John Knechtel (ed
by John Knechtel, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
Alphabet City Media Books series
320 pp., illus. 200 col. Trade, $15.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
A new volume in the Alphabet City Media Books, Air is a perfect illustration of what this series is all about: a multilayered, transmedial, both critical and creative approach of a typically postmodern phenomenon that cuts across the various aspects of contemporary daily life (previous issues feature themes such as "trash" and "food"). As says one of the blurbs on the series' website: "This book is like having an art gallery in your hands" (Booklist).
The Booklist's description is correct, but not completely. It is certainly true that the series attempts at presenting utterly elegant and extremely well-crafted books, which have everything to seduce the reader: easy to hold and to keep, for instance in one's pocket, easy to read yet not superficial, pleasant to look at thanks to its ideal blend of visual and textual contributions, and last but not least instructive and useful. The basic idea is to tackle a "thing" (in this case "air") and to turn it into an "object", that is a thing that has lost its transparency and self-evidence and that, by resisting automatic understanding, generates endless wonder (and also a strange mix of awe and fear). The most interesting aspect of the series' approach is certainly the great diversity of viewpoints, often surprising but always appealing, on a subject whose importance we are not always aware of. In the case of this collection on air, one finds inevitably a number of essays on pollution and ecology (and it is a pleasure to give here great praise to the one by Bhawani Vankataraman on the earth's atmosphere and its changes through time) or clouds, winds, smell, pneumatic tubes and so on, but the reader may be more directly attracted by less expected subjects such as dust sculptures, the history and signification of the whispered letter "h" or a new form of sidewalk sheds.
It is a delight to stroll to this book while being led by the editor from one viewpoint, style, insight, history, and discipline to another, to dwell upon the well-chosen images, and above all to learn a lot on a subject that appears much richer and infinitely more diverse than what one could have imagined before reading this book. Nevertheless, the reader may also feel some frustration, not because the volume does not offer her or him enough information, new ideas, wonderful illustrations and new forms of representation, but because of a certain shallowness in the overall organization and structure of the book. Of course, Air is not chaotic or badly structured, but it has a certain playfulness and quickness that makes the reader permanently long for more.
For instance, one is looking all the time for the reason why this or that topic or approach has been selected and, corollarily, why this or that other topic or approach has not been kept for publication. It is not a problem per se that many possible aspects and disciplinary views are absent, but one would have preferred a clearer editorial statement on the way the book has been composed. To a certain extent, the same remark applies to the various contributions, which are most of the times very well written and, I repeat, very enjoyable to read, but even in the best essays one may regret the absence of more detailed references. Names of authors and artworks appear and disappear without bibliographical references, and these absences diminish clearly the book's use-value. A well-organized bibliography and an index are missing, not just because they are not there but because the reader is really having the impression that he or she cannot fully benefit from all the wealth of information that is being offered. It might have been helpful top explain also why some authors and works are not being discussed (Stieglitz's Equivalents or Damish's Theory of the Cloud, for example, two classics in the field) Moreover, the link between the historical or critical contributions, on the one hand, and the creative ones, on the other hand, is far from perfect. The literary contributions are rather weak, and one does not always understand very well why they are here in this book (inevitably, the reader eventually thinks that they are simply there for funding reasons...).
In short, Air is both exciting and disappointing. It is both not enough of this and too much of that, but the biggest problem of this book, and of the many other volumes that are nowadays being made in the same spirit, is their reluctance to all forms of totalizing view. I can, therefore, only hope that further volumes of this series will remedy this issue.