The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction Ad Nauseum

This post is a long overdue reaction to the exhibition Everything in Time, held last year at the Center for Book Arts. The works in the show were responses to the constant, and mostly losing, battle for the control over information that each of us is fighting every day. The catalog described these works as “maximalist,” referring to the way in which the artists created “documents of experience” in which the filters that we normally apply in order to deal with an overabundance of information have been removed. Kenneth Goldsmith practiced “radical transcription” in works such as Fidget, a book that chronicles in spectacularly minute detail each movement that he made in a 24-hour period. Gabriela Grundler photographed every item in her house and grouped them by type for My Things. And Aspen Mays’s Every Leaf on a Tree is exactly what its title suggests: individual photographs of all the leaves on one of the trees in her front yard.

These artists are doing the collecting, categorizing, and cataloging that are generally considered to be the responsibility of the information professional. But here these actions become a parody, extreme and absurd. Rather than making sense, these artists make the point that there is too much to make sense of, and that it is obsessive and futile to try. The show’s curator explained, “You will not look at every image or read every word in Everything in Time. The amusing but sad punch line is that this evokes our current experience of images and information.”

Though not included in Everything in Time, the work of Meggan Gould and Jason Salavon might lead us to a similar “punch line.” Both artists layer photographic images one on top of the other until they become an illegible blur. Works like Every Playboy Centerfold, The 1990s, and Polaroid (the latter for which Gould used the first fifty results from a Google image search for the title) render their subjects completely incomprehensible, making the point that the more information we have, the less we really know.

Jason Salavon, Every Playboy Centerfold, The 1990s (2002).

Meggan Gould, Polaroid (2005).

There is one work in Everything in Time that seems to indicate that it may be too simplistic and too pessimistic to read only hopelessness in these “‘Every’ documents.” In Inmates + Kittens, Marni Shindelman chronicled every Google keyword search she made over the course of a year. Shindelman’s book evokes strong emotions, touching in its humor (one of her searches is “topless women hippie wallpaper”) and in its intimacy (another is “metformin + missed period”). She searches for her own name multiple times, which is amusingly relatable, as well as a poignant comment on personal identity in the information age. This “self-portrait through the internet” is fascinating—a stark contrast to many of the other pieces in the show, whose very point seems to be their boring impenetrability.

Inmates + Kittens is also a document of information-seeking behavior. It includes many strings of slight variations on a single search, additions or substitutions of keywords indicating the artist’s struggle to find what she was looking for in the vastness of the web.

But Shindelman shows us that even if we can’t locate the information we seek, we are not lost in the information deluge that we face. Our experience of information, even when the information is itself useless, helps us to define our identities in this era of excess.

Perhaps what the works in Everything in Time represent, then, is not surrender to the unavoidable glut of information that bombards us each day. Instead, the actions and processes of making art may help to assuage the anxieties of the modern, information-plagued world, may serve in part as a coping mechanism for the individual artist. Looked at in this way, “the urgency and utility of art under the sign of information” (as E. Melzer described it) is personal rather than public. It may be futile to attempt to make meaning from the information we have. But it may still be possible to make meaning from the process of attempting it.

Tracing the Tale of Talmage’s Tabernacle

Interior of the Tabernacle

Interior of the Tabernacle. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

Last spring and summer I worked as an intern on Project CHART, a collaborative effort by the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Public Library to digitize and make available online collections of historic photographs of Brooklyn (More about Project CHART here). I worked primarily with the museum’s collection of lantern slides. Many of these were taken by members of the Department of Photography of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the museum’s predecessor, and mostly between 1880 and 1900.

The range of subject matter is broad, but one image appears again and again: Talmage’s Tabernacle. What is interesting about these photographs of the church is not only that there are so many in the collection, but also how the church is shown: in flames, or in ruins after the fire. I was intrigued by these images, and went looking for more information on the church whose destruction was so thoroughly documented. The story I discovered was even more compelling than I had anticipated.

Burning of the Tabernacle and Hotel Regent

Burning of the Tabernacle and Hotel Regent. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

The church in the pictures, which was on Clinton Avenue and Greene Avenue in Clinton Hill, was built by the Reverend Doctor Thomas DeWitt Talmage, a pastor of the Presbyterian Church. One of his contemporaries claimed that “no other man in the world today exercises such an influence as Talmage” (The New York Times, May 28, 1984).

When Talmage began as pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, his congregation had nineteen members. Five years later, this number had swelled to literally thousands of people. He built a church on Schermerhorn Street and what is now Third Avenue to house these worshippers, and even in this new building had to hold three services each Sunday in order to accommodate them all.

On December 22nd, 1872, two years after it was built, the first Tabernacle was destroyed by fire. The church was rebuilt in the same location; this second building suffered the same fate as the first, on October 13th, 1889. After the second fire, Talmage left Schermerhorn Street to build his third Tabernacle, the one in the museum’s photographs. On May 13th, 1894, the third Brooklyn Tabernacle burned to the ground. All three of the fires took place on Sundays, narrowly avoiding the huge crowds that filled the buildings on those days.

Ruins of the Tabernacle

Ruins of the Tabernacle. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

After the third fire, it came out that the Tabernacle on Clinton Avenue had been built using macerated paper stock and straw soaked in resin rather than the standard plaster, making the building, in the words of the New York Times, a “tinder box” and a “veritable death trap” (The New York Times, May 18, 1894). The unusual and imprudent use of this material in the construction of the building is made to seem even stranger by what happened after it was discovered. Talmage wrote a letter to the Times, claiming that he believed the church had burned to “purify” his parishioners “by fire” and to “keep [him] humble” (The New York Times, June 10, 1894). He left New York immediately afterwards, heading to Australia and then to Europe, and never returned to New York.

Tabernacle After the Fire

Tabernacle After the Fire. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Lantern Slide Collection.

Without Talmage, the enormous congregation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle disbanded practically overnight. The week after the fire, a service was held at the Columbia Theater, but no more than three hundred of the thousands of members of Talmage’s church attended. A telegram from Talmage was read by a Reverend George, who officiated the service in Talmage’s place. His message was as follows: “I send my benediction to the Brooklyn Tabernacle congregation and Sunday school. I love you all more and more every day. May God be with you till we meet again” (The New York Times, May 28, 1894).

According to the Times, the reading of the message was met “with dead silence.” The congregation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle never met again.

I can’t say for certain what actually took place; perhaps there was something dubious about the three fires of Talmage’s Tabernacle, or perhaps it was simply a case of terrible coincidence. But the fascinating story of this uniquely charismatic man, the triple destruction of his church, and both his sudden disappearance and his congregation’s instant dissolution after two decades of mutual devotion blew me away. It serves as a clear reminder of the fact that each of these photographs has a story behind it, and that represented in these images is the rich history of our borough and our city. All we have to do is look for it, and we are lucky to have such rich sources at our disposal.

Note: There is now a Brooklyn Tabernacle on Smith Street, a non-denominational congregation best known for its world-renowned choir. As far as I can tell, there is no connection between this church, led by the Reverend Jim Cymbala, and Talmage’s.

The Shadow of the Wind

‎”The world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

- Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

I told you so.

Too many acronyms, brought to you by the ALA 2011 conference program!

 

Lumpy Heads, Deep Thoughts

If I’d known I’d be posting only pictures for the past three months, I might have stuck with Tumblr. I haven’t let my activity on this blog lapse intentionally; it’s just been a busy semester: three classes, two internships, and a part-time job have left me with precious little time for extracurricular writing. I have many posts in the works, and will get them up as soon as I finish up finals. Stay tuned for my thoughts on the new British Library, why my job in a tattoo shop is pretty much the same thing as working at a reference desk, and more. In the mean time, this, courtesy of Toothpaste for Dinner.

Self-Unsatisfied

One problem with being in library school is that people assume that I know how to find things. The other day my friend Adam set me to work finding a particular image of a dog that he had seen at some point, somewhere on the internet. Things he was able to tell me about said image included the fact that the dog was sitting on a couch, may have been a terrier of some kind, and looked “self-satisfied.” I, on the other hand, did not. The search was not a success. The other problem with being in library school is that you feel like a failure when you don’t know how to find things.

I’ve only completed a semester and change of my MLS program, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, though I imagine there will be times much later on in my career when I will have to admit defeat. It will probably suck then too.

My inability to find a doggy picture to satisfy Adam was probably not due to a lack of knowledge on my part. I would know where to look for images of, say, Rembrandt drawings, but the resources in place for finding pictures of self-satisfied terriers are limited. Google image search is actually pretty great, but it still relies on standards-less, user-created metadata—if you can even really call it that.

The thing is, it’s a little difficult to imagine how it could be improved. Even if there was some kind of reliable image indexing or cataloging in place, one man’s “self-satisfied” is another man’s “serene.” Tagging is a possibility and works relatively well within smaller image collections, like the Brooklyn Museum’s, but I can’t see how it would work on such a large scale. The semantic web would certainly make this kind of searching much more feasible. Imagine being able to search for an image by subject, and then by attribute of that subject. Imagine a computer that knows what you mean by “some kind of terrier.” Definitely interesting to think about, but we’re not there yet.

Anyway, I did find this guy, and I think he is rad. I prefer my pooches forlorn-looking, I guess.

image

Addendum: Boyfriend contributes: “Flickr.” That too.

Just Google It

image

 

Yesterday, a friend from college sent me this text: “Think I broke the spirit of the librarian at my internship because he couldn’t find something on the database and I was like can we just Google it and it worked.”

I’ve had a lot of conversations in library school about the relevance of and need for librarians in the age of search engines. Obviously, I think there is still a place for information professionals; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so intent on becoming one. We can and will serve as navigators, evaluators, educators in information literacy, content creators, and more. But I object to the reflexive, slightly desperate way in which some people in the field defend themselves against real or imagined accusations of obsolescence. There is some tendency to over-compensate, to insist that any information that is widely available and easily found has little value, and that the only sources that are really worthwhile are those that require us, the librarians, to act as guides to them. The fact is, though, that there are times when Google is the way to go.

Generally, however, journals and databases are enormously valuable resources. But I have a real issue with them, or at least with their current distribution model, which shuts out people without connections to an institution that can afford the ridiculously expensive subscription fees. Even if money is no object, it is frequently impossible to get an individual subscription. I find it really problematic that so much information—the very information that we as a profession insist is really valuable—is made inaccessible. There are a small number of public institutions (bless you, NYPL) that do offer access to certain subscription-only resources, and a handful of open-access journals and repositories (like Harvard’s DASH), but these aren’t the norm. I feel strongly that these models need to become the standard. Aren’t we the ones who say that information wants to be free? Open access and other solutions to this problem are already being widely discussed. What I haven’t heard anyone mention is the conflict of interest that arises when librarians, who claim to strive for “equitable access” (see the 1st statement of the ALA’s code of ethics), continue to push resources that by nature create an inequality of access.

Image: Knuckles, with design both topical and subcutaneous, of the lovely and talented Jess Versus.

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