The Enemies of Books

– A Narrative 2014–2017

I was a computer artist, and my works changed and decomposed with the arrival of new technology.
I first learnt how to bind books as a way to document the remnants, ravaged by digtal death, bit rot and corrupt files.At this time the future existence of the physical book was cast in doubt. The computer was set to take over. Everything was to be digitized, and the electronic book was predicted a golden future.

This became my starting point.

Dr. Sarolea


In my computer I start working on a tool for binding books, designing it in a 3D-program to make it printable. I want a tool that can be used for gluing, pressing and cutting sharp edges on bundles of paper and cover boards – all of the necessary steps involved in making a physical book – a tool that is freely available, easy to use, drawing on older techniques and machines, but rooted in the present, in contemporary technology.

To print a bookbinding tool using a 3D-printer takes a lot of time: up to 24 hours! The smell of melting plastics and the sound of motors moving across the objects. It’s a hassle. It would take less than 15 minutes to make the same object in wood, using a lathe. But I want to share digital files, not sell physical objects, and I have my mind set on the future, toying with the concept of the bookbinder of tomorrow.

I reduce the time by only printing parts of the machine, mounting them on a wooden board, spruce. I make a manual describing how to assemble the parts. The files are uploaded to the Internet, for others to use as they wish:

There are plenty of scanned books available online. Older books with expired copyrights, but also copyrighted materials that have been illegally uploaded. Files can be downloaded, printed and finally bound into a book using my machine. Thus I found and bound the book The Enemies of Books, written by William Blades in 1881, a book on the enemies of the physical book: fire, water, electricity, gas, children, and the bookworm.

I order the book online, and by chance get to know its former owner, a certain Dr Sarolea. His signature is in the book, along with press clippings on his death.
Dr Sarolea used to be the owner of one of the world’s largest book collections. In another clipping the book in my hand is described as ”one of the wonders of the world, not to say the monstrosities of the world”.



People start to hear about my project. Word spreads, and I get invited to do workshops and performances on universities, libraries and art museums. I meet more people and we bind more books, encounters that serve as inspiration for new projects and texts. The project is no longer mine alone, but shared by others.

I scan the book, and bind it using my 3D-printed bookbinding tool. I bind 200 copies to be published along with a booklet of images and texts documenting the process.

For Years to Come

2009.01.01 and 2015.11.01

I develop a workshop on binding a calendar that spans a 100 years. The original idea was to make a calendar for my own private use, to cover my entire life. But eventually it became a gift for my daughter, and later to friends.

The workshop came to be about time.

We bind calendars. You choose your own starting date, but the book always spans a 100 years and 1200 pages. A lot of people choose to start from their own year of birth, others completely disregard the linear sequence of time. Some leave it for chance to decide. One person binds it for their saddened sister, another for someone who needs it – but most start binding from the year when they make the book.

The book becomes a symbol of time.
The participants realise that they probably wont live to experience all the years covered in the book. The book will survive them.

So we talk about time, death, and transience, about traces, marks, notes and torn pages – how the book remembers and bear witness of times past.

For the workshop I print thousands of pages of past and future dates, and order them in piles on a table. The participants collect their years in thick and heavy stacks of paper that they glue together. They can also add different coloured strings to serve as dividers and mark out important events. The next step is to glue the covers and leave the book to dry in piles, along with those of the other participants.

We talk about the durability of the binding, how the glue will eventually crack, and the pages will fall out, but it will be long before that happens. Most likely they will already be dead by then. The participants get to keep their books, and use them as they wish.
I don’t keep track of what happens to them, apart from one that ended up in a trashcan by the luggage weighing point at Landvetter Airport.


The Chance Execution


Each pattern is unique. Marbling. Colours spreading on the surface of the water, creating patterns on the surface of the paper. Chance. The unique book. Marbling as code.

I get invited to contribute a text to a book on algorithms, along with other researchers and artists working with code. I write about a work in progress, a book on chance and marbling, a code that I have written to create digital marbling effects.

The starting point for my book, The Chance Execution, was a set of drawers that I bought from a closed down bookbindery. Along with old marbled papers, the drawers were filled with small scraps of left over cuttings. The bookbinder might have intended to use them for some specific purpose later on, but it never came to be. The text in the book deals with the physical traces, stains and notations, that I find on these old papers, and in the end revolves around the relationship of algorithms to materials.

I use the scraps to create the contents for a book on chance, accompanied by a text on the inability of the computer to create pure chance. The computer’s version of chance is always based on human calculations and as such, never truly unpredictable. Real chance is dependent on a physical and material process free of human influence.

I come across an article on how people would let computers process filmed sequences of lava lamps and clouds to obtain the chance numbers needed by for example early online casinos. The functioning principle of the lava lamp, to mix two mutually insoluble fluids, reminds me of marbling, and inspires me to create a computer program, using lava lamps as the chance element for my digital marbling effects.

The entire text of the book consists of a code that others can borrow to create marbled patterns. The same pattern that I use for the endpapers of my book. Or, actually, not really the same. Each pattern is unique:

The Machine by Georges Perec


I search the Internet and find the book The Machine by Georges Perec. The book, from 1968, was originally written as radio play, revolving around three computers analysing the Goethe poem “The Ramblers Lullaby II”. The computers process the poem in a number of different ways. In other words it deals with computers as creators and interpreters of text.

The computer as an author of text, a common enough idea today, but not back then. Georges didn’t live to experience the breakthrough of personal computers. His only personal experience was likely the encounter with an ancient talking computer, owned by the Michigan State University, that he visited while working on the text. Thus he wrote about a future he would never see for himself, about the predicted singularity – the computer capable of self-improvement, the ultra intelligent machine.

The Machine was broadcast on German radio in 1968 and later translated for an American art journal of which I have forgotten the name. Someone scanned this translation and made it available online as a PDF-download. That’s where I found it.

George Perec The Machine by Olle Essvik


I read about programs capable of interpreting texts. The development is fast and within a few years they predict that the computer will be able to author texts. I enter Goerges’s text into a program that I wrote, and then I wait.
Together with Georges and the computer I create the text that Goerges once dreamt about. I write the code and observe the text evolving in a process governed by chance, as a game between me and the computer, but also in a way between Goethe and Perec.

I upload the book to the Internet.

The Manual – conclusion


I get an email from someone who took part in one of my workshops. They have forgotten how to bind books, and turn to me for guidance. The workshop requires an instructor, but the time of the workshop is limited. So I decide to make a manual.

I write a digital manual on how to bind, based on the Georges Perec book The Machine, but it could be any book. The images and texts are assembled as a PDF.

But my digital manual turns out to be difficult to understand. Too much gets lost in the translation of physical materials to digital information. A manual on how to bind a physical book requires a physical book. You have to be able to touch and feel the book in order to understand.

Using my 3D-printed bookbinding machine I make a physical manual on how to make the book which is the manual itself, the one you are holding in your hand, imagining that it could contain any book.

One book for all books, and a conclusion.

An artwork by: Olle Essvik