Codex is the current group exhibition located in the front gallery space of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, conceived and by artist and book collector, Pierre Leguillon during a residency at the Kadist Art Foundation in 2011. Using the residency as a departure point, Leguillon curated “Codex” along with students from the Fine Arts Department of Haute école d’art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva, Switzerland in conjunction with the Wattis Institute and students of California College of the Arts. The gallery installation seems to mimic a giant open book with a dust jacket. The large installation wall spans the width of the entire gallery and is flanked by two smaller parallel walls. Over two-dozen works of art, predominantly photographs and videos are hung salon-style over all three walls. Included is a selection of a series of Leguillon’s frottage drawings, or rubbings of books from the Prelinger Library, which he visited during his residency.
The word “Codex” is derived from the Latin word “caudex” which translates literally as “trunk of tree”, referencing early wooden wax tablets and coincidentally a foreshadowing of paper production used for books centuries after their original papyrus counterparts. The invention of the bound book, with its leaves of pages provided a more accessible and easy-to-reference version than papyrus scrolls. Rather than following the linear path of a scroll, text in book form is fragmented text and in sheets bound in a stack. The book form allows for a different activity of reading than the scroll. Readers can sit or stand in an intimate, contained and tidy relationship with the book, turning pages from one to the next, either at a desk or perhaps with the book in their lap.
The premise of the show remarks upon these intimate relationships of the book in relation to the bodies that read them, while also making evident the disconnect that occurs from page to page. Today, this disconnect is even more evident with the advent of technology and a fixation with “flattening” the book into two-dimensional form. The flattening shifts perception, retention and engagement with the book away from the body and toward a liminal space devoid of tangible materiality. “Codex” is a discussion about these various relationships between form, the changing landscape of the archive and the memory of touch.
By showing no actual books in the exhibition the uncertain future of actual books becomes more evident. If archives are to be reduced from book object to compact flatness in Kindles, computer screens, disks and hard drives, the fallacy is that more room is gained by a reduction of space via the reduction of the object. In “Codex” the archive is not about preservation of the book itself but rather the tangible qualities of books as seen through portrait-like representations that allude to loss. Each piece in the exhibition engages with the book itself but does not merely show the book; what is here to view is a record of the relationship that the artist had with the object only making the books’ absence more evident. Some pieces use humor, some intervention, others commentary and still others replication. Pushing the concept of loss further, the front window of the gallery has been used as an image list for the exhibition.
On the window itself, drawings of the pieces in the show alongside the artists’ names, materials and dates of the works are illustrated with black marker. Visitors must face away from the exhibition to read the window, and then turn back again to look at the wall, find the piece and turn back again to the window to read the text and so on. Without an image description list on a sheet of paper to follow along the wall, visitors are faced with choices of how to engage with the exhibition. Not having that paper to hold onto echoes the intangibility of books, while the window seems to mimic a large, analog version of a computer screen. Visitors must move their bodies in strange, personal ways to read the window, bending down this way, leaning over that way in order for the text to be backlit in just the right way to be legible. The experience is as personal as browsing through an antique book store for a rare gem and then searching elsewhere for its origins.
“Codex” is accompanied by artists’ talks, performance and screenings. On February 8th, Kenneth Goldsmith of UbuWeb fame presented a talk and visual presentation: “Non-Expressive Writing and the Future of Text.” The talk was divided into three related sections: I. The New Metrics of Immensity, II. Printing Out the Internet, and III. Pataphysical Conclusion. Thought provoking and intense, the talk brings to bear the complexities and the absurdity of the very unwieldy and IMMENSE nature of the internet. Goldsmith remarks that it is akin to “information vandalism” and verging on “grotesquely irresponsible.” The internet and all of its myriad offerings creates an immense wealth of possibilities, options, research, sources—but at the same time immensity brings risks.
Risk could be subjective in a sense, because it is contingent upon one’s personal ability to ration, limit, sift and archive. Risk is also prevalent because the once clear delineations of privacy and public-ness are now blown apart. Through greater user ability to “share” any moment of themselves without pause, people put their own character at risk in ways that were previously only limited to much smaller circles of friends or acquaintances. Further risk is involved with government agencies (SOPA, PIPA, COIPA) screening and seizing personal data and records of activity to use against purveyors and hackers of “immensity” who are hard at work liberating information from its gate-keeper confines and sharing it with anyone. Of note is the information liberator Aaron Swartz, who allegedly committed suicide only two days after releasing thousands of documents from the academic online “library” JSTOR that requires fees for reading some publications, especially for those without academic affiliation. Although somewhat free, the internet itself is indeed not so freeing and liberating because of its plethoric barbarism of advertising and spam—no different than television commercials or telephone solicitors, not to mention this government concern. Yet, this risk and clutter is tolerated for the exchange of other more alluring access points previously unavailable.
Take for instance, this very publication you are reading. Previously only distributed in San Francisco in hard-copy form, SFAQ can now be read anywhere online and has not only broadened its readership, but its authorship as well, easily publishing writers in London, Los Angeles and other cities outside the Bay Area with greater ease. Likewise, Goldsmith’s UbuWeb is there for anyone to begin to enjoy or study (and certainly share) avant-garde art and history, much of it rare and only previously accessible in museums or obscure libraries and collections. No one needs to imagine that not only are academic journals available to read at any hour instead of locked in a library across the nation at some Ivy League school, but with the click of a button one can learn how to make Thai home-cooking without taking classes or traveling, repair a broken spoke after all the shops are closed and watch kitties, puppies or goats do wacky things, all from one machine. The future has arrived and it is immense. If one were to print out the internet, according to Goldsmith, it would take 700 square miles of paper and 45 million ink cartridges.
Because he is so invested in his ideas, Goldsmith took immensity to the nth degree, and launched the “Printing Out the Internet” crowd-sourced exhibition in Mexico City in 2013, which he spoke about in the second part of his talk. A statement from the exhibition tumblr states: “Printing The [sic] Internet is about the fear of information and the terror of having to face the monstrous amount of data that we mindlessly produce every day.” Another Goldsmith factoid notes that if the internet were bound in a book it would be 10,000 feet tall and weigh 1.2 billion pounds. A frightening and inaccessible tower of pages indeed! One is reminded again of the exhibition “Codex” where Goldsmith’s talk is taking place; there are no books here—10,000 feet tall, or six by nine inches or otherwise. There are no books to read, to see, to touch, to hold. There is only the idea of books.
“Codex” is on view through March 29, 2014.
For more information visit CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco
-By Leora Lutz
Previous reviews by Leora Lutz: