This ‘Book Surgeon’ Turns Old Books Into Intricate Art Using Only a Knife

American sculptor Brian Dettmer carves into books following a practice he calls ‘media archeology’. His sculptures are spontaneous, each image lining up by chance. They give new life to the publications that were once essential to information sharing, but have now become obsolete. We caught up with Brian for some insight into his painstaking process.

Could you tell us how you found your way to this unique craft of yours?

I began working with books around 2000. I focused on painting in college and was working on a series of paintings using codes and obfuscated language. I began to use book pages in these paintings, which had really become collage at that point.

I was still interested in the limits and possibilities of language in my work, but the focus became more directed by the material of the book and content of the pages I would use.


This led to my first series of book derived sculptures. I began to stack books and dig rough holes into them, creating a tension between the material and our expectations.

While working on a piece I thought would just be a rough hole through the book, I came across a landscape and began to carve around it without thinking too much. A figure from below emerged and I began to carve around that.

It was an exciting moment. I had no idea what would appear next. The work became a type of sculptural reading or media archeology.


What is it about books you are drawn to?

We are in the midst of a very interesting and profound transition – from a time when everything we once read and learned came from a printed page to a time when most of our ideas and information no longer exists in our physical world.

I don’t think that books will ever completely die, but we are already seeing their role shift as digital information becomes the primary way we record and receive information. We are left with a fond memory, a longing for the physical stability of what we know, and with loads of material from our recent past that is now considered obsolete.

I think there is a lot to consider about this transition and that we should explore our cultural records in new ways to understand the impact of what we know and how we learn.


How do you source your inspiration for each piece? Are you first inspired by a book that you find? Or do you think of an idea, and then find the book to fit?

It can work both ways. Recently, I will find one or two books that have a similar theme that inspires me to approach the material and subject in a new way. Then I will search for other books that fit into the same subject or style, to continue the idea as a series.


Each work feels as if I am headed somewhere new but somewhere that is just out of reach. Each piece or series can inspire a new direction for future pieces.

Could you walk us through the process of creating one of these works?

The time depends on the scale and detail of a piece. A single book piece can take anywhere from 2 -4 days and a larger work from a full set could take 2-4 months.

I use a varnish on the edges of the books, which act as an invisible adhesive and then I use xacto knives and tweezers to cut into and remove the pages of layers while I am working. I also use sandpaper and power tools on occasion to get a certain texture or amount of material removed. It is a completely subtractive, sculptural process. Once the book edges are sealed I cannot guess or control what I am going to come across, only the way I am going to react to it.


This strict process, the limitations I have established for myself, allow the work to become more of a pseudo-scientific process but also allow the book itself to be a strong collaborator. It becomes a remix, and the possibilities within the bound structures I choose become endless and very exciting.

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Who inspires you?

The philosophy of Friedrich Kittler and Vilém Flusser has reinforced the way I see media and inspired me to understand more. Artists like Gordon Matta Clark, Tony Fitzpatrick, Tom Friedman and Tim Hawkinson have inspired me by the way they interpret everyday materials and images.

The structures and approaches within jazz and electronic music and various forms of architecture and geology are also an inspirations to how I see things assembled and disassembled.


I recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Uncreative Writing” and it’s consistent with the way I have seen the direction of art and poetry.

Is there an overarching message or feeling that you hope to communicate with your audience?

I want people to have a visual and visceral response to how I am presenting the book. I hope the work has a memorable impact so viewers will think about what’s happening when a book is altered and how it makes them feel. Why do we attach so much value to something even after it has lost its functional role in society?


How do we feel about our own past relationships to information and stories and how do we feel about a future that could be without a physically stable library of our ideas and records?

Is there any importance of the individual in this matrix of gathered information?

If you could travel back in time to when you first began creating art, what piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

To read more.


Watch Brian’s TED Talk here.

Images credit: PPOW gallery:

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