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Featured Artist: Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey & The Serving Library

Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey & The Serving Library

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, co-founder of Dot Dot Dot, Dexter Sinister and The Serving Library moved to Liverpool and opened up a space that has never really had an equivalent here. It’s a hard place to define, but I think I’m starting to get there.

If I had to put a title to it, it’s a development. Not particularly a development of something, just a development – of ideas, of people, of objects, of itself. So understandably, when I first turned up on the doorstep I had no real idea what it actually was. I had an understanding of what had led it to this point, but only a few cryptic clues as to the actual contents of this new space.

While it’s important to understand that this is definitely not a gallery, it’s equally important to understand that the artefacts filling the wall are worth focussing on. The talks, seminars, and events that are planned for this space are all focussed around, or connected to, these objects, so for all intents and purposes its physical function is in gallery education. The contradiction is that the education is only relative to The Serving Library’s agenda.

With the first talk (an immersive retelling of Kandinsky’s ideas on colour) out of the way, and the second one tomorrow [Thursday 8th September 2016] we thought it important to share this interview with you. Stuart, co-editor of the publication and space, expanded on some of these contradictions and ambitious plans for the space. And, as is inevitable in a project seeking to explain and understand everything it encounters, the interview ran for an exceptionally long time, as there was an exceptional amount to explain. The interview below is a much redacted version of events, but the full interview will remain available here:


As I understand it, you were doing Dot Dot Dot, changed to The Serving Library. What changed to shift between the two?

Well we’ve been doing Dot Dot Dot for ten years at that point. It started off being mostly edited by me and someone called Peter Bilak, a Czech type designer, when we both lived in the Netherlands. And it almost started by accident. Which is to say, I sort of got dragged into the idea on the basis of there being some mysterious European funding available to do something, and I vaguely agreed to be part of this little group. Unsurprisingly that never happened, but Peter and I got so involved in making this first issue that we did it anyway.

By about the fourth or fifth issue, something changed and I got into it – probably because the group of writers had already grown up around it. And I was suddenly galvanised to do it properly. That carried on for about ten issues with me a Peter, and then I moved to New York. I started working with a guy named David Reinfurt, who I worked with under the name Dexter Sinister. He’s one of the other two Library people. And slowly he became the other editor, and replaced Peter.

The reason we changed it, was because it had started to become too comfortable as a journal. We could sort of expect the sort of thing that was going to be in it; a lot of the same writers; a certain type of work that is probably best described as self-reflexive. And the journal itself is increasing and cannibalising itself.

We also felt that we had to do something to get out of this loop. So we decided to set up The Serving Library as an institution, and make the journal a house journal of that institution. So that was one thing, just changing the name.

With The Serving Library we had a plan of what we wanted to achieve, and that could’ve been totally independent from the journal. So step one was changing the name to break what was comfortable. The second thing was to tie it into this bigger institution with a bigger plan of action. And the third thing was to change the publishing mechanism, to make it more bias towards digital media. Because Dot Dot Dot never was. Dot Dot Dot was more of a thing; a book; a printed journal.

The other change we tried to concentrate on is making the writing better. Not that it was ever particularly bad, but it was a very patchwork thing, and simply by having three editors rather than two you had more chance to refine things. Angie Keefer, the third editor, brings a totally different set of skills for writing. And also, Bulletins was designed to be looked at as much on a phone, or a computer as it is a physical object.

Under either title, apart from Dexter Sinister, there’s not really been a base. There’s been popups in Tate and in Bluecoat, and in New York, and around the world, but there’s never been a place where you’ve settled as a visible space? Why did you chose Liverpool to do it? Why did you choose to do it at all?

Well to do it at all was because of having gradually assembled this collection, to the point it had to be permanently installed somewhere. That had become a point of The Serving Library. Very gradually and definitely when we were still Dot Dot Dot, around the time we switched editors with David, I started collecting some of this stuff, without any particular intention for it.

A few things came my way quite easily and its only common denominator was that it was in Dot Dot Dot. I’m curious to see what that means, or what that does as an exhibition. So I did that without any particular plan of continually doing it.

Exactly ten years ago in Tallinn in Estonia, there were about fifteen of these things in, and on, the wall of a very weird space. I still wasn’t sure why I’d done it, or what the point of it was. But there was something attractive to me in it, that in the journal we never payed attention to reproducing these things well. Dot Dot Dot was in black and white. We could never afford decent photography or image rights. So there’s a certain downplaying of the image in the journal, because we were ‘being serious’.

So the idea of doing the opposite of what a coffee table design book would do, like glossy reproductions in colour. And I sort of describe that as trying to get at the depth of things rather at the surface of things, which is typically how graphic design is treated.

And I also felt that they all shared something. But it was difficult to imprint what it was, and I thought that by collecting them and putting them all on the same wall, I’d be able to understand what that all was. Still not true. Our hope is that by doing that you sort of don’t need to explain it. The longer you spend with this stuff you get that too. In the same way that there are links between the sorts of writing in the journal. You shouldn’t have to point out what the artefacts are about through an editorial introduction either.

By the time we set up The Serving Library it had been shown three times in quite quick succession at Art institutions. Usually a single wall, with a certain arrangement of about half of this stuff. In Porto it expanded and became rich enough to produce this whole book, Extended Caption, which is basically a collection of all the original essays reproduced at half-size. The serious joke of that, is that without the book it’s very difficult to get what’s of interest. Or why these things are together or why we’re doing it at all.

The reason we’re in Liverpool is simply because Francesca got a job at the Biennial. There was one place in particular we’d been looking at n the US but we couldn’t get the building. We’d been in discussion with different institutions, particularly schools, about doing it as a department in the school that would a permanent art library. So by the time I moved here, we’d already been talking about it for about five years.

And here, it was easier to get a space; plus, the availability of public arts funding, which doesn’t make sense in the US; plus, there being a cultural infrastructure here, because of the Tate, and LJMU and the Biennial, and FACT, and Bluecoat. So I tried to get a building to do it, because I was suddenly, here.

Which isn’t without its problems, given that the two others are still very much in New York. But we’ve become used to others being itinerant in different places. And especially with Francesca now being involved, we’re realising that in being an institution, it can, should and does involve a lot more people.

It sort of leads me to saying, what it should be is because at the point that we switched to the Library we’d had this whole other idea which was that The Serving Library should ultimately be a sort of teaching space. We were starting to get so many requests that we were just like, why don’t we just set something up that’s ours, and get other people to come there.

So in a way this space was the last part of this jigsaw of this collection which hadn’t been started for this reason. It was started much more as an exhibition, it has now become this functional archive of stuff. Does that make sense?

The next event you’ve got on, a seminar thing with Lucas Benjamin; how’s that going to work? Because essentially his essay in the last issue is about nothing. How does that work?

I’m smiling because it’s actually a composite of two people. It’s a guy called Lucas Poigly, and a guy called Benjamin Tiven, and they wrote the thing together which is why they did the pseudonym, but only Lucas is coming to do the talk.

He’s still working it out. They want to turn that essay into a film, or do some sort of audio visual version of it. That’s really interesting for us, because we’re going to start doing an audio visual bit on The Serving Library website. So for instance we’re going to produce a fifteen minute version of last month’s Kandinsky event, with just the colour screen and the voice, and you could potentially use that as a teaching tool in itself. And the fact they produced that film from that essay is perfect for us in that sense of setting us that section of the A/V Bulletin.

So Lucas’ thing is about the green screen, using the screens as a background, and performing about the green screen. So it’ll be quite informative but it’s going to take quite a bit of working out. It’s going to be a bit like the Kandinsky demonstration, as much as it is a straight talk. So imagine it being a sort of compressed version of him talking about Miley Cyrus and showing that on the background of what he’s painting. Again, a more animated version of the talk.

The idea of the Kandinsky thing wasn’t to make fun of the text, it was quite a curious thing. It was 104 years old when it was originally written in German. It’s almost impossible to be as opinionated and convinced about something as Kandinsky was about the spiritual values of colours. To be convinced about money other things (politics, religion), yes. But to be as outspoken about something as he is in that text is quite unusual. So to think about that that was the end of the thing. So it’s funny, but it’s not intending to be a joke. Imagine if that was just read out, it would probably take about an hour and half, and be extremely boring. So you’ve got to do.

Lucas’s thing will convey some of the same ideas in a more demonstrative, or informative way. And I think result would probably become one of the things in the collection.

And in terms of something serious, or trying to make it engaging; or critical, and trying to make it entertaining or light, or readable; How important are those boundaries, or ignoring them (or just that word: boundary) to The Serving Library? Because even just in Bulletin 11, you’ve got Chomsky, Umberto Eco, stuff about Le Corbusier, stuff about Mohammed Ali, and then Ephemera in there as well.

Well. I always talk about this collection in most ways as level in most typical values, which is another way of saying, dissolving those boundaries between them. Because there are things in here that were conceived of as artworks and the two paintings, or this photogram woodcut, but they’re definitely in the minority of this stuff. It doesn’t really matter if its art, or if it isn’t art, the mass produced objects in here are all treated the same. And similarly, and connected with that, their values.

The writing in Dot Dot Dot and in Bulletins [of The Serving Library] is quite particular, and quite hard to describe. It also has a particular sense of humour to it, which comes across in how things are edited. We tend to edit things in a way again that comes from graphic design, rather than literature or fine art, or science, or any other discipline. As writers ourselves we often need a particular structure or conceit, that seems very designed. Especially in the earlier years. Writers often didn’t know how to start, so you have to give them some sort of scaffolding or structure.

And that can be as simple as ‘well, write it to me in an email rather than a word document’. Or you receive a draft of a text, and it might seem to work better if you write it as a series of numbered points. Or what happens if we introduce a series of subheadings to this? Or break it into three different pieces in the same issue? And there’s often these quite global ways of reconfiguring that writing, which I think of as being quite designerly, whatever that means.

We’ve got an almost a visual way of writing, and I think that that is very similar to acting how to animate or act the talks and seminars. We’re in the business of how things are presented to an audience, we’re very conscious of that because of being graphic designers.

In terms of what you’re saying, is not sticking to themes or categories. And why a lot of the historical figures that crop up in the journals, and probably crop up in these pieces (Broodthaers, Mallarme, Benjamin Franklin, Genesis P-Orridge) they’re all sort of polymaths. They didn’t do one thing, they’re all a poet, and visual, or an artist and a poet, or Benjamin Franklin – everything on the planet.

Like I said at the start, I wasn’t sure of the reason for collecting this stuff at the beginning, even just sitting here with you, I’m seeing that, and that, and that, represent that idea we’re talking about. And the fact that you can just sit here if you know this stuff and draw these things in quite efficiently.

There are student groups coming in at some point. Is there anything you’d advise them to pick up and preview before they come in? In terms of helping review that thought process, or understand a process or area they might not have come across before?

Yeah. Erm. Yeah, there’s quite a few things.

In terms of the education stuff, that thing’s online, which tells you about the objects and why they were collected, so for anyone who’s interested, this online. Then there are these three pamphlets [Towards a Critical Faculty, Only an Attitude of Orientation, and From the Toolbox of A Serving Library] which are online.

The story behind these is that they were a development of the ideas behind the teaching. They were all really for different institutions, and other projects, but with an idea that they were linking to each other. So this is a sequel to that, this is a sequel to that, but written properly over the course of six or seven years. Also, the idea in progress was that those three titles join up to one ridiculous sentence: Towards a critical factor only an attitude of orientation from the toolbox of a serving library.

So somewhere in that development The Library had happened as an idea and this was a sort of founding statement of the teaching ideas that were produced and written for the Banff Centre. Where we did a six week summer school. And even that is already 2011, so it’s already five years old. I think what we want to do now is still sort of founded in these ideas, without being quite as specific as the pamphlet describes.

I’ve been thinking about what’s going to happen. It’s sort of three speed. The quickest speed is anyone walking in here who can view and look at the collection. By the end of the summer, there’ll be a clearer way to articulate this stuff. The second thing is the events like the Kandinsky thing, at least one a month that will relate to either the latest or upcoming issue’s themes. And then the slowest speed is these more involved two week long workshops, maybe twice a semester.