Negotiating an Absence
Here I use the simple architectural form of the book support to consider the idea of the digitisation of knowledge and the technological shifts underway in the twenty-first century.
Working in the Bodleian Library one morning a disordered pile of motley pieces of foam in multiple shades of grey and varying sizes caught my eye. Sitting in stark contrast to the meticulous regularity of their environment what struck me was their rejection of the imposed order visible on the surrounding shelves and in the silent, still, atmosphere of the reading room. Unbound and asystematic, these utilitarian poly-foam book supports invited an opportunity to form and reform, an infinite possibility of architectural shapes and combinations.
I was reminded of Paul Valery’s idea of the ‘active presence of absent things’, and saw in these simple structures an opportunity to reflect on the object missing - the book - and to consider the physical shape of its past and the increasingly ‘immaterial’ form it may take in a future where knowledge is increasingly digitised. This journey into a digital future is the medium of photography’s own journey too, where photographers grapple with what has been gained and what has been displaced through this advancement. So, these images stand not in reverence for the book, or lamenting its loss but to invite consideration as to the experience of how knowledge is held and viewed today as it becomes increasingly accessed via digital screens.
The materiality of these objects standing as a physical reminder to many past regimes of knowledge and would, I imagine, hold palpable forensic clues, as such, through traces of leather, metals from lettering and fibres from papers most likely left behind on their surfaces. Designed by Oxford conservator, Christopher Clarkson, for the Bodleian Library, they serve in the support and preservation of books in libraries and museums globally and are designed for both optimum weight bearing and the presenting of the book at an angle comfortable for reading.
In many ways the idea of a reader is at odds with the endeavours of the library and its requirement to preserve often fragile and disintegrating books. Digital content in many ways stands in flagrant contrast to this, offering access to information unrestricted by the limitations of the physical. My hope is that, through the absence of the object itself there is a space created to consider both the past and issues of preservation and the future delivery of knowledge.
February 2018, Oxford