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TEDYouth 2014

Brian Dettmer: Old books reborn as art

November 4, 2014

What do you do with an outdated encyclopedia in the information age? With X-Acto knives and an eye for a good remix, artist Brian Dettmer makes beautiful, unexpected sculptures that breathe new life into old books.

Brian Dettmer -
Artist Brian Dettmer digs into a good book (literally, with a knife) to create beautifully intricate forms that reflect how we see old information in a modern world. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm an artist and I cut books.
00:12
This is one of my first book works.
00:14
It's called "Alternate
Route to Knowledge."
00:16
I wanted to create a stack of books so
that somebody could come into the gallery
00:18
and think they're just looking
at a regular stack of books,
00:21
but then as they got closer they would
see this rough hole carved into it,
00:24
and wonder what was happening,
wonder why,
00:28
and think about the material of the book.
00:30
So I'm interested in the texture,
00:32
but I'm more interested in the text
and the images that we find within books.
00:34
In most of my work, what I do is I seal
the edges of a book with a thick varnish
00:39
so it's creating sort of a skin
on the outside of the book
00:43
so it becomes a solid material,
but then the pages inside are still loose,
00:46
and then I carve
into the surface of the book,
00:50
and I'm not moving or adding anything.
00:52
I'm just carving around
whatever I find interesting.
00:54
So everything you see
within the finished piece
00:57
is exactly where it was
in the book before I began.
01:00
I think of my work as sort of
a remix, in a way,
01:04
because I'm working with
somebody else's material
01:06
in the same way that a D.J. might be
working with somebody else's music.
01:09
This was a book of Raphael paintings,
the Renaissance artist,
01:12
and by taking his work
and remixing it, carving into it,
01:16
I'm sort of making it into something
that's more new and more contemporary.
01:21
I'm thinking also about breaking out
of the box of the traditional book
01:25
and pushing that linear format,
01:29
and try to push the structure
of the book itself
01:31
so that the book can become
fully sculptural.
01:35
I'm using clamps and ropes
and all sorts of materials, weights,
01:41
in order to hold things
in place before I varnish
01:44
so that I can push the form
before I begin,
01:47
so that something like this
can become a piece like this,
01:50
which is just made
from a single dictionary.
01:55
Or something like this
can become a piece like this.
01:57
Or something like this,
02:06
which who knows what that's going to be
or why that's in my studio,
02:08
will become a piece like this.
02:12
So I think one of the reasons
people are disturbed by destroying books,
02:16
people don't want to rip books
02:20
and nobody really wants
to throw away a book,
02:22
is that we think about books
as living things,
02:24
we think about them as a body,
02:26
and they're created
to relate to our body, as far as scale,
02:28
but they also have the potential
to continue to grow
02:31
and to continue to become new things.
02:33
So books really are alive.
02:35
So I think of the book as a body,
02:38
and I think of the book as a technology.
02:40
I think of the book as a tool.
02:43
And I also think of the book as a machine.
02:47
I also think of the book as a landscape.
02:52
This is a full set of encyclopedias
that's been connected and sanded together,
02:54
and as I carve through it,
02:58
I'm deciding what I want to choose.
03:01
So with encyclopedias,
I could have chosen anything,
03:03
but I specifically chose
images of landscapes.
03:05
And with the material itself,
I'm using sandpaper
03:09
and sanding the edges
so not only the images suggest landscape,
03:12
but the material itself
suggests a landscape as well.
03:16
So one of the things I do
is when I'm carving through the book,
03:21
I'm thinking about images,
but I'm also thinking about text,
03:24
and I think about them
in a very similar way,
03:28
because what's interesting
is that when we're reading text,
03:30
when we're reading a book,
03:33
it puts images in our head,
03:34
so we're sort of filling that piece.
03:36
We're sort of creating images
when we're reading text,
03:38
and when we're looking at an image,
we actually use language
03:41
in order to understand
what we're looking at.
03:44
So there's sort of
a yin-yang that happens,
03:47
sort of a flip flop.
03:49
So I'm creating a piece
that the viewer is completing themselves.
03:50
And I think of my work
as almost an archaeology.
03:57
I'm excavating and I'm trying
to maximize the potential
04:00
and discover as much as I possibly can
04:03
and exposing it within my own work.
04:05
But at the same time,
04:10
I'm thinking about this idea of erasure,
04:11
and what's happening now that most
of our information is intangible,
04:13
and this idea of loss,
04:18
and this idea that not only is the format
constantly shifting within computers,
04:21
but the information itself,
04:25
now that we don't have a physical backup,
04:27
has to be constantly updated
in order to not lose it.
04:30
And I have several dictionaries
in my own studio,
04:35
and I do use a computer every day,
04:38
and if I need to look up a word,
I'll go on the computer,
04:40
because I can go directly
and instantly to what I'm looking up.
04:43
I think that the book was never really
04:47
the right format
for nonlinear information,
04:49
which is why we're seeing reference books
04:52
becoming the first to be
endangered or extinct.
04:54
So I don't think that the book
will ever really die.
05:01
People think that now that we have
digital technology,
05:04
the book is going to die,
05:08
and we are seeing things shifting
and things evolving.
05:09
I think that the book will evolve,
05:13
and just like people said
painting would die
05:15
when photography and printmaking
became everyday materials,
05:18
but what it really allowed painting to do
05:22
was it allowed painting
to quit its day job.
05:24
It allowed painting to not have to have
that everyday chore of telling the story,
05:27
and painting became free
and was allowed to tell its own story,
05:33
and that's when we saw Modernism emerge,
05:37
and we saw painting
go into different branches.
05:39
And I think that's what's
happening with books now,
05:41
now that most of our technology,
most of our information,
05:44
most of our personal and cultural
records are in digital form,
05:46
I think it's really allowing the book
to become something new.
05:50
So I think it's a very exciting time
for an artist like me,
05:53
and it's very exciting to see what
will happen with the book in the future.
05:56
Thank you.
06:00
(Applause)
06:01

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Brian Dettmer -
Artist Brian Dettmer digs into a good book (literally, with a knife) to create beautifully intricate forms that reflect how we see old information in a modern world.

Why you should listen
New York–based artist Brian Dettmer carves intricate sculptures from outdated materials like encyclopedias, textbooks, maps and cassette tapes. To create his works Dettmer seals the object with varnish, then swiftly and deftly moves through it with an X-Acto knife until he comes out the other side, cutting away material to form something new. His beautiful carvings reflect how, in a digital information landscape, even the oldest forms of knowledge can be repurposed.
The original video is available on TED.com
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