In our Internet age, we have the illusion that information is free. This has never been the case, however, neither now nor in the past. Since the advent of the written word, the recording and storage of information have required ever-increasing quantities of paper and ink and the labors of scribes and printers. Libraries and archives have been needed to house ever-growing treasuries of information as one generation follows the next and as the planetary population grows.
Information in digital form requires less physical space, perhaps, but it is utterly dependent upon the generation of electricity for its continued existence. Electricity generated through the burning of fossil fuels comes at a high cost to the health of the environment. Hydroelectricity, likewise, comes at the cost of damming rivers, which is disruptive of natural systems.
Ideally, our insatiable consumption of information will eventually enable us to achieve a state of affairs in which solar power will allow the free flow of the light of knowledge. The transition to that enlightened society, however, is a messy process.
As the world shifts from print media to more digital media, old institutions like newspapers and libraries are impacted.
An example of the latter, the impact upon libraries, has resulted in a fascinating art exhibit currently on view at University of Puget Sound’s Collins Memorial Library. The show, “Transforming Knowledge: Altered Encyclopedias,” is a display of works made by local artists who were given volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that were being decommissioned as part of the restructuring of the library.
In the summer of 2018, the library had to discard some 50,000 volumes from its shelves. The seeming sacrilege of the deliberate destruction of books (book burning, after all, is the epitome of a society’s going backward into an age of darkness) is the raw edge – the bleeding edge – of the ugly transition from print to digital media.
At the Collins, an enlightening instinct took hold. Librarian Jane Carlin wanted to bring artists into the decommissioning and thus introduce an element of creativity into the process of destruction. During the library’s “Memory Lame” exhibit (which ended Jan. 25), decommissioned volumes of the encyclopedia were available for the taking. Artists were asked to do their thing – to give free reign to their ideas and inspiration and see what they could do with an encyclopedia volume; the very embodiment of the old mode of information storage.
The results are on display for all to see. They range from astonishing visual gems of beauty to delightful monstrosities. There are whimsical affairs like Judy Cook’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” in which the book is deconstructed and transformed into a diorama in which an anthropomorphic preying mantis, made of papier-mâché, has its own little set of encyclopedias to read. Jan Ward, on the other hand, made the pages of the encyclopedia into the skirts of a fairy tale princess who stands flanked by a pair of crows.
Pat Chupa’s “Anamnesis” is a magnificent transformation of the book into a shrine. The volume is beautifully crafted into an architectural facade in which illustrations of heraldic figures are presented like actors in a Shakespearian play.
Debbi Commodore’s reworking of an encyclopedic volume is sublime. Here, the artist dismantled the book and took it back into an earlier form of information storage: the scroll. The pages have been detached and put back together in a long strip. Abstract, block-printed images have been applied to the long scroll, akin to a Chinese landscape scroll.
Many of the artists play with the specific information and imagery found within the particular volume that happened to come to hand, while others used the physical material of the book as a raw medium to be reconfigured into new objects like baskets, bowls and flower vases. In all there are works by more than 30 artists in the exhibit.
The centerpiece of the show is a paper dress, designed by Maloy Moore and Carlisle Huntington. It functions as a kind of muse standing in the midst of this display of creative destruction – the spirit of print media lingering in the library in a time of transition.
This is a show that has layers of depth and emotional complexity. It is a monument to the tragedy of the decline of print media. It is a celebration of the power of ideas to make transformation into a thing of beauty.
“Transforming Knowledge: Altered Encyclopedias” runs through May 12. For more information visit www.pugetsound.edu.