This year, the publishing industry reached a major milestone. According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books now outsell print editions. Digital readers are no longer “the future" of the book--they’re its present. And as more writing migrates to the digital bookshelf, art is following suit.
Paul Chan, the 39-year-old artist known for examining subversive currents in politics and sexuality, became the unlikely founder of a digital publishing house in 2011. His company, Badlands Unlimited, focuses on publishing art in digital formats--though they make infrequent forays into physical print, too. “Our motto is, ‘we make books in an expanded field,’” explains Chan over email. "Historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly," says the founder on the Badlands website, where .pdfs, e-books, .gifs, and DVDs of work from artists and writers are sold.
This spring, Badlands released the first-ever group show curated solely for e-book readers. How to Download a Boyfriend brings together 50 artists, including Chan himself, in an interactive e-book available on iBooks. The show’s participants range from big-name internet artists--Cory Arcangel--to up-and-coming artists like Ann Hirsch, the 26-year-old performance artist whose fascinating work examines female sexuality on the internet.
Much of the work in Boyfriend addresses Internet standards through the lens of romance. In Micaela Durand’s piece, dozens of pop-up windows prompt “my boyfriend says…," while a Facebook relationship status bar drops down. A tiny “report abuse” button floats in the foreground.
There are also interactive interludes built into the show, short questionnaires that frame the art with funny, absurdist quizzes. Chan explains, “the quizzes function as plot points in the narrative of the book, if there is one.” Here’s a sample question: If we ever break up, can I still use your Netflix account?, referring to a whole genre of romantic faux pas native to the digital age. Answer options are delightfully binary: pick “yes” or “no,” and move on with your life.
Looking at Boyfriend, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with William Gibson’s Idoru, in which everything from clothing to temporary digital meeting rooms can be downloaded in seconds. But there’s a more complicated, subversive undercurrent to the show, which by no means attempts to replicate the gallery experience. No: this is “dirt web,” art that explores--as Chan told Rhizome last year--the “true breath and flesh of the web… Leaked and illegal files, illicit substances, questionable practices.”
How To Download A Boyfriend is available here. Chan’s next project, another e-book group show, will be curated by Jay Sanders, the co-curator of this year’s Whitney Biennial.