Review of Fantasies of the Library
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
160 pp., illus. 30 col., 15 b/w. Trade, £19.95
What goes (on) in the library does not necessarily stay in the library: The library is not merely a container space for one particular cultural function of public access to knowledge. It is also a place for curatorial, experimental, lively engagements, art projects, and theoretical trajectories that can pick up on the histories and (re)forms of the book, on the infrastructures of knowledge, on the political conditions of collections and many other topics that show the dynamics of the institution. Fantasies of the Library, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, works to highlight the centrality of the library as a historical and contemporary place of imaginary practices while also discussing its institutional relations to related forms of knowledge such as the archive and curatorial practices. The book itself is part of the intercalations: paginated exhibition-series, but in this case, also published by The MIT Press.
A principal part of the book is formed by Springer's lead essay on curatorial spaces of the library, or "Melancholies of the Paginated Mind". The essay mobilizes a range of historical examples and theorists that are brought as part of the various dialogues and relations of the short book. The institutional practices of the library have organized, for a longer time, not only collections but also their users. Springer's discussion includes Michel Foucault and Gustave Flaubert on the historical situations of practices of the imaginary as part of a key form of modern subjectivity: "In fact, Foucault contends that it was Flaubert who opened the way for a new form of subjectivity in the nineteenth century, one in which the imaginary is experienced as arising less from the nature or nocturnal dreams and more from the repositories of accumulated knowledge" (33). In addition, Aby Warburg's library as an alternative form of assembly and organisation to a standard classification system is introduced through its centrality as "problem collection" (as in, generative of problems than merely of solutions, a collection to think with). It is also as such important part of Warburg's work and thinking that it would be fair to consider the arrangement of knowledge/space as part of the methodology itself. This idea is important to keep in mind throughout Fantasies of the Library as an implicit guideline in order to understand what the library can be as a curatorial space: problem-creating, methodologically active organisation of possibilities of research and creation. While such themes are increasingly central for current debates through digital infrastructures, this book shows that there is a historical and an artistic side to these questions.
Springer's essay is an enjoyable read and the book is designed so that the lead essay is constantly juxtaposed on the other side of the page with the other materials of the edited book. This includes interviews with Erin Kissane, Megan Prelinger with Rick Prelinger, Hammad Nasar and Joanna Zylinska, as well as contributions by Andrew Norman Wilson (images Google book scan glitches) as well as Charles Stankievech's text written in the context of the recent lawsuit against arg.org. The layout works more as a good idea than as part of the experience of reading, but it does force the reader to be more aware of how the flow of the text operates. And in the midst of the back and forth reading that jumps across more than two pages, the book succeeds in staging some very apt and interesting contexts for the question of the library itself somewhere between a structure and a place, an idea and an organisational practice.
The editors' thinking about the book as part of their curatorial practice is revealed through a question that Zylinska, one of the interviewees asks: What does the project want?
In Springer's words:
We are beginning with the tool as a technology of the imagination as a way to explore the library as a curatorial project in relation to concepts and intellection. We are trying to avoid the gimmick, or of tricking out the book as a gimmick that would pretend to be a substitute for thought. We are pushing the concept of the paginated mind as a means to reimagine the relations between research, discipline, and creativity. (130)
This particular instance of the project sets up lots of relevant connections. It also sparks further thoughts in relation to other contemporary art and curatorial projects that work in and out of the library. For example, the discussion of mobile libraries and the temporality of the library resonates with the new Temporary Library–project by Alessandro Ludovico. The project was launched in Berlin at transmediale 2017 in February in collaboration with Annette Gilbert.
Furthermore, one is led to think of visual artist and programmer Richard Wright's recent thoughts that emerged as part of his artistic residency at the British Library (as part of the project Internet of Cultural Things). Wright asks: What can you do with a library? This question already reveals a shared interest with Springer and Turpin about the particular pragmatics of the library's multiple levels of operation from the individual items to the structured access systems, interfaces, databases and datasets as well as labour.
Fantasies of the Library is a useful book in adding to the recent art and library projects some well-articulated thoughts. It resonates with the writing done recently by such scholars as Shannon Mattern and offers a particularly artistic take on similar concerns. This comes out well in the visual essay "Reading Rooms Reading Machines" that moves from contemporary arts of the book and its forms of organisation to the situations where it is staged and visible, addressable and usable; from practices and technologies of reading to the imaginaries, the forms and materials of organisation knowledge that are the entry point to contemporary discussions of data and organisation. Indeed, as Springer puts it, this all reveals how the book is to be considered "a situation and a practice," just like the library itself.