“Are you looking for the same book I am?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. What book are you looking for?”
I showed her the call number and she shook her head. Was this one of the performers I read about? I wasn’t sure.
We were on the second level of the Mundy Library at St. Edwards University on Thursday night, and we had the entire floor to ourselves. Downstairs at the computer terminals, students were screen-timing it away with ear-buds in place and smart phones nearby; but we were alone. I was here following an invitation to see, or better put, to experience Sean Ripple and Rebecca Marino’s “mobile theatre device (edited for television).” The Facebook page was vague as to what exactly was going on. The show is described as, “drawing, writing, embedded performance, video, cryptography, sculpture, photography, telepresence, ephemera, teleportation, play.” But there is no traditional statement that lays out the objectives and hopes for show, and I was left with more questions than answers. I felt like a detective reviewing my first clues of some crime I wasn’t even sure was a crime to begin with. Scrolling down the Facebook page a few times, I found the call numbers for two books that were supposed to serve as my “guides.” I went off to find them.
So back on the second floor with the performer (maybe), we decided that we were in fact not looking for the same book. She was trying to find something on Degas, and she was worried the book was not available as the library catalogue claimed. Having not found it where it was suppose to be, she was wandering the stacks looking for the miss-shelved book. I told her I would keep my eyes open for it. She thanked me and turned the corner, and I kept looking for my books not entirely sure that I hadn’t already found the exhibition. Halfway down some aisle, bent over and trying to read the catalogue call number, I remembered something.
Libraries have a distinct smell.
I think it’s the dust that hides between the pages of the books shelved in the stacks. Mops and vacuums miss those areas and leave behind a musty odor on old pages and even older ideas. But, that smell, like those catalogue call numbers stamped onto the books’ spines, interconnect the orderly rows of shelves and metaphorically illustrate the larger interconnection of words with words that the arena of library allows for. Ideas are not autonomous. Instead, they sit with each other. They work, fight, tease, overlap, and play with each other. This type of existence is what Roland Barthes calls the “Text” and describes in his essay From Work to Text. As he explains, “the Text is a methodological field…the text is a process of demonstration…the text is held in language, only exists in the movement of a discourse…it can cut across the work, several works.” In short, it is “not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination.” This type of open-ended chaos is a fertile territory for art to navigate.
Mounting an art exhibition in a library presents a series of opportunities for the artist, artwork, and viewer to explore. Unrestrained by the museum mentality of passive looking and silent contemplation, the show has the potential to invite this unexpected Textual passage in an honest way. There are plenty of gallery shows that try to do this, but within the confines of the white walls, they always feel a little cheap and very institutionalized to me. Of course the question remains how to invite such a Barthes-esque “explosion?”
“Mobile theatre device (edited for television)” takes the safe and successful route of using the tested method of marrying the artwork with its context. Alternative spaces for art shows have a long and diverse history. However, one reoccurring thread locatable throughout it is the integration of site and artwork—meaning that one is designed for the other, or vice versa. Examples of this range from fairly exclusive art installations tucked away into that culture to things far more-well known like the Vietnam Veterans Wall Memorial. In examples such as these, the artwork is contingent on its location, and the location comes to life with the artwork’s participation. Ripple and Marino use books (the obvious choice for a library), two in particular that have been modified with personal touches. Handwritten notes printed in the margins and altered illustrations give them the feel of being old, well used, and full of secrets.
For example, messages such as, “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me” appear next to a reproduction of a Picasso painting on one page, while on another page a poster by E. McKnight Kauffer has several additions collaged to it. Also appearing here and there throughout the books are Youtube, Instagram, and Tumblr addresses to follow. The books feel like a mystery with a DADA-esque slant of humor and play. You never really know what your looking at, but you feel compelled to keep looking.
But what about the Text? Barthes is clear to point out that the Text is NOT a work. It “is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed.” Quite the opposite, it is the movement of computation. This begins with the premise of the exhibition itself. Nothing on the second floor of the Mundy is spoon-fed to you like in a commercial gallery. Instead, just as with any library book search, it’s up to you to find the spoon. Tracking down books takes time, and it opens doors to words, and words open doors to ideas that take time to think about. This is the basic mechanism of the symbolic mode of signs, those things that represent their referent symbolically and without any direct connection other than how they are understood. For example the sign “Cat” in no way resembles an actual feline, but you get what I’m saying. However, are we thinking about the same cat? Probably not. We probably have very different cats in our minds when we hear/read/speak that word. Those differences open a play of meaning and a subsequent interpretation that becomes all the more present when we sit down and talk about the cat. And just as metal images are interchangeable, so are words. Already in this paragraph there is cat/feline. So the Text is incomplete and ambiguous. Words and ideas exchange with each other, and meaning is interrupted as it encourages you to think and re-think about it and what it is implying/producing/signifying. It’s a riddle without a final answer.
As for me on the second floor of the Mundy talking to the girl, rummaging around dusty books, and flipping through the pages of the two I finally found, I was unquestionably part of the Text. I was looking, reading, interpreting, and exchanging meanings with meanings. The girl and I exchanged what we were doing, which books we were looking for, and, confirmed both the similarities and differences of our actions. As for the two books I finally found, beyond just their Textuality of word play and provoking questions (which Elvis are we talking about? Costello, Presley? And why is Elvis next to Picasso? Are they both the King?), they fold together in their similarities and differences by slipping away into each other and out into the world beyond their page borders. The both use words, but in different contexts and with different meanings. The various passages underlined, or the messages written in the margins take on different interpretations due to how and when they are read. One message may turn your attention to the words on the page, and the other may take you to an Instagram image. You are always one step behind meaning here, and you end up chasing the figment of your tail as you reference/cross-reference/read/re-read/link/watch/re-watch/re-read…
This is the play of art, and in my opinion, it is the future of art. The complacent passivity of art viewing needs to be seriously questioned in light of the smart phone. Good artists today have the capacity to extend their projects beyond the object and get to their viewers in new ways. “Mobile theatre device (edited for television)” does this. It makes you think, play, and question. It’s about tracking down call numbers, websites, and pages numbers, without the promise that the in the end, it will all make sense—so few things ever do. The show reminds us that good art is not an answer. It doesn’t produce closure. Instead, it provokes. It makes us think, feel, and with any luck, wonder.
Posted 5th September 2015 by Arnold, H.C.