A student* brought this interview to my attention the other day. It’s a dialogue with the creator of the Reanimation Library, a fascinating project with lofty goals. These, from what I can gather from its mission statement, amount to more than the laudable task of preservation: the library seeks to revitalize the generative potentials of books themselves, through an exploration of the way physical books interact with artists and writers to create new works. It is a philosophy of the medium as actor, not as an inert passageway through which we encounter a dematerialized text.
This is why the project emphasizes books’ visual elements, a welcome contribution that could only be improved by a simultaneous focus on, for instance, their tactile elements:
Of particular interest to the Reanimation Library is the loss of visual information that occurs during the process of weeding. Collection development policies generally assign little weight to the visual dimension of a work, unless that work happens to be graphically driven (i.e. a book on a visual artist, graphic design, or an atlas). Most library collection development policies prioritize the acquisition of items with up to date textual information and replace items where that information is lacking or outdated. This protocol, coupled with the continual production of new editions as fields of knowledge evolve, create the growing fossil record of outdated books—a veritable feast for image archaeologists. The Reanimation Library is committed to building a collection of materials that are rich in visual information regardless of the currency of their textual information. The library serves as a repository and, more pertinently, an access point for such materials.
When other libraries bind paperbacks in hard, monochromatic volumes, they are certainly justified from the perspective of the desire to maintain the integrity of the text. However, what is lost is exactly what the Reanimation Library wants to preserve: the fragile materiality of the object.
The library has a number of ongoing projects, one of which caught my eye. In the “Word Processor” section of their website, one can find a number of texts penned by various writers about some text from the archive. Among the authors is one whose work I myself admire, poet Christian Hawkey. His contribution is about A.M. Worthington’s A Study of Splashes, from 1908. Worthington set out to document what happens when a drop of liquid hits a hard surface. And he did so not by photographing the phenomenon, but rather by setting up an elaborate system involving periodic drops of mercury and periodic flashes of a bulb. When the timing was right, he could see the drop at the moment of its collapse. He then drew what he saw.
Hawkey points out that this practice, which seems odd and inefficient today, was in step with the scientific distrust of photography in Worthington’s time. And he also points out that it corresponded to a moment (one that was quickly passing) when the arts and the sciences intermingled, a moment before they corresponded to two discrete, impermeable spheres.
There’s one more thing there, though, and it dovetails with the overall orientation of the Reanimation Library itself: a faith in the generative potentials of particularities. The camera captures what happens in an instant, in the lapse between the opening and closing of its lens. Drawing, on the other hand, is extended out in time. By seeking to draw what is only instantly available, Worthington modeled what a fidelity to the instant might look like. That is, the instant generated practice beyond its capture.
In a class I teach, we recently read Borges’s “The Writing of the God.” In it, a prisoner can see the jaguar that paces back and forth in front of him for only a small lapse of time each day–at noon, when his captors open the prison skylight to lower food and water down to him. He takes these lapses as the basis for a deciphering practice based on the observation of the jaguar’s spots. That is, he reads the jaguar, reconstructs its furry textuality, based on nothing but a moment of light each day. It seems to me unlikely that he got very far, but what is interesting is how this seemingly futile effort generated practice.
To my mind, the particularities archived by the Reanimation Library aim at a similar goal.
*Here is a plug for that student’s translation magazine.