by Devanshi ShahJun 18, 2021
I returned to Tramin from a short work trip to Venice to find a carton sitting on the floor of my writing room. I saw the address, de Appel, and instantly comprehended the sequence of events that led to its arrival. I had been expecting a small package with a sampling of some recent initiatives at the Amsterdam-based curatorial programme. Instead, I received a buffet of amazing publications, all of which had an analogue, hand-made feel about them. Because of where I am located, in a bilingual region in which I am fluent in neither Italian nor German, receiving a publication in English feels momentous. It feels like a way of accessing the randomness of bookstore browsing, that suddenly stumbling upon a title because it piques your interest, or the colours seem arresting, or the pages call out to you. Since I moved to Italy, I have forged a co-dependent relationship with various bootleg libraries online. They have become my resource. I spend several hours each month accessing books that are crucial to my research but unavailable anywhere near where I live. It’s no wonder, then, that I felt so drawn to Tasks of the Contingent Librarian, by Simon Browne, published in 2020 as a 7564-word thesis submitted to the Department of Experimental Publishing, Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning Academy, in ‘partial fulfilment of the requirements for the final examination for the degree of Master of Arts in Fine Art & Design: Experimental Publishing’.
The thesis was contained within a box the size of a postcard. There was a note from Browne that elaborated briefly on the format: a set of A6-sized index cards, contained in a box. “Please read it while holding the cards in your hands, shuffling and reordering them, making your own text as you read. These cards list the tasks performed on the site of contingencies, the bootleg library. Tasks are described on the obverse, and related images and references are on the reverse”. While I would love to say I have read all the cards, I am thrilled to announce I haven’t. I don’t feel inclined to follow Browne’s instructions because I am frequently caught up in the intensity of this research endeavour, the meticulousness of the process, how intelligently and lovingly it marries form and content, and how it often simply speaks to me in a way I haven’t been spoken to in a long time, bridging the gaps between all the libraries I have known in my life and the virtual ones I currently access.
The index cards have various colours, but I was arrested by the light blue of the initial cards because they reminded me of the shade that was the background not only of my library card in school but also in college and university. I remembered so distinctly the drawers filled with these index cards that catalogued books, that served as cues and clues, helping you discover what you weren’t even looking for. I remembered, suddenly, that sentiment from Chris Kraus’ book, I Love Dick, in which she speaks about literary stalking, recalling how her late friend, the writer David Rattray, found himself translating Antonin Artaud as a 26-year-old American junkie. She wrote, “He’d read Artaud in French at Dartmouth College, but in 1957, living on his own in Paris, he decided to become him. At the old Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the cataloguing system held a list of every book checked out by every reader. Artaud was fairly freshly dead. And isn’t scholarship just a stalking of the dead by people who’re too stoned or scared to chase live bait? That year David Rattray read every single book checked out by Antonin Artaud”.
This was one of many excerpts from I Love Dick I had not only underlined in my copy but had also, as is my practice, written out in my journal. On one of Browne’s blue index cards, there is a two-panel image showing a hand holding a pen, allegedly demonstrating the right angle to write, which for me is dependent entirely on the quality of the paper and its textural ability to receive my Lamy Beryl crystal ink. The text at the reverse reads: Writing “by hand” is how we most often think of the act. The hand is symbolically connected to the act of writing, to the extent that we still use icons of the hand-held utensils to represent it graphically—a ballpoint pen, a pencil, even an old-fashioned quill and nib, all often associated with letter-writing. Slowly this iconography is being replaced by another symbol; the keyboard, signally the contemporary dominance of typography on writing.” In another blue index card, Browne draws our attention to how writing is a fundamental part of the library. ‘Not only in the written texts it contains, but also in the texts it produces; metadata (information such as author, title, subject, description, publisher, etc), annotations made by readers, readers made by readers, correspondence between the users about the texts, which form a dialectical synopsis. The library is sustained through producing texts which argue for its legitimacy by representing the readers who use it.”
As I am still processing what illiteracy might have meant to those who were not allowed to access scriptures, marginalised castes and races, and how the orality of the tongue was crucial to the transmission of subjectivity and history and legacy, this lovely archive by Browne is keeping me company. I am enjoying making my way between the colours, shuffling the cards, getting fixated on an image or a thought, or idea, and generally appreciating how the author’s mind is so present in the text and yet they themselves are so quiet, so non-invasive... The work is part of This may or may not be a true story or a lesson in resistance, the Final Outcome of de Appel’s Curatorial Programme 2019/2020. Due to the restrictions surrounding COVID-19, the CP participants Thomas Butler, Sharmyn Cruz Rivera, Juan Fernando López, Iris Ferrer, Danai Giannoglou and Naz Kocadere reimagined the project as an ‘exhibition in print’. At the bottom of the box cover is a bold announcement, ‘Copyleft: This is a free work, you can copy, distribute, and modify it under the terms of Free Art License 1.3,” which is a beautiful invitation. The thesis can also be accessed online, though the virtual rendition is lacking the playful materiality of the physical book. Still, this book is a celebration of libraries, what they have been and what they can be, and I feel quite privileged to have it become a member of mine.