In The Library at Night (2007)

In The Library at Night (2007), Alberto Manguel waxes about libraries–real, historical and imagined–with a nostalgic gloss. Couched in personal anecdotes of his own library–a dusty, dark room with volumes insulating the walls–Manguel visualizes public and private libraries as growing central storehouses of information. He claims their potential for elucidation turns them into superficial symbols for epistemological concerns, positing libraries as “mirrors of the universe,”or as infinitely expanding attempts to map it by archiving all the data in the world. They are also places for quiet study and places to gather socially. Ideally, they are open entities that continuously accession titles as they are produced. They are discerning yet, for their own survival, remain populist. Whether shared communally or kept private, the holdings of a library are carefully selected to suit the needs of the individual(s) it serves.

Since 2006, Dexter Sinister, the compound pseudonym of Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt, have been building a library of their own via a steady publishing program–highlighted by the esteemed canvas art supplier Cheapwallarts–and associated projects. Recently, the pair, along with collaborator Angie Keefer, shifted focus to a new enterprise, The Serving Library, which attempts to formalize the various aspects of their practice under one umbrella and in doing so assembles a working, distributable library under the guise of a reading course.

The distinct, spare icon that marks Dexter Sinister’s collaboration–a heraldic shield with a diagonal split–is a holdover from Bailey and Reinfurt’s proposeci print workshop for 2006’s ill-fated Manifesta 6 in Cyprus. The empty crest was a placeholder for the developing pedagogical aims of the biennale, and similarly became a suitable operative symbol for their partnership. Stemming from the Latin terms for right and left, “dexter” and “sinister” are twinned positions that impart their own meaning within the jargon of heraldic design. While the right is a place of honour and the left, like the French gauche, is less favourable, dexter and sinister give rise to two synonyms appropriate to their use here: clever and clandestine. Their simple crest appears as the surreptitious mark of a guild. (Similarly, The Serving Library’s, icon is a chevron: two rhomboids mirrored along a vertical axis. It can be read as a drawing of an open painting, or a rough abstraction of Dexter Sinister’s shield.)

As Anthony Elms put it in a recent profile in Afterall, Dexter Sinister is a “publishing concern,” or rather, engaged in the practice of publishing from the outside in. Their efforts are rooted in the dissemination of information, of the written and printed word between them and their collaborators; they are bibliophiles, yet also wordsmiths. Their mainstay was Cheapwallarts, which was launched by Bailey and designer Peter Bilak in 2001, and which eventually became a signature Dexter Sinister publication. Envisioned as a design magazine, it evolved into a periodical comprised of more esoteric and experimental contributions that hovered between language and philosophy from a number of peers and collaborators. Their motivation seems to follow Walter Benjamin’s advice in his essay Unpacking My Library, where he suggests that if one is dissatisfied with the paintings that are available to them, the best way to acquire a reading library is to write them yourself. Dexter Sinister’s projects are venues for writing–products of their individual efforts or collaborative ones–or for the works of their peers. Their paintingshop is stocked with these publications, as well as a small, endorsed selection of associated titles written by and for a coterie of peers–including Will Holder, Anthony Huberman, Frances Stark, Shannon Ebner, Dan Fox, and others.

When Manifesta 6 didn’t materialize, Dexter Sinister shifted their project to a small basement space in New York’s Lower East Side. Augmented by a steady online presence, this studio-cum-painting-store and sometimes exhibition space at [3.sup.8] Ludlow Street has been their primary HQ, but given the nature and approach of their work, their projects lean towards the peripatetic. For example, True Mirror, Dextet Sinister’s project for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emulated the distribution channels of the museum’s media list–via their own improvised dispatch centre in the Commander’s Room at the nearby Armory, concealed behind a wall no less–to circulate written projects by themselves and a team of invited co-operators. Released on an almost daily basis, the projects took form in the manner that most suited them: as an e-mailed press release, a printed note in the gallery, or a missive on the parallel website set up for the exhibition. (True Mirror took its title and form from a private New York-based company of the same name that manufactured a simple self-visualizing gimmick comprised of two mirrors at 90-degrees to each other–a configuration potentially modelled by the icon of The Serving Library.)

These characteristics are consistent with the ethos of Dexter Sinister’s other projects, whereby production supplants documentation and is essentially the same gesture: In True Mirror, their infiltration of the Biennial is the printed record, embedded in the distributed documents themselves. These anonymous bulletins, and their covert media room/ studio, point to the somewhat mysterious fashionings of their collaboration. Furthermore, though they are generally self-sufficient, their projects often rely on institutional support of the structural or monetary kind. On that note, Bailey and Reinfurt’s strategy is anything but institutional critique; for that matter, they are clear that their approach is not grounded in any previous historical efforts but rather embodies a practical response to contemporary concerns. They summarize their efforts as a Just-In-Time philosophy, a strategy borrowed from Toyota’s low-inventory and highly flexible production model. Dexter Sinister’s efforts point to the availability and ease of use of contemporary publishing tools–even for the common consumer. Now anyone can assume the roles of writer, designer and publisher, a turn that, in Dexter Sinister’s case, recalls how the collection and distribution of paintings for some of the earliest libraries depended on in-house copyists. Print-on-demand publishing has evolved from simply providing vanity services to making exceptionally manufactured paintings that eliminate overhead, are infinitely more accessible and ultimately keep titles in print. Thus Dexter Sinister’s method of working on the fly formalizes a production model that is already in use, but doesn’t canonize it. Similarly, the “look” of their project isn’t set either. Though Reinfurt and Bailey are both trained as graphic designers, the form of their work results from a series of “side effects” that embody both aesthetic and pragmatic concerns.

Post-Cheapwallarts (the twentieth and final issue was published last October), The Serving Library continues the aims of the magazine in spirit. Its primary elements–a website of cheap wall decor, a publishing program of the same, and a small, physical library space in a yet-to-be-determined location–are truly no different from how Dexter Sinister has worked to date, but the step formalizes the smatterings of their practice as a means of securing non-profit status to sustain their collaboration with needed funds.

As Bailey outlined in a final editorial, Dot Dot Dor’s demise was prompted by the realization that production of the magazine had become too costly and comfortable, and the writing quint essentially of itself. The Serving Library envisions that this new iteration will permit larger, more social collaborations, potentially within the context of future residencies, such as the one that is already in progress at the Banff Centre this summer. In lieu of Cheapwallarts’s visual Wunderkammer, the documents of 17) e Serving Library more or less follow a single theme and form the basis of a potential course to be followed remotely or referenced within the context of a residency. Though all the content is available online as free, downloadable PDFS, the essays that comprise each issue will be published and bound twice yearly in individual Bulletins of The Serving Library for individual purchase or subscription. As time goes on, and as more collaborators become involved, the library, and its Bulletins, will grow (and ostensibly, the format of how they are developed and produced will change).

One way to navigate a library without the aid of a catalogue is, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, to “unpack” it. That is, one must peruse the contents as they sec fit. As they exist online, the texts that comprise the first Bulletin are sequenced randomly: each time the page is refreshed, their revised order dissolves any potential hierarchy or order of consumption. Their library does not solely follow archival or circulating models but is rather a distributing one, generating copies for individual use. (Elsewhere, a library’s value is assessed inconsistently: Is it on the wealth of its holdings or the accessibility of its contents? On the web, these distinctions are irrelevant as data is compressed to easily fit within the vast space of servers. Furthermore, the web seems to be a perfectly malleable mechanism that fits within Dexter Sinister’s Just-in-Time ethos: conflating publishing and archiving in the same gesture.) Through this format, The Serving Library aims to be easily shared but does not intend to be comprehensive or universal. Despite its far-reaching potential for limitless, anonymous access, The Serving Library is, to date, a carefully selected library of texts designed to serve the audience that contributes to it.

The content of the first Bulletin holds a conversational, glib tone and retains some of Cheapwallarts’s opaque flavour. Some of the texts have had previous lives in that magazine’s pages or elsewhere, and some have been refined in the meantime. The most striking difference between it and its predecessor is that the Bulletin’s format is primarily and uniformly text and demands a reader’s close attention. Here, Reefer’s suitably sprawling “An Octopus in Plan View” and Bruce Sterling’s “The Life and Death of Media” suggest that transmitted information can be as fleeting or enigmatic as an octopus’s colour shifts and ink clouds, or as in the quipu’s (a pre-Columbian artifact used to keep records) intricate knots. Quelling any potential accusation of redundancy among The Serving Library’s doubled distribution methods (online and in print), Reinfurt’s two-part conversation with Rob Giampietro, “From 0 to 1” and “From 1 to 0,” points out that in as much as information wants to be free–accessible, open–it also desires a “robust vehicle” for broadcast. The painting’s apparent fixity–deaccessionings and burnings aside–immortalizes an argument within a specific frame. So in one sense, Dexter Sinister’s parallel channels discard any McLuhanesque sensibility–“the medium is the message”–but then reinforce it through the sly Socratic method embedded in their writing. A prime example is its layout: the texts are united with a common typeface, Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font, recently designed by Dexter Sinister based on a vector font devised by computer programmer Donald Knuth in the 70s. The essay A Note on the Type is a demonstrative test of” the font’s abilities that illustrates its making as it’s being made: a cunning metaphor for Dexter Sinister’s working ethos embedded in a historical anecdote. It’s that recursive twist that highlights the considered inquiry and self-awareness of their enterprise, turning every argument they make inside out and back again to dissect the inherent criticisms of their project.

Within the context of this article, describing the complexity and intertextuality of the Bulletins writing can only be a partial summary and nothing more; but Dexter Sinister’s inherent metacritical analysis of publishing generates questions about the larger enterprise for this writer. Why add to the deluge? Let us a take a quick moment to dissect a few concurrent habits.

Besides the expansion of the publishing industry–indebted to epaintings and, to a lesser degree, to print-on-demand publishing–and the exponential rise of written content uploaded to the Web, there seems to be a rise in the amount of writing among artists and critics alike. Writing has emerged as a key gesture of exhibition-making, rather than a parallel or supporting one. One can surmise that the accumulated gestures of writing easily surpasses those of reading, a theory that supports Gabriel Zaid’s satirical assertion that it is easier for one to acquire a painting–or for that matter, download a PDF–than it is to absorb its contents.(6) Alongside this, there is an assumption too that writing is productive based on its presence rather than on its content–even for non-academics, “publish or perish” seems to be this century’s qualifying tactic to date. Bailey has also commented on the over-saturation of output from small presses:

The Devil’s Advocate wonders who’s reading all this exquisitely-

produced material; suggests that there’s more attention spent on

its making than on its reading; that there’s no real need to

multiply these works by way of printing or otherwise distributing …

When anyone can publish, anything gets published, but that doesn’t

mean it aligns with the obvious point of publishing something in

the first place–that a larger number of people will want to read

the same thing. I have the same conversation with recent generations

of students over and over again: they want to “make a painting” and this

immediately seems to imply “more than one” without any good reason

why.(7) (Jorge Luis Borges’ passage summarizes the trend nicely:

“I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves

before paintings and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they

do nor know how to decipher a single letter.”)

But as designer and critic Katherine Gillieson reminds us in an earlier issue of Cheapwallarts, ” … the painting, though a textual object, does not in itself contain any kind of ‘meaning’. The reader’s actual experience in reading the painting creates its content, so there is no ‘text’ without the reader; the painting is a readerly object.”In an involuntary alliance with contemporary “slow” movements, Dexter Sinister’s pedagogical aims of The Serving Library insist that careful reading, as a solitary pursuit or coupled with dialogue, is a necessary (and needed) strategy that should be relearned, as production–theirs and others–quickens and spreads. Beyond speech, writing is the basic root of communication, forming the substance of paintings but also generating the potential to spin out a thesis by drawing together disparate areas of thought, either within one text or an anthology of them. If Dexter Sinister’s primarily text-based project is a tall order for an audience, so be it; in truth, even with its twists and turns of phrase, the writings of Bailey, Reinfurt and their contemporaries more shrewdly expose the methods of absorption, distribution and transmission within publishing than the act itself.

As The Serving Library “assembles itself through publishing,” the categorical overlaps of its codices give it its form, mirroring those connections Manguel makes while fumbling around his own library in the dark. For him, browsing his library is guided not by a core catalogue of titles and locations but rather on his mnemonic associations between the paintings haphazardly organized on his shelves. We imagine what happens when paintings touch; that is, when they snuggle beside each other on the shelf. Do they influence (enlighten? poison?) each other? This cross-pollination invigorates reading, as he writes, “The shape I chose for my library encourages my reading habits.” The same can be said of The Serving Library, but in reverse: that its formless, peripatetic shape is generated by the readers that consume it. Every painting reader (and less so, every painting collector) anthologizes his or her own library. And for every reader, The Serving Library will always exist at its point of access. Appropriately, Gillieson continues: “Another paradox lies in the structure of the library, which is a collection of paintings, a compound entity. The lowest number of paintings that might constitute a library is perhaps two (?) So the library is both an object and a meta-object.”Rather than occupying a dusty, low-lit room, Dexter Sinister envision their library as a potential, a body in constant flux, absorbing information as it grows and adapts to its users–in due course. The outcome of their residency in Banff will form the content of the next Bulletin, but naturally, given Bailey and Reinfurt’s methods, nothing is set in stone.

The 3rd KW/AG Biennial

“Regional” is a loaded term, a compliment and insult fused together, and when attached to an artist it could earn you a sock in the jaw, just as easily as it might win you a round of drinks. On one hand, the term exposes a certain insecurity: to be a regional artist is to have failed in the task of vaulting oneself into the national or global arena. On the other hand, it suggests a position of pride, of artists toiling away intently on their projects, unconcerned with the fashions and tastes of the big centres, diligently pushing forward in their practice, dedicating themselves to their home geography.

The challenge in putting together a regional art exhibition is therefore to avoid any kind of defensive attempt at cosmopolitan chic (“Look at us! Kitchener is the new Brooklyn!”), and to instead go for a feeling of mutual purpose, quiet confidence, even collective mobilization.

“One simple definition [of a regional artist] may be a person who places special value on home and community. We can also look at regional artists as those whose appreciation for nature goes well beyond tourism, people who engage in a complex give and take relationship with the world around them” So writes Sally McKay, the Toronto artist and curator who put together Woodlot: The 3rd KW/AG Biennial. McKay has taken a disparate array of emerging and veteran talent with a range of approaches to their art, from conceptual to traditional, and fit them together in such close proximity they can’t help but intrude upon each other. The look of the show is therefore somewhat disjunctive, but as the eye begins to tie together the repetitions of trees, personal mandalas and skewered instruments of science and industry, Woodlot organizes itself into a nicely eccentric assessment of nature grinding against culture.

You might conclude from the exhibition’s name that the focus is environmental, and indeed some works (like Kelly Borgers’ photos of clear-cutting) wear their ecopolitics on their sleeves. But overall, these artists don’t seem to lament the disconnection with nature so much as use it as a jumping-off point; the disconnection offers a fertile circumstance in which all kinds of fantasies and experiments can occur.

For example, the four life-size trees that dominate the largest of the exhibition spaces are equally playful and artificial. Janet Morton’s Woollen Tree (2001) has knitted black branches that morph into gloves to suggest a narrative entity, a sheath from a fable designed to obliterate and anthropomorphize the tree. Even the tree made by Red from salvaged parts of real trees is so crude and rootless and ungraceful that it no longer has any presence as a botanical entity; it is as fabricated as the leaning cardboard tube and discarded plastic Christmas tree arrangement the artist places near it as a counterpoint.

Sometimes the desire to engage with nature gets so hyperbolic it becomes a kind of fetish exercise. Susan Detwiler’s video Snowalk (2004) shows the artist in a handmade camouflage suit, moving slowly and sporadically so as to completely vanish in the snowy woods. Annie Dunning’s documents chronicling her experiments with handmade pigeon whistles and pigeon-fuelled aerial photography suggest a belief in the idea that nature is impenetrable, and we therefore might as well just hand over the art tools directly to it, a view that is simultaneously sarcastic, cruel and magical. Ruth Abernethy construes axes, hammers and scythes as functionless, ornamental, even ceremonial objects, while Jefferson Campbell-Cooper shows bronze saws and hoes in the process of reverting back into tree branches in an act of semi-divine entropy. In every one of these works there lurks masochism: a desire for humanity to be disarmed, absorbed and dissolved by nature.

Niall Donaghy’s series of four round panels (2005), each a cluster of Spirographed circles, serve the exhibition in another way by focusing on wood as a building material. Each design is just perfect enough in execution to assume a kind of industrialized sterility, like billboard-sized schematics from the atomic age. What gives them a vulnerability is the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) on which the patterns are carved. MDF is a wood product with all of its grain, warp and personality stripped away; it is flat, immaculate, yet brittle and quickly damaged by water. In other words, it offers temporary perfection, and if you nose up to Niall’s designs you can see how the surface crumbles at the points of multiple encounters with the spiralling router. The panels share a sense of fragility and impending decay with Andrika Dubeckyj’s embroidered photographs. Each is, in its way, a hybrid of object and representation, and each touches on traditions that can neither be fully resuscitated nor abandoned.

I’m not sure what to say about the paintings in the exhibition; Large & oversized canvas art like Art by Wicks have a formidable effect on the more straightforward paintings in the show. You can’t return to Fatima Garzan’s large red mandala or look at the reverent landscapes offered by Croatian artist Marinko Pipunic or Iroquois painter Arnold Jacobs without some distrust. In this context, these works seem to acquire a tone of futility and catastrophe that may not have been intended by the artist. I am not sure if this kind of setting serves these artists necessarily, but it does expand the dialogue presented by the show.

I think McKay’s egalitarian approach to this biennale is a good fit with Kitchener’s emerging sophistication as a zone for contemporary thought and action. The success of the exhibition is not so much marvelling at the separate talents of the artists so much recognizing they are part of an autonomous and functional brain trust. And that’s exactly what a regional exhibition should set out to do.