” 

Another community—an alternative to this marketplace—is “unthinkable” in Chan’s view because it cannot be thought, only felt, founded on empathy and imagination rather than reason. Badlands is dedicated to the prospect that these embodied qualities can be bred through the act of reading, if not manufactured by the technologies and networks that get the books into readers’ hands. Of course, the promise of individual autonomy, the power of participating in these structures while retaining a prerogative to judge them, is a foundation of bourgeois culture. But his company’s distribution of nonsense, and its attention to the erotics of reading through the publication of steamy genre fiction, emphasizes a belief in the impossibility of social being without the friction of unreason. Works from the “Nonprojections” series, shown alongside the “New Lovers” at the Guggenheim, comprise projectors and extension cables plugged into each other without producing images; their stunted and broken connections diagram the dumb unfeeling of logic. Badlands extends the critique of law and reason that Chan has worked out over the course of his life as an artist; its output and its operations constitute an unreasoned argument about the place of art in public and private life.