All photos courtesy of BibliOdyssey. Click on single images to be taken to the page on which the image appears. Paired and triple images are numbered, with links appearing at the end of the article.
It’s going on 3 a.m., and — quickly! — you need to look at something unfamiliar, striking and truly well presented. Wouldn’t hurt if it were beautiful too. Oh, just for a minute. You know you shouldn’t get into a whole new Internet thing at this hour. But you must be optically seduced – you must be! And then you will sleep. First, however, some 12th century Egyptian maps that utterly disresemble any known terrain, some delicate German drawings from the 1830’s of Radiolaria and other single-celled organisms, a bit of Chinese garden architecture, various illustrated cosmologies, an engraving of a giant tuba dominating a Flemish townscape… No doubt about it — you can only be headed for BibliOdyssey, one of the world’s best-loved art blogs. Earlier this month, the BibliOdyssey book came into being, published in London by FUEL, with a foreword by Dinos Chapman. It’s a big, beautiful book — not just a triumph of the blog-to-book genre, but a triumph, period. And it’s so exciting to so many that this may well not be the first you’ve heard of it.
BibliOdyssey is the brainchild of Paul K, who lives in Sydney, Australia, and prefers to remain in the background: he is the curator, BibliOdyssey is the show. In lieu of an author photo, Paul sent me the print on the right. Some know him better by his screen name, peacay, or his initials, PK, but nobody knows much. I first made his acquaintance in my pioneering days of image capture; I didn’t know how to pull an image off the Internet, and Paul told me how the thing was done. Of this art, Paul is the master, and his meticulous care in matters of attribution is one of the BibliOdyssey hallmarks. If you like an item of the “visual Materia Obscura,” as Paul calls it, that you see on BibliOdyssey, then you will always be able to find out where it came from, and many other precise things about it too. Paul is not an art historian specializing in prints who’s showing you what he knows, but the searcher and discoverer of the images he puts up. Even though a post may take 10 days to a month to prepare, he writes about his finds with a distinctly un-gushy sense of having made a fresh haul. It’s an engaging, conversational style of writing that carries over into the book. And, I might add, a style an art history instructor could employ to keep visual culture newbies from feeling bogged down in class.
Apropos the publication of the book, Paul and I emailed about the evolution of the blog from its early days in 2005 to its present form, about the passionate nature of the search for images and the surprises involved, about shifting gears to write the book, and about his sense of mission in creating so much beauty and interest, post after long luminous post, four or five times a week.
ELATIA HARRIS: I’ll start with the obvious question — How did you get the idea for BibliOdyssey? Were you looking for specific kinds of images from the get-go?
PAUL K: One way or another, all roads do lead to the Metafilter (Mefi) community. I had some time on my hands, first in Vietnam, then back here in Sydney, and I was busily looking around for weird and wonderful material to post to Mefi. There were a couple of posts I did — on the outsider artist Charles Dellschau and the polymath Athanasius Kircher — that really sparked my interest in the eclectic visual material to be found online. There was also a curiosity about blogging in general — why was it such a popular thing? I didn’t want to outstay my welcome at Mefi by continually posting about esoteric engravings and the suchlike, so corralling them at my own site proved to be the logical alternative.
EH: There used to be a line in your About section — “If it looks like I know anything, the mirrors are working.” It looks like you know a lot. Could you comment on special knowledge needed for putting up BibliOdyssey?
PK: I arrived with enthusiasm and maybe that was enough to hide my ignorance, at least initially. I have a deep respect for many sites out there that scan, aggregate and/or upload obscure artistic material and I’ve learned a lot by observing their various approaches. One art site I followed closely early on, Giornale Nuovo — which, incidentally, has discontinued operation as of this week — I considered to have an exemplary overall style and that probably had a positive affect on the way BibliOdyssey has developed over time. But I read widely across the web and am always watching and assessing a lot of people who have excellent technical, artistic or writing talents, so my education — on many levels — never ceases.
That line about the mirrors was meant as a humorous defense of course. I didn’t want people to make the mistake of thinking they had found some kind of authority. I eventually removed the line from the site, not because I particularly felt that I had made any great progress, but because the joke wears a little thin after a while.
EH: So, if there was no very focused preparation, were there influences?
PK: Probably two major influences that bear on the way I approach things. One is a science degree and the other is Joyce’s Ulysses. Science teaches a person to be a critical thinker and to search for essential features and the truth without regard to prejudices. It’s a background that lets me scan 40 websites, for instance, and quickly identify the salient points and the most reliable sources. Ulysses teaches me that there is abundance in the commonplace and to have a sense of humor in the process of discovery.
So, more explicitly, I rely upon a continuous curiosity and attention to detail to overcome my lack of knowledge and background in all things of an artistic and historical nature.
EH: There was a sort of admiring criticism leveled at Monet –“Only an eye, but what an eye,” I think it went. Do you relate to that?
PK: Isn’t the quote from Cézanne actually? — “His was only an eye, but what an eye!” And I thought it was not a criticism at all, but an incredible compliment, implying that with his regular human vision he was able to see in a visionary way.
In any event, I relate to why Cézanne would be so deeply affected by Monet, yes. Do I think it relates at all to me or to BibliOdyssey. No. Absolutely not. I seriously do not believe that I have any great eye for identifying beautiful or wonderful or amazing images, or at least, no more than the next person. If I post a series of images from a certain artist, I am quite confident that most other people would make the same or similar choices. The only thing I’ll concede — and this really runs the gamut in terms of unearthing any depth of psychology to the background and practicalities of BibliOdyssey — is that I devote the time and have built up a familiarity with the institutions and to a lesser degree, art history. My eye has been honed by experience.
EH: What does it feel like to conduct these long, fruitful searches and haul in all these fantastic images? I want to know a bit about the sorting process, also about the emotional quality of what you’re doing.
PK: I’m not sure I’d call them long and fruitful. The fruit is sporadic at best. I have to scan a lot of rhubarb to find the strawberries!
There are varying levels to the sifting process. First it’s about finding images in numbers that are rare, odd, unusual or have visual qualities that catch my eye or set them apart. At this stage I’m just happy that the net is full. I’m not really looking deeper at the detail or the artistic beauty, save for its initial impact from a quick scan.
Next it’s about extracting, cleaning up (if needed), cropping, assembling and picking out a selection to post. Looking into the background, reading around, writing and compiling everything for an entry on the site takes from hours to days to sometimes weeks.
Nowhere in this chain of tasks do I have time to be particularly moved, or just contemplate the images in wonder. That part really comes for me in the same way it does for everybody else, when I return to the site and wander around without time constraints or the self-imposed pressure of constructing a post.
EH: You’re used to surprising everybody with what you put up. Reading the comments, I see that people are often amazed by your finds. But are you knocked for a loop by what you find pretty often, too?
PK: Absolutely. Not every day perhaps, but regularly and significantly – it’s like the serendipity one experiences wandering around an antiques store. I’m unencumbered by a background in the trade so each new trinket holds a special worth both because of its inherent beauty or novelty and also because I wasn’t aware of its existence.
I suppose 10% of all the images posted continually take my breath away when I see them – they astonish me for their imaginative and artistic magnificence and I hope they always will. That’s not to suggest that I don’t like the other 90% of course, but there’s a certain number for which the allure never abates.
EH: Would I be asking for a trade secret if I wanted to know why the images on BibliOdyssey are always so clear and sharp and radiant? I’ve never seen anyone do it better so it must take all night…
PK: Just staying with the antiques thought, I always try to remember the restorer’s maxim – ‘Do as little as is necessary.’ So I don’t use Photoshop and I only use a small paint program sometimes to downplay age- related damage and stains, particularly near faces. In truth, the image quality is very varied. Other than that, I would suggest that you are being fooled by the beauty of the underlying picture. Success!
EH: How did the idea for the book come about? Did it feel like a natural segue or did you have to be sold on it?
PK: FUEL Design came up with the idea and made a tentative contact. I said I was not averse to the concept but I didn’t think it was necessarily feasible. They allayed my initial concerns by gently encouraging us to take some small steps to see what would happen. So it was probably not a natural progression for me at the very beginning. But my familiarity with the institutions the images came from, and their keepers, meant that the terrain we had to traverse was immediately in my area of experience.
EH: I like it that these images have come full circle – didn’t most of them start out in books?
PK: You’re suggesting that the site concentrates on book art and in fact that’s not quite the case. The spectrum covered is actually print art. That ranges from book illustrations to posters to art books to watercolor sketch albums and all in between — yes, the boundaries are a little fuzzy. It just so happens, quite naturally, that book art — old engravings and whatnot — is the predominant material. Funnily enough I didn’t know they were the boundaries of the site from day one. I had a notion it would be in that general region, but when the site was posted to Mefi it was described as being a ‘compendium of the printed image’ and I took that as a cue.
EH: You mention a science degree in your background – yet you’ve set yourself an art historical/curatorial task, haven’t you? Do you sweep the archives in a pretty democratic fashion?
PK: It’s the scientific mind at work in the field of art really. I’m not in the habit of attaching labels such as ‘high art’ or otherwise, so the democracy you see on the blog is really a product of combing through all the relevant material and saving what I find attractive. I have an acreage – print art – and I try to be assiduous in plowing all its constituent parts. You may well describe it as attempting to assess the visual scope of culture but that’s not essentially where I come from. I’m looking for the outlandish, the intriguing, the bizarre, the beautiful, the breathtaking — if, from a sociological viewpoint, that accumulation represents a certain aspect of human artistic history, that is not a characterization with which I would vehemently disagree.
But I would point out that the Web archives are themselves undemocratic. I can count on one hand the number of posts I’ve made about African art for example. So at best we have a curator’s skewed tastes applied to an inherently disproportional online representation of human artistic cultures. I have expended a lot of energy attempting to overcome or at least reduce that sort of bias. Alas, I am not a magician.
EH: I and many others who follow BibliOdyssey think you’ve done something stupendous. It’s hard to imagine it coming totally out of the blue — is there any way one might say the child was the father of the blogger? Or of the writer of the book?
PK: I had a tremendous ability to become passionately absorbed in whatever I was doing back then – sports, stamp-collecting, reading. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy, always have been.
One of the things that stands out about both the blog and book is that they involve, for the most part, subjects that are outside of my areas of experience. That has been a big part of the attraction: I knew little coding, knew little about blogs in a practical sense, knew little about art, hadn’t formally studied history, and my science background concentrated on the theoretical and experimental of course, so there wasn’t so much emphasis on studying the illustrations as artistic pieces. This whole thing from blog birthing to book making has essentially been about some guy educating himself, but in a very public way.
EH: I’ve heard writers say they write not to be writing, but to be read – I’d have to agree with that. And you can’t be happy blogging into the uncaring air, can you? Are you pleased with the sense of audience you get?
PK: I like — no, that’s wrong — I need to know that people visit and think that what’s occurring on the site is being curated well and that the content is interesting or enjoyable or wonderful — take your pick of descriptions. Comments are only one facet of the feedback. Site statistics, citations on other sites and correspondence are the backbone of assessing how the site is perceived. As long as people visit, getting few or no comments would be of secondary concern. But if there were no comments and few visitors, then it would mean that it had become too narrowly self-indulgent. I don’t feel that is likely: the cusp of science, history and art — the domain of the print world, really — is too rich a vein and my capricious whims too significant an influence for lack of variety to become an issue methinks.
EH: And you never worry about running out of material – or do you?
PK: Were all the world’s museums, libraries and galleries to stop digitizing books today, I’m not so sure I could systematically extract the already existing worthwhile morsels of visual materia obscura in my lifetime. That’s one of the satisfyingly frustrating enjoyments — the scope of activity in sifting and collecting in the digitized print world is as large as I want, so that the concepts of perfection or completion are irrelevantly abstract.
EH: Having created and maintained the blog for just over 2 years, how do you see the meaning of the book? It’s a beautiful object, and that’s plenty — but I guess I’m talking about the larger meaning.
PK: You’ll allow that in many ways, meaning comes after the process. There never really was a master guiding principle while we toiled away getting the book project off the ground, or if there was, it was this notion of being respectful to the digital and hard copy elements contributing to the project – truthfulness, proper attribution, accuracy as to facts and fair representation.
There is – for me – no great thesis to be plumbed here, but I suspect that this book is a challenge to the notion that the digital and print mediums are separable entities. You may wish to attach a greater meaning to the “blog about books turned into a book” trope, but I think that’s just a simple chain of irony.
If I must I suppose I would grant that the book is most meaningful as an invitation to discovery. It offers a broad range of accessible material from a large number of repositories and I hope people become motivated to pick up a book or turn on a computer to learn more.
EH: Could you guess which might be the more lasting – blog or book?
PK: We think of these fragile relics being given a new lease of life and protection on the Internet, which is true to an extent, but the ultimate irony in this circular book-to-web-to-book escapade is that the BibliOdyssey book may well outlast the digital files from which it was derived.
EH: It’s taken me years to think of a digital file as having the reality of hard copy… What could happen now?
PK: Well, preservation of digital documents is turning out to be a more complex and costly exercise than the best practices applied to the comparatively robust originals, which have somehow managed to survive wars, weather and the passage of time. The Internet is in its infancy yet its stored resources are already at risk. Websites disappear every day, technologies and file formats change and impose upgrade requirements to maintain compatibility, data integrity and retrieval assurance.
The BibliOdyssey book becomes — inadvertently, in these circumstances — a snapshot overview or sampling of the online cultural resources available at this moment in history. An artifact of our illustrated digital times.
For myself, during the practical development of the book, I was generally less concerned with the big picture and more preoccupied with developing respectful relationships with these wonderful digital repositories and carefully researching the backgrounds. It was a project, a labor of convoluted love and a hard copy back up of my little obsession.
EH: I saw that FUEL asked Dinos Chapman, an enfant terrible of the British art world in the 90’s, to write the foreword. What did you make of that?
PK: I don’t want to talk about Dinos Chapman’s foreword. I would rather people who get hold of the book discover his writing without my tainting it with a comment or description. If you know Dinos Chapman and the work he and his brother have produced, you will know to expect the…unexpected.
EH: I had quite a fabulous time selecting illustrations for this article from almost 800 long pages of BibliOdyssey posts, most with 12 to 15 or more radiant images of stuff I didn’t know existed – there was nothing I didn’t want to use. But if you were asked to tell someone who’d never seen it about BibliOdyssey – the blog or the book – how would you describe it so that they’d know if they wanted to be involved?
PK: Hm. Take one part circus, one part diorama and one part tutorial. Add comfy chair and blend. Readers can expect a visual parade of science and alchemy, manuscript illumination, absurdist woodcut, ethnographic history and imaginary beings. It’s at once a kaleidoscope of contrasting imagery and a survey of the illustrative output of humanity across half a millennium. If you aren’t intrigued or amazed by a wide spectrum of eclectic images then you don’t want this book, you want an imagination.
EH: Absolutely!!! Thanks!
LINKS TO BIBLIODYSSEY PAGES with info about illustrations for this article (you will have to scroll to find the precise image.)
SEE ALSO “Phantom of the Optical“, an article about Paul K by Damien S.B. English in Edutopia.