Here Is a Book that Wrote Itself
In his now seminal essay, “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes wrote, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” Ark Codex ±0, newly released from Calamari Press both as a full color print object, and digitally for a “pay what you want” rate, takes the inversion of Barthes’s idea to its mega-limit, not only claiming it has no author, but deforming the page on which the text is laid.
The book is comprised of 144 full-color images (some of which you can view below) containing the book’s main thread, a deformed retelling of Noah’s Ark, mashed together with math and feedback loops and blood. The pages look like maps that have suffered rain. Beneath each image, a more consistently legible footnoted text rewires the reader’s trajectory over and over.
The authorless syntax is unlike anything I’ve read: a hyper-mix of programming language, sampled quotes, messed up symbols, and commands that form a thread as they aggregate. The result is something surely bigger than its size, a book that forces you to feed as much from color, texture, tone, and aura as from its sentences.
If you’re like me, you’re sick of hearing about the possibilities of e-books. Here is a print object that reinvents the possibilities of what is truly still a young and heavily malleable form: a thing you could stare at forever and still find new in.
Calamari Press publisher Derek White answered some questions about the Codex via email.
VICE: Who or what is Ark Codex? Like, there is no author. How did you, Derek White, the publisher, come across it?
Derek: Ark Codex is a book object authored by and for itself. Not to be all vague or zen, but it is what it is—it’s self-defined. It’s like looking up “dictionary” in the dictionary only to find it’s what you’re holding in your hands. The author is the reader of the book—that’s where any realization of ideas or translation or magic of language happens. The idea of claiming authorship is silly and archaic. The word "author" exudes pompous authority, so maybe this book is a fuck you to “author”-ity, a fuck you to having other people tell you directly, in concise, commanding language, what to think. A fuck you to the ways of the current publishing industry. Other art forms don’t have such a prevailing concept of authorship. Not all painters sign their names to paintings. Any “signature” should be inherent in the style. The reader is the author, and at the same time Ark Codex pays homage to everyone who has used language before us. There could be strings by Blake Butler in Ark Codex ±0 (in fact, if you look you’ll find repurposed samplings from Ever). No writer lives in a vacuum, and no writer owns or has authority over language, or even certain strings of characters or words.
A lot of the textures in the pictures look like maps. Is the book meant to lead somewhere? Is it the place itself?
The entire book takes place at the North Pole, so any geographic travel is psychogeographical—in the mind of the reader. They (the assembled animals) don’t go anywhere, they are waiting for a flood but it never comes, so the ark just sits there on the ice cap. And since the ark is the book itself, and the ark sits at the North Pole (ground zero for the flood in these times of apocalyptic global warming), then by transitive reasoning, yes, you could say the book is the place.
This book was published in 2012, and yet seems it could be a relic of a wide range of time. Why is this book emerging now?
Ark Codex ±0 is a snapshot, an anthropological cross-section of the mounting accumulation that came before it, frozen in place and time. As Laurie Anderson (who is definitely another co-pilot of the Ark Codex) says: “This is the time. This is the record of the time.” This is true of any work of art. Ark Codex could’ve been published in 2011, or 2013. It is/was ever-evolving, but by publishing it, the wave function was collapsed (to borrow thinking from quantum physics). The book was killed when printed and stopped evolving. (This is what the addition of “±0” signifies.)
"Shoot straight if you're going to shoot," the book says. And it says: "History is embedded in the writing of it." Could this be read in any order? Could it be just looked at instead of read?
The “Shoot straight if you're going to shoot" line was advice delivered (authored) by a certain redneck father to his son/groom at a wedding I attended once in upstate New York. The “History is embedded in the writing of it,” pertains to your first question, in that every book object should necessarily be self-contained and self-defined (I don’t know about you, but whenever I see the word “history” I see in it the inherent bias of “his story”—that is, everything is fiction, there is no history until it is documented, and once documented it becomes inevitably biased by the author. As for order—there is no particular order in which one should read the book. In fact, I had originally planned to print the book so it had two covers, with both directions meeting in the middle, effectively endless. The only action in the book is that an ark is built. So if you are the type of person who likes to take things apart, you could just as easily read it backwards and deconstruct the ark, reverse engineer the book (and the making of it). In the end, the “story” would be the same. The reader is free to do whatever he wants with Ark Codex ±0—the book is not telling you what to think or how to read or perceive it. Ark Codex should be treated as a found object with no preconceived instructions on what to do with it.
What is wrong with the language here? It seems like a computer beat the shit out of it, and yet underneath its mask it has a logic, a sense. It's almost like seeing music, do you think?
There is a “mask,” or exact logic to it, or at least there was in my mind—a score that guided its realization/publication. So yes, perhaps it’s musical to musical minds (John Cage is definitely yet another co-author, as were all the musicians listened to during the creation of Ark Codex). This masking text was then rubbed, distressed, cut up, collaged, retyped on a typewriter and/or pushed through a printer to induce error (you can imagine how many pages were swallowed by the printer). And much of the underlying text is pre-existing—pages from old books which the masking language was printed on or collaged with.
Do you think books will exist in 100 years?
There are two questions here. One question is will books continue to be printed… I imagine they will—they’re not like vinyl records, where the format is tethered to the technology needed to listen to it. Even if printed books fall out of favor, there will surely be some who holds on to them, if anything in a nostalgic, kitschy, retro sense. And two: Yes, hopefully our current books will exist in 100 years, as archeological objects. In many ways, Ark Codex ±0 was created not for contemporary readers, but for those who might “discover” it in 100 years. “Ambition in the back of a black car,” as Robert Smith says in the song titled “100 years” (Smith being another definitive co-author to Ark Codex). In fact, come to think of it, this line could summarize Ark Codex in a nutshell—the ark as a hearst.