CHP In The Stacks: An Interview with Shannon Mattern of the School of Media Studies at The New School
What stands out about the collection at Poet House, particularly in the way that it resides in and relates to this building and this neighborhood?
I think poetry libraries are especially fantastic because they tend to accommodate and celebrate poetry in all its material manifestations: the chapbook, the anthology, the zine, the audio recording, the live performance, etc. There’s rarely an implied hierarchy among these formats; they all, collectively, constitute the poetic “text.” I actually wrote about this — the multi-modality and generativity of poetry libraries — a few years ago, focusing specifically on the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard. Poets House certainly “activates” its collection, too — through children’s programming, exhibitions, tons of events, and the presence of writers not only reading, but also writing poetry.
As for the the space itself: The building is a rather generic (if highly sustainable!) residential tower, as are most of the buildings in Battery Park City — but the Poets House space is fantastic. It’s filled with natural light, warm hardwood floors, a mixture of rustic-industrial and Arts-and-Crafts-inspired library tables and Danish modern seating, and lots of soothing whites and silvers accented with pops of color. And it offers amazing views of and access to the park outside. There’s certainly a visual poetry to its textural and chromatic diversity, and in its mixture of industrial, minimalist, and natural aesthetics.
Beyond the buildings themselves, have you encountered new and/or novel ways of displaying archived materials? Do they seem more likely to encourage or foster artistic collaboration?
Well, considering how difficult it is to take archival materials outside their controlled physical environments, most of the experimental displays I’ve encountered are virtual. I see a lot more digital curation of archival collections. Inspired largely by interest and funding in what’s come to be known as the “digital humanities,” scholars and students and their community partners are creating maps, timelines, data visualizations, online exhibitions, etc., that contextualize and cross-reference material from disparate archival collections. See Emily Thompson’s historical soundscape of New York, for instance, or the projects on Scalar, or the work of NYPL Labs, or Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces.
And of course there are plenty of artists whose work deals with the practices, aesthetics, politics, etc., of display or exhibition. And many artists use library materials in their work, or take on the library as a subject.
What are some of your favorite examples of ways in which artists have collaborated with libraries, either as source or subject?
I think the Library as Incubator
project has tons of great examples. I love the Reanimation Library
, whose collection of misfit books has inspired tons of writers and artists. I wrote about a few other “little library as art project” projects in an article
from a few years ago. There are lots of archive- and library-minded artists
; my favorites include Ann Hamilton, Mark Dion, Thomas Hirschhorn, Erica Baum, Emily Jacir. We explore a lot of these examples in my graduate “Archives, Libraries + Databases
” course. This year, the students have the option of creating work for a spring exhibition that I’m helping to organize, so, in our class on October 28
we’re looking at a whole bunch of precedents for library- and archive-themed exhibitions — from the “Deep Storage” show at PS1 in Queens in 1998, to the “As We May Think” exhibition (an obvious homage to Vannevar Bush) at Kunsthal Aarhus last year.
I’d like to highlight two additional projects: In 2011, I was lucky to see the experimental theatre troupe Elevator Repair Service (in partnership with statistician Mark Hansen and artist Ben Rubin) perform their Shufflein the periodicals room of the New York Public Library. The script was generated algorithmically, in real-time, by pulling from the scripts of three previous ERS productions — Gatz, The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), and The Select (The Sun Also Rises) – and the literary texts that inspired them. The performers accessed the ever-evolving script via iPhones tucked into print copies of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway’s books. All the while, the group, dressed in their librarians’ best, shuffled throughout the periodicals room, champagne flutes in hand. The pace and placement of their actions seemed to vary in relation to the speed of the script: small groups might congregate and chat leisurely at the circulation desk, while a colleague would bolt from one end of the room to the other, in response to some apparent reference emergency. Others performed the signature actions of librarians: one might rifle through a card catalogue, extracting and organizing slips of paper with no apparent rhyme or reason; another might peck away at a typewriter; while still another might scramble up and down the stairs as her colleagues amble or dart through the stacks. The audience, meanwhile, was free to wander around the room, watch the script unfurl on monitors positioned at each of the library tables, peruse print-outs listing a selection of the text snippets fed through the algorithm, and come and go at will. By removing and remixing familiar codes and contexts, Shuffle shifted our engagement with these classic texts and spaces and genres of performance. It made for an especially productive decontextualization.
And more recently, artist Katie Paterson and the Future Library Trust
have cleared a patch of Norwegian forest and planted 1,000 saplings. The felled trees are being used to create a room in the Oslo New Library, where the Trust will collect manuscripts that they’ll commission from authors — one each year for the next 100 years. No one will be able to read those manuscripts, however, until 2114, when those newly planted saplings will be cut down, turned into paper, and used in printing the commissioned texts. Most of us won’t live long enough for the book release party — so the project serves primarily to remind us of the deep time, the slow evolution, of knowledge: a welcome reminder amidst the cacophony of updates and compulsions to obsessively “refresh.”
Shannon Mattern is an Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York. Her research and teaching address relationships between the forms and materialities of media and the spaces (architectural, urban, conceptual) they create and inhabit. She writes about libraries and archives, media companies’ headquarters, place branding, public design projects, urban media art, media acoustics, media infrastructures, and material texts. You can find her at wordsinspace.net
Shannon will join Poets House writer-in-residence Valeria Luiselli and Coffee House Press’s Jay Peterson for a public conversation about Architecture and Archives on Tuesday, Oct. 21st at 7pm at Poets House. Click here for more info.