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Digital Publishing, Unzipped

Kristen Gallagher's latest work has been published as a ZIP file.

This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with GaussPDF, the publisher who hosts her Dossier on the Site of a Shooting (GPDF154). The PDF in GaussPDF actually stands for Probability Distribution Function ("masquerading as its Adobe-laced counterpart"), and aside from the expected PDF "books" of experimental writing and poetry, the full catalog contains MP3s, Word docs, MOV files, ZIPs, and links to print-on-demand versions. All of the digital files are dispersed freely.

Still, in the context of artists publishing screen-based works, Gallagher's format seems radical. The title offers a clue of what's to come: a dossier is "a collection of papers or other sources, containing detailed information about a particular person or subject." In this case, Gallagher's subject is the site of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Central Florida and the trial of George Zimmerman, his killer, that followed. Gallagher visited the area on multiple occasions, wandering, encountering, engaging, collecting. She investigated the event through the place, gathering ephemera and stories along the way.

On its own, there's nothing surprising about a ZIP file. The format was created in 1989 by Phil Katz to package files; now, it's standard on most operating systems. An image of a zipper usually appears on a ZIP's icon, signaling that there is stuff inside. The process of making a ZIP compresses multiple files into a single one, reduced in size, so that a large collection can be quickly contained and circulated ("zip!"). Naturally, it's a useful tool in digital publishing: epub, one of the standard publishing formats for ebooks, packages ZIPs that contain HTML files. In other words, ebooks are archives of archives, but these nested containers remain totally hidden from our view when we experience an ebook.

Gallagher's .ZIP file

Not so with Dossier on the Site of a Shooting. Gallagher rejects this enveloping ebook container and publishes her work directly as a collection of individual files. Once downloaded, her ZIP expands into a folder that contains seven items: three .txt files, three .url files and a .mov. One of the .txt files is named "Dossier on The Site of A Shooting.txt" and it functions like a table of contents, or a title page, or a front cover or a back cover of a book. It’s all of these but none of them, because the codex is barely present in Gallagher’s work.

When I first encountered Dossier, I opened all of the files and spread them out evenly on my desktop. I read her stories, opened the web pages and played the iPhone movie. I wandered through her files, rearranged them, closed and then re-opened them. My desktop became an active, unique performance of her work, one that resembles a kind of research or browsing, or even Gallagher’s own investigation; I shadowed her movements in some way, just as she traced a path through the other, more familiar events. I physically performed the dossier — moving, dragging, watching, engaging with Gallagher’s material in a relational way. Reading.

Gallagher's piece "reads" like a dérive through a haunted crime scene, at times poignant, but my own interest is in its performative quality as a publishing event. In confronting her own understanding of the perplexing series of events, she challenges our own expectations—what to call it, what form to give it, how to disperse it. She turns the ebook inside out.

Kristen Gallagher, Dossier on the Site of a Shooting (GPDF154), 2015

"The hybrid space of the contemporary page"1 is one way to characterize the state of digital publishing today. The phrase looks in two directions; first, it supports the idea of conditions in flux (hybridity). But it does so within a conventional context: "the page."

Artists who publish ebooks often rely uncritically on traditional notions of the codex when creating work. Two-sided pages bound along one edge and other conventions inherited from the printed book—absorbed and now standardized within the walled gardens of the iBooks and Kindle stores—have burdened artists with restrictions, design limitations and closed formats. So why would an artist choose to publish an ebook on a proprietary platform today? The only reason may be commercial; after all, "ebooks are just dumb webpages,"2 but "websites are not perceived as products to buy," and artists can get at least some money for their digital work through these platforms. And why bother, when "there is already an entire industry—video games—devoted to innovating the interactive narrative."

The closer we look, the more we might question what "book" even means in this context. Digital culture is made up of "practices, not objects"; files have no meaning unless they can be "performed" in the appropriate computer system. The digital book is not an object, but a practice.

Gallagher points us in the right direction. Her Dossier suggests a more uncertain situation, flickering between book/folder and performance/object. It must be unzipped, performed, in order to be accessed. The ZIP marks a kind of join where the seam between two sets of practices was fixed in place—on one side, the author's research and gathering of material, and on the other, the reader's subsequent exploration of it. This hybrid space—where material/digital, open/proprietary, private/circulating and fixed/flowing conditions are in flux—is where we might tease open an expanded notion of digital publishing, one that moves far beyond the ebook.


Notes

[1] David Senior, MoMA Library, reading from Full Color (Karel Martens) at Printed Matter Digital Publishing panel, NYU, 2/6/15.

[2] Paul Chan, at Printed Matter panel, 2/6/15. 

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