For the past decade Cara Barer has been creating wondrous artwork by taking photographs of used books that she has soaked, torn, ripped and otherwise experimented upon. Though it might seem like a limited medium with which to work, she seems to be inventing new practices all the time. Her website displays her work in two-year increments which allows a peruser to see just how Ms. Barer’s practice developed, spending certain timeframes seemingly perfecting a specific style, while other timeframes boast stylistically diverse creations.
Ms. Barer’s mission statement is appealingly straightforward: “Books, physical objects and repositories of information, are being displaced by zeros and ones in a digital universe with no physicality. Through my art, I document this and raise questions about the fragile and ephemeral nature of books and their future.”
But what questions are really being raised by Ms. Barer’s work, I wonder. If people are looking at these photos and asking When was the last time I read a book? or Could I do that? I would certainly find that to be a triumph of this work, since it would most likely result in an engagement with the written word or inspire more creative works be made. However, it seems that Ms. Barer’s intention of raising questions about he “fragile and ephemeral nature of books and their future” goes beyond these questions to the more substantial ones like Are books on the verge of extinction? and Why is this the case? and What does it mean if we are to become a culture without books?
As a former English major I have thought about these questions a lot and believe that – for the time being, at least – books will still be around for quite a long time to come. Yet it is significant to consider what it is that books have become to individuals, to our culture, to our world. The Literacy Company, a developer of literacy software, provides some telling statistics of why there seems to be a constant conversation about the ‘state of the book‘: 33% of high school graduates and 42% of university students will never read another book after they graduate their institution, 70% of American adults have not set foot in a bookstore in the last 5 years, and 80% of US families did not purchase a book in the past year (Research conducted in 2013.).
And while the numbers above might seem to be entirely damning, just take a look at Ms. Barer’s artwork and one thing is for sure – there is still plenty of life left in the book. In the next few years we can expect to see innovations in how to present a book, but thankfully one of the more appealing ways is already before us. Like any abstract work of visual art (or any novel, for that matter) Ms. Barer’s creations appear different the more time one spends with them. And that to me is Ms. Barer’s triumph: that her artwork possess the spirit of their source material, the spirit that says Let me show(tell) you something you’ve never seen(heard) before – but yeah, you are going to have to work a little bit for it. I am grateful to know that Ms. Barer is out there making her exquisite pieces and calling attention to the state of books in this way. I wish her all the continued success in future and hope to get one of these prints for myself one day.