On Placeholders

I enjoyed this piece on the recent meeting of Ai Weiwei, Jacob Appelbaum, and Laura Poitras in Beijing. There’s a nice anecdote on the curious artifacts that emerge from bootleg publishing.

Monday morning after breakfast, Ai, Appelbaum and Poitras walk to a nearby park. Along the way, they stop into a DVD store to try to buy a copy of Citizenfour. The store only has a pirated copy of the movie, they learn, with cover credits that declare that the film stars “Queen Latifah” and “Common.” Ai asks the store clerk if the movie is any good. “It’s okay,” the clerk replies in Mandarin, seemingly unaware that the film’s director is staring at him.

It’s funny, sure, but this variety of corner cutting has a long history in publishing, pirate or otherwise. Viz these woodcuts from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. Notice the uncanny similarity between the cities of Verona and Mantua:

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And note the suspicious resemblance of these four fellows, each of them prominent enough, even today, to have their own Wikipedia pages:

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Media history helps to put things in context. These woodcuts are arguably as inaccurate as the bootleg DVD cover, and probably for similar reasons: to save time and money during production. In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns illustrates just how often books have been ‘pirated’ throughout the history of print, often with errors and inaccuracies that far exceed the shortcuts in the Nuremberg Chronicle. In the long run, I’d rather have a curio like “Citizenfour starring Queen Latifah” than an authoritative replica, just as many book collectors would probably prefer to have a copy of the Wicked Bible.


Images from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.

Hat tip to Prof. Andie Tucher for reminding me of the source of these woodcuts.