Artist Writing: Recolecciones

Recolecciones, 1999


San Jose Joint Library Design
Narrative Sketch for Artistic Installations

by Mel Chin and Haun Saussy

A library is a place where ideas circulate, that is, they come in and out and encounter  one another from opposite directions: “learning” is stored there and “learning” goes on there. Some very complex interchanges go on in libraries, and all the more so when a library is designed, like this one, to serve two non-identical publics, the citizens of San Jose and the teachers and students of San Jose State University. The artistic program we have elaborated is meant to engage with these complexities of usage and to exhibit a dialectical relation with the building’s architecture. Our aim is to bring out the special, unprecedented characteristics of both the building and its public.

The exteriors of contemporary architecture with crystalline faceting and massive scale can serve as attractors on the cityscape. Gemlike in quality, they can be formal beacons and travel destinations. An art work to be included within such a realm can echo the same formal elements in the spirit of aesthetic harmony; yet its spirit may be suited to counterpoint and its integration not necessarily seamless in order to uncover the full value of the building’s contents.

Here is how we read the Joint Library. A theme of doubleness is immediately apparent in the building’s design, split as it is down the middle by its open central spine. This central spine is an avenue of light as well, with its openings onto the central atrium and the glass areas at both ends. In this building program, light functions to knit together the two halves of each floor, as if to express the symbolism of enlightenment bringing together the dual publics of the Joint Library.

The qualities this design seeks to emphasize—light, air, and movement —can be given an even stronger emphasis by focused, punctual applications of the opposite qualities: opacity, density, stability. To the building’s expanses of glass, we counterpose points of stone. In response to its open, functional, readable qualities, we intervene with moments of wonder and amazement.

The building already beautifully stages a dialectic of stone and glass. We wish to carry this process a step further. Stone and glass with their opposite visual qualities (opacity/transparence) echo the library’s complementary functions of storage and circulation, of preservation for the few and availability for all. Stone and glass jointly tell the story of human culture from words scratched on stone to information-bearing impulses coursing down wires or fiber cables. The contemporary library must be both stone and glass.

Stone: we wish to emphasize its historic relation to the writing of power. In its traditional uses, stone is valuable because of its resistance, its imperturbability, its unavailability to change. Whatever was “set in stone” was sure to last. As a correlate of these qualities, stone is too monumental and expensive for the writing-down of everyday life, too inflexible to accommodate quick change. The difficulty of working stone puts this writing beyond the reach of any but the mighty. Stone has few writers, many readers.

Glass: writing in light on a glass screen, on the contrary, is rapid, omnipresent, cheap and indefinitely alterable, as the not quite twenty years of the Age of Silicon have taught us. Electronic communication, which only a few decades ago was experienced by the vast majority of people as a means for power to talk to us, has now been diverted into billions of simultaneous lateral conversations. Stability is unthinkable: the World Wide Web, always changing, exists in an extremely thin present of current information.

A library stands at the intersection of these two writings, of stone and glass. It stores the knowledge of the past: grammars, histories, definitive editions, lasting photographic records of objects now lost. It preserves them under conditions of stability. And a library is also the place where children learn to read, students compose term papers, apartment-hunters consult the Internet, and people generally gather information needed in the very near present. These two functions map roughly (but only very roughly) onto the complementary missions of the university library and the public library.

The objects we intend to place in the public spaces of the Joint Library will underscore these contrasts.  Stone counterpoints to the architects’ glass spaces, they will be recognizable but not immediately readable. Some of them will be icons of the history of understanding; others will be images of puzzlement. Markers will be sited here and there in walls and tables, opaque outcroppings of strangeness in a building dedicated to light and practicality. The intention is to provoke questions by offering enigmatic visual events throughout the building, events which should send the viewer back into the library collection for exploration and further questions. We plan to use images from many origins and quoting many forms of script, not out of well-intentioned multiculturalism, but as a reminder that not everyone can possibly know, or read, all that a library has to offer—and that this should be an exciting fact. These objects elude easy decipherment. They lure the eye and the mind on beyond the immediate. An artwork can propel the desire to understand, to evoke the mysterious, the irrational the surreal in order to provoke the action of discovery. Subtle in their execution and randomly scattered through the building, the presence of these works will catalyze the imagination and propel readers along unexpected trains of thought. Physically and conceptually, they are the yin to the library’s yang.

The Team

Dr. Haun Saussy, scholar and critic versed in multiple canons, will work with the artist, librarians and architects to critically access and determine the nature of each planned insertion.

Mel Chin will use his experience engaged in artworks that have engaged in diversified aesthetic and evolutionary method to push the psychological parameters.