Reading between the lines: “Add To My Library” Vol. III by Christina Mitrentse | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
Article by the curator Christina Grammatikopoulou and interview with the artist Christina Mitrentse about the experience of “Add to My Library”, Vol.III.
Barcelona, Library of the Faculty Philosophy, History and Geography, University of Barcelona, April 2, 2012.
For more information see here.
On April 2, 2012 the Library of the Faculty of Philosophy, History and Geography of University of Barcelona was disrupted from its daily routine: a grid of lights on the floor marked a space where the users of the library brought their favourite books, placed strategically in rows by the artist Christina Mitrentse so as to form a new architecture, a library within the library.
It was the third volume of “Add To My Library”, an international art project that brings forth a fresh look into established aspects of culture and education – the book as a source of knowledge, the library as an educational and cultural system, the reader as a creator of new context.
Reconstructing a library is a familiar experience to most people: in public libraries, users select the books they will consult and create piles on the tables, until the time they read them; at home, private libraries are being constructed according to personal interests and archived in a unique way. This personal experience of the library was the beginning of the project “Add to my library”: Christina Mitrentse started by stripping her own books from their covers and discovering thus new ways of correlating these items, with an aesthetic focus. The artist subsequently moved onto a collective level, creating a project that highlights the idea of knowledge as the result of a collaborative effort, where the readers play a significant part, as they are being called to ask the question “If the library were to close tomorrow, which book would you save?”.
A difficult question, but not a hypothetical one. In an era when the cuts in education and culture are limiting the potential of cultural and educational institutions to reach out to the public, many of the libraries –in the UK, where the project initiated, but also in the rest of Europe- are depending more and more on the good will and passion of the staff, who try to do their best with a minimum budget. As the protection of the state towards these institutions is being diminished, the initiative taken by library staff and communities shows that collaborative effort can make a significant difference in the safeguarding of culture and knowledge –and Mitrentse’s project comes to underline exactly that.
During the presentation of the project in the University of Barcelona one could see different reactions towards the act: some library users ignored it, some others were annoyed by the disturbance of the usual “peace and quiet” within the library walls. The majority, however, greeted the action with enthusiasm; the participants seemed to perceive the library not as an aseptic, unchanging place, but as a dynamically changing place of the intellect, intrinsically linked to the city outside the walls of the building and connected to the entire world: their selection of books proved that. Books that reflected Catalan culture –volumes by Catalan artists or theoretical texts in Catalan- were chosen along with international art books, in different languages, bringing into focus the cultural diversity of Catalunya and its multiple connections with the international art scene.
Christina Mitrentse’s final act pointed to the same direction, opening up the library to the world. After the end of the installation-performance, the artist hid two of her books among the library shelves. The books, that were later discovered by the librarians, are “Wounded books”, perforated by a bullet (featured in the gallery below); they form part of the international project “The Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street”, an interdisciplinary response to car bombings that hit the cultural centre of Baghdad in 2007, leaving behind a tremendous loss of human life and intellectual resources. By leaving those two “Wounded Books” at the Library of the University of Barcelona, Christina Mitrentse created a dialogue between two centres of the intellect, that even though distant in space, are united by a shared role as places that foster knowledge and education.
On the other hand, the open “wounds” of the books highlight a different aspect of the “Add To My Library” project: the book as a collective intellectual construction.
Mitrentse doesn’t claim authorship of the book as content –therefore she does not “appropriate” it; she uses it as a structural element in her work, so as to create new nodes of meaning. In accordance with Nicholas Bourriaud’s reading of the concepts of appropriation and “remixing”, Add to My Library is “moving toward a culture of the use of forms, a culture of constant activity of signs based on a collective ideal: sharing”. In this sense, Christina Mitrenste’s action is to be viewed in line with the work of numerous contemporary artists, who have been freed from the modernist tyranny of the “white canvas”, the creation of something out of nothing, and seek the prime matter of their work into already existent cultural forms, that are reworked into the production of new meanings. As Gilles Deleuze writes, “things and thoughts advance or grow out from the middle, and that’s where you have to get to work, that’s where everything unfolds”.
The original book is simply the prime matter for the final artistic work; in a way, Add to My Library reveals a process of collectivisation of the author’s intellectual effort, already existent within the paths of circulation of knowledge. The umbilical cord uniting the author to a book, a poem, a song, is cut as soon as this intellectual “child” is brought into the world, as soon as it’s made public: because, to cite Michel de Certeau, “the activity of reading has […] all the characteristics of a silent production […] This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient”. This “silent production” of reading turns into an open artistic act within the work of Christina Mitrentse. People that read, stockpile, underline, crease books, collaborate with the artist to reveal a new way of constructing knowledge. Within this context, the authorship of a book is not disputed or underestimated; it is celebrated as the first act of a creative process that doesn’t end with publication, but remains alive with every reading of the book and every manipulation of its form and content.
In the Add to My Library Project, “a different world […] slips into the author’s place”: it is the world of the artist, the reader, anyone who decides to enter and create within it.
Following her action in the Library of the Faculty of Philosophy, History and Geography of the University of Barcelona, Christina Mitrentse answered a few questions regarding her experience in the Library and her work.
C.G.: How did you experience your presence in the Library of the University of Barcelona? Do you think that the reception from the public was different in any way comparing to previous presentations of the project? How do you feel that the event related to the current political and financial situation in the educational institutions in Europe?
C.M.: It is a very unique and diverse experience each time and the participants/contributors reflect their own idiosyncratic and cultural behavior onto the work depending on country in which it is presented. I was thrilled that The MetaLibrary intervention succeeded in disturbing both conceptually and physically the large number of readers and academics present, challenging their perception about reading, and the state of educational restrictions imposed upon them as this is widely experienced within the European economic crisis. Being primarily intended to make them ponder their ‘text’ of civilisation in crisis, this experience was uncomfortable for some.
Particularly interesting for me was the fact that the ‘preservation‘ of Catalan language/culture was certainly a powerful catalyst, and there was in evidence a reactionary approach to the way the participants selected their favorite book to be Added into my Library during the performance, indeed, 70 % of the books contributed were Catalan publications, artists or authors. So, as new ‘data’ from contributors were gathered as emanations of social experiences, the books amalgamated into the Meta- library a locus not only to remix the ‘catalogue’ and alter the physical space of the library but also to continually activate perceptions. As critic Peter Suchin describes ‘’The paradox of Mitrentse’s project is that it is both a sign of dissipation, of the loss of knowledge and the means for its transmission, and a conscious recouping or preservation of the culture of the book. It is a novel physical object, a book-container made of books, a library whose walls is bound and bonded together with books, a labyrinthine conceptual and architectural structure’’.
I felt the Meta library intervention was perfectly timed, at a moment when the 4 major University Libraries where being closed down due to funding cuts in Barcelona. And when established institutions of learning are in Europe and UK in crisis, with universities simultaneously charging hugely increased student fees and public libraries closing, whilst at the same time purporting to democratise access to education, the work focused not so much on this ostensibly cultural expansion, as upon the notions of the alternative, the marginal and the secret school or anti-institution.
C.G.: You decided to end the event with a “clandestine” act, leaving two “Wounded Books” at the Library. Those books form part of the multidisciplinary international project “The inventory of the Al-Mutanabbi Street”. Could you tell us more about this project? Do you feel that your action has somehow “linked” the two centers of the intellect?
C.M.: Indeed the final stage of my performance had been rather adventurous, structured around a clandestine act of placing two of the ongoing series of ‘Wounded Books’ sculptures in the Library. While the idea was for those works to be discovered by the library staff or users after the action, I decided to ‘donate’ them surreptitiously as part of the collection and position them both on the book shelves amongst the volumes of the Library of Philosophy and Art. They periodically become ‘invisible’ and were finally discovered by the librarian, who was of course intrigued by the finding. These works have since been given their own permanent public display within the Library.
The initial Wounded Books series was conceived as a response to my contribution to ‘the inventory of the Al-Mutanabbi Street‘ and had been part of my ongoing project initiative ‘Add To My Library’ ever since.
The inventory of Al-Mutanabbi street project was initiated in 2007 by US based poet Beau Beausoleil, Founder of the al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. It was she who invited 262 Book Artists and 130 individual printers from around the world to each complete and donate three books in a visceral response to the car-Bombings of historic al-Mutanabbi-Street and to the 30 dead and 100 who were wounded in Baghdad in March 2007. The works reflect both the targeted attack on this ‘street of the booksellers’, which was the heart and soul of the intellectual and cultural community, as well as highlighting the ultimate futility of those who try to erase thought globally. One set of artists’ books have been donated to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad and the other two sets will go to form a touring exhibition at various cultural centers throughout the world from 2012-2014 including John Rylands Library at Manchester University (UK and The San Francisco Center for the Book, California. (For more information on the list of exhibition venues and readings please see here)
My intention was to conceptually introduce and highlight the importance of this project to the users of the library of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona and to ‘quietly’ continue it, by dialectically connecting the body of knowledge stocked in the library to both the body of literacy and human body lost in the All Mutanabbi str. car-bombing.
C.G.: It is certain that “Wounding” a book alters its initial function to a certain extent, by cancelling its “readability”. The book can be seen as an object, but it is also a source of information: What kind of dynamics emerges between those two aspects within your work? Do you feel that the writer of the book could feel “threatened” by your act?
C.M.: My performative act of ‘Wounded Books series’ explores the possibilities opened up by conceptualist approaches to writing and performative approaches to reading within contemporary society and the subjection to the advanced capitalism in which it exists. It is an intellectual statement on the relationship of ‘Information as Material and the ownership.
This action of ‘re-appropriating’, actually attacking the ‘Wounded Books (fired from a rifle shot in controlled licensed conditions at The Rifle and Pistol Club at Imperial and College Union London), is “absolutely not vandalism,” but, instead, a strange kind of ‘homage’. I don’t consider myself to be an appropriation artist in the art historical meaning of the term. Today everyone has a thoroughly different relationship to information than previous generations. Our production of it, distribution and consumption, is worlds apart from what has gone before, so appropriation today is a very different thing. It needs to be rewritten.
The books I choose to critically deface are either literature whose content seems to have failed for various reasons or visual art books of renowned artist I found inspiring i.e. John Latham’s art catalogues which was the starting point of the Wounded series. As T.S. Eliot said: “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
I intend to release the potential in language and, by situating the books on the discoherent barrier where meaning starts to fail, reveal an Apollonian content in words usually canceled out by their application as the cold tools of ideology and management systems. At the same time, showcasing the power of a weapon as a dynamic interface between human body, hand, and centres of the brain. The book covers and the pages have turned into attractive palimpsests of ownership circular marks. Their formal outcome is underpinned by many rapid and fatal decisions, and the absurd and somewhat alarming nature of the circular ‘Wound’ on cover is retained as identification, -It is as if we re-visit Matta-Clarks Conical Intersect 1975.
But sealing completely the text/book block, so any new ‘reader’ would at least have a potted version of its original contents.
Throughout the process, the books are threatened as physical objects and extent beyond the value of their author, into questioning the denoting “knowledge” and how it is disseminated, acquired/ ‘appropriated’ on an individual level while also addressing notions of contemporary self-publishing. In any case this project derives from an investigation on the history of book destruction explored in my ongoing international artbook project initiative, Building my Library in 2006, which dominates in my oeuvre.
The authors of the books I choose to attack do not play any role in the authorship of the act of ‘re-appropriation’ and re-contextualization, neither in its valuability as an art object. Whilst I construct the conditions, i.e., deploying and repurposing language from a vast cultural database/library, I am both the ‘consumer’ /owner of the ready made/book and the Artist/composer who decides upon its destruction or its rebirth. An intellectual and conceptual author of the ‘Wounded Book’ artifacts. With as much space as possible left open for interpretation, the writer’s body vanishes. I work backwards and forwards between a bodily involvement in the process and making the audience aware that what they are looking at is my intellectual construction. This derives from an early idiosyncratic series of Booksculptures created by destroying and uncovering the books, which existed in my own library in an act of ‘erasing’ the meaning of authorship. (See info here) The matter of ‘faceless’ books is a way to expose the underlying relationships and assumptions that original texts precariously subsist upon.
No less than James Joyce said: “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description” — but the ease and scale of scissoring and pasting are unprecedented.
Selecting, destroying and sharing the re- appropriated product, generates new interesting meanings, and in doing so, disrupts the existing order of things, challenging ‘readers’ desire for a single channel of explanation. The books themselves are possibly the ones to threaten their own authors, and losing their expected readability in commercialism, instead have been diachronically transformed into collectable socio-cultural, political and aesthetical artifacts, allowing them to have a life of their own.
Moving this project forward, it is planned for new ‘Wounded Books’ to be exposed as part of the ATML and a series of interventions/exhibitions in Libraries and cultural centers in UK and Europe supported by independent organizations and bibliophiles/collectors.
 Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction: Culture As Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), p.9.
 Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p.161.