My review of Hillel Schwartz’s epic, ear-splitting, mind-blowing Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond will be out soon in Current Musicology. Here’s a pdf proof, to which we’ll have to make a few tiny revisions before publication.
Between the continuing drama over the NYPL’s renovation of the 42nd Street building, the efforts to provide pop-up libraries for communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, author Terry Deary’s proclamation that libraries are “no longer relevant,” hype over that book-less library in San Antonio, and the Wall Street Journal‘s kind-of-weird-and-kind-of-awesome recent fascination with libraries, libraries have been a fairly consistent presence in my daily news feed lately.
[Update: a few minutes after I posted this, Urban Omnibus announced a Little Free Libraries/NY competition that will be part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY festival. Update 2: …and a few minutes after that, GOOD reported on a grassroots library effort in Rotterdam.]
This past summer there was another little flurry of press about libraries, including in particular the raging NYPL debate and the spread of “little libraries.” I contributed one such article back in May, and in that article, I commented on an even earlier wave of “giddy attention” paid to little libraries. After I wrote my article, several others appeared (see this and this and this and this). And now some of those articles, or the projects featured in them, are re-appearing.
Back in July I wrote about a tendency, especially within the design press, to “attempt to provide historical and cultural context” for these new library projects, but often “falling back on a bunch of myths and misconceptions” about libraries’ history, evolution, current use, current demand, etc. Unsurprisingly, those myths persist in the more recent press coverage, and they perpetuate myopia regarding what this institution is, has been, and can be. I still have concerns about the way libraries are framed in popular debate, so I’m pasting part of my original post below:
Don’t get me wrong: I love these projects and completely understand the enthusiasm. What bugs me is how they’re historically contextualized — or miscontexutalized. Consider this Domus article about Alumnos47/ PRODUCTORA’s Mexico City-based A47 Mobile Library:
At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.
Okay, we’ve heard this before. But I think we’ve also recognized that it’s not quite so simple. There are plenty of printed documents that haven’t been, and won’t be, digitized. And iPhones haven’t “become books”; they can hold books, among many other media forms, but the phones themselves aren’t books.
It is hard to imagine the concept of a mobile library without immediately thinking of downloading its volumes from the Internet.
Are books themselves not portable? Have we not read Benjamin? He must’ve moved those books before unpacking them, no? And what about bookmobiles? Mule libraries in Appalachia? Biblioburro? Traveling lighthouse libraries?
Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.
<Sigh> Do we have to do this?
How do you take something so opposite to a piece of architecture as a lorry and turn it into not just a library, but a structure capable of hosting an entire spectrum of cultural activities? Looked at in this way, the archaic idea of building libraries started to regain a sense of modernity. Working on this premise, Mexican architecture studio PRODUCTORA came up with the design for a cultural centre within a 20 square metres space on board a Freightliner M2 20K lorry — a travelling building.
So Productora modernized the library by reimagining it as a site for an “entire spectrum of cultural activities”? Rather than heroicizing the designer, again, let’s give some credit to the librarians who already figured this out. The Carnegie libraries hosted an “entire spectrum of cultural activities” — as did, to some degree, the Library of Alexandria.
And here’s another recent “small collection of little libraries” post: To set up a contrast with the informal libraries they’re about to profile, Architizer paints the following picture of the traditional library:
Originally built to protect books from ruin, libraries are generally gigantic bunker-like buildings. Inwardly focused, they restrict access to their treasure troves to those who whisper and can thrive without sunlight.
Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago that was the case — before Labrouste, before open stacks, before children’s rooms, etc.
With the advent of the internet, however, all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.
All of it? Really? I bite my tongue.
Books are no longer precious for the information within them, but rather for their physicality: you can’t hold the internet or turn a webpage (discounting the swipes of an iPad). This frees libraries to pursue another of their functions: to foster dialogue and investigation.
Have not libraries been fostering dialogue and investigation for millennia? Sure, for a good portion of their history, when books were scarce and valuable, protecting the books was a prime concern. But that era ended quite some time ago — unless you’re talking about rare books libraries, which I don’t think they’re thinking of here.
In short: Yes, I understand that you want to ascribe some historical and cultural significance to the design projects you’re reviewing — by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative — but let’s try not to fabricate that context.
I always seem to find a through-line on my Saturday gallery tours. I’m sure these themes are, to a large degree, ideas that I’m imposing on all the art I see, based on things that I’m thinking about in my own work. This past weekend, after the “blizzard” — an event that seemed cause a little wrinkle in time — we spent an afternoon in Chelsea, and I sensed in a lot of the work a desire to freeze the fleeting, or structure the amorphous. That’s a pretty loose theme, sure. But it works for me. And this ain’t a dissertation, so cut me some slack.
We started at the super-fancy-pants new Hauser & Wirth gallery for the father-son Dieter Roth. Björn Roth show. Back in 2002, when I taught a class called “Textual Form” at Penn, we talked a bit about Dieter’s Literaturwursts, or literature sausages — and I came to appreciate the expansive list of “ingredients” from which Roth composed his work. As Roberta Smith wrote in the Times,
Inspired by the self-destructing mechanical sculptures of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, he favored organic materials like chocolate, dough and sausages to make works that were as mortal and decay prone as humans. He constantly blurred the division between art and life and tended to push his work to the brink of chaos. Process — as disorderly, random and natural as possible — was his overriding interest.
The gallery’s press release echoed that that “process” involved “embracing accidents, mutations, and accretions of detail over time.” Roth’s processual messiness is put on full display in “Large Table Ruin” (begun in 1978), a labyrinthine, fire-trap-of-a-workshop full of art supplies, detritus, old-school film projectors, cameras, audio recorders, and playback devices. All the media devices, themselves of “archival” vintage, spoke to some desire to record, to preserve, the mess and decay.
Fittingly, during the last two years of Roth’s life, when he had embraced his own mortality, he set up cameras in his home-studios and recorded his daily routine. This self-portrait / video-diary, distributed across 128 monitors near the exhibition’s entrance, represents, as the gallery puts it, the “artist’s attempt at illustrating life as the accumulation of vast quantities of fragments of data.” Data, itself no less a “medium” than chocolate or paint — and no less prone to decay — captures the accretions of detail in his daily life and the process of his own mutation.
The repetition and documentation of the mundane also seemed to drive Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” at Luhring Augustine. It’s a nine-channel, 64-minute video installation showing a musical performance by various Icelandic musicians, staged at Rokeby Farm in upstate New York. Each screen features a room or outdoor setting at the farm, with a musician playing his or her part in the composition. Kjartansson’s was the last show we saw on our (frigid) afternoon tour — and we seemed to catch the tail-end of the performance, since most of the screens showed cello- and guitar-toting musicians packing up their gear, and some screens had even gone black. Jumping in in media res, I couldn’t discern a plot, but I did sense a vibe — which was probably good enough. As Kjartansson explains in the Times, “My works are all kind of anti-storytelling,” he said. “They’re always about a feeling, but there’s no story.”* But I still want to see how this “feeling” is choreographed across time, so I’ll definitely return and give it the hour-and-change it deserves.
(*Speaking of undiscernable stories, Amy Cutler’s illustrations usually feature beautifully dressed, and distressed-looking, women doing enigmatic things. I saw her recent show — this time, of portraits — at Leslie Tonkonow, and was less taken by them than I am by her more elaborate drawings.)
The “architecture” of the installation and the dark room gave Kjartansson’s installation a bit of a voyeuristic quality; I felt as if I were walking around outside the Rokeby Farm mansion, peeking in its windows. David Allee’s photographs at Morgan Lehman represented the opposite view: looking from a familiar inside to the outside world. But the window isn’t the only “Frame of View” in Allee’s show: his photos also call attention to, and flatten into two-dimensional images, the superimposed structural and perceptual frames — screens, photos, picture frames, window frames, spectacles, even the basic principles of perspective — that condition our vision.
Trevor Paglen’s “Last Pictures,” at Metro Pictures, also explores technologies of vision. We see satellites in orbit, and, at the same time, what the satellite sees down here on earth. We surveil the (secret) government surveilors. We scan images inscribed on a disc and launched into space on a Kazakh satellite, for potential interception by other beings whose own processes of vision may be entirely unlike our own. All quite cryptic. And that’s the point.
Suzanne Treister shares Paglen’s desire to visualize the clandestine, to draw out, and freeze in a network diagram, connections that are often expected to evaporate in order to evade detection. Her Hexen 2.0 at PPOW “looks into histories of scientific research behind government programs of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0, increased intelligence gathering and implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society.”
Modern architecture was wrapped up in some of those mid-century discussions of “control” — and legendary architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, whose work was on display at Yossi Milo, was one of the prime documenters of modern design’s “organizational complex,” to borrow Reinhold Martin’s term. Stoller’s work, as Michael Kimmelman explained in the Times, “helped fix modern design in America’s consciousness… Immaculate, self-effacing and with a mix of light and shadow revealing every angle and surface, his photographs stressed geometry, transparency, timelessness — like the buildings.” At the same time, he likened his work to being “given a score to play.” He thus captured the choreography of modern design and modern labor. All these great interior shots, many of which I’d never seen before, made me appreciate Stoller anew, as a proto-Gursky.
And finally, the great charmer of the afternoon was Doug Aitken’s 100 YRS at 303 Gallery, featuring choreographed water-drops falling into a milky-white pool excavated from the gallery floor (yo, Urs Fischer!); a lightbox flickering the message “not enough time in the day”; a fountain in which mud (which looks like chocolate — or maybe I was reminded of Roth… or dinner) bubbles up from plexiglass letters reading “ART”; and an igneous-rock-like sculpture reading “SUN-SET” set into the wall and illuminated from behind. All are, in some way, references to temporality; all are “choreographed” into forms embodying both permanence and ephemerality; all acknowledge both the immediate and the “deep time” of sunsets, volcanoes and geology. 100 YRS — or more — all in an afternoon.
I’m happy to be taking the reins from Nick Mirzoeff as Coordinating Editor of The New Everyday, MediaCommons’ “middle-state” publication for the exploration of our mediated everyday existence (about which more below). Nick launched TNE three years ago, and since then we’ve enjoyed clusters of insightful and timely posts on new political forms and modes of civic engagement, new practices of looking, new instantiations of the timeless “banality of evil,” new challenges facing our educational institutions, and new practices of collecting, organizing, and making media.
I’ve shared the text from our refreshed “About” page below. For more information, see “How It Works.”
How the times have changed! A little, a lot, vastly, not at all? We shall see.
– Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, p. 7
The New Everyday investigates the mundane, the quotidian, the habitual, and the routine, focusing in particular on the roles that media and technology play in their construction. Building upon the work of pioneers in the field – Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau among them – we wonder about new formulations of the everyday in this age of seemingly universal digitization and mobilization. How have the times changed? As “new media” grow old and are upgraded with ever increasing rapidity, as our visions of the world and the stars are shaped via the “machine-visions” of a New Aesthetic, as our everyday temporalities are informed both by the predictive capabilities of “big data” and a growing consciousness of the “deep time” of humans’ impact on the planet, what distinguishes the everyday today? We must wonder, as Lefebvre does, if “what has changed” is “everyday life” itself, or “the art of representing it through metamorphosis, or both, and what the consequences are” (7).
The solution, he advocates,
[is] to attempt a philosophical inventory and analysis of everyday life that will expose its ambiguities – its baseness and exuberance, its poverty and fruitfulness – and by these unorthodox means release the creative energies that are an integral part of it (13).
The New Everyday aims to be a forum for these inventories and analyses. And it aims to infuse this investigation with “creative energies” by experimenting with the means and modalities of critical investigation. As we examine the mediated everyday, we’ll involve those same everyday media as tools in our examination. Do particular formats or genres of expression uniquely capture various dimensions of everyday experience, or do certain aspects of the everyday elude mediation? And as we think through the everyday, what modalities best support our own rhetorical and expressive goals?
The New Everyday is a platform for what is called “middle-state” publishing, and it’s in-the-middle, or in-between, in more ways than one:
- Contributions are longer than a blog post, but shorter than a journal article; they’re typically between 900 and 1500 words.
- Contributions represent ideas that are in-formulation, taking shape but not yet fully formed; TNE offers an opportunity for you to think through a project in public, and to solicit feedback from the MediaCommons community as part of the process of developing your ideas.
- The public invested in these collaborative investigations ideally extends beyond the academy to include other professionals with their own means of engaging with the quotidian and “making the familiar strange”; thus, TNE welcomes collections that mix scholars of media with scholars from other fields of study, artists, technologists, legal and finance professionals, etc.
- As McKenzie Wark notes, “The time of everyday life not only differs from the time of news media and the time of scholarship, it differs from the time of capital flows an global power” (266). The spaces and forms of everyday life likewise differ from the traditional formsof scholarship. Thus we seek contributions that rethink the way we conceptualize and develop a critical discourse around the everyday. We welcome observations, reportage, media “stylos,” and other forms of what Geert Lovink calls “theory on the run” – theory as a “living-entity, a set of proposals, preliminary propositions and applied knowledge,” which “expresses itself in a range of ways” (15).
- Much like our everyday milieu, with its myriad modes of experience and forms of discourse, TNE is multimodal; it supports work that calls for hybrid forms of expression, encompassing sound, (zoom-able) still images, video, etc. (other formats can be explored with our tech team).
Previous “clusters” (i.e., special thematic issues, or edited collections) can be perused here. Other topics might include, but are certainly not limited to:
- The transformation of everyday life into computational lists, aggregated data, feeds and flows, and the aspects of the everyday that resist this transformation
- Technologies of productivity and digital labor – or leisure
- The politics of “small things”
- The affective and cognitive dimensions of the mediated everyday – boredom, amusement, attention, distraction, etc.
- Gadgets, gizmos, and appliances
- Mediated environments
- Technology and temporality
- Infrastructures and institutions invisibly shaping our everyday experience
- Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and other digital and analog platforms for the “everyday archiving” of what Sianne Ngai calls the “zany, cute and interesting”
- Technologies of self-regulation and habituation
- Mass observation, participant observation, eavesdropping, and other formal and informal methodologies for studying the everyday
- Media’s role in revealing the non-universality of “everyday-ness”
Call for Contributions to The New Everyday
Individual contributions are welcome. However, the most effective means of contributing is via a pre-constituted cluster, or special issue. The cluster curator(s) establish(es) the theme or topic for a cluster; solicit(s) contributions (the TNE co-ordinating editor is happy to offer recommendations and assist with recruitment); lightly edits the contributions, if necessary; and oversees individual contributors’ posting of their work. For more information, see “How It Works.”
If you would like to submit an idea for a cluster, or to publish an individual project, please email the TNE Co-ordinating Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. Proposals should include a brief abstract, a list of potential contributors (ideally five to nine), and a description of potential post formats and media assets.
Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2007).
Geert Lovink, My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition (Amsterdam: NAi Publishers, 2003).
McKenzie Wark, “The Weird Global Media Event and the Tactical Intellectual [Version 3.0]” In Wendy Chun and Thomas Keenan, Eds., New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006): 265-76.
“French tanks were closing in on this storied caravan city on the night of Jan. 23, when the al Qaeda-backed militants who had governed Timbuktu since April left a departing blow. They broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves. Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world,” the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. This, after months of ruination, including the demolition of many sites central to Mali’s cultural heritage.
But thanks to a mix of old- and new-school preservation tools and strategies — donkey, the old “hide ’em under the floorboards” trick, and digitization — most of the 30 to 40,000 manuscripts survived. Prof. Abdoulaye Cissé and security guard Abba Alhadi told the Journal that “an estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart.” “[T]he people of Timbuktu have a centuries-old tradition of protecting and preserving their manuscripts,” the BBC reported. As South African researcher Mohamed Mathee explained to reporters, Malians “think on their feet when faced with these challenges… They take the documents to family homes and store them safely.” Plus, since the Ahmed Baba Institute was founded in 1973, Timbuktu has grown a network of official places of refuge — both physical and virtual — for its manuscripts, where the documents are preserved and digitized.
Last year Chris Bentley, a student in my Archives, Libraries & Databases graduate seminar, wrote a fantastic paper on Timbuktu’s Mamma Haïdara Commemorative Library. While we certainly celebrate the role that these preservation and digitization efforts have played in averting recent disaster, we also can’t ignore the complicated politics of such internationally-funded efforts. Chris, who served for two years in the Peace Corps in Mali, writes:
I found it difficult to balance the potential value the manuscripts may yield to scholarship with the internationally funded institutional practice of swooping in, building tangible monuments to donors’ generosity and skipping town – a tactic foreign aid and development organizations have mastered… While this is an improvement over the colonial practice of removing cultural artifacts from occupied regions, it is still a display of power and wealth that removes the manuscripts from their previous associations (with the descendents of the historian who started the collection) and places them in a sterile, secure, new environment that greater resembles Western methods of organization than Malian.
You can read the full paper here.