Exploring the “tangible and tactile”

Exhibit examines the storage and dissemination of the printed word
Written by Steven Scarpa

David Bunn's "This Cute Piece of Miniature Art (Rosealea)" 2004 (detail). Image courtesy of the artist.

There is a quiet hum inside as a few patrons wander the new books section and clerks busy themselves at their computers. A few people quietly thumb through paperbacks. An older woman tutors a woman in her 30s. “To subside means to stop,” the woman says, reviewing a paper with her student. Another woman looks up a medical diagram of a tooth on the Internet.

The main branch of the library has a grandeur ordinarily saved for churches, municipal edifices, or old-time banks. Wandering through the library, the greatest concentration of people there that day clustered around the brand new computer lab on the ground floor. One man distractedly thumbed through that day’s edition of the New Haven Register, waiting for a friend to finish her time online.

It is this tension – the pull between the old and the new, the digital and the tangible – that partially informs Artspace’s upcoming exhibition, entitled Library Science, on display from November 12 through January 28, 2012. According to Artspace, “several artists contemplate evidence of physical use or explore the poetic connections between the organic and the synthetic, instinct and knowledge.”

“When we previewed some of the works, we knew that it would find a receptive audience in New Haven and beyond,” said Helen Kauder, executive director of Artspace.

In conjunction with the exhibit at Artspace, Connecticut artists were asked to submit proposals for site-specific projects to be placed at local libraries, including the Whitney Library of the New Haven Museum, New Haven Free Public Library, Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, and Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale. The Institute Library will have a special exhibition featuring library-based portraits.

“New Haven’s history has been shaped by its wealth of notable, unconventional, and historic libraries,” Kauder said.

Works by artists Colin Burke, Heather Lawless, Carol Padberg and Andy Deck, Tyler Starr, and Rob Rocke and Meredith Miller will be displayed in various New Haven libraries.

In addition, a statewide film festival is being organized in partnership with the Connecticut Library Consortium. Fifteen libraries will screen films that focus on libraries.

“That was another attraction to the project, to be able to offer audiences an experience that put the works on view at Artspace in greater context and allow a continued conversation about libraries outside the gallery,” Kauder said.

Kauder met curator Rachel Gugelberger and learned of her idea for an exhibition that would serve as a counterpoint to the Google Library Project, a controversial effort to digitize the world’s books. The project came under fire from librarians and bibliophiles because of the possibilities of weakened copyright protections and the fundamental change in the way information is stored and distributed.

“This is a moment of transition. That’s what this show’s about,” Gugelberger said.

Gugelberger, a curator based in New York, grew up as the child of a librarian – her family used discarded cards from her mom’s card catalog for writing notes. When she began to see her interest in libraries intersect with the work artists were already doing, Gugelberger realized that there could be an interesting exhibit on the topic.

“I began to see their work around. That inspired me to think about other artists who work within libraries,” she said. “There is a focus on the tangible and tactile, and the experience of the library.”

It was David Bunn’s work with the old card catalogs of the Los Angeles County Library that showed Gugelberger the possibilities inherent in his subject. Another New York artist, Mickey Smith, deals with books as both objects of information and decorative pieces.

“She’s really interested in how we fetishize information and honor it and use it to present ourselves to the world,” Gugelberger said. “We can show the library in a different light through the approach of different artists.”

Tyler Starr, a South Windsor native and University of Connecticut graduate, will have his work displayed at the Haas Family Arts Library at Yale. Starr’s work is largely inspired by the stage designs of Rollo Peters.

“The imagery for my installation at the library is inspired by its archives and free associations that came from the process of exploring the archives in person and digitally,” Starr said.

Research, Starr believes, can result in a delicate kind of alchemy, the creation of poetic associations that can be shaped into a work of art. One idea leads to the next and to the next, spinning a web of concepts and ideas that form a unique new whole. Starr moves from a famous arson case in Japan to the red light districts outside military installations there, to Peters’ theatrical scenic designs and performance in the Age of Innocence to the library structure itself, a Brutalist structure that suspiciously burned in New Haven during a politically tense period in 1969.

“There are unexpected relationships that you can come across,” he said. “Maybe the interrelationships are a little bit deeper than accidental.”

Andy Deck and Carol Padberg will create their installation at the Sterling Library, almost literally a cathedral to books. The artists will be using electronic tags as the key to their exhibit. By scanning the codes, patrons will be introduced to particularly interesting pieces in the library’s collection.

“It gives us an opportunity to explore and use the collections, which to us as visual artists is stimulating and interesting,” Deck said.

There is an additional theme at play in Deck and Padberg’s work.

“These types of connections are delicate in that the tag is metaphor for encryption. By using digital management systems we are being put at a remove from content that could be accessible by opening a book,” Deck said.

New Haven residents Rob Rocke and Meredith Miller began their fascination with libraries through sheer utility – as they traveled, they often stopped at small-town libraries to use the Internet. Photographs of Rocke and Miller’s travels will be displayed at the Institute Library, a tiny hidden gem in New Haven and a membership-based library that harkens back to the times of Dickens and Melville.

Rocke described a lot of these small-town libraries as “beautiful, but beautifully sad.” The libraries found in their travels, ranging from well-appointed municipal facilities to a one-room, librarian-less library in Vermont, have several common factors: an old, worn chair, a collection of local memorabilia, and a certain amount of organized clutter.

“Each library looks and feels different, but there is always a nostalgia there that we are sensitive to,” he said.

Miller herself is employed as a photographer at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. She recalls the days, not so long ago, when she had to go to a dark room to develop her photographs. She likens using a paper library to that experience.

“I miss thumbing through a card catalog and having to know the Dewey Decimal System. I associate physicality with camaraderie,” Miller said.

In the end, each artist is trying to address the idea of what libraries are and what they may become. It’s a bittersweet conversation in many ways – many of the artists love the immersion into a digital world. They see it as convenient and the wave of the future, perhaps a continued democratization of the library. Still, others miss the feel a book can provide. Gugelberger assures that the exhibit casts no judgment and merely offers an opportunity for the examination of these ideas. Much in the same way a library does itself.

More information can be found at artspacenh.org.

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