CHRIS FREMANTLE

What art/reading?

Posted in CF Writing, Exhibitions, Texts by chrisfremantle on August 1, 2008

The Martha Rosler Library (and Anton Vidokle‘s talk) at Stills, Edinburgh.

Vidokle, founder of e-flux and Producer (?) of the Martha Rosler Library as an e-flux project, explained the origin of the circulation of the Library. Vidokle described being in Texas, visiting Marfa, seeing Donald Judd’s library (below) of some 10,000 volumes, and not being allowed to pick one off the shelves because everything has to be kept exactly the way Judd had it – a ‘permanent installation’ in his terminology. So Vidokle is talking to Rosler about another project and relates this story. She offers Vidokle her library as a public resource. Vidokle gets excited about the idea. The Martha Rosler Library opens in the e-flux storefront in New York. Stills, Edinburgh, is the last venue, the seventh stop, in what has become the circulation of the Library.

Vidokle referred to the difficulty in thinking about authorship in relation to the Library. It is curated by the venue – obtaining shelves, setting them out, accessorising; it is his idea and he thinks its art; it is Rosler’s Library and she doesn’t think its art; and of course each of the books is authored in the literary sense. We enter a dialectic between form and content. It certainly offers the possibility of a Borgesian treatise, but I think something else is also going on.

Vidokle located his recent projects (unitednationsplaza, Night School, Pawnshop, etc and his involvement in the cancelled Manifesta) in creating an ephemeral/transitory and mobile/ circulating space for attention. He understands contemporary art as constantly drifting into the spectacle whilst striving to ferment political/social change. He noted the underlying current of social change in art going back over 150 years – he referenced Manet and Courbet inheriting the radicalism of the French Revolution. The aesthetic is increasingly a powerful force, whist participation in the political is weakening – Vidokle is concerned with art that can operate differently.

The Martha Rosler Library evidences the importance of politics to some contemporary artists – you will find distinct slabs of literature on marxism, women’s issues, theory, philosophy, architecture, radical history, and so on. But more to the point it would appear that Martha Rosler is an artist who understands reading, thinking, informing, research, theory, intellectualism, radicalism, to be part of what it is to be an artist.

In fact I would go so far as to propose, and I think Vidokle hints at this with the title Martha Rosler Library, that this is like the Presidential Libraries, and in fact Artists’ Libraries should be recognised to be of equal importance and value to the life of nations. We certainly need to recognise the importance of the artist as ‘public intellectual’. To know why this is a bad idea you only have to look at the Artist Placement Group Archive recently bought by the Tate, and now functionally inaccessible. You need to register as a bona fide researcher; make a booking to use the Research Centre, and then you find that because this Archive isn’t catalogued you have to request specific items in advance – how can you request specific items in advance if the archive is uncatalogued? You have to know what you are asking for before you ask for it – the unexpected, the exploratory, the serendipitous is impossible.

But this Library, some 7000 books, is different and does something important, and maybe it does exactly what Vidokle set out to do. It is a spectacle but it draws you into spending time, paying attention and even having conversations. Vidokle has constructed an experience out of a couple of tons of matter, matter which is so fascinating that, more than gold or diamonds, it stops you in your tracks, draws you in, sits you down, and takes you into the heart of what really matters.

Deirdre McKenna and Kirsten Lloyd at Stills both commented on how long people were spending in the Gallery (far more than they would with photography exhibitions). Vidokle said that in Berlin there was a hard core of people who spent 3-4 hours every day in the Library for weeks. Now, of course all Librarians will tell you that people spend hours libraries – some of them old people keeping warm, some doing research, some just hiding. So people coming to the Martha Rosler Library get sucked in, pick up a book, sit down, start reading. Even if they pick up a sci-fi novel (and there is a shelf of them too) they are spending time in a cultural experience. And the same is true of a public library.

This is a particularly good library for those interested in contemporary art and the political – its probably better than most individuals have, and it may be better than most art schools have. Its very clear that it is an individual’s library and has that particular degree of focus. So the person spending time in the Martha Rosler Library might be radicalised. But I suspect most of the people visiting will be arts professionals (just as Vidokle acknowledged that the 50,000 subscribers to e-flux probably amount to a list of those seriously (professionally) involved in contemporary visual arts).

So if this Library does what other libraries do and keeps people for longer, and if it is a radical collection being looked at by people who are by and large au fait with a radical agenda, then why is it important?

Maybe its important precisely because it does exactly these things. Because the ‘event ‘ of the Library being in Edinburgh draws people concerned with contemporary art and social issues to spend time paying attention – reading and having conversations with colleagues, acquaintances and strangers you run into. And exactly why is this important?

I think it comes back to ‘elitism’. The more a group develops a common language, a shared set of ideas, an iterative discourse, a cliquish mentality, the more powerful it can become, the more likely it is to change the world, to take over, to mount a coup, to become a junta.

I spent two or three hours in the Library – I read two of Rosler’s book works, an essay by Lawrence Alloway on Feminism. I looked at a text on aesthetic education and on engaged artists in California. I talked to a guy from the Arts Council, Deirdre and Kirsten, Becky, Rachel and watched others. I met lots of people at Vidokle’s talk. It seems to me that art does not have to be something uniquely different: it can be something already well known, but do it with great attention. Why is this art, not just a library? Actually its a library made by an artist for other artists.

Notices on e-flux documenting the circulation of the Martha Rosler Library
Stills (Edinburgh), Site (Liverpool), Institut national d’histoire de l’art (Paris), unitednationsplaza (Berlin), Museum for Contemporary Art (Antwerp), Frankfurter Kunstverein, and at e-flux (New York)

Others thoughts:
Cluster Blog
Letterature di svolta
Artopia – John Perreault’s Art Diary

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2 Responses

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  1. Robert Barry « CHRIS FREMANTLE said, on September 4, 2010 at 9:03 am

    […] (Stills then showed the Martha Rosler Library and invited Vidokle to talk, so I got to hear (read post) the bit I was interested in).  Robert Barry was also a disappointment.  The avant garde becomes […]

  2. […] into a public art collection.  He went on to describe various e-flux projects.  I’ve written about Vidokle, e-flux and in particular the Martha Rosler Library before, so I’ll move […]


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