Category: urbanism

Better Read Than Dead: a Visit to the Martha Rosler Library

Sunday, February 3, 2008 11:05

Orignially published by Cluster, written by Graeme Thomson & Silvia Maglioni
photo by Greame Thomson & Silvia Maglioni

Parisian book-lovers peeved at the frosty reception and draconian security arrangements of the Bibliothèque nationale de France can, for a limited time, take solace in the somewhat cosier nook provided by the Martha Rosler Library, installed in the Galerie Colbert (Institut national d’histoire de l’art) until Jan 20 as part of a travelling exhibition project. The choice of reading matter may not be quite so vast, but visitors are at least free to finger the spines, delve into and even photocopy pages from any of the library’s 7,600-odd volumes, periodicals and catalogues, many out of print, some quite rare, on subjects ranging from Marxist theory to heraldry, cinema to cookery, Situationism to pattern making.

According to art theorist Stephen Wright who welcomes visitors to the space, Rosler has read most if not all the books in her library, which over the years has served as both ideas bank and toolbox for her radical mixed-media art interventions: from witty critiques of the commodification of women and anti-war photo-montages to her more recent investigations into the living conditions of the poorest, most marginalised sectors of society.
The project’s curator, Anton Vidokle of e-flux, explains how the idea for the library initially came from his reaction on visiting the Donald Judd library in Marfa, Texas whose some 10,000 volumes were, according to a clause in the artist’s will, to remain as he had arranged them, undisturbed, on shelves and tables he had himself designed and built. Under the immaculate surface abstraction of their meticulously arrayed covers, many still in their shrinkwrap packaging, some simply embalmed in the stillness of dead time, the books’ contents were slowly crumbling to dust. Vidokle recounted his impressions to Martha Rosler (whether the slippage from Marfa to Martha was part of the game plan he doesn’t say) who also possessed a sizeable library but whose problem was of a somewhat different order – she had quite simply run out of space. So Vidokle proposed borrowing Rosler’s collection to install in e-flux’s Ludlow St. Art Space in New York as a fully functioning reading room. Rosler accepted the proposal and the Martha Rosler Library was born.

photo by Greame Thomson & Silvia Maglioni

The name itself (not Martha Rosler’s library but the Martha Rosler library) gives some indication of the library’s playfully ambiguous status and of the visitor’s uncertain relation to it. While there is the temptation simply to use the space for personal study or relaxation, pretend for a few hours that it really is a library, the notion of it being also an “art project” makes the library equally something we are summoned to survey, interpret or read in some way, an urge which inevitably cuts across its proposed functionality. While the formality of the name might suggest a disinterested bequest, “Martha Rosler” as sign and symptom of a particular order and distribution, not to mention “ownership” of discourse, a particular memeplex, keeps getting in the way of any common (commons) reader’s agenda, just as the constant background “dumbiance” of National Public Radio, which Rosler apparently has on all the time at home, persists as index of the artist’s phantomatic self-presencing. As a result of this, and also because of the deception the installation perpetrates in posing as a more permanent structure, one you imagine returning to again and again, feeling it will continue to exist into the foreseeable future, the Rosler library continues to oscillate, one might even say flicker, imperceptibly between public and private domain, a tremor that makes concentration, whether as reader or viewer, difficult.

You would think these tensions might provide an interesting topic for debate among tarrying wayfarers. Unfortunately, the reading room risks reproducing the same kind of silence and self-enclosure, at least among adult visitors, that one normally finds in a reference library: its potential for renegotiating the meaning and function of the library as “public” space is undermined from the outset by a self-policing that invests the private body politic and which it seems no longer needs to be enforced or even administered. What is surprising is that while an opportunity clearly exists here (as it does to a lesser degree in any library or bookshop) for the public to engage more directly with the space, insinuating messages and letters between the covers, bookmarking pages as a sign of their passage, weaving a clandestine narrative of cryptic traces, few are sufficiently emboldened to put it into practice. Before we can create more open, communitarian spaces, we need more radical, relational bodies.



Bibliothèque National de France (Candida Höfer)
In her photographs Candida Höfer is repeatedly drawn to public spaces that have been constructed for specific edifying purposes, such as libraries, museums, theatres and churches. However, her images tend to express the anonymity and functionality of such spaces and the absence of those who normally frequent and make use of them. While on one hand Höfer’s portraits of libraries (in London, Paris, New York and Dublin) embody an idea of grandiosity and classical beauty, on the other they suggest a rigid space based on notions of bureaucratic order, repetition, preservation and the transmission of rules, where cultural history is classified, administered and stored just as in any other space of enclosure. In light of current trends towards the introduction of fees for access to public libraries and restricting the use of some material to specialists, Höfer’s photographs can also be seen as a critique of the library space as a place of privilege and social exclusion.


The Donald Judd Library at the Judd Foundation
Located in Marfa, West Texas around 200 miles southeast of El Paso, the Judd Foundation holds and maintains Donald Judd’s private living and work spaces including a large library comprising some 10,000 volumes housed on shelves designed and built by the artist. Though it is possible to visit this library, neither the public nor the library’s administrators are permitted to move or even touch the volumes which, according to a clause in Judd’s will, must be left exactly how they were when he died. The library thus has something of the spirit of a pyramid or mausoleum, a monument to eternal absence and dead time made even more affecting by the arrangement’s peculiar combination of permanence and fragility, the fact that it would in theory be a quite simple matter to move or lift any of the volumes abandoned, along with Judd’s hat, on the central work table. The quasi-sacred, unattainable nature of the library is an illusion but a compelling one which holds the living under its spell.


The Open Library (Michael Clegg & Martin Guttmann)
The Open Library project, which has been running since 1991, is a reflection on the type of free, unregulated and autonomous education that can take place outside institutions such as universities, public libraries or even art galleries, based on the principle of sharing resources. For this project Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann installed large improvised bookcases in different areas of a city, representing the different social strata of the population. To fill their shelves, they established direct contact with the community by going door to door collecting books. Once the collection was completed, the public was invited to the site and encouraged to borrow a number of books for a few days, then return them. The selection of books reflected the reading habits of the inhabitants of each urban district and provided an opportunity for informal self-education and communication. The artists describe the project as a ‘portrait of the community’ and a way of stimulating social imagination and collective responsibility in fragmented urban environments.


Letterature di svolta (Michelangelo Pistoletto – Cittadellarte)
Letterature di svolta was launched by Michelangelo Pistoletto in 2004 with the aim of reflecting on literature’s potential as a creative tool to foster social transformation. Initially it consisted on 30 books which were selected from a core of 200 publications suggested by artists, researchers, students and writers connected to the Cittadellarte network and exhibited at the Biella-based Foundation. To narrow the field, the books had to have been published after 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall being a problematic moment of wide-ranging political and social consequences. Since then the list of titles has been constantly growing and now numbers over 400.
In 2006-2007, Letterature di svolta became a creative laboratory with its operating centre in Turin where the books were “activated” through the organisation of events and readings and the creation of networks. Letterature di svolta is also the inspiration behind our own hypermedia project 0rhizone, an open art platform for discussion, shared narrative, creative conflict, molecular desire.

Martha Rosler Library
Candida Hofer
Judd Foundation
Clegg & Guttman
Open Library
Letterature di svolta

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply