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500 Years of Wunderkammern, from Cabinets to the Cloud

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Last weekend I saw a few vastly different exhibitions that ended up resonating in really striking and unexpected ways. I started off at the Grolier Club, a private club for bibliophiles, to see “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599 – 1899,” which uses a selection of beautifully illustrated rare books and ephemera to tell the history of the modern museum.

Check out the crying skeleton on the right!
Check out the crying skeleton on the right!

Like the wunderkammern themselves, with their odd juxtapositions of objects — shells and skeletons, tools and botanicals, and the occasional stuffed crocodile — the exhibition packages together myriad themes — conspicuous consumption and the ideologies of collection, philosophies of classification and epistemology, the nature of objects, Foucault’s tabula and the “orders of things,” etc. — that merit close examination. Roberta Smith’s review in the Times takes up several of those themes. (Interestingly, Rosemarie Trockel, whose exhibition I caught at the New Museum two weeks ago, just before it closed, played with similar ideas of museological convention and display.)

My stealth photo of Rosemarie Trockel
My stealth photo of Rosemarie Trockel’s “Cosmos”

I wandered upstairs at “the Club” and happened upon another small exhibition, “Through a Glass Clearly: The History & Science of the Microscope.” Already I felt an intellectual thread tying me to the show downstairs: the microscope and the wunderkammer both represent ways of observing, analyzing, and classifying the natural world. Both are what we might call “epistemic frames.”

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What a coincidence, then, that the first gallery I entered an hour later, at PS1, presented me with the following vision. No, I’m not the greatest photographer — but this isn’t simply an out-of-focus photo: it’s one of Jeff Elrod’s hallucinatory paintings, based on drawings “processed” into an incoherent blur. It feels like we’re looking through an unfocused microscope.

Jeff Elrod
Jeff Elrod

Speaking of blur and incoherence: Metahaven — who drew me to PS1 in the first place — aim to brand (and, in the process, critique the entire conceit of branding) often incoherent entities and concepts, like statehood and information networks. They’ve done some fantastic work onthe cloud,” which they render as something quite other than the puffy cumulus that typically serves as web-based services’ kid-friendly mascot.

We had some hyper-vigilant guards in the room, so I was able to sneak only one photo.
Metahaven. We had some hyper-vigilant guards in the room, so I was able to sneak only one photo.

via lessthannil: "metahaven destroying the hegemony of the cumulus-icon of cloud storage w/ their elusive cirrostratus models 4 the icelandic cloud."

“Islands in the Cloud” is, in a sense, a wunderkammer of the immaterial and inconceivable; it’s a room full of attempts to represent where today‘s collections live — not in cabinets, but in the cirrostratus.

From Artefacts, video to 35mm, via MoMAPS1
From Artefacts, video to 35mm, via MoMAPS1

Cyprien Gaillard’s “The Crystal World” offers yet another set of tools or techniques for observing and classifying the world. He employs a wide variety of imaging technologies — iPhone videos transferred to 35mm film, painting, sculpture, photography, and, once again, cabinets. My favorite of his projects is apparently not new; he’s been working on the Geographical Analogies series for six years now — but this work was new to me, and I found it captivating. As the artspeak folks explain it, these works are…

composed grids of Polaroids that are placed in visual correspondence with one another, presenting impressionistic inventories of landscapes and entropic architectural structures…. The photographs, like much of the artist’s work, capture images of ancient ruins, abandoned bunkers, and graffiti-covered urban structures- in short, disparate sites that are unified by their shared states of physical change, erosion, or decay over time.

Photographic archaeological wunderkammern. Sensing that I’d come full circle, back to the rare-books-behind-glass at the Grolier Club, I thought this the perfect place to stop.

Geographical Analogies. The only photo I managed to take, thanks, again, to the ubiquity of highly conscientious guards.
Geographical Analogies. The only photo I managed to take, thanks, again, to the ubiquity of highly conscientious guards.
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Grade-School Historical Determinism

Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf
Job Koelewijn‘s Mobius bookshelf

My husband and I both work in a university, and we often talk about how one’s interests take shape — about how our “favorite subjects” in school come to be our favorites, about how we come to appreciate the relevance and resonance in and among particular fields, about how we ultimately decide upon our areas of specialization, etc. He told me recently about a class, then a pilot-project, that he took in high school: three history, literature, and art teachers got together and organized a two-year “history of Western thought” mega-class, which examined the interrelationships of various forms of cultural production and ways of thinking throughout several millennia. They observed how particular themes were made manifest in music and painting and literature in, say, the Renaissance; how particular historical milieux gave rise to various philosophical ideas, etc. What an amazing opportunity, especially for a high school student. We didn’t have classes like this at my school. We had football.

I particularly regret how my relationship with the study of history was shaped throughout my middle- and high-school years. I never recognized history’s relevance to literature or music or math or science, all the subjects I loved. That’s probably in large part because history was framed for me as a series of events on particular dates: this major event started on this date, and ended on this date. My “mastery” of historical material was evaluated via exams loaded with matching and fill-in-the-blank questions: match the event with its year, or fill in the blank with the name of the historical figure to whom we can presumably ascribe sole responsibility for this major historical turn of events.

 via
via 

For two years, including my senior year in AP History, I had a teacher who came to class with a yellow legal pad blackened and warped with penciled notes. I’ll call him/her Ms. X. Ms. X had four chalkboards in her classroom: three on the front wall, one on the right-side wall. When the bell rang, she, a rather corpulent lady, would position herself before the front-left blackboard and start copying her notes — a heavily formatted outline — while adding “light” commentary. We couldn’t actually see the board, since her wide body blocked our view, so we had to wait until she moved on to Board #2 to begin our transcription. And thus began our race for the next 75 minutes — scribbling notes until our hands ached; racing to keep up with her; always, necessarily, one chalkboard behind. At any moment, a quick glance around the classroom revealed a handful of students shaking cramps out of their hands or feverishly sharpening dulled pencil-points. They approached these all-too-brief respites as one would approach a pit-stop in the Tour de France.

Ms. X’s commentary never matched up with what we were writing — there was always a one-board time-lag — so we felt a jarring dissonance between what we were hearing and what our brains were telling our hands to scratch out on paper. The act of note-taking served thus not to inscribe those facts in our memories — let alone to make them come alive — but rather, as a purely physical, de-intellectualized exercise.

Consequently, history, for me, was a sequence of events with clear causes and effects, definitive starting- and end-dates, easily identifiable male leaders who “made things happen.” It was painful. It was boring. It had no apparent connection to those other subjects that seemed so relevant and vibrant and inspiring. My literature and music teachers occasionally integrated short historical lessons into their classes, so we could understand the historical and cultural contexts that gave rise to Shakespeare, Bach, Faulkner, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it never occurred to me that those were mini-history lessons: how could they be? They were so…interesting!

I managed to disabuse myself of these notions in college — in large part because I came to realize (with the help of some fabulous teachers) that the study of literature is so greatly enriched by knowing where and when it comes from. I took quite a few history classes in graduate school. And as I immersed myself in my field amidst the rise of “new media” studies, and observed the prevalence of techno-utopian Internet theory, I started to become a bit of a curmudgeon: always doubting the newness of these developments, always wanting to find their precursors, to historicize.

And now as I begin writing my next book — after having researched the “media city” for nearly 15 years — I realize that even in its contemporaneity, it’s going to be deeply historical. And by “deep” I mean tracing connections back to the very first cities in the Middle East.

That makes me a bit nervous — primarily because I wasn’t trained as a historian. Working interdisciplinarily has already made me rather susceptible to the impostor syndrome; now adding a historical dimension just ups the “poseur” quotient. In the past several years I’ve read several book reviews, written by historians, of historically-oriented media, communication, and design books; in a few particularly traumatic occasions, the historians have mercilessly blasted the media scholars for the supposed shoddiness of their scholarship. One poor woman was raked over the coals for not citing a sufficient number of primary sources in her bibliography. I’ve also met a few historians who have chastised scholars in other fields for not examining their sources with a historian’s eye, for using the wrong archives, for choosing the wrong historical frame.

Have I been using the wrong archives? Have I been reading these archival materials “as a historian would”? Is that necessary? Do historians get to dictate what archives mean? Will I choose the right or wrong historical frameworks? Does doing history carry obligations that go above and beyond those of other forms of scholarly inquiry? How is sound historical scholarship different from good, old-fashioned sound scholarship? Am I at a serious disadvantage here because I’m, historically speaking, a late bloomer? Did those high school experiences historically determine my current state of self-doubt? I have to work through these issues — or get over them — before I can trust that I know the material I’ve been living with for the past decade-and-a-half, and that I’m ready to write this book. It’s all in there. I just have to convince this internal historical censor to open the gates.

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Murdoch on Carnegie: The Wall Street Journal’s Library Coverage

Murdoch with his in-office library. Via  NY Times
Murdoch with his in-office library. Via NY Times 

Geez Louise, is the Wall Street Journal ever into libraries. Or so it seems, based on the amount of coverage libraries have received in these first two weeks of the new year. Of course they closed out the old year with Ada Louise Huxtable’s last-ever critique, a take-down of Norman Foster’s proposed renovation of the 42nd Street New York Public Library:

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece.

There’s something perfect about Huxtable’s career ending with a look at one of New York’s most magnificent public spaces — but I, for one, can’t say that this was Huxtable’s most magnificent piece; she focused more on the presumed mission of the library than on the architecture, and I think her characterization of what libraries are for adopted many of the same stereotypes that compromised the Summer 2012 debate over the renovation.

via WSJ: "Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong is cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, including the costume in this box, worn by Willem Dafoe in the 1992 movie 'Light Sleeper.'"
via WSJ: “Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong is cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, including the costume in this box, worn by Willem Dafoe in the 1992 movie ‘Light Sleeper.'”

Then on January 3 the paper ran a piece about the sale of authors’ archives to libraries; of course this being the Journal, personal archives were framed not as a public good, but as an untapped source of potential income (Barry Newman, “As Trash Goes, Authors’ Clutter in the Right Hands Is Very Bankable”). A few days later they featured a rather nettlesome opinion piece by Peter Mandel (“Welcome to the Library, Where Shushing Is Overdue”) about the criminal invasion of noise into the library:

Long a refuge from the bustle of daily life, and a haven for adults and children who like the company of an engrossing page, the libraries I’ve been visiting lately are awash in almost as much noise and activity as a busy Starbucks.

I studied library acoustics for a couple years and published a few articles (including this one) on the topic. There’s so much to be said in response to this opinion piece — and, fortunately, many readers have written in to retort — but I’ll say only three things: first, there’s no reason “sounded” and silent activities can’t coexist in the same building, if it’s designed properly; second, libraries have long incorporated sound-making activities (e.g., some early Carnegie buildings included gyms, bowling alleys, music halls, etc.); and third, it’s been a while since libraries focused solely on books; they collect media in a wide variety of formats, including those for which sound is integral.

This is what they're doing in the library in Overland Park, KS.
This is what they’re doing in the library in Overland Park, KS.

In a rather funny coincidence, the very next day the Journal offered Owen Fletcher’s “Check These Out at the Library: Blacksmithing, Bowling, Butchering,” which examined the growth and diversification of library programming — much of which is, yes, quite noisy. This sh*t would drive Peter Newman nuts! Of course the question arises: what does butchering have to do with libraries? The answer is: libraries likely have books on butchering — so why not think of the library as a place where patrons can put that book-knowledge into action? Books, live demonstrations, and workshops are simply different media, different platforms for education — all of which can have a place in this institution.

The BPL's new Info Commons, via WSJ
The BPL’s new Info Commons, via WSJ

A week later the Journal turned its attention to Brooklyn. Jennifer Maloney’s “Library Eyes New Page” examined the Brooklyn Public Library’s renovation and digital-upgrading strategy, which will involve selling off some unfit old branch buildings and upgrading others; introducing an Info Commons, a digital lab and resource center, into its central building (just a couple blocks from where I live); and adding spaces for creative work. Of course closing branches is never a popular idea; when I spoke with the BPL’s Richard Reyes-Gavilan last winter for my Places article on “little libraries,” he asked me not to mention that, in their drive to become a more “nimble” institution, they were considering “messing with” (my words) the branches. Any perceived threat to the branches freaks people out. This was the case in every city I visited while researching for my book.

But as Reyes-Gavilan reinforced in our conversation, and as the library emphasized in the Journal article, “liberating” buildings that simply don’t function well in serving their communities, is actually an integral part of helping the BPL better serve its branch communities. According to the article, these real-estate dealings are done in support of the library’s main goals: “better serving the borough’s impoverished families, providing more resources for immigrants, and embracing Brooklyn’s now-established creative class with writers-in-residence, acquisitions of Brooklyn-penned oeuvres and studio space for artists” — which of course supplement their core mission: “ensur[ing] the preservation and transmission of society’s knowledge, history and culture, and…provid[ing] the people of Brooklyn with free and open access to information for education, recreation and reference.”

Predictably (I can imagine that Monday’s article incited a few branch-loyalist freak-outs), there was a follow-up article from Maloney the next day (“Proposal Would Replace Shuttered Brooklyn Libraries With New Spaces“), clarifying that “the library would replace any facilities it closes with new spaces in the same neighborhoods.” The sale of out-of-shape buildings, including some Carnegies, would “be used to pay for repairs and create new spaces designed for the digital age.” CEO Linda Johnson repeated: “We are not abandoning neighborhoods… There are some neighborhoods where we’ve got a library, but it’s just on the wrong block.”

Maloney’s original article referenced a report, issued last week by the Center for an Urban Future, on “Branches of Opportunity” in New York’s public library systems. Many of the challenges and opportunities and new developments examined in these various Journal articles are also addressed here, in the Center’s report. I spoke with David Giles, the report’s author, over the summer as he was gathering data. The main take-away is this: “New York City’s public libraries are serving more people in more ways than ever before, and have become an increasingly critical part of the city’s human capital system; but they have been undervalued by policymakers and face growing threats in today’s digital age.”

Pages from BranchesofOpportunity1

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While Brooklyn, Queens, and the NYPL’s branches grapple with budget woes, aging infrastructure, Hurricane Sandy damage, etc., and work hard to devise creative solutions to accommodate the needs of their communities in this hybrid analog-digital media age, the NYPL flagship continues to focus on what seem like, in comparison, the “first world problems” of high-end architectural preservation. Just hours ago the Journal posted Jennifer Maloney’s “Engineer Unpacks Plan for the Stacks” (Maloney’s apparently become their library beat reporter!), in which Robert Silman Associates assures its client and public that it is possible to remove “seven levels of century-old book stacks that support the Fifth Avenue building’s Rose Main Reading Room like a 53-foot-high Erector set.” How? They’ll “install 12 new support columns in between the existing stacks,” and “transfer the weight of the reading room to new supports without causing so much as a crack in its historic, red-quarry tile floor.”

via WSJ

“All while library patrons read in the vaulted space above.” No disruptions necessary. No need to divert one’s attention from her book to contemplate the engineering feats — the insane playing-with-the-laws-of-physics stuff — taking place beneath her feet. This unawareness, or perhaps we should just call it obliviousness, seems to characterize the way we often think about our public libraries: we — and by we I mean particularly those of us among the “haves” of the information age — so often fail to recognize just how many people these institutions serve (including us!), what vital roles they play in those folks’ lives, how freaking complicated the logistics of running a library are, how much infrastructure and expertise is needed, and just how much support — moral, political, financial — they deserve.

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Paju Bookcity on Places

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My article on Paju Bookcity, which I visited with my research assistant Ran Kim this past July, was published today in Places on Design Observer. The Korea Foundation and the New School’s Faculty Development Fund made our transportation possible, and I’m tremendously grateful to both organizations. I described our research process in an earlier post.

Ran took lots of fabulous photos in Paju, most of which unfortunately couldn’t fit into the published article — so I’ll share some of the leftovers here:

Library @ Youlhwadang Book Hal
Library @ Youlhwadang Book Hal
One of Bookcity's public bookshops
One of Bookcity’s public bookshops

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Model of Phase 2 Development
Model of Phase 2 Development
Traditional House near Asian Publishing Culture Information Center
Traditional House near Asian Publishing Culture Information Center
Moveable Type Workshop
Moveable Type Workshop

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Taking Note of Notes

Back in November the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted “Take Note,” a conference that brought together “scholars from literature, history, media studies, information science, and computer science to explore the past and future roles of note-taking across the university.” I wish I could’ve been there. It attracted a good deal of attention — from the NY Times, the Boston Globe, and, just this week, the Chronicle Review — which is quite uncommon for your typical academic conference. Coincidentally, this week’s New Yorker also featured a glorious piece by John McPhee about his own evolving note-taking and writing processes.

The conference’s organizers, Ann Blair and Leah Price, have been studying note-taking for a decade or more, as have several other conference participants: Lisa Gitelman, Bob Stein, Geoffrey Nunberg, etc. I’ve also encountered quite a few architectural historians who have long been examining marginalia and modifications in the books in architects’ and architectural theorists’ personal libraries (see, for instance, Sarah McPhee’s “The Architect as Reader” JSAH 58:3 (Sept. 1999)). And then there are the five years’ worth of fabulous posts on Taking Note, “a blog on the nature of note-taking and some of its practical as well as theoretical implications.” It’s one of my favorite blogs, and I wish I knew who was behind it. While much of the press coverage suggests that the study of notes is a new area of inquiry — inspired in large part by questions about how those notes will be preserved as they migrate to the digital realm — historians of the book, and scholars from other fields, have actually been studying notes and marginalia for quite some time.

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Finally, I can’t not acknowledge a project I was involved in: nearly three years ago I organized an issue on “Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions” for The New Everyday. It included entries from (among others) Lisa Gitelman; the Smithsonian’s Liza Kirwin, who curated an exhibition and published a book on artists’ lists and notes; Andrew Piper, author of Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination… and Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times; and Dan Cohen, whose Center for History and New Media has developed many open-source note-taking and bibliographic platforms. The topics and themes I explored in my intro bear much resemblance to those in the Boston Globe preview of the conference.

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

Visits home mean time spent with the dogs, whom, when I'm not home, I miss terribly.
Visits home mean time spent with the dogs, whom, when I’m not home, I miss terribly.

The past three weeks have involved a whole mess of travel — to and from Chicago, amongst its far-flung suburbs to visit various in-laws, into and out of the city; and to and from central Pennsylvania, where my family lives. There was much family togetherness (much appreciated!) and, consequently, a little less time for reading than I had anticipated. Nevertheless, I did manage to find time to enjoy the new “Logistics” issue of Cabinet (which included a great piece by Clare Lyster and an interview with Nancy Pope, the Smithsonian’s Historian and Curator of Postal History), the new issue of Log, and Terry Belanger’s Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books. I also archived a bunch of October, Critical Inquiry, and Artforum articles I’d read over the past few months, and dug into Anne Burdick et. al.’s excellent Digital Humanities (which, even though I’m only a third of the way into it, seems like something I’ll be using in my future classes).

Plus, I reread McLuhan’s Understanding Media — both because my husband had planned to read it with me, so he could learn more about media studies, and because I was invited to write a piece, for the book’s 50th anniversary in 2014, on my initial impressions of the text and how it has (if it has) informed my research and teaching. I finished that essay last night; I decided to focus on how my evolving feelings about McLuhan — and the whole ecological approach to media studies — have paralleled my own coming-to-terms with the fact that “formalism” needn’t be a dirty word.

Speaking of forms: while in PA I spent some time with my dad in the workshop, making two new end tables for our apartment in Brooklyn. We modified (read: simplified, since we had less than a day to complete everything) a Thomas Moser design. I did the dovetailing, and my dad, because he works way faster than me, did everything else. I recalled just how much I like working with chisels and thought, again, that I really should buy some woodshop time at 3rd Ward or Gowanus Studio Space or something like that.

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We also squeezed in some art. A friend and I saw Mickalene Thomas at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. And I revisited the Ann Hamilton installation at the Park Avenue Armory with my husband. My previous visit, with my Archives/Libraries/Databases class, was on a Tuesday afternoon — so the cavernous space was relatively quiet and the security guards were relatively chilled out, probably because there were no kids fighting over swings. The return visit was during prime-time (Jesse Tyler Ferguson was there!) — a Saturday afternoon shortly before the exhibition closed — and the starkly different social and sonic environment made the installation feel completely foreign. At first I missed the intimacy of the initial visit, but then I came to appreciate that the density of activity revealed a new, integrally participatory, dimension of the piece. As Roberta Smith described in the Times, with so much going on ,”you could feel the rest of the interconnected system pulse and gyrate, a momentary demonstration — at once silly and profound — that we are, indeed, all connected.”

"Prismatic" screen in Hito Steyerl's Adorno's Grey
“Prismatic” screen in Hito Steyerl’s Adorno’s Grey
More "prismatically" positioned images, in the hallway leading into the Steyerl screening room
More “prismatically” positioned images, in the hallway leading into the Steyerl screening room

While in Chicago, we made an afternoon stop at the Art Institute, to take in the Steve McQueen and Hito Steyerl exhibitions. Among Steyerl’s video installations, I particularly enjoyed Adorno’s Grey, which I’ll allow e-flux to describe:

Legend has it that Theodor W. Adorno had the auditorium where he taught at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt painted grey to aid concentration. In Adorno’s Grey, a team of conservators burrows into the wall of this auditorium hoping to reveal the layer of grey paint beneath it. A voiceover recounts an incident in 1969 when, after three female students approached and bore their breasts to him during a lecture, Adorno collected his papers and ran away in a panic. This would be his last lecture.

Art Agenda offers a much more thoughtful analysis of the piece than I’m capable of, since I, thanks to a tight schedule, had to “sample” the video and the lengthy wall-text timeline. While at the institute, we also caught the Studio Gang and Project Projects exhibitions.

Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects
Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects
Project Projects' Test Fit
Project Projects’ Test Fit

And before all the holiday travels began, I took in the Art of Scent exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design. I’ve always been interested in multisensory exhibition — I’ve written about it, and this past fall I chaired a panel on the topic. Smell seems a particularly challenging sense to capture in exhibition. Last year I wrote about Christophe Laudamiel’s Phantosmia show, but I was curious to see what Diller Scofidio + Renfro would do with the exhibition design at MAD.

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To experience a scent, once leans into a wall cavity, where a sensor triggers the fragrance's release.
To experience a scent, once leans into a wall cavity, where a sensor triggers the fragrance’s release.
In an adjacent room, visitors can dip paper wands into pools of fragrance or retrieve peel-back samplers from dispensers embedded in the wall. Then, through an iPad, you can register your affective response to each scent.
In an adjacent room, visitors can dip paper wands into pools of fragrance or retrieve peel-back samplers from dispensers embedded in the wall. Then, through an iPad, you can register your affective response to each scent.

Once again, this post has gotten really long, so I’m going to wrap up without really wrapping things up. Then again, that’s kind of how my winter break played out: sampling lots of things without any compulsion to find cohesion.