The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, December 29, 2002
THE INFANT AVANT GARDE: The weekend before Christmas, I spent many hours playing with a one-year-old cousin. That meant I got to see heaps of picture books and toys, and that meant I experienced a pair of epiphanies -- new ones to me, though the parents among you might think them old hat:

1. The books are also toys. Tactile tomes like
Pat the Bunny used to be rare; now they're everywhere. The familiar pop-up book continues to thrive, along with more radical artifacts that do not pop up so much as they unpack. A children's book might include a mirror or two, a series of strategically placed holes, or some detachable creatures that can be played with separately; it might come in a special waterproof edition, printed on material that bears no resemblance to paper or even to cardboard; it might owe more to its designer than to either its author or its illustrator.

There is as much experimentation in these books, as much willingness to move beyond traditional ideas of narrative and of text itself, as in the most avant-garde postmodern novel. I'm especially enamored with the brief but endlessly fascinating Hello Bee, Hello Me, to the point where I may have to buy my own copy.

2. The toys, meanwhile, are also texts: they speak, sing, or are covered with writing. If there are books that are more interactive than ordinary toys, then there are toys that contain more actual words than some of the books. There may be a direct line between installation art and these mass-produced playthings, the chief difference being that the latter tend to be more concerned with delighting their audience.

Whatever this strange in-between medium may be, I found some more examples of it at the Walters art museum today. Searching the building for some hint of modernism, R. and I stumbled on its manuscript room, which contained handcrafted books both from medieval times and from the last few years. The second group turned pop-ups and the like toward more mature and eccentric themes, transforming the toy-book into an avenue of adult expression.

Meanwhile, yet another plaything -- the video game -- is converging with the movies, creating what looks to me like a mass art in its Nickelodeon stage. Toys, games, books, art: there's a hundred culture-studies papers to be written about all this, I tell you. (Ninety-nine of which were probably published long ago. Chances are pretty good that I'm late to this party. Oh, well: it's nice to be here, nonetheless. Hello, bee. Hello, me.)


posted by Jesse 10:54 PM
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