Meta-Aesthetics: The Art of the Art Library

How to Add Meta Tags to a Website BlogI was honored to be invited to share a short keynote address at today’s New York Art Resources Consortium annual conference at the Museum of Modern Art. NYARC — a collaboration among MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Frick — aims to join these museums’ forces to improve access to their art resources and promote innovative service.

I spoke about meta-aesthetics. My slides are below, and the talk text (complete with slide cues) is farther below.



Meta-Aesthetics: The Art of the Art Library

First, I’d like to thank Lily and Milan for the invitation to join you today. I’m delighted to be here. This event represents the convergence of two of my absolute favorite things – libraries and art – so I appreciate your inviting me into your utopia for the afternoon.

For the past 15 years or so I’ve been researching how media and space interact. This work has played out at a variety of scales: [2] infrastructural, urban, [3] architectural; the scale of the interior or [4] the individual piece of furniture or designed object; and at the malleable scale of conceptual or imagined space. I really like to think about how intellectual systems or models are manifested in the way we organize space. What that means, in English, is that I’ve written about [5] libraries, [c] archives, [c] public design processes, [c] media aesthetics and sensation, [c] exhibition design, [c] material texts, [c] media infrastructures, and [c] deep histories of how our cities have been mediated. This kind-of obnoxiously interdisciplinary, and maybe at times dilettantish, research has allowed me to work across a number of academic fields: media studies, design studies, architecture, urban design, interaction design, library science, archival studies, etc. And because I tend to care about how real designers and real archivists do actual work – rather than just theorizing poetically about these fields of practice – I’ve been invited, much to my great pleasure and with much gratitude, to contribute to practical projects in the design and library worlds, too.

[6] In recent weeks I’ve been involved in a number of design conferences. At the same time – in accordance with my habit, but often against my better judgment – I happen to have seen a lot of artist’s talks. These talks, as you most likely know, typically consist of a chronological narration of the trajectory – or, if not a coherent trajectory, then at least the temporal sequence – of an artist’s work. This is a mostly foreign genre of self-representation for those of us in the humanities – who, when we present our work, are typically compelled to narrowly define our foci and have a clear argument. The “argument” for an artist’s talk often seems to be little more than “I exist, and here’s what I do.” And that’s fine. I often find myself marveling at how a particularly articulate and thoughtful artist’s discussion of her process can be so compelling and generative.

[7] So, in honor of the fact that we’re gathered here in an art museum – and the fact that all of you are likely familiar with the artist’s talk convention – I’m going do something very uncharacteristic for a humanities scholar: I’ll try my hand at the genre. In the next 20 minutes I’ll offer a meta-discussion of my research, teaching, and design collaborations – focusing specifically on the work that deals with libraries and aesthetics – in the hope that some of those projects will pique your interest, that at least one will prove in some way useful for your own work.

And, in a somewhat embarrassingly hubristic move, I also want to try to claim teaching – particularly course design – as an artistic practice. Teaching can be an intensely rigorous and creative endeavor. [8] Yet, outside of Lynda Barry’s literal aestheticizing of the syllabus, or the elevation of certain classes to canonical status – [9] like John Cage’s “Experimental Composition” course from The New School – rarely are pedagogical practices or resources cited or celebrated as aesthetic or intellectual contributions. You pretty much never see somebody citing a course syllabus in an endnote on a scholarly publication. I think that’s a shame.

[10] But here you are: arts librarians committed to research and instruction; I’d like to imagine that we share a pedagogical sympathy. You as arts librarians also, in my experience, have a [11] remarkably capacious and generous appreciation of what constitutes acquisition-worthy material – what, for example, can help us document the making of an artist or the lifecycle of an artistic work. [12] Teaching materials – in general, but I’d say that mine especially – are an integral, yet often unacknowledged, form of creative scholarly output. So I’m going to present my own teaching as an artistic/intellectual practice, and I’ll encourage you, too, to regard the pedagogical ends to which your art resources are put – and the teaching practices you’re involved in – as deeply valuable intellectual and creative enterprises.

[13] In a half-hour, when I’m through, you’ll turn your attention to lots of exciting digital initiatives and opportunities: web archiving, digital stewardship, new forms of digital scholarship made possible by the Frick’s Digital Art History Lab, and so forth. [14] Your agenda sounds much like those at many of the conferences and meetings I attend: over the past decade more and more attention has been paid to digital technologies, both as research subjects and as research tools. We talk about the shift in humanities funding to pretty much anything digital. And we discuss our apparent obligation to integrate digital technologies into the classroom so that we can keep our teaching fresh and relevant. Across these discussions, the digital is commonly associated with opportunity, accessibility, timeliness, relevance, even salvation.

While I agree that the digital has radically transformed – much for the better – our libraries and universities and other institutions, and the work we do in them, [15] I think it’s equally important to remember all the “old school” stuff, too. I’m referring not only to the analog materials in our collections – those things whose rich material properties, many of my archivist friends argue, simply can’t be properly conveyed through a digital surrogate. I’m also talking about all the heavy infrastructure – technical, administrative, and human – behind our digital resources. I’m referring, too, to the spaces – both public-facing and back-stage spaces – where knowledge work happens; and to the analog bodies we inhabit, and through which we engage with images and sounds, with prints and playback devices and other people.

[16] These are the “meta”-aesthetics of the library.

While the items in your collections have obvious aesthetic and intellectual value, your archives, libraries, and databases as institutions, and the knowledge work that you do in them, have tremendous aesthetic and intellectual value, too. They hold value not only for those of you who are sitting here today, and for your colleagues back at your home institutions – folks who are primed to be into this stuff. As I’ve attempted to demonstrate in my research and teaching for my entire professional career thus far, We – and I mean the Royal We – have a great deal to learn about our culture, our values, our politics, our ethics by looking at our knowledge institutions from a “meta” perspective – including, but also going beyond, their collections. [17] By attending to the meta-aesthetics of the art library, we can remind ourselves that sensory experience, that inhabiting physical and virtual intellectual spaces, are integral parts of the research and instruction – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in your institutions.

I’ll highlight three scales of these meta-aesthetics that are central to what define our institutions, and that, I think, offer tremendous pedagogical potential for our various patron groups.

[18] First, the aesthetics of digital infrastructure. Particularly given how much attention we pay to the digital in our professional gatherings, and given that a significant portion of our institutions’ patrons and visitors interact with us solely through our digital interfaces, I think it’s important to consider what’s occluded, or accidentally shielded, in our online catalogs and institutional websites and digitized archival resources. [19] Where do the data come from? Who puts it there – and where, exactly, is “there”? Who handles the scanning and copyright clearance and server maintenance? And who should care about these issues, aside from those of us in this room? I argue that more people need to care about these issues – that raising such questions highlights important epistemological and political-economic concerns that are central to the maintenance of a public culture and a democratic society.

[20] I’ve found that many of my students – even graduate students who come to grad school to think critically about media and information politics – often reduce “the library” to an interface. They rarely think about the staff members and insanely expensive database subscriptions, and data centers and copyright negotiations that enable them to download an article from October on their iPhones. [21] I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in discussions in which an interlocutor’s comments were prefaced with “Now that everybody has Internet access…” or “Now that everything’s available online…” or “As soon as everything’s digitized…” Lord, help me. I just can’t let this go.

Such myopia not only under-values the work that all of you do, but it also raises important philosophical questions about what our culture collectively knows and values; and it has significant political implications. How do we debate and implement ethical and effective information policies and cultural and educational policies if they’re all negotiated from a point of privilege, and with no understanding of the crazy techno-political-legal universe behind the interface?

I’ve found that tackling these issues aesthetically – through direct experience, through sensory engagement – can help people care about what goes on behind the screens. [22] From 2010 to 2013 I co-taught, with my colleague Rory Solomon, a course called Urban Media Archaeology, in which we worked with programmers and designers in the Parsons School of Design, which is part of The New School, to create an open-source mapping platform on which our students mapped historical media infrastructures. Not only did students get to see inside the software-development process – and to experience the frictions between proprietary and open data sources – [23] but, in their own research and design projects, they were able to examine the cables and servers and switching stations and distribution centers that bring information to their phones and doorsteps. [24] I published a short book just last month that not only explores the layers of media infrastructures that have given shape to our cities, but also lays out the theoretical and methodological implications for this class – and for a longer book that is (supposedly) forthcoming in a couple years.

[25] We began every semester of Urban Media Archaeology with a field trip. For three of our four years Andrew Blum, author of Tubes, a book about the geography of the internet, took us on a walking tour of lower Manhattan to show us “where the internet lives.” Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of [26] lots of such infrastructural walking tours and sound-walks, [27] amateur “fieldwork,” hands-on technical labs, [28] and digital-network mapping projects. I’ve written about such projects – and what we can learn through empirical experience of communication infrastructure, by touching and listening to it, and even smelling it – [29] in an essay I published a few years ago in Places, an architectural and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist.

[30] We explored some similar issues in a recent exhibition I helped to curate with some colleagues in architecture, furniture design, and history. We wanted to find a way to highlight the materiality and geography of the “The Cloud,” that seemingly boundary-less, placeless layer of data that hovers over our heads. [31] I made some preliminary stabs last fall at a new research project on the furniture we’ve designed to store and organize our media – and that project formed the basis for a Parsons furniture design studio this spring, in which students are imagining new architectures and ergonomics for storing, accessing, and processing contents of the cloud. That student work was on display in the exhibition.

[32] We talk about similar issues – from the material basis of Thomas Edison’s technological experiments, to theories of object ecologies in the Internet of Things – in the “Media and Materiality” class I’ve been teaching on and off since 2010. My students have examined the empirical dimensions of money and financial exchange, the chemical bases of photography, the epistemology of photographic slides and slide projectors, the parallels between code-writing and textile weaving, and a host of other fantastic topics. They all seem to end the semester convinced of the intellectual value – and the anti-commodity-fetishist potential – of “looking under the hood” of our media technologies and information resources.

[33] There’s a similar sensibility in my “Digital Archives” class, where we worked with The New School Archives to consider how we might design an interface that highlights newly acquired material in their collection. We wanted to reflect somehow in our public-facing interface all the intellectual and technical labor that takes place behind the scenes in the archives – and as part of our research we visited the offices of ArtStor, to impress upon students that such databases actually live somewhere, and that there are lots of machines, people, protocols, and contracts behind it – and that the physical art object or architecture or archaeological site, the referent for all those digital surrogates, still resides in an institution or on-site somewhere and requires care.

[34] Second, the aesthetics of the library as a techno-intellectual infrastructure – one built of architectures and book stacks and protocols and labor. [35] Thirteen years ago I finished my dissertation on the design of the Seattle Public Library, and then I traveled around the country looking at 14 other recently designed urban public library buildings. [36] That research formed my first book, The New Downtown Library, in which I examined library building as public spaces and media architectures. I also studied how, through their design, they embodied particular epistemologies and politics, and they gathered and gave shape to the very publics they serve. In subsequent years I’ve written about a number of other libraries and library-like spaces, [37] including Louis Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Library – a building designed in the late 60s around the module of the book and timeless symbolic geometries; I examined how the building functioned in a new media landscape at its 40th anniversary – and how light, a central element of the design, takes on a new significance and function in this new age. [38] I’ve also studied Alvar Aalto’s 1949 Woodberry Poetry Room, a room designed to celebrate the multiple forms of the poetic text – and to appeal, aesthetically, to its various material and performative properties. [39] I’ve also studied little libraries and pop-up reading rooms and library-like art projects and strategies for designing exhibitions of printed matter that afford visitors a multisensory experience of the page. [40] My little libraries work in particular enabled me to then contribute to the Architectural League of New York’s 2013 Little Free Library design competition.

Just last summer I decided to revisit my 2007 book and take a comprehensive look at new developments in the library mission, library services, and designs – [41] and that research resulted in “Library as Infrastructure,” a lengthy article in which I examine the 21st-century library as, and as part of, an infrastructural ecology: as a site where spatial, technological, infrastructural, and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. Throughout, I acknowledge the library as an aesthetic space, where humans interface with media and interact with one another. [42] Meanwhile, I once again joined up with the Architectural League to oversee a year-long design study of New York’s 211 branch libraries. We partnered with the Center for an Urban Future, a policy think tank that’s published several incisive reports over the past couple years about the critical informational and social functions played by our public libraries, and the sad physical and budgetary condition of many of those libraries. Five interdisciplinary teams were selected from among 45 applicants to propose designs that we presented at the Japan Society in December and again at The New School this past January. [43] This project partly inspired a new transdisciplinary design course, the Library Think Tank, that I’m co-teaching at Parsons in the fall with the fantastic architect Annie Barrett, leader of one of the branch library design teams.

All the exciting practical and theoretical ideas that have been swirling around these various design and research projects for years have commingled in one of my graduate courses – what is probably the most satisfying course I’ve ever taught, because it integrates so many things I love and find to be of critical importance. [44] In my Archives, Libraries + Databases seminar, which I launched in 2011, we study the history, politics, epistemologies, and aesthetics of our knowledge institutions. We read Foucault and Warburg, library manuals and technical guides. We watch Resnais and Charles and Ray Eames and historical librarian training videos. [45] And we tour backstage areas of the Municipal Archives, where students experience for themselves, in the storage rooms, the scope and diversity of materials represented in the archival record, and appreciate the expertise and equipment needed for their preservation. We also visit the Morgan Library – among the most grandly aestheticized collections we have here in the city – [46] and spend an afternoon in Gowanus at the Reanimation Library and the Interference Archive, where we experiment with fanciful, aesthetically-driven classification schemes. We also spend a good deal of time exploring what we can learn from artists – Marcel Duschamp and [47] Mark Dion, [48] Ann Hamilton and [49] Camille Henrot, Cory Arcangel and Erica Baum, Joseph Cornell and [50] Taryn Simon – about how we remember, forget, store, classify, and retrieve.

This class is in part what got me invited to the Library of Congress’s “Digital Preservation” conference last year. There, I discussed [51] what we can learn about preservation from auto-destructive art [52] (including Tinguely’s Homage to New York, which ate itself in the courtyard of this very museum in 1960) and “archival” art that highlights the limitations of what we can archive. I thought I was a very odd fit for that conference – here I was talking about exploding sculptures [53] and weird video art amidst a bunch of folks from NASA and Los Alamos – but that conference is also where I met Lily, and how I find myself here today.

And here you are today: a group of people who, I imagine, appreciate both data curation and conceptual art. [54] Which leads to my third and final take the library’s meta-aesthetics: specifically, just how much there is to be learned about archives and libraries through art. We can of course learn about art through the materials in your collections; but through art we can also raise important questions about epistemology, ontology, and the political economy of information – and disinformation. There are plenty of such artworks capable of epistemological illumination on display now (or at least until very recently) here at MoMA: [55] in the recently-closed “Cut to Swipe” exhibition, you had Hito Steyerl’s “How Not to Be Seen,” which parodically explores strategies for thwarting the preservation and distribution of our identities as datasets. [56] Just a couple weekends ago you hosted “A Sort of Joy,” a fantastic museum-metadata-driven algorithmic performance that paired the Office for Creative Research with the experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service. [57] And in the 2nd floor contemporary galleries you have Camille Henrot’s magnificent “Grosse Fatigue,” a video that uses the aesthetics of the interface to contrast different materialities and aesthetics of preservation: a fish in a preservative bath, tagged bird carcasses in a drawer, proliferating browser windows and books and magazines and hard drives stuffed with gifs – and even technicians working in a natural history museum’s preservation lab.

[58] There are lots of artists who take inspiration from archival or library material, or from the archive- or library-as-institution. [59] Many such artists and artworks are featured through the Library as Incubator project. As I said last year in a conversation with the Library of Congress’s Trevor Owens, [60] “Concrete designs and art projects have the potential to crystallize and materialize informational practices and intellectual models and infrastructural negotiations that are central to archives and libraries — and for these reasons I find them very useful practices and objects to think and teach with.” [61] The meta-aesthetics of library art help patrons to better understand how they think and the learn, and how thinking and learning are necessarily aesthetic enterprises. These meta-aesthetics also, ideally, help practitioners recognize that the physical and digital environments you create and work in aren’t neutral containers of information. They give shape to information and knowledge; they make it sense-able and sensible, intelligible. They provide the meta-aesthetic to the aesthetic.

Thank you.

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