Friday, 30 January 2015

Outside Looking In

Ferdinandeum library, Innsbruck

In my thirty years as an academic librarian, I have had the privilege of visiting quite a few magnificent libraries, either as a guest or by showing my access-all-areas On Her Majesty's Bibliographic Service wristband *.  I have gaped in envy at the Wellcome Institute's cash-rich plushness (the only library I have ever visited with its own logo printed on the vinyl dust-covers of its microfilm readers), been enchanted by the Harry-Potter-central-casting-leather-bound perfection of the Natural History Museum, and clanged through the shabby-chic recesses of the London Library and the old British Library stacks, with elevated walkways and shelving assembled out of slotted and perforated cast-iron sections (intended to maximise ventilation and penetration of daylight in the days before electricity), as if kitted out by a steam-punk IKEA.

So it was with a certain poignant foreshadowing of my imminent civilian status, back in the summer in Innsbruck, that I found myself outside looking in, peering through the glass partition separating a gallery of paintings in the "Ferdinandeum" State Museum from the comfortable and well-appointed Tyrolean State Library.  I was fascinated by the portrait of a bearded woman apparently wearing Comanche warpaint, hanging on the wall behind the researchers, until I realised I was seeing the superimposed reflection of another painting hanging on the facing wall [note to self:  maybe it's time to start wearing those glasses?].  The clients themselves were hunched in the international body-language of concentration, oblivious to each other and the idiot with a camera grinning at them through the glass.

There is an interesting portrait project for someone, probably not me, to capture the assorted states of rapt absorption, distraction and repose that people adopt when at work in a library.  Various photographers have done "people reading", from André Kertész to Steve McCurry, and there's a superb collection of anonymous photographic postcards on that theme, compiled by artist Tom Phillips from his own collection (now deposited in the Bodleian Library and published by them, ISBN 978-1851243594 **).  But "library readers" would be quite different.

In fact "library sleepers" might be even more interesting.  In a university library at exam times, students are always to be found slumped in various contorted poses over piles of books and notes at all hours of the day, sometimes with amusing notes pinned or glued onto their backs.  Not, I hasten to add, by library staff.  Or, at least, not as a matter of policy.

British Museum
I remember when this was all books...

It's only when you're finally permanently outside an institutional setting of any kind -- a school, an office, the police, a government department, or a library -- that you realise quite how crazy the long-term inmates invariably become. Which reminded me of this:

My former place of work has five floors, linked by a main staircase, a back staircase, and a lift.  One morning, I had to go from my office on the entrance-level floor (confusingly known as "Level 2") to take a copy of Puck of Pook's Hill I had on my desk back up to the top floor (Level 5).  I'm always in need of exercise, so I usually take the stairs.  That day I felt particularly badly in need of exercise, so I first went down to the basement (Level 1), and went up to Level 5 from there, using the back staircase.

I replaced the Kipling on the shelf.  It was the Puck volume of the Centenary Edition, published in 1965, with identical graphical dustjackets in a typically early 1960s design.  Soldiers Three in the same edition caught my eye, so I took it off the shelf and went back downstairs to my office, this time via the main staircase.  After a while I realised I probably didn't want to borrow it after all, and that I should probably return it immediately.

Just for fun -- I'm easily pleased -- I repeated my previous journey i.e. down to Level 1, and up to Level 5, again on the back staircase.  I replaced the volume, but for some reason took down another, Plain Tales from the Hills, and again went back down to Level 2, again via the main staircase.  Back in my office, I wondered: what if I were to immediately return this volume, too, by the same route?  How many times would I have to repeat the procedure before anyone would notice that I had just passed by in the same direction, apparently holding exactly the same book? (But, in fact -- ha! -- not the same book at all).  It struck me that this was a piece of conceptual performance art in the making.

Conceptual art is all about self-imposed rules and constraints; it's the Higher OCD.  So: what if I were to repeat this for all the volumes in the set?  There were only 23; what a pity there weren't 24...  Twenty-four being a magic number, instantly conferring significance; it might even be an ironically oblique way of marking our upcoming move to 24/7 opening hours.  I should probably find a different set of books, one with twenty-four volumes, ideally larger in size and with even more striking but identical dustjackets.

Some other refinements were probably needed.  Did it matter whether anyone spotted what was going on, or was it enough that the procedure was carried out as planned?  If so, would I be more noticeable if I ran, or did a funny walk?  Perhaps the thing to do would be to arrange for a Keystone Cops-style squad of Security staff to pursue me ineffectually, until ... yes! ... a white-coated team with a strait-jacket waylaid me, noisily and publicly, during the twenty-fourth iteration!

But, in an Ono-esque gesture, I merely wrote this project down in my notebook, rather than carry it out.  Of course, in the way of all such conceptual art, who's to say I didn't do it?  What difference would it make?  Does anyone care what is actually inside Piero Manzoni's tins, or whether Tracey Emin ever actually spent a single night in that bed?  It did briefly occur to me that it might be worth submitting my idea to a suitable body for funding; it could become a useful supplementary income stream, and at the same time open up a new avenue of self-expression.  But in the end I decided the best course would be to retire as soon as possible, before anyone realised quite how mad I had finally been driven.

* "Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to enter freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such access as may be required, with no jobsworth nonsense about opening times, public holidays, and the like. Don't make Us ask twice, yeah? Cheers, ER."

** In fact, there's a whole series of these Tom Phillips/Bodleian themed postcard compilations, all worth a look -- I particularly like "Bicycles" and "Fantasy Travel".


Kent Wiley said...

Sounds like your art piece could be a meeting between Candid Camera and Marina Abramovic. I'd watch for a while. Not sure about all 24 iterations...

Mike C. said...


Luckily, nobody has to watch it, now -- since retiring, I'm at least 80% sane.


Kent Wiley said...

Sanity quotient went up since the "end of employment"?

Mike C. said...

So it seems... I'm hoping it lasts.


Zouk Delors said...

Or, instead of just describing the event, you could perhaps have created an exhibitable work from the event, like this one, Art and Culture by John Latham:

John Latham really did borrow Clement Greenbaum's establishment-centric book, Art and Culture from St Martin's Art School Library; really did invite his friends round to tear out, chew up and spit out pages; really did reduce it all to a residue with acid, and really did (gasp!) respond to the library's "overdue" notice by returning the remains in a flask. See first para:

Yoko Ono lodged with the Lathams when she came to London.

Mike C. said...


Very much a case of "you had to be there", like so much of the sixties... (in fact, literally a case, in this case).