“The library will endure; it is the universe.”
That’s a translated line from the short story “The Library of Babel,” by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. As you may recall, the story describes an infinite number of hexagonal rooms filled with every book imaginable: all books ever written, all books ever to be written, in every language, and also in gibberish. “We walk the corridors,” Borges writes, “searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and our future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”
Borges’ story came to mind last weekend when I took part in a program designed by artist Matthew Bakkom, called “Collective Investigation” at the Minneapolis Central Library. The project is designed as a way to cull a library’s collection through an intuitive process of selection, then with a small group of other participants working to highlight selections from the archive within a new collaboratively arranged document.
Bakkom originally developed his “Collective Investigation” process in 1998 when he was part of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in New York. He had been asked by a friend to help a woman living on the Upper West Side get rid of the remainder of her library by helping the woman box up the collection, which was being donated to a hospital lobby.
“She said, you can take as much as you can carry,” he recalled. He brought a selection of books he could fit into a duffel bag to the Whitney Independent Study Program, and from there developed the methodology. Later, at the end of 1999, he formalized the process further when he was selected to present an exhibition at Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery in New York City.
Unlike Borges’ “Library of Babel,” Minneapolis Central Library, part of the Hennepin County Library system, is a bit more organized. If you are browsing, you can wander through different sections and find items that bear similarity to one another. Say you are looking for a book by Arthur Rimbaud: You find the book you were looking for, then allow your eyes to browse the nearby shelves and find other French poets and books about them.
Having an order and an index is of course helpful if you are looking for a particular item, but for the purpose of Bakkom’s “Collective Investigation,” not entirely necessary. The project celebrates the art of browsing and discovery. It’s about letting your curiosity and sixth sense drive you toward the undiscovered country of new or new-to-you knowledge.
According to data files from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minneapolis Central Library contains nearly 2.5 million items. Most of it is print material, but there’s also 1,6288 audio items, 2,4590 videos, and 1,348 serial subscriptions (i.e. new magazines).
For Bakkom’s “Collective Investigation,” we concerned ourselves with only the third floor where there are poetry books, books on architecture, art books, circulating magazines, picture files, as well as the stacks, which Bakkom calls “a mysterious kingdom.”
“I encourage people to explore it, because it really is the most unknown kind of place,” he said.
A group of seven people met in a small meeting room on the third floor, where we were all given “investigator” badges and told to go find 10-15 items to bring back to the group.
I spotted Anaïs Nin’s diaries right away, which I had to pick up. I also found a zine about how to be a better LGBTQIA ally, a Women in Business magazine from the 1980s from the stacks, and a bit of sheet music. I also picked up a book about Sandra Cisneros’ early poetry.
“I think the majority of the time we come to the library trying to find answers to things,” Bakkom commented on the project. “This is a much different kind of operation: following your drive toward questions.”
Once everyone brought their selections into the meeting room, we were each given seven bookmarks and told to dive into the pile of books. We were to choose which section of text or images we wanted to add to the final document. We could select from the items we picked out of the library ourselves, or from the items other people in the group had brought to the pile.
I was charmed by many of the offerings my fellow investigators had discovered, like a folder full of mask images of all kinds. I chose an ad for a Hazelden treatment center from the 1990s. It depicted a Hugh Grant-looking model holding a smiling mask over his face. I also found a photo of a gold-colored album cover in a book about disco, photographs of Ana Mendieta’s performance art in a book about Latina artists, and a beautiful poem about grief from a book about Chinese poetry.
After each person placed their seven bookmarks, we read through all of the selections aloud. There were feminist writings, critiques of white feminism, anti-colonial critique, problematic colonialist texts, modern art, graphic design, a vintage book on the art of conversation, and more.
The bookmarks had been arranged in a randomized order, so there became an arbitrary order to the reading. The process de-contextualizes the original meaning of each selection, to an extent. Bakkom likens the process to the surrealist game, exquisite corpse. That’s where you fold a piece of paper like a fan, and each person draws a section of a figure, not being able to see what the other people have drawn. “We’re not necessarily maintaining control of how that fundamental sequence occurs, which perhaps is an interesting relationship,” Bakkom said.
The last step of the process is to create a final document with all of the selections together, with the help of Hennepin County Library staff. The last piece acts as a record of collective wanderings the project produced. I haven’t seen the document my group created yet, but perusing past finished “books,” I’m struck by the treasures that one floor of one library can produce, fueled by the inquiry of people who have the time and interest to seek out what the library has to offer.
Bakkom is running more “Collective Investigation” programs every Saturday through August 26 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. (free). Register here.