In Rare Fashion: My RBMS Plenary Presentation

"Archive Wall" from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Archive Wall” from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum

I was delighted to be invited to deliver one of the closing plenary talks at the 2014 preconference for the American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, on the theme of “Retrofit,” in Las Vegas. I was joined on the plenary panel by Jim Reilly, Founder and Director of the Image Permanence Institute, and Emily Gore, Content Director of the Digital Public Library of America, both of whom gave fantastic presentations. Unfortunately, we had far too little time for discussion.

What follows are my slides and the text of my talk:

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections Infrastructural Aesthetics

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections’ Infrastructural Aesthetics

I come from Brooklyn, the land of archival aesthetics. I realize this is kind of old news, but those of us who live the antiquarian lifestyle are quite happy to be behind the curve. [S2] We’re committed to canning, [S3] letterpress, [CLICK] suspenders, [CLICK] and classic cocktails. [S4] We mix our vinyl with taxidermy. [S5] This coming weekend we’re opening a new museum, Morbid Anatomy, that’s dedicated to spirit photography, embalming, and 19th-century medical and mourning practices. [S6: Blank] We’re into performing our preservation, too; we can make anything “heritage” or artisanal – [S7] including our faces. (I should note that recent research has shown that [S8] we may recently have reached “peak beard.”)

[S9]Rare book and manuscript libraries certainly have their own aesthetic of “rarity” – but it’s not often manifested in the same way that we Brooklynites do it, [S10] with reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs. In a 2007 article in RBM, Gerald Beasley described what one might see if one approached the archive as an aesthetic place:

[S11]rows and rows of acid-free boxes and acid-free folders on inert gray metal shelving in climate-controlled storage… – not what you call ‘eye candy.’ …[W]hat goes on inside those boxes is often a far more riotous mix of material culture than anything a row of books or periodicals can provide. But in marketing terms, archives in storage suffer from an image problem.[1]

In my comments here I’m not going to focus on the [S12] riotous content of those boxes and books– on the woodcuts and gold leaf embellishments and marginalia on their enclosed pages; or on the stories and arguments and information conveyed through their words and images. Andrew Stauffer’s beautiful plenary talk from Wednesday acknowledged much that can be gained from the textual and material-aesthetic dimensions of archival artifacts.

[S13]Instead, I’m going to focus on the boxes themselves, and that inert gray metal shelving – and the study tables and the conservation labs and vitrines and online catalogues and drably lit rooms – all the architectural and technological infrastructures that enable archives and rare book and manuscript libraries to do what they do. For the sake of brevity, I’ll heretofore lump these spaces together and call them “special collections.” I’ll argue that even the seemingly anti-aesthetic aspects of the special collection actually do – or can – embody an aesthetic, an experience, that enhances the various programmatic functions the institution serves; and can even serve as a means of advocacy for those functions. These aesthetics can, as John Overholt argued in last spring’s issue of RBM, serve to “demystify special collections, to convey the message: ‘Please touch. This is here for you” – and, I would add, this is how we made it possible for this to be here for you, to touch and read and listen to and learn from.[2]

[S14]By “aesthetics,” I don’t mean beauty or sublimity, or a taste-based assessment of “look and feel.” I mean sensory contemplation, which is not separate from or opposed to the realm of the intellectual. Rather, aesthetics are an integral part of the teaching and research – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in special collections. We need to acknowledge these aesthetics of experience, for both patrons and staff – as well as both on-site and online communities, both the local and distributed.

There are cases in which intellectual labor and aesthetic experience are balkanized. [S15] This was made especially clear to me several years ago, when I was working on an essay about the 2006 renovation – a controversial retrofitting – of Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [Warning: this account will involve an embarrassing number of “air quotes.”] The room was founded with a gift from Harry Harkness Flager in honor of his friend and former Columbia professor George E. Woodberry, who aimed to afford undergraduates an opportunity to experience the “delight and entertainment” of poetry outside the “chore of the curriculum,” where, under the influence of new approaches to criticism, poetry was increasingly analyzed with a “rigorous empiricism” and mined for “facts.” [S16] My study examined how Aalto’s forward-thinking and fluid design – a humanistic variation on Modern design – accommodated and symbolized the myriad material forms of poetry represented in the collection: manuscripts, little magazines, records, printed books, even poetry-inspired artwork. One of the reviewers of my article, however, claimed that my focus on “delight” and “entertainment” precluded poetry’s “significance”; to highlight aesthetic experience was to suggest that poetry is devoid of “intellectual or political engagement,” and to fail to acknowledge that “poets even think rationally.”

Of course in my revision I took great pains to demonstrate that feeling – even, heaven forbid, pleasure and delight – is not inimical to rational thought. [S17] I also had to spend some time explaining, contra many preservationists’ claims, why computers weren’t superfluous technologies that could be moved off-site to as to preserve the room’s classic aesthetic. At just over 1000 square feet the Poetry Room was the smallest media space I’ve ever worked with, and its focus on poetry made its mission and audience particularly delimited. But even this small case study illustrates what I’ve tried to do with all of my research on media architectures: [S18] that is, to demonstrate how entwined infrastructures – architectural, technological, social, etc. – embody certain politics and epistemologies. And this embodiment happens in large part through their aesthetics.You see here a related piece I published a couple weeks ago.

[S19]Francois Blouin acknowledges in a 2010 issue of RBM that many notable special collections are often sited in privileged places, apart from more pedestrian collections, and housed in monumental spaces, which connect contemporary researchers to the “enduring scholarly values” and research traditions they embody. Yet he claims “the importance of these settings to scholarship has seldom been cause for much reflection.”[3]

[S20]I noticed that what seems to be a key text in the design of archival and special collections, Michele Pacifico and Thomas Wilsted’s 2009 Archival and Special Collections Facilities, frames the special collection as an architecture primarily for objects. There are chapters on the building site, environmental control, fire protection, security, materials and finishes, storage equipment, prohibited materials, etc.[4] A paper presented at the 2012 IFLA conference acknowledged that the 2009 study needed to expanded – but the proposed areas of development included sustainable design; environmental standards for storage, including design for buildings in extreme climates; planning for disasters; and the design implications of electronic records and digitization.[5]  Aside from considering accessibility issues, once again very little attention seems to be paid to the aesthetics of experience, both for patrons and staff. [S21]The recent translation of Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives has attracted a great deal of attention precisely because she addresses both the delights and miseries of people’s embodied, multisensory interaction with collection materials and the collection’s physical space.[6]

[S22]In the time that remains, I’ll discuss the aesthetics of five intertwined infrastructures that compose the special collection, and many of which have undergone recent retrofits in light of technological and curricular and pedagogical change. I’ll offer some brief comments regarding their political and epistemological significance, as well as their potential to serve as tools for pedagogy or advocacy for the importance of special collections. There are certainly more than five infrastructures I could talk about, but, in the interest of time, I’ll need to limit my focus. This means, unfortunately, that much is left out, including perhaps the one area of special collections whose aesthetics are most commonly recognized — namely, the reading room. You could turn to Farge’s text for a discussion of reading-room aesthetics.

[S23] I’ll start with the aesthetics of storage infrastructures. Collection storage has long been a central design feature – there never seems to enough of it – and it’s often an aesthetic focus for libraries. [S24]Storage spaces played a central role in the controversy of the planned renovation of the NYPL’s Schwartzman Library. I’ve written about a few other designs, [S25]including the 40-anniversary retrofit of Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy and [S26]Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library, with its book spiral, that prioritize storage of the collection. More recently, [S27]TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City and [S28]MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to fetishize the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including [S29]Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the [S30]Beinecke at Yale. The epistemological implications of this aesthetic are obvious: these architectures put on display, and make empirical, if not navigable, the wealth of knowledge that the collection represents.

[S31]Even behind-the-scenes storage spaces – those acid-free boxes grey shelves – have aesthetic appeal. Many conceptual artists have worked with what art historian Hal Foster calls the “aesthetics of administration.” [S32]There’s also been a lot of fantastic recent scholarship on the history of paperwork and filing – [S33]I wrote something last year, too – that attests to the deeper social and cultural implications of back-stage storage systems. [S34]And in my classes on archives and mapping, I often organize field trips in which we take these media studies and design students behind the scenes at various museums and archives and special collections. Amidst the beige and grey, the students not only begin to grasp the scope of an institution’s collection and the breadth of formats it contains, but they also begin to appreciate how value is attached to those materials – and just how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon.

Even as collections move off-site, I’ve noticed continuing fascination with the aesthetics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, [S35]the Harvard Depository, North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library, [S36]and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. I situate these projects in relation to growing interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. We can also position these “storage stories” within within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. [S37]It’s part of the trend toward “making visible the invisible,” calling attention to the distribution of information, which has tended to be eclipsed by interest in production and consumption.

[S38] Second, the aesthetics of conservation, also typically behind-the-scenes. But, again, when I’ve taken my students to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. [S39] At the New York City Municipal Archives, we watched a photography conservator peel apart 80-year-old homicide scene photos from the NYPD; we watched a print conservator “float” a 400-year-old Dutch document in a tub of wood pulp; we [S40] we observed a staff member custom-build an acid-free box for a rusty switchblade found amongst the police department’s records. The organic materiality of media is quite a revelation to many of these supposed “digital natives.” [S41] And even the material work of preserving the digital – of practicing digital forensics, making sure to regularly spin the back-up hard drives, or reformatting video archives to keep pace with evolving best practices – is illuminating for students to observe. These backstage activities have such great pedagogical potential – and there’s demonstrated interest. What’s more, making this activity visible has the potential to manifest, and thereby advocate for, the critical, specialized work that takes place in special collections. [S42] Not all institutions have beautiful conservation facilities like the Morgan Library’s Thaw Conservation Center, but there have to be ways to allow different publics to experience the aesthetics, and thus the politics, of the work of conservation.

[S43] Third, the aesthetics of exhibition. This may be the most obvious example: the curation of special collections’ materials is intended primarily to create an aesthetic frame for those materials, and to render them experiential. In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas. [S44] The Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale repositioned its exhibition spaces outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter.[7] Such exhibitions not only highlight collection materials, but they also have the potential to model scholarly methodology and intellectual frameworks; they can show students how to put objects in conversation with one another and make inferences or draw conclusions from historical texts and primary resources.

Of course putting those special collections materials in a vitrine or display case typically emphasizes the visual at the expense of the other senses, and thereby limits the pedagogical “channels” that we can use to teach with or through these materials. [S45] There are other special collections infrastructures – classrooms and programing spaces, for instance – that allow for different aesthetic and epistemological experiences. These spaces – which constitute our fourth aesthetic infrastructure – [S46] create opportunities for the handling and activation of materials, and offer the ability to bring those materials alive in group settings, via a variety of pedagogical techniques, or perhaps through performances. Ideally, careful attention is paid to furnishings and lighting and display technology that lend themselves to flexible use. In some cases, however, as we see here, teachers simply commandeer whatever space they have for communal use.

Yale’s Arts Library, as part of their renovation, also integrated a classroom, which grew their instruction program over 900 percent. Years earlier, the Beinecke Library underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, which involved converting conventional shelving into compact storage, and transforming some storage space into classrooms and a [S47] Digital Studio. As Ellen Cordes wrote, “This choice to build classrooms in preference to both storage space and a conservation studio is a very concrete demonstration of the library’s commitment to access, and not just to the preservation of collections.”[8] The library hosted a record number of classes in 2004-5 and [S48]launched a bunch of extra-curricular programs, including non-credit classes, lectures, musical performances, and poetry events inspired by the collections.

Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. This is in keeping with John Overholt’s proposal that the future of special collections will encompass both “disintermediation” – the collections’ “unmooring” from librarians’ “organizational and interpretive contexts – as well as their creative “transformation.”[9] [S49] The Woodberry Poetry Room, for instance, has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. When poet Christina Davis became curator of the room in 2008, she introduced group listening sessions and a works-in-progress series, among other events. When these open events are not in session, the uses of the room range from “quiet study, perusal of literary magazines, the research of rare material (broadsides, manuscripts, chapbooks), listening to archival recordings,… and (yes) writing poems.”[10] “The latter is, to my mind,” Davis told me, “the surest sign of the success of the room: It means that scholarship and the art-form it hopes to perpetuate have come full circle.

[S50]And over the past few days at this conference we’ve seen myriad other creative uses to which special collections materials have been put – everything from Burrough’s Reality Studio to Booktraces to Tumblrs and student Omeka exhibitions and Neatline timelines to physical, on-site exhibitions. These transformations might take shape within the physical confines of the special collections space, or without. And the fact that, increasingly, interactions with special collections do happen outside the facilities themselves highlights the centrality of a [S51]fifth aesthetic infrastructure: the digital interface. The aesthetics of the special collections interface – in the form of online catalogues, finding aids, and digital exhibitions – has received continued attention, particularly from institutions like the University of Michigan, the NYPL, Princeton, and Brigham Young. [S52] Interface aesthetics, and how we critique them, were our chief concerns in a Digital Archives graduate studio I taught this past spring at The New School [S53].

Given the centrality of place to this panel, we might wonder what distinctive conceptions of place these intertwined physical and virtual infrastructures represent.[11] We’ve seen some attempts to [S54] recreate our physical infrastructures online – to simulate stack views and virtual shelves; or to digitally “mirror” our on-site exhibitions – but this might not make sense when patrons won’t likely ever encounter special collections materials on those insert grey shelves, and some might not encounter those materials in-person at all. Why adopt these skeuomorphic tropes, why adhere to the “each book (or box) its place on the shelf” structure, when the physical and virtual are separate, if intertwined, places, with distinctive, if mutually informing, aesthetics?

[S55]Perhaps one way to reconceive “place” in the special collections interface would be to acknowledge the object’s provenance, which has been a recurring theme in our discussions over the past few days. Or, in the case of distributed, federated collections, like the DPLA, place might refer, as Blouin recommends, to an object’s institutional home. Highlighting these distributed institutional responsibilities again serves to advocate for the integral and complementary roles that different institutions play in maintaining our seemingly seamless, placeless web of content.

[S56]We need to acknowledge these myriad, intertwined interfaces and their aesthetics, because we inevitably need to negotiate among them. Those negotiations are driven by space and budget limitations, and stakeholders’ diverse interests. Prioritizing one – as Beinecke did with spaces of instruction, for example – usually means compromising on others, like storage or conservation. Yet it’s important to recognize that we needn’t undertake expensive architectural renovations or massive technological overhauls in order to retrofit our institutions’ functionality. [S57]A retrofit can involve new, creative, resourceful, economic ways of framing aesthetic experience – physical and/or virtual; small interventions, kits of parts – to accommodate new pedagogies, new approaches to scholarship, and new politics of knowledge.[12]

[1] Gerald Beasley, “Curatorial Crossover: Building Library, Archives, and Museum Collections” RBM 8:1 (Spring 2007): 23.

[2] John Overholt, “Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections” RBM 14:1 (Spring 2013): 15-20.

[3] Francis X. Blouin, Jr., “Thoughts on Special Collections and Our Research Communities” RBM 11:1 (Spring 2010): 25. The 2014 World Library and Information Congress promises to feature a session focusing on “innovative design solutions for the use, presentation, teaching and exhibition of special collections as well as address appropriate security issues and storage facilities”; see “Call for Papers: Session Title: Special Places for Special Collections: for 80th World Library and Information Congress, Lyon France, August 16-22, 2014”:

[4] Michele F. Pacifico & Thomas P. Wilsted, Eds., Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).

[5] Diane Vogt-O’Connor, “Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers,” Helsinkis: IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 2012:

[6] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[7] Jae Jennifer Rossman “Build It and S/He Will Come: A Reflection on Five Years in a Purpose-Built Special Collections Space” RBM 14:2 (Fall 2013): 111-120.

[8] Ellen R. Cordes, “A Response to Traister” RBM 7:2 (Fall 2006): 107.

[9] Overholt: 17-18.

[10] C. Davis, personal communication, October 1, 2009.

[11] Beasley acknowledges that, while these distributed digital resources do enhance access, there are certain aesthetic experiences that they preclude, including the object’s “provenance, its design, its weight, its size, its color under different light, its smell, its texture, its material, its watermarks, its structure, its binding, its evidence of age, its evidence of use, its evidence of misuse.” Sure, you could create metadata for all these variables – but why not also consider the distinctive affordances and limitations of this digital infrastructure, and allow the digital surrogate to drive patrons to the physical object for the fully embodied aesthetic experience?

[12] This year I’m partnering with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to organize a design study of New York’s three public library systems’ branch libraries; we’re encouraging our competing design teams to consider modular “kits of parts” that can transform the aesthetics and functionality of branches without requiring major renovations and budgets that the libraries simply don’t have.


Rise of the Pod People

Ezra Stoller, Office Workers in London, 1962
Ezra Stoller, Office Workers in London, 1962

Two days ago Inside Higher Ed featured an article soliciting feedback from university employees — particularly staff and administration — who work in open offices. The author, Joshua Kim, wrote, “In my experience there are many types of people that (sic) require an office to be effective, and faculty certainly fall into that category.  We should be fighting for every faculty member, inclusive of adjunct and non tenure-track folks, to have an office of their own.”

Well, my faculty colleagues at I have never had private offices — which is why I never do any serious work on campus. And earlier this semester — as I noted in a tribute to my soon-to-be-lost office window — we moved from group offices to an open-plan office. It’s been (shall we say?) a bit of an adjustment.

Coincidentally, just yesterday The New School’s Sheila Johnson Design Center launched a new exhibition, “Offense and Dissent,” which examines the history of contentious art and design at The New School. I contributed a piece about the “office pod” — and the history and future of open office plans as faculty work spaces. The exhibition features some photos of our new office, along with this text by me (I kind of soft-balled it, since my investigation seemed to raise some hackles within the administration):


Big news in spatial politics in Spring 2014 included the rooting-out of a ubiquitous sleeper cell that, for half a century, has infiltrated corporations and governments across the globe. That’s right: the cubicle. Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, sparked widespread interest in the mundane environments in which a global force of laborers files reports, types up minutes, and wastes time on Facebook. This multi-person “pod,” a variation on the cube, is also where New School faculty will increasingly find themselves prepping for classes, editing articles or films, and meeting with students.

The School of Media Studies moved this February to new quarters on the 16th floor at 79 5th Avenue—the former home of the Office of Finance and Business, which left behind a labyrinth of waist-high file cabinets, carving the main floor into a cluster of four-person pods, and rows of private offices (some with spectacular views). Ours is, we hear, the faculty workspace of the future. It’s about “activating the most spaces on campus for the most hours in the most flexible ways,” an administrative staff member told me.

In my shared pod, I have more filing cabinets than I know what to do with, along with three generous rows of bookshelves. We’re adjacent to the kitchen, the copy-and-mail room, and a common lounge and group work area. Another pod is adjacent to a meeting room that’s bookable by anyone from across the university. It is indeed invigorating to see the floor “activated” by so much activity. Having been squeezed into deficient space for nearly four decades, it’s certainly heartening to finally have not only basic amenities, but also common areas where Media Studies can cultivate its identity through community.

That “activation” brings energy and density. And noise. Faculty cushion their brains with noise-canceling headphones when they need to concentrate. Students waiting for appointments sometimes stuff their own ears with earbuds so as to avoid accidentally eavesdropping on private conversations. Meetings in the common work areas and conference room create a flurry of activity that makes it rather difficult to concentrate on crafting that perfect concluding sentence or a subtle audio mix.

These most mundane spaces have a profound impact on how we work—especially together. They determine how we engage with others, how we focus our energy, even how we think. While an open office might maximize use of the space across time, it also imposes a spatial model of bureaucratic labor on those who often engage in activity that defies such regimentation. These “workspace solutions” sometimes create new problems.

As higher education reassesses its business model, considers new modes of “delivery,” and assesses the relationships between physical and virtual spaces of learning, we should consider how the labor of teaching and learning – and the social and affective conditions they thrive on – can best be spatialized. As The New School continues to reshuffle its offices and departments, we need to ask:

  • What are the various kinds of activity—writing, reading, mixing, sewing, model-making, advising, daydreaming, etc.—that are integral to our work as faculty?
  • What kinds of spaces best facilitate those activities, in all their variety?
  • What are the ethics and ideologies, the affects and identities, that we want those workspaces to embody?



Dirt to Rocks: Natural and Organizational Aesthetics — or, Stuff I Saw This Week


So I started off my week here, in my hometown in Central Pennsylvania. My mom was in the hospital, getting a new shoulder (the miracles of science!), so I did important things to help out — like weeding and mulching around my parents’ house, keeping up with the laundry, and regularly knolling all the items on my mom’s hospital bed stand.


Then I returned to New York, and to a rather different aesthetic universe. I went to Metro Pictures for Louise Lawler’s “No Drones” exhibition — large-scale outline drawings of some of her iconic photos (which is kinda the analog version of machine-vision: it’s all based on abstractions and recognizable patterns) — and Tris Vonna-Michell’s “Postscript III,” a dual-slideshow-and-audio piece in which the artist tries to recount his own, and his family’s, history of Berlin. The work highlights the fallibility of memory, the mutability of mnemonic records, and slippage among the senses: words fail to capture what’s pictured in the slides; images tell contradictory stories; our different sensory registers process disparate version of historical events. I loved the whole “intimate pedagogical” set-up: two chairs, laterally side by side, facing two projected images, vertically aligned. Thus even the perspective of the listener-observer adds historiographic variation.

Louise Lawler
Louise Lawler
Tris Vonna-Michell, via Metro Pictures
Tris Vonna-Michell, via Metro Pictures

Then I saw Darren Bader’s Three-Shows-In-One! at Andrew Kreps: “the first show is on the walls, Photographs I Like; the second show is on the floor, To Have and to Hold; the third show is on a piece of paper at the front desk.” As with the Lawler show, which asked us to try on a different “optics,” Bader asks us to think in separate planes, or to consider how perception changes when we allow those planes to intersect. One could walk around the perimeter of the galleries, as I did, looking solely at the photos on the walls, which were selected solely because Bader “liked” them: “When I ‘like’ a photo,” he says, “I know it’s a photo, but the medium is less photo than ‘like.’ An image of a painting or a drawing I find online might be something I ‘like’ because I like the idea or the memory of that painting; I might just like the reproduction itself (72 dpi can often work some magic).”

Darren Bader
Darren Bader

If you walk through the galleries again with your eyes cast to the ground, you enjoy a floor-plane show consisting of found objects: stuffed baby dolls, prosthetic limbs, stacked boxes, coffee cans, an ink jet printer, a corroded car battery, shopping baskets, etc. In the exhibition “program” (or “event score”), Bader invites us to live with one of these objects and to consider where it came from. Then he asks us to acquire additional objects that are identical to it, then lose the original, then give one of the “copies” to someone and ask him/her to join us in the act of collection. As this process continues, we’re supposed to destroy a percentage of our collected objects every year (how to decide which ones?). The whole hypothetical project makes us wonder what constitutes an “original” and a “copy” in the realm of mass-produced objects; and it raises questions regarding how we assign value to objects — how much they’re worth, and whether that value derives from their perceived utility or originality, or whether or not we “like” them. Very Marx-meets-Benjamin: ritual value, exhibition value, exchange value. Bader asks:

If art was a way to manage the spirituality of images in an increasingly secular world, it now prioritizes safeguarding the materials of the graphic and plastic arts over tending to images and their immutable power. Might “like”ing manage the spirituality of images?


Franklin Evans
Franklin Evans

Franklin Evans

Then I caught a glimpse of Franklin Evans’s paintingassupermodel through the window of Ameringer McEnery Yohe. I found a world of intersecting planes: paintings, collages, digital prints on various materials, sculptures, floor works, etc. Form and content are all messed up here: Evans paints in the form of a spreadsheet, while evoking the aesthetics of financial models; he’s using the form of paint chips while commenting on chromaticism. He’s trying on skins and styles (often of other canonical painters — de Kooning, Pollock, Mondrian), protocols and platforms, fashions and formats. Much like a supermodel, I guess.


As the press release states, with obligatory prototypical pomo patois:

Evans’ practice is a network, in constant flux, in absorption of adjacent content, in defocused experience of the contemporary, in rhizomic replication, and in reference to itself.  The work occupies the field of painting/installation with studio process and sit as its subject.  His work flips between digital and material, process and object, thought and action, and the present and memory.  Evans uses art history (often painting history) as a significant input to his practice, and investigations of specific artists become content and media within his unfolding worlds.  

I actually noted quite a few parallels to Camille Henrot’s Gross Fatigue (which I saw and wrote about last month): both are formal and chromatic explosions that cycle through various modes of representation and conceptual architectures. Evans’s overall “effect” — the sheer cacophony, the windows-within-windows-within-windows effect — is what some might regard as a post-internet aesthetic, which I’ve been thinking about again lately, since hearing Christiane Paul’s and Tyler Coburn’s really cogent critiques of the concept at the Frieze art fair. In Evans’s work this supposedly born-digital aesthetic is rendered in various analog forms. And it alludes to, as does Henrot’s work, the long history of experimentation with modes of visualization and the aesthetics of classification. We see plenty of precursors going all the way back to early modern cultural productions — books, paintings, architecture. The Internet may have ratcheted up our interest in these concepts and styles of representation, but the general ideas underlying this work — and even the visual architectures, like windows and panes and tables, we use to represent those concepts — have quite a long history.

Enough of that!

The next day I stopped by Team to see Brice Dellsperger’s Body Double. His send-up of Postcards from the Edge, which was showing on the big screen in the Grand Street gallery when I visited, was pretty hysterical.

While in the neighborhood, I also saw Artists Space’s recreation of Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter’s 1963 Living with Pop — A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, and the various related activities that took place over the following decade. Next: Nicholas Buffon’s cutesy-crafty (and charming) models at Callicoon and Keil Borman’s (loud, if not terribly exciting) integration of sound, sculpture, and painting in at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert.

Artists Space
Artists Space
Always such great light along the south wall of Artists' Space
Always such great light along the south wall of Artists Space
Jason Loebs; via Essex St (their photos are much better than mine)
Jason Loebs; via Essex St (their photos are much better than mine)

And finally: Jason Loebs’s Cold Flow Creep at Essex Street — a show that makes thermodynamics visual and tactile.  loved Loebs’s contribution to the Descartes’ Daughter show at the Swiss Institute last year. Here he’s working with similar materials: elemental materials, minerals, that are fundamental to the technologies and systems we use to store and transmit information and verify value. He’s created paintings from thermal grease, which, as the gallery puts it, is “commonly used to transfer energy from a heat source (high power LED lights, CPUs, graphics cards) to a heat sink. Thermal grease is designed to aid the distribution of excess heat.” On the tables are lumps of mineral ore we find in microprocessors; he’s coated these rocks with color-shifting ink, which is commonly used on currency to prevent forgery or tampering. We’re confronted here — as we were in Bader’s show — with materials that represent different forms of valuation: how do we protect the value of a dollar? what’s the value of the components in our thousand-dollar laptops? what’s information worth? 

And what’s the role of heat- and carbon-producing entities within these economies? How does the organic translate into the digital, the informational, the financial? And what do we do with all the excess heat generated in those chemical, and symbolic, processes? Maybe we’re better able to wrap our heads around the human role, and the geologic foundation, of our information economy, when that organic presence is made empirical, phenomenological in some way — here, via heat and implied tactility. Or, as the press release states, “The exhibition consolidates a series of objects and gestures that mine earthen matter to bring forward nature’s imprint upon our reigning digital economy.” Yeah, that’s it.



Tuning Into the Invisible: My 99% Invisible Review Is Now in JSAH


I had the pleasure of reviewing Roman Mars’s fabulous 99% Invisible radio show and podcast for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. The June issue — with my (six-month-old!) review in it, alongside some great articles about historical reading rooms and ancient “talking columns” — is out. You can find a pre-copy-edited draft of the review, with lots of embedded audio, here.


Rights Clearances: A Method to the Mind-Numbing Madness

197px-Copyright.svg [Warning: This may very well be my most boring post of all time. But I think it covers some fairly useful material.]

[Edit 6/18: To further bore you to tears, I’ve added some new material re: fees and budgets. In a helpful Twitter exchange, which I’ll post below, my lovely colleague Alexandra Lange reminded me of these critical financial concerns.]

For each of the past five or six years I’ve been fortunate to have a research assistant — a Masters student I have every intention of enlisting to help me collect research resources and prepare material for publication; to serve as a sounding board for my syllabi and lesson plans; to help with maintaining my various websites; etc. When it comes time to delegate, however, I’ve tended to be overly cautious: I’m concerned that all the scanning and note-taking and image-formatting will be too boring and un-educational, so I end up doing all the drudge-work myself — and giving my RAs too little to do. Then I invariably find myself scanning books in the office on a Saturday afternoon — or spending long nights collating permission forms and reformatting image files to send off to my publisher — and thinking to myself: it this really the best use of my time?

So, after years and years of this “fear of delegating non-‘enlightening’ tasks,” I finally decided to ask my RA — a highly motivated, intelligent, organized, and capable young woman — to help me handle image rights clearances for a little book I’m publishing later this year. Nearly everything I’ve ever published has included images — 80 or so in my first book (I obtained permission for over 100), between two and six for most of my articles and chapters — and I’ve always handled all the copyright clearances myself. Selecting the images can be fun, but managing the bureaucracy isn’t exactly the most stimulating of tasks (ok, fine — it sucks).

That said, being introduced to the whole process can, potentially, be educational — and perhaps even interesting — for someone who’s new to the world of publishing, academic or otherwise. Plus, it easily disabuses us of the notion that “information wants to be free” — and reminds us that cultural producers do deserve credit (and remuneration, in some form) for their work.

I aimed to entrust my RA with as much responsibility as possible, so she felt empowered to make decisions and sensed my faith in her abilities. But I also wanted to set up a structure for her work — so she knew how to organize her correspondence and anticipate questions. Coincidentally, as I was preparing a little “primer” for her, two academic friends mentioned to me that they, as doctoral students, were asked to handle rights clearances for their advisors’ books. Both said they were given a list of images and copies of their advisors’ manuscripts — and put to work. That’s it. No further instruction. They were embarrassed to ask their advisors for direction — they assumed that this was a practice they should be familiar with, and they were reluctant to admit their ignorance — so they consulted with fellow students and rooted around for any advice they could piece together.

Sure, finding your own way has pedagogical and “character-building” value. But I see no harm in sharing what I’ve learned, from my own experience in managing rights clearances for my own work for the past decade-and-a-half.

So here’s what I did: First, I requested from my publisher more info about the types of images for which they require rights clearances (e.g., some don’t require permissions for ephemera or maps — but my book makes use of lots of maps-as-art and argues that maps are authored, rhetorical media, so I’m getting clearances for maps, too) and a template of your press’s “rights clearance” letter, which you’ll need to customize with info re: your publication’s tentative title, format, anticipated publication date and press run, etc. And if you have a budget for usage fees — perhaps provided by a grant, through your own research funds, or via an advance from your publisher (ha!!) — you need to figure out what that is, and get a sense of how you want to distribute those inevitably insufficient funds (Because of the contemporary and “bloggy” nature of my current project, I’m aiming to use mostly CreativeCommons-licensed and public domain images — so my primary means of “budgeting” involves eliminating nearly all images that require significant payment).

I sent the press’s permissions guidelines and template rights letter, along with the following note (with a few edits, to correct for ambiguities we discovered after our initial round of correspondence), to my RA:

Hi, Fantastic Research Assistant!

[inquiries about her own work, niceties, smalltalk, smalltalk]…  I’d really appreciate your help with securing image rights clearances for the roughly 45 images I’d like to use in a short book — XX — I’m publishing with X Press this fall=l.

I’ve attached the manuscript. Inserted throughout you’ll find yellow-highlighted lines indicating what images I’d like to use, and where I’d like for them to be placed within the text. I’ve included links to the images online — and, in some cases, links to the articles or blog posts in which I found those images.

We have to get clearance for all copyrighted images, and notify all Creative Commons license-holders (or holders of other forms of more liberal licensing) that we’d like to use their work. I’ve included instructions below. We can talk more when we meet!

Thanks so much for your help! Shannon


So, here’s what I need you to do:

  1. Create a spreadsheet listing all the images in the order in which they’re listed in the manuscript
  2. Create a row listing the “Sources” for each image — i.e., what book, article, blog post, etc. it appeared in — in other words, where we found it (online, in most cases). Include URLs where applicable.
  3. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Rights Holders + Contact Info.” You’ll need to do some investigation to find out who holds the rights to each image. Sometimes the rights holders will be listed in the image’s caption. Sometimes the photos are by the authors of the article or blog post; you’ll need to ID those folks and find their contact info. Sometimes you’ll have to do some deeper investigation.
  4. Create a row on the spreadsheet called “Permission Granted.” Here, you’ll make a checkmark if/when the rights holders contact you to say that they’ve approved our use of their images.
  5. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Preferred Citation.” Here’s you’ll note how the rights holder wants to be credited (e.g., “Photo courtesy Mr. X” or “Copyright Ms. X, 2013.”)  They’ll indicate their preferred citation on the clearance form they’ll return to you. More about this later.
  6. [Added 6/18] Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Fees.” We’re asking rights holders to grant us permission to use their material either free of charge or for a “nominal fee,” since this is a non-profit endeavor (see ArtStor’s “Images for Academic Publishing” program). Please note “no fee” if applicable.
    …..However, some organizations, institutions, and individuals (e.g., various archives, libraries, and museums; professional photographers, artists, and designers, etc.) might require (as per guidelines on their websites) or request a fee. Please alert me if a fee is required or requested, and note the amount on the spreadsheet. I might be able to negotiate. Regardless, we’ll need to let the rights holders know that we’ll reassess the budget once we have a final list of all the images we’d like to use in the publication — and if we do ultimately decide that we’d like to use their image(s), and that we can pay the fee, we’ll be in touch at a later date to process payment. (More about money crap below.)
  7. Create a row on the spreadsheet for “Possible Substitute Images.” We can return to this after we’ve made our initial rounds of contacts. You won’t have to fill in this field for each image — only those that we can’t use, for whatever reason. Perhaps we simply can’t pay the fee they’re requesting, or maybe we can’t track down the rights holders. In these cases, I’d be appreciative if you could please do some online image research to find a good substitute image for which the rights holder’s identity is more clear. Try Google Images, Flickr, Instagram, etc. Best of all, you might find an image that’s in the public domain or liberally licensed via CreativeCommons. On the spreadsheet, note the links for these replacement images and relevant contact info for the rights holders. If it’s a public domain image, note the preferred citation, as well as the creator and his/her contact info.
  8. Now, you’ll need to contact each of the rights holders. Send them an email with an introductory text (I’ll paste it below), and attach (1) the Image Permissions letter and (2) a copy of the images we’d like to reproduce. You’ll need to “customize” this letter with the date, addressee, and a description of the image — and send it as a PDF. In some cases, we might be asking to use more than one image from the same rights holder; this is why it’s a good idea to list all the images on a spreadsheet first, so you can see if there’s any duplication — and then you can simply write the individual once with multiple images listed in the same email.
  9. As they respond, note their responses — yes/no, date of response, preferred citation, fees — on the spreadsheet.
  10. Please forward any correspondence that requires my attention — e.g., requests for payment, questions re: how the image will be used in the book.
  11. Please create a folder for each rights holder in which you save: (1) pdfs of all email correspondence with them, (2) a copy of their signed, returned Image Permissions form, and (3) a copy/copies of the high-res image(s).
  12. Follow up with folks who haven’t responded after a week or so. You could even try calling, using my office phone.
  13. If some folks never respond, I’ll try to reach out to them. If they still don’t respond, if they ask for an insane fee, or if they give us a flat-out ‘no,’ I’ll ask for your help in searching for replacement images.


And here’s the text you can use in the email you send to everyone:

Dear X,

I’m writing on behalf of Shannon Mattern, an Associate Professor at The New School in New York. Shannon — whose work you can find on her website, — is publishing a short book with X Press this fall; you’ll find a short description of the project below. She’d like to reproduce in this book some material to which you hold the rights. We originally found this/these images here: [list URLs for online sources]. You can find copies of those images attached.

I’ve attached a letter that describes in greater detail the nature of the project, and the terms of the agreement. Please note that X is an academic press, and that Shannon will likely not profit from the publication; for this reason, we ask that you please consider granting us permission to use your work at no cost or for a nominal fee.

If you do agree to these terms, please sign the attached letter (noting, on the second page, your preferred citation and, if applicable, where this work was first published), and return it to me. Please also send a high-resolution copy of the image. We prefer 4” x 5” 300 dpi tiff files, but we can make do with slightly lower resolution.

Please respond directly to me. If you have any questions for Shannon, please let me know, and I’ll forward your queries to her.

The final selection of images will ultimately be determined by the length of the book, the preferences of the press’s designers, etc. — but we do hope to be able to include your work in the publication. Thank you very much for your time and consideration!

Your Name


[Include one-paragraph synopsis of the projec]


Quite a few rights-holders wrote back wanting to know more about the specific context in which their work will be reproduced — in other words, what arguments will my images be supporting?, or what will you be using my photographs to say? — so I invited my RA to attempt to briefly summarize the main discussion topics in the section of the text in which the copyright-holder’s image(s) would be placed. If she didn’t feel comfortable doing this, I offered to do it.

[6/18] Also, a Twitter exchange with architectural historian/critic Alexandra Lange reminded me of the financial implications of rights clearances. For previous projects, I have on occasion paid upwards of $300 per image — for archival images, or for the work of highly regarded professional photographers. Art and architectural historians and critics in particular face exorbitant fees — in some cases, so exorbitant that their projects ultimately prove to be cost prohibitive. Or, in other cases — as with this art history text book — the project proceeds, but in compromised form, without the images.

Mary Finer, Project Strategist at ArtStor (and a fabulous former student of mine!) chimed in to remind us that ArtStor offers some of its images for use, free of charge, in academic publications.

My RA and I are still in the midst of this process — but once she’s collected all her responses, she’ll share with me (1) her spreadsheet documenting the process; (2) copies of all her correspondence (including, especially, the signed permission forms) with each rights holder; and (3) high-res copies of all the images we’ll reproduce in the article.

And that’s that. God, I just bored myself to sleep.


“Library as Infrastructure” and Library of Congress Interview Published

Mark Dion, Archaeology of Knowledge, @ Johns Hopkins. I had the pleasure of seeing this work while at JHU in April, when I was able to try out some preliminary ideas for the following publications.
Mark Dion, Archaeology of Knowledge, @ Johns Hopkins. I had the pleasure of seeing this work while at JHU in April, when I was able to try out some preliminary ideas for the following publications.

In a happy coincidence, two related pieces were published today: my “Library as Infrastructure” article — in which I examine libraries as technological, social, and intellectual infrastructures — was published in Places, and an interview with Trevor Owens — in which we discuss my Archives, Libraries, and Databases class; teaching about archives through art; and the connection between archives’ digital and analog infrastructures — was published on the Library of Congress’s Signal blog.


“Re-envisioning Branch Libraries” Design Study RFQ Announced

Marina Branch Library, Tom Eliot Fisch /Field PaoliMARINA BRANCH LIBR (David Wakely). Via Architect’s Newspaper

For the past several months I’ve been honored and delighted to join forces with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to research the state of branch libraries in New York’s three library systems: the NYPL, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. Today, I’m excited to say, the ArchLeague announced the branch library design study that we’ll be shepherding throughout the summer and fall. I’ve pasted their announcement below; you can visit the ArchLeague’s website for more information, including the full Request for Qualifications.

Request for Qualifications (RFQ)
Re-envisioning Branch Libraries
A project organized by the Center for an Urban Future and The Architectural League

Submission Deadline: June 20, 2014
Pre-registration encouraged by June 9, 2014
Download a PDF of this RFQ

Branch libraries are serving more New Yorkers in more ways than ever before, yet they remain undervalued by policymakers. This summer, The Architectural League is collaborating with the Center for an Urban Future on a design study that will articulate new architectural, financial, and programmatic possibilities for these essential, neighborhood-based resource centers. Over the next few months, we will periodically be releasing features here on and on Urban Omnibus that explore different aspects of branch libraries in New York, touching on the diverse architectural forms of this particular public building type as well as investigating the vast proliferation of vital services they provide. This series of online content will complement and inform the design study, leading up to a public event this fall where participants in the design study will present their work. This event will include broad-based discussion with advocates and policymakers about the challenges and opportunities facing branch libraries.

The challenges that branch libraries face include enabling access to the burgeoning resources of the digital world while continuing to circulate books and other print resources; enhancing capacity to serve as physical and civic hubs of their communities; and accommodating the full range of programs they offer, from adult literacy and ESL to after-school programs for children and teens and technology training for senior citizens.

We invite architects and designers interested in participating in this design study to organize interdisciplinary teams and to submit qualifications and a statement of interest in response to the Request for Qualifications, accessible here. A selection committee will recommend up to six teams to participate in the design study. The designs generated will be used to provoke conversation about how best to support the library systems through design, funding, and public awareness of the vital services they provide.

Tulare County Free Library, Allensworth, California. Robert Dawson + Josh Wallaert. Via Places
Tulare County Free Library, Allensworth, California. Robert Dawson + Josh Wallaert. Via Places 

New York City’s 211 branch libraries provide vital social infrastructure for the empowerment of communities and their residents. Some of this empowerment is economic: library programs offer opportunities for skill-building and life-long, non-institutional learning—opportunities that support those New Yorkers eager to share their skills and knowledge, those who seek a “third place” to investigate and incubate new business opportunities, and those who lack the basic language, literacy, and technological skills needed to access decent paying jobs. And some of this empowerment is personal and civic: libraries are social hubs, providing crucial services, including child care and language acquisition workshops, and affording both individual and collective opportunities for the free acquisition of knowledge.

Yet, a range of obstacles—financial, political, and architectural—prevents New York from realizing the full potential of its branch libraries. Few libraries are open more than 40 hours a week. A majority of the buildings were built before 1975—many before 1929—and are now in urgent need of physical upgrades. Older library designs do not respond to the usage patterns of specific user groups—like seniors, teens, or recent immigrants—and even some newer branches are poorly configured for contemporary programs, with insufficient space for classes, collaboration, or computers. The proliferation of services libraries provide suggests a rethinking of the spatial organization of staff and users, quiet and loud, private and public, physical and digital resources. The adoption of new technologies has only just begun. Demand for library services is very high but not evenly distributed: some branches are prohibitively congested, while others have underutilized spaces that could be re-imagined for new uses, such as small business incubators, co-working spaces, community rooms, or classrooms.

The libraries need new options and ideas. How might branch libraries realize efficiencies in their existing physical plants? How could programming expand beyond the footprint of their buildings? What other models of service delivery—on-site or off-site, through partnerships, pop-ups, and more—are applicable? What are the design, technology, and infrastructure innovations needed for neighborhood libraries to meet the demands and context of urban community life in the 21st century?

Design Study
Last year, CUF published Branches of Opportunity, a report that details how New York City’s three library systems serve more people in more ways than ever before, yet remain undervalued by policymakers. In early July, CUF will publish a follow-up report, a “blueprint” that extensively documents the physical plant and capital needs of New York City’s branch libraries. The release of this blueprint will coincide with the launch of a three-month design study, directed by The Architectural League. Over the course of the study, up to six interdisciplinary design teams will address questions of location, development strategy, financial feasibility, operation, spatial organization, and architectural form.

Possible approaches to the architectural, financial, and programmatic limits of existing branch libraries are numerous: reimagining existing buildings and reconfiguring interior and exterior space; pursuing creative partnerships with a variety of non-profit and for-profit entities; identifying potential new sources of revenue; adapting to demographic changes in the city, including the growth in the size of the senior and recent immigrant populations; acknowledging and responding to the use of city capital funds.

To investigate some of these approaches, design study teams will produce design concepts and development strategies, communicated through narrative descriptions, financial scenarios, drawings, and other means as appropriate. The Architectural League will provide the selected teams with background materials including specific design challenges and CUF’s two reports on branch libraries. (Branches of Opportunity can also be accessed here.) Architectural League staff will interact with and provide guidance to design teams at a number of points during the design study process.

Each team will present its work at a public event in the fall of 2014, which will be attended by leaders from public policy and cultural institutions, the library systems, and city government. The Architectural League will work closely with each team to refine ideas and communication strategies for this event.

Project Team
David Giles and Jeanette Estima, Center for an Urban Future
Rosalie Genevro, Anne Rieselbach, Cassim Shepard, The Architectural League
Shannon Mattern, The New School

Selection Committee (in formation)
David Adjaye, David Adjaye Associates (invited)
Seema Agnani, Chhaya Community Development Corporation
Sarah Goldhagen, The New Republic
Eric Klinenberg, New York University (invited)
Henry Myerberg, Henry Myerberg Architects
Lyn Rice, Rice+Lipka Architects

Request for Qualifications
For more information on the design study, complete submission instructions, or to signal interest in participating, read the full Request for Qualifications. Pre-registration is encouraged by June 9th, and the deadline for submission of materials is June 20th.