Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Race for Space

“Sometimes when I’m careless enough to turn in my sleep or call out or twitch, I am horrified to hear the books start to slide, because it would take little more than a raised knee or a shout to bring them all down like an avalanche, a cornucopia of rare books, and squash me like a flea.”

Like the obsessive collector of knowledge, Hanta in Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, “Too Loud a Solitude” I share, a slightly more rational, but real fear of the impending possibility that I could be swamped or crushed under the sheer weight of paper I have accumulated in the form of books (mostly), magazines, photos, postcards, drawings on paper and exhibition catalogues. I sleep in a bed towered by two rather large bookcases. It is a collection that is forever growing, even now, from having just sorted through an album of some 170 photos printed and chronicled into another album to sit on top of the ever groaning and increasingly bowing bookcase shelves. I have never tested their structural integrity, but am happy to keep adding to them, long may they hold!

I paint a dramatic hyperbole and it is of course true that much of this material could be digitised and made far smaller (and safer) but my reasoning for mentioning is that somewhere in my madness lies the bigger question of how we gather, store and access knowledge and information in a world that is consistently producing.   

“It took two centuries for the Library of Congress to acquire its 29 million books and 105 million other it only takes 15 minutes for the world to produce an equal amount of information in digital form.”

Where does all of this information go? What happens when that storage is full? And how much knowledge can we possibly stand to lose or even be unable to re-call if it is forever increasing? I am emphatically not suggesting the solution is one of burning or saving books as the premise of Hrabal’s novel, but for me, it does raise the foremost questions as well as the notion of the personal archive versus the public archive and how they operate differently but share a similarity in that they are both dependent on issues of space in relation to time, accumulation and editing. 

 “According to a 2007 BBC report, the Vatican library (1.5 million books on 37 miles of shelving) was literally sinking under its printed burden.”

I do not aim to answer or resolve all of these ideas in this post, but felt that I had begun collecting too many thoughts and references on the subject to ignore it completely; it is a starting point from which hopefully I will revisit themes again at a later date. The origins of this post have actually come from those photos I mentioned earlier, specifically they document a recent trip to Copenhagen where in the Architecture Centre I came across a zine all about Archives and their relationship to space and storage. Titled MAP (Manual of Architectural Possibilities) and created by David A Garcia Studios on an A1-sized folded sheet of paper, printed on both sides in a poster-style format. Each issue deals with a different theme succinctly presented through text, quotes, stats, info-graphics and graphics.

Sample of the layout of MAP 003 Archive 
For its size, the content and information within this zine is impressive and relevant to my current thoughts on the huge amounts of paper I personally hoard! Its utilitarian size also refers to its purpose of providing insight into the spatial implications needed for systems of organising information, i.e. collections, libraries, archives, servers etc.

Where do we store all of this info?” being the question asked that also seems to me to be intrinsically linked to the more written about question of, “how is it stored?” Much seems to be written about systems of categorisation , less so on where it is held. According to MAP, preserving information for the future seems to be closely linked with physical issues of context and space as much as it does with the organizational systems by which information is catalogued. Not to mention, of course, political implications of the institutionalisation of knowledge, i.e. how, when, by and for who information is gathered; a question for another day! 

“From antiquity to the present, and with an exponential impetus, we have been obsessed with systematically collecting and reorganizing what in effect already exists, in its own kind of order, or disorder. This desire for control and centralisation of our environment, has no doubt aided us in the past and present. Nevertheless, some think that archives have reached such epidemic proportions that, not only has the digital revolution not been able to solve the problem, but it has in fact aggravated it. All of this, of course, occupies space, an increasingly huge amount of space.”

It was interesting to discover that,

The British Museum exhibits 1% of its total collection of 7 million items.

The British Library exhibits 3% of its total collection of 14 million items.

The MOMA exhibits 15% of its total collection of 150,000 items.

The above stats highlighting, for me, the importance of circulating what is exhibited within these collections or making what isn’t shown ,accessible in other formats; either online or per request which many of them already do. It is really a question of who decides what is shown and when and whether some things are better not shown in order to protect/preserve them? I speculate that archivists, curators and librarians will also have their own set of either institutionalised or professional criteria for selecting work to be added or displayed within collections. I do not know and am curious as to what these are, but am more interested in the idea of what a creative or artistic practice could bring to the process of archiving that perhaps these other professions lack or are prohibited in some way from doing.   

I’m fascinated by the idea of archiving but I carry the suspicious mind of one who is easily bored: that dares to suggest that the very act of making an archive is already an admission of creative defeat...Others will argue that the very process of making the archive, devising the in itself totally creative...What if the day-to-day circumstances may not be as neat as the parametric analysis? –Peter Cook

Inside The Black Diamond in Copenhagen
Artist as archivist, artists working with archives? Architect or designer as archivist? I am fascinated at the idea of a sort-of cross-pollination of disciplines between an artistic practice with its parameters of looking, deconstruction and analysis from a creative perspective could work with more traditional archiving systems. This isn’t the same as artists using archiving as a way of making work, this is about artists working with existing archives and what they could bring to how these collections are accessed and/or interpreted. Surely there is a need for creative solutions to future challenges faced by ever increasing demand for space in relation to what is being stored? It marks a shift in my own attitude from how I have had an art practice heavily centred on ‘producing’ and its capitalist implications of making a physical art work with the intent of owning/selling it; over to one of ‘engaging’ and working with things that are already in existence. I do not have a problem with either but feel that there is something more sustainable about the latter. Perhaps I also feel some responsibility to not keep adding to the pile as to working with what already exists...  

In an interview about, Collection (not) as curation: how exhibitions are different from libraries, artist and librarian, Andrew Beccone explains how collecting can function as interpretation,

“Absolutely, but many libraries don’t have the freedom to approach their own collections from such a standpoint. One of the things that I find interesting about the current trend of independent libraries is the attention that they often call to collection-as-interpretation.”

I think Beccoone’s statement implies  that by allowing more control in a curatiorial sense of what is admitted and omitted within a collection can become a means by which collections can be interpreted by what is in them and how it is organised. This seems to me a similar process to that of curating, when art objects are [collected] and [organised] into a new system, in other words exhibition, from which they can gain new meaning and interpretation as a whole as well as individual works within a bigger concept. The problem with the library as a collection is whether it becomes more about the overall interpretation or the sum of its parts?

He does however acknowledge that there is some overlap between the two,

“In library-speak, those who are responsible for acquiring materials and shaping collections are known as collection development librarians. These are probably the closest corollary to curators in librarianship, but there’s a difference (and this is speaking very broadly because there is an incredible range of conditions within which both librarians and curators operate), for instance, between a curator who is able to assemble a group of artists based on a particular idea of his or her own choosing, and say, a collection development librarian at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library who is “curating” a collection based on a concrete set of criteria such as the demographics of the neighborhood, the library’s own circulation statistics, or some institutional policy.”

I know that I am skimming the answers to many of the points raised here, but part of the way to solving or addressing them is in recognising them, the future of the archive in relation to space is highly topical and one I think will become increasingly important in years to come. MAP offers one last and final insight into future storage possibilities, 

The brain has also been discussed as a medium of data storage and it has been estimated that the brain has the equivalent digital capacity of 1-1000 terabytes…1 terabyte is the equivalent to 50,000 trees made into paper and printed...

Occupationally speaking, having worked as a Bookseller, now, within a Library and in my spare time continuing to make works on paper as an artist, it seems and I hope that my own relationship with collections both physical and digital is set to continue. Of course, as long as there is space!